Open Education Resources Work for Faculty and Students

Eben Upton is best known as the man behind the Raspberry Pi, a tiny, $25 computer designed to help turn kids into programmers. Upton priced it at $25 because he thought that’s around what an average textbook cost: “I now understand that’s an incorrect estimate. If we had a better idea of what school textbooks cost we would have had an easier job with the engineering over the years,” he joked to Wired years later.

It’s a funny story but also a sad story. Textbooks are expensive. More expensive than most non-students even realize.

OER From a Student Perspective


The above chart is national data. But textbook pricing is high, even when examined at the local level. I work at a public community college. We recently priced out our reserve collection, which is made up of textbooks for classes. We looked at data for 18 months of checkouts and found the average textbook in our study cost $109.36 and had a median price of $107.25. More than half of the programs represented in our reserve collection had a median textbook price of at least $100. Seven of the 11 academic departments have textbooks with a median cost of at least $100. We know 61% of LaGuardia students living with their parents have family income of less than $25,000, while 79% of students living away from their parents have family income of less than $25,000. How are these students supposed to afford prices like these? And how many would love to have the $25 textbook Upton thought students were stuck with?



If you’re wondering what your program costs, do a quick survey of your colleagues about their required textbooks. The results are probably comparable to what we see above.

OER: The Faculty View

Open education resources (OER) are an attempt to solve the textbook pricing problem by giving students and faculty great content at more reasonable prices — even free, which many consider to be the most reasonable price point of all. You’ll often hear OER also referred to as open textbooks, but it’s really so much more than freely accessible textbooks — it’s freely available class content. That means textbooks, but it also means course shells, syllabi, class assignments, and slide decks. So while OER discussions often focus on cost from a student perspective, it also has the potential to help faculty develop and refine their own course materials. Student cost savings is but one component of OER.

One of the best ways to describe OER comes from Hilton, Wiley, Stein and Johnson. They define openness in terms of ‘four Rs’: reuse; redistribution; revision; and remix:

  • Reuse: This one could probably be called use, but it would ruin the alliteration of their thesis. Reuse is simply using content, which implies access, but also implies certain rights, like the ability to download content for later use. Thinking about this in CUNY terms, Blackboard, which so many of us use for managing our courses, makes it tough to share in a broad way. We can provide access to anyone who asks, but what if someone is from outside of CUNY? What if the person doesn’t know to ask for access? How can content be reused if it’s hidden behind a login and password?
  • Redistribute: This also has access implications. It’s the right to freely share work, either with students or colleagues. OER content needs to be shareable. Also, while it’s generally accepted that OER material is always cost-free in digital form, David Wiley hypothesizes there’s money to be made in college bookstores printing OER material on-demand.
  • Revise: OER is more about using static materials. An important part is the right to change material — to change it so it works for your students. We’ve all worked with a textbook and wished we could change certain parts of it. OER allows you to change those parts that don’t work for you. OER allows you to bend course materials to your pedagogy, rather than the other way around.
  • Remix: This is the right to combine content from disparate sources. Maybe your ideal textbook is built from more than one textbook. Maybe your syllabus is based upon the best aspects of three or four syllabi. OER lets you build something new on the shoulders of your colleagues around the world. But it also allows faculty to build on your work, also.

OER isn’t easy, but it lends itself to scaffolding. It’s tough to instantly flip an existing course to entirely OER material, but it can be done incrementally. There’s no shortage of OER content; the challenge is not finding material, but rather filtering it. Having said that, a few places to begin discovering resources include:

Faculty can also make their work available, either in pieces, via projects like the ones above, or by making an entire class publicly viewable using an open course tool, like Canvas. There are a lot of little things faculty can do to contribute to OER and to integrate it into their teaching.

The CUNY Open Education Resources Group has created a short, 20-minute introductory class designed to provide an actionable overview of OER. The class can found here. You can keep up with OER news on the CUNY OER blog.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Guest author Steve Ovadia is Web Services Librarian at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY.

Unlearning Restrictions Culture

A few years ago, I was part of a panel called “Copyright, Fair Use and Open License Tools Online”  at the CUNY IT Conference. What I remember most about this session was the discussion. After my colleagues and I had finished our presentations–which outlined ways to alternatively license a work, Open Access issues, and Fair Use–a CUNY faculty member reflected that they hadn’t realized just how much there was to consider when publishing academic work–from the ways one might use an open license, to negotiating green or gold open access to their work with a publisher. This participant wondered why the topic of authors’ rights hadn’t been discussed with them before, and how they might now spread the word to colleagues about the many options that are available.

