Building a Sociological Cinema: The Pedagogical Case for Video in the Classroom by Lester Andrist, Valerie Chepp, & Paul Dean

Back in early Fall of 2009, we decided to build a sociological cinema. The idea came about as a response to our experiences teaching three different sociology classes. We found that when we screened a video clip in class to demonstrate a key concept, class discussion often became livelier, more students participated, and our students seemed better able to draw upon the key concept in their evaluation of subsequent ideas.  So, for the past year, we have been developing a website, The Sociological Cinema, which connects instructors with videos and other video-related resources that they can use in teaching sociology.

In one sense, then, the impetus for building our site stems from our own experiences in the classroom and the recognition that videos are effective tools of instruction. In fact, a growing body of evidence supports this conclusion and even expands on it. According to sociologist Michael Miller (2009), “their most critical function in terms of cognitive learning appears to lie in their capacity to serve as representational applications for key course ideas” (see also Champoux 1999).  For example, an excerpt from a CNN broadcast on the propagation of closed circuit television cameras (CCTVs) is very useful for demonstrating Foucault’s theories of surveillance and discipline. Videos can effectively convey concepts using examples from the feature films of popular culture or the so-called “realism” depicted in news reports and documentaries. They can vividly bring concepts and processes to life by weaving them into an emotionally charged narrative.

Recent scholarship also demonstrates that videos can improve student engagement in class material (Wynn 2009). This fits with our own experiences as sociology instructors. Using open-ended in-class evaluations of videos, we found that students believed videos were important in helping them draw connections to their own life experiences, that they connected class material to “real life” more generally, and that the videos met a need for a surprising number of students who believed themselves to be “visual learners.” Today’s undergraduates, dubbed the “net generation,” have only known life with online videos and other multimedia; they engage this media in their everyday lives and increasingly expect such media to be integrated within their classes (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005).

In addition to illustrating sociological concepts, videos can be used as a means of introducing analyses and commentaries which supplement traditional course content (Austin 2005). Videos can facilitate media literacy, and recent research even suggests that such visual technologies also facilitate civic engagement beyond the classroom (Bennet 2008).  More than rousing student engagement and enriching their understanding, videos offer the opportunity to introduce humor and levity into the classroom, which often has the effect of relieving student self-consciousness. Bingham and Hernandez (2009), for instance, find comedy, and comedy clips in particular, to be an effective tool in teaching sociological perspectives.  Instructors may, then, seek to integrate clips from the “Colbert Report” or “The Onion,” encouraging students to analyze social expectations and why a failure to conform often makes us laugh.

While the benefits of bringing video clips into the classroom may be well-documented, instructors still face the task of finding good clips and then figuring out how to use them effectively. But the internet is an un-zoned metropole with a jumbled circuitry of narrow alleyways, and often the best cinemas are tucked away in strange corners. There are sites, such as YouTube, which serve as warehouses for searchable video clips, but such sites hold so much content coming from so many varied sources that instructors are generally unable to efficiently comb it for useful clips. On YouTube, an instructor who wants to find a clip depicting the bear subculture within the LGBTQ community is likely to find wildlife videos, and an instructor looking for clips on sexism will rarely be directed to the sexism found in recent car commercials. The search for such clips can be daunting and discouraging, and herein lies the second impetus for building The Sociological Cinema.

We built The Sociological Cinema, in part, as a practical means of spending less time finding clips. After cataloguing a number of the videos we used, it became apparent that it was possible to break them up into types. While we have taken some of our clips from documentaries and lectures, the majority come from popular culture, including television shows, movies, and video remixes or mashups. In some cases, it is relatively obvious how a particular clip would be helpful in a sociology classroom. For instance, excerpts from Jackson Katz’s documentary, “Tough Guise,” are unmistakably useful in a class on the sociology of gender because the clips explicitly demonstrate how hegemonic masculinity hurts men as well as women. On the other hand, the utility of a good number of other clips is only apparent because of the intellectual content or teaching suggestions we attach to those clips. For instance, The Sociological Cinema links to an eight-minute documentary designed to laud the efforts of fair trade coffee producers, but we have posted this clip and suggested it be used as an effective way to teach students about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism (here). A third example is a clip from the popular television show The Bachelorette, which features a scene where contestants discuss “Man Code” and the presumed obligations of other men to abide by its rules (here). The teaching suggestion that accompanies this clip recommends using it as a means of spurring discussion on Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity and Kimmel’s concept of masculinity as homophobia.

As we have continued to add content to The Sociological Cinema, we have come to appreciate an additional function of our site. That is, in addition to helping instructors find resources that will provide students with a firm foundation of sociological concepts and theories while also developing their sociological imaginations and critical thinking skills, The Sociological Cinema works as a resource that refuses to consume culture at face value. We are an important voice because we pose important questions to students, such as, “How does this idea of “Man Code” gain momentum, and what are the consequences of it for people?” Our brief analyses of clips, coupled with the teaching suggestions we offer, are challenges to the usual meanings, which already bombard students on a daily basis, both inside and outside the classroom.

We hope you check out The Sociological Cinema and find it useful.  Enjoy the site, and help us build the cinema by spreading the word or contributing a video of your own.

Les is a 6th year, Valerie is a 4th year, and Paul is a 6th year graduate student.

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