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Predicting the Result: A Tweak for Showing Documentary Films in Class


My goal in teaching an introductory cultural anthropology class is not to try to convey all the knowledge and theories, but rather to arouse interest in the subject. I want my students to know that we may be reading “exotic” examples drawn from the far side of the world, but from those lessons we can cultivate a vision to examine the cultural institutions we have for ourselves.

The effectiveness of using films or documentaries has been widely discussed in pedagogical research studies, especially in the social sciences. Films are most effective when used to help visualize complex issues. Social theories like “structural inequality” can be broken down into approachable stories, characters, and plots. Films can even be used for content analysis to identify the hidden messages.

In my course, showing films has provided an opportunity to frame the weekly anthropological topics in settings that students can easily relate to or may even have experienced.  When teaching about gender and sexuality, rather than using a classical anthropological documentary, I chose the film “Is It a Boy or a Girl?” (2000). It demonstrates the American biomedical opinion on the third gender issue and the physical and psychological traumas that people who received gender-reconstruction surgeries had been through. Students were able to use their own experiences in high school locker rooms or their understanding of the American culture to engage in discussions.

Blessed with a two-hour-and-a-half long class, I am usually able to show a complete film that is less than an hour long and still have time for meaningful discussions with students. However, many great documentaries are just too long to be able to fit in the tight schedule. Adjustments have to be made to cut the films short while running the risk of not presenting the whole story. For example, “Devil’s Playground” (2002) with a 77-minute length presented such a dilemma to me. It is a documentary about the Amish youths who were given a period of time called rumspringa to experience the outside world before deciding to join the Church for life. It features several complex and interesting characters and different narratives that show the emotions and struggles of being an Amish. I really wanted to play this film because it illustrates very well the everyday life of a religious group in the American society.

In contemplating how to cut it short, I remembered an intriguing comment on a blog about a classical anthropological debate generated from a case study. The person who made the comment mentioned that when he was taking a course in college he was given a 6-page article about the case study. He read through them and grasped the whole story, not realizing that there was a small section on the final result and conclusion. Upon learning about his negligence, the instructor told him to predict what happened to the local people based on what he had read. He said that he was able to get most things correct, but was surprised when the real outcome was revealed to him. Devil’s Playground actually has a similar structure. After presenting all the characters and their different struggles and desires to be in the outside world, the end of the film reveals that “currently almost 90% of Amish young people will join the Amish church. This retention rate is the highest ever since the founding of the Amish church in 1693.” Inspired by the comment from the blog, I decided to leave the entire conclusion out when showing the film to the class. I asked my students to guess, based on the information presented to them, what the retention rate was. Most of the class guessed between 70% and 90%, some thought even lower. Very few predicted the correct fact of over 90%. It really made them think about the power and ideology of religion, as well as the social and kinship ties embedded within.

This small tweak for showing documentaries certainly is not suitable for all circumstances. Balanced information should be presented before the conclusion is revealed, a feat that is rare in most documentaries. However, predicting the result is an interesting intellectual activity that benefits students’ observation techniques and information-processing abilities. This works well in social science, which has a strong emphasis on data analysis, but it can also be used in literature studies or other disciplines in humanities that have a similar focus on students’ analytical skills.

By Hao-Li Lin, Teaching Assistant, Department of Anthropology

photo credit: spacepleb via photopin cc

photo credit: graymalkn via photopin cc

MARCH 2014


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