Librarians at CUNY have been working to fill this gap that our colleague inquired about at that panel in 2011. We’ve been offering authors’ rights workshops at many campus libraries where we begin conversation about what rights and restrictions we all can investigate and negotiate while sharing our work. But I think a bigger piece of this discussion for me has been to try to foster moments in which we feel free to unlearn or re-learn, or where we might feel confident to challenge the status quo, or to shed hegemonic tendencies that keep us from exploring new futures.

Copyright Machine by doctormo

Copyright Machine by doctormo

Those of us involved in the MOOC “The History and Future of (mostly) Higher Education” talked about unlearning in particular during our lunchtime discussion last week. During these discussions, I’ve been thinking back to a formative class I took in high school where we explored the history of the United States through a progression of landmark Supreme Court cases. Not only did it teach me quite a bit about a variety of decisions that have set precedent for our laws today, it also strengthened my ability to see these laws as constructs, as conversations, and as works in progress. I remember realizing in that class more than I ever had before that laws are plastic, and that they can (and often should) be altered. I’ve been feeling really indebted to that teacher (thanks Zanner!) for helping us all to think through what we discussed in that classroom, because our conversations have shaped my approaches since when I contemplate rules, regulations, and governance.

Since last week, I’ve been thinking about how one can foster un-learning, re-learning, or cultivate tendencies to break from tradition and reset our thinking anew. This can be hard with topics that are ingrained, intimidating–or that can be made to feel more permanent than they are, like the law. Like our colleague described at the CUNY IT Conference, it can be difficult to imagine alternatives at times, or to see the full landscape of an issue, rather than just our one perch’s perspective. Copyright is one topic that feels complex and proscribed, and it can be difficult to think our way around all the myriad ways that we have been taught to uphold the sort of permissions culture that it generates. And yet as we move into a world that insists we all become makers and coders and sharers, I think it becomes increasingly important to consider the licenses (or the restrictions, or the permissions) that regulate our activities–not just for the things we make, but also for the things we read, download, share and use.

Mimi & Eunice Dreadful Business Model

Mimi & Eunice Dreadful Business Model

I suppose what I’m really asking here is how, and in what ways, should we re-learn, or unlearn standard approaches to copyright? And what role does this conversation have inside of scholarly communications discourses today? And within libraries? How do those of us who believe in open access or free software share what we know without propagandizing or becoming the next thing to forget, and to unlearn?

Graduate Center CUNY Librarian, Alycia Sellie offers this week’s Topic Series post on Scholarly Communication. How do we unlearn the restrictions copyright law has imposed on our thinking?

Special Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Dawn Porter is a lawyer turned documentary film maker who’s film, Gideon’s Army, follows three public defenders in the Deep South. Her film chronicles the lives of these public defenders and emphasizes the personal stories of their clients to show the realities of, and inequalities in, the criminal justice system. In this interview we talk about how she constructed the film and what impact she hopes it will have.


Heidi Knoblauch: The first question I have is could you share a little bit about yourself, your work on “Gideon’s Army” and how you think of your work as a documentary filmmaker, as a form of activism, art, or both? A more targeted question would be: when did you decide to become a documentary filmmaker?

Dawn Porter:  I actually decided I wanted to make a documentary film, which I think is different than deciding I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was working for A&E Television, and I just felt like I wasn’t seeing a lot of stories about minorities or stories that I cared about. There were things I was interested in that I thought other people would be interested in too, and I thought, “You know, I think I could do this.”

When I met Jonathan Rapping and the public defenders I thought, “This is a great story that I have access to, but also that I think I understand as a lawyer.” That’s kind of how it started. I really started out thinking I wanted to make a film. I wasn’t thinking about a whole career shift at first.

Heidi Knoblauch: I know that the film is based on the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision, why did you choose to focus on that? What led you to focus on the public defenders?

Dawn Porter: I think that, like most people, I didn’t really understand what public defenders do, how critical they are to our system of democracy. I think that most important, I didn’t understand at all why anybody would do their job. It’s just such a tough job, such little pay and long hours. I couldn’t really… I just was really curious, why would anybody want to defend people who are accused of terrible things?

I was really just curious about them. I also felt, once I got to know them, I felt like what they do is so misunderstood and so misrepresented. I thought that doing a film could add to the public conversation about what they do and show people why they do it, but also why it’s so important and why we should all care about it.

Heidi Knoblauch: That leads into another question that I had, which is who are your target audiences?

