Filmmaking in the IR Classroom
Using film as a source of reading and interpretation has become a common feature for those of us teaching at university. It provides for a cognitively different but sometimes more creative way of bringing to life some of the conceptual themes and allows our students to engage in the subject matter through medium other than written text. So far, so good.
But what happens when you allow students to ‘write’ their International Politics assignment in form of a micro-documentary? In two of my courses at the University of Queensland, I offer students precisely that opportunity – with stunning results. So here is the story.
In both of my undergraduate courses students have to write a policy briefing paper in which they assess -in the case of ‘Introduction to Peace and Conflict Analysis- a particular global issue (like human trafficking, child soldiers, nuclear proliferation, global warming, war, or inequality) or -in the case of ‘International Peacekeeping- a current UN peacekeeping mission. Here, students have to analyze the root causes of the global issue/local conflict, assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing policies that aim to resolve these global issues/conflicts, and suggest concrete policy recommendations on how to improve existing policies/peacekeeping missions. Such an assignment is central to the study of Peace and Conflict Studies, as it deepens students’ understanding of the relationship between the root causes of particular conflicts/global issues and the reasons why efforts by the international community to resolve the latter have succeeded or failed. This assignment thereby sharpens students’ awareness of how successful processes of conflict resolution depend on a prior understanding of the causes of conflict.
As an alternative to writing this briefing paper, students are given the opportunity to produce a 10-15 minute film documentary (with specific assessment criteria that differ from the written assignment). This allows students to engage with an academic topic in a more creative manner. As one of my students wrote: ‘I really loved having the option to make a film about it, I think it’s a great idea and actually was really refreshing to have another option that was creative. I felt it made me connect on a deeper level with the topic being a visual person and that there was more room to show passion and emotions. I really liked having the two mediums of visuals and sound rather than just one medium being writing and also I became more emotionally involved than I usually would when writing a paper’. I introduced this option for my students in 2009 and in each course, 10-17% of my students have chosen this option – and interestingly, the vast majority have been female students (91-100%). Thus, while it is certainly far too early to draw more general conclusions from this stunning ratio, it might actually be that this assessment format suits female students particularly well. This seems to resonate quite strongly with the principles underpinning the Universal Design of assessment items that emphasize the increased need to develop a variety of high-quality assignment options that students can choose from (Burgstahler and Cory, 2009).
Amongst the many excellent film documentaries produced by my students over the years, one in particular stands out for me. It is a documentary produced by Melody Groenenboom, then a first year undergraduate student, who chose to address the topic of ‘human trafficking’. This is her documentary featured here, together with some of Melody’s own reflections of what choosing to produce a film documentary has meant for her and the process of learning.