Dawn Porter: I think it’s really everybody. I think it’s for the general public, which I put myself in. It’s did you know that 80% of people accused of crimes are represented by public defenders, which leads to the follow-up, that means 80% of people who are being arrested in this country are, if not at poverty level, are very low-income. I think that that’s a striking statistic.

Then I think for public defenders it was to encourage them to explain to people why they do what they do and why it’s important. I think a lot of times public defenders get so much negative publicity that they tend to kind up give up on the general public and not explain what they do, and I think people are open to it if they have those dialogues. For them it was be proud of what you do, you’re so important to our system.

Heidi Knoblauch: Cara Mertes, who leads JustFilms at the Ford Foundation, has said “thinking about impact will make your film better.” Did you think about the impact you wanted this film to have before you made it? How did that shape the film?

Dawn Porter: I think, like a lot of people, I thought about it a little bit abstractly. When you’re making a film your first goal is to make a good film, but along the way I think I realized that it could be a really important part of a conversation that’s happening in this country about criminal justice and criminal justice reform.

I think what Cara says is absolutely right. We should be thinking all along the way for opportunities to spread the message and also who our audiences are, who are allies might be, who might be the microphones for our film, who might use it to make social change.

I think I came to it a little bit later than she was talking about, but along the way that was a really critical part of what we were doing, engaging the public defenders, the ACLU, other social justice, criminal justice outfits. They’ve been fantastic in hosting screenings and publicizing the film and that, I think, has led to a really successful rollout, culminating on HBO.

Heidi Knoblauch: What do you think the film says about the criminal justice system in our country?

Dawn Porter: I think it says that there’s a whole class of people who are invisible and that we have a criminal justice system that works very differently if you’re poor than if you’re wealthy. Since most of the people being brought into it are poor, I think we should be alarmed and horrified by what passes for justice. I think the young people who are featured, who are the lawyers in the film … The other thing I think it says is, “Those are patriots. Those are people who love our Constitution, love our country. They are doing the unpopular thing, but they are also the last protection for people accused of serious crimes.”

There’s almost nothing more serious that you can do than to lock somebody up and strip them of their rights. To make sure that we do that properly… And that’s why we started this film with Travis saying, “If you’re going to take my liberty, you’ve got to do it right.” It’s just one of the most important things we can do. We see, across the world, people are fighting for the ability to have fair trials and free speech. That’s what public defenders do. They’re representing people so that they have fair process.

Heidi Knoblauch: You mentioned that scene with Travis Williams, and I was really blown away by that scene. Why did you decide to focus on a few cases that the public defenders were doing rather than emphasize these huge caseloads, 125 cases or something like that, for each of them.

Dawn Porter: I think that the numbers start to … we get immune to the numbers. When you say, “Twelve million people arrested every year, seven million people in the criminal justice system, two million people in prison,” people get immune to what that really means. What I wanted to do is say, “That’s the backdrop. See how much effort it takes for one of those? Now do the math. Now think about if he has to do this, times 160, what could that possibly be like?”

I think that people, when you slow down and let them understand all that goes into being a good lawyer, I think that it allows them to enter his world and enter his mindset in a way that … If you just put up a big number, it gets a gasp but it doesn’t bring you into his world. If you see actual people … Prisoners become numbers. People accused become numbers and not real people.

What I wanted to show is every single person they’re representing has a family, has a story. If he does his job right he’s supposed to get to know that, but how can he possibly do it with those numbers? I wanted to focus on individual people and not have people be numbers.

Heidi Knoblauch: A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics, activists and media makers in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement and greater democracy, and often academics appear as talking heads in documentary films. How can academics push the boundaries and move beyond the role of the talking head?

Dawn Porter: I think that they should really think about what drew them to their work, what made them passionate about their topic in the first place. Don’t hesitate to tell those personal stories if you want to be more than a talking head. We can look up facts. We can’t look up personal stories and experience, and that’s what a person who studies or writes or thinks about really important topics can bring to an interview. That personal experience. Why does this matter? Why do you know it matters? Help us explain to everybody else what you see. I think that’s an incredibly important role for an academic.

Heidi Knoblauch: What are some key projects that would give documentary filmmakers, activists, and academics opportunities to work together? In other words, not necessarily working on documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, but what are the points of intersection for these three sometimes indistinct groups of people?

Dawn Porter: We all go through a period of research where we’re looking for characters. We’re looking for people to help explain a story. If someone has written extensively about a topic, often you know the people that have really good stories. At the research stage, there’s a great opportunity for collaboration. I think there’s also … For writing proposals, we often have to have experts review the proposals.

That’s a really good collaboration, is finding someone who will read over your submission to the NEH, or National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s a really critical … Foundations and other funders, they want to know that you’re tapped into the people who are thinking exclusively about the topic that you’re working on. At the research and writing proposal stage, there’s a great opportunity to work together with people who are interested in being storytellers.

Heidi Knoblauch: Thank you so much for this great interview. It was wonderful.


Research without Borders

Earlier today, Polly and I attended an excellent panel hosted by our cross-town colleagues at the Scholarly Communication Program at Columbia University. The event, “Research without Borders: Negotiating Constraints and Open Scholarship,” featured a stellar panel of interesting speakers, including our very own Leith Mullings is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY, Dennis Tenen (@dennistenen) is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and New Media Studies at Columbia University, and Lela Prashad (@lelap) is co-founder and Chief Data Scientist at NiJeL.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was also a lively backchannel discussion happening via Twitter. Here’s the Storify of those Tweets:

Scholarly Life Transformed by Digital Media

Scholarly life is being transformed by digital media, changing both how we do our work as scholars and the audiences we can reach with our work.

Networked Book CoverIn their 2012 book Networked, authors Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie (Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project) suggest that “Triple Revolution” – the simultaneous rise of the Internet, mobile technology and social networks – has transformed people’s relationships with each other and to information.  This transformation is also affecting researchers, according to a new study of a Canadian scholarly association, GRAND – an acronym for Graphics, Animation and New Media.   The report states:

“Digital media provides the scholars with enhanced global connectivity with kindred colleagues, including increased visibility, access to specialized GRAND experts, and contact with prestigious senior faculty. Yet, it is the scholars’ in-person encounters as collaborators and conference-goers that create and maintain their online contacts.”

The study also overturns popular assertions (for example, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle) that technology creates social isolation by replacing in-person encounters with online connections: “Rather than digital media luring people away from in-person contact, larger networks make more use of digital media, overall and per capita,” the study concludes.

There is also evidence that being a ‘networked scholar’ increases publications and presentations, as well as also in the informal exchange and advice between colleagues. Collaborative tools and technologies were also a factor in more papers being coauthored within and across disciplines and geographic areas. As a follow-up report internal to GRAND summed up: “In a nutshell, better-connected researchers are more productive.”

Networked Scholars

(Image Source)

I wrote recently about the way digital media is changing the way I do scholarship. In this piece, I chronicle the way a disgruntled conference Tweet became a blog post, then a series of blog posts, and then an article in a peer-reviewed journal.  For me, the use of digital media is transforming how I approach being a scholar. Twitter is not simply a tool for disseminating research, it’s a tool I think with and through. Blogging is often the way I compose a first draft of a thought I may develop further for publication elsewhere. Of course, not every Tweet or blog post goes on to a life in peer-reviewed publication, but every peer-reviewed publication of mine has made a first appearance in some form on digital media.

This way of doing scholarly life has opened up amazing new possibilities for much wider audiences for the knowledge we produce as academics.

Melissa Terras found in a recent study of the relationship between mentions on social media and peer-review papers that:

The papers that were tweeted and blogged had at least more than 11 times the number of downloads than their sibling paper which was left to its own devices in the institutional repository.

Terras concludes by saying:

 if you want people to find and read your research, build up a digital presence in your discipline, and use it to promote your work when you have something interesting to share. It’s pretty darn obvious, really:

If (social media interaction is often) then (Open access + social media = increased downloads).

Even when scholars choose to publish in journals that are not traditionally open access, there is a positive return on investing time in social media (and may even nudge publishers along the road toward opening their journals). For example, in December 2013 scholars Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson wrote about their experience with publishing articles about their academic blogging. They write:

As this post is being written, the Taylor and Francis count shows that our “Why do academics blog?” paper has been viewed 1914 times in the seven weeks since it was published (we should point out that this is about seven times less than one of our blogs attracts on a normal weekday).

As their articles drew more attention through social media outlets, it shifted the access their publisher provided. Here again, Mewburn and Thomson:

The link to 50 ‘free view’ copies, which each of us were sent via email, was tweeted once by each of us and placed on the Facebook page connected to one of our blogs. These free copies were rapidly downloaded and people started requesting the article via Twitter and social media. Noting the interest, Taylor and Francis themselves issued a press release about it and (thankfully) made it gold open access. An article appeared on the‘Third Degree’ blog attached to the Australian newspaper ‘The Age’. Third Degree highlighted some of the more controversial aspects of the findings, which generated yet more hits on the article database.

Here, Mewburn and Thomson point to an important way to shift the routinely closed vaults of a publisher like Taylor & Francis by using social media and legacy media, such as more traditional news outlets.  Where Mewburn and Thomson started with the question, “should academics blog?” they answer their own question in this conclusion:

But in our minds the answer to the question “Should I blog?” is now a clear and resounding “Yes”, at least, if conventional indicators of academic success are your aim. Blogging is now part of a complex online ‘attention economy’ where social media like Twitter and Facebook are not merely dumb ‘echo chambers’ but a massive global conversation which can help your work travel much further than you might initially think.

The research seems to support the claim that scholarly life is being transformed by digital media in a number of ways.  How is it transforming your work? Tell us in the comments.

FutureEd Recap: Unlearning

At our Feb 21 lunchtime FutureEd discussion, we had the good fortune to be joined by Cathy Davidson for a chat about unlearning and the state of the MOOC.  We opened by each sharing a story that involved unlearning.  In examples that ranged from home aquariums to classrooms to social justice, we shared moments of transformation.  As far ranging as the specific instances were, what emerged from the group is that unlearning is transformative because it pushes us to have authentic learning experiences and to know by doing, not to know by thin content acquisition.  When it comes to our classrooms, this is especially tricky.  Academic professions are built around the idea of content mastery in specialized fields, and our students often come the expectation that we will transfer knowledge to them.  Even when teachers and students both understand that active, experiential learning yields the best results, we can experience significant resistance on both sides when we leave behind the simple transaction between the lecturer and listener for the wilds of the immersive and experiential.  Perhaps what teachers can do for our students is to model how to be comfortable with uncertainty, and take risks ourselves.  Our current cultural fascination with technology in the classroom is really just a ruse: technology is the ploy that encourages teachers and students to move out of their comfort zones and into better ways of learning.  Professor Davidson echoed this sentiment in sharing what has been the most surprising about teaching a MOOC: it is not the massiveness of the scale, but the intimacy of human exchanges via the discussion forums, social media, and local groups.

See the Storify of live tweets from the talk!

Cara Mertes on the Impact of Documentary

Earlier this year, it was announced that Cara Mertes would be leaving her job at the Sundance Institute to take over for Orlando Bagwell at Ford Foundation’s JustFilms.  In a world where foundations are more and more important financial resources for documentary filmmakers and “impact” is the buzzword of the day, Mertes held something of a town hall meeting at DOC NYC, in which she frankly asked documentary filmmakers what they needed from foundations like Ford.

CaraMertesAs more and more people, especially those circling the BRITDOC Foundation, advocate for documentary filmmakers to work with Impact Producers and elaborate impact campaigns, Indiewire followed up with Mertes to talk about the concept of impact.  Below, she shares how she sees impact as an integral part of the creative force that makes documentaries successful in a wide variety of ways.

What are you most excited to take on as you start your new job?

What’s exciting to me about the job is the potential for bringing new resources into this field.  I’m speaking globally, I want to bring creative, authentic, mostly non-fiction storytelling (as well as digital storytelling).

So the way that impact is being talked about, it’s about making sure that the film is doing the work it’s meant to do, and it’s something that the funders are concerned about, to make sure that their investment is well spent.  How do you feel about that perception? [Ed: Dan Cogan of Impact Partners foregrounded this when he spoke at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.]

I think I would reverse the formula that you presented.  The question of impact is not driven by measurement and outcomes.  The world that I now live in and work in is populated by people who want to make a difference in the world. A regranter and a creative and executive producer.  How can we know that you’ve made a difference in the world?  That question leads to better storytelling.  That question leads to better resources.  Questions about impact vary broadly.  Being accountable for change is very important for filmmakers to take seriously.  Now that I’m in a philanthropic position, that’s an important question for me.  It’s almost a deep impulse:  asking why are these stories told?  It’s deeply embedded in the way of telling these stories for me.

But I know when you spoke at DOC NYC in conversation with Thom Powers, you mentioned that you were interested in developing new ways to talk about impact.

We want to define our terms when we talk about impact.  It’s a measurement piece — what are the quantifiable?  What are we measuring?  Who are we talking about?  It’s multiplicities of audiences.  There are many different ways to impact those audiences.  You’re talking about an extremely dynamic process.  We don’t have language for and we don’t have tools for talking about it.  that’s an incredibly interesting realm that we’re working in.  How culture makes change — what we’re trying to do at Ford. The kind of work that we’re looking for, the work that Ford supports — of course we need ways of understanding what the numbers are and striving for the appropriate impact.  We need more leadership and skill-building in terms of the question of impact.  People that understand the mix of numbers with dynamics.  Film impact is not predictable — how do we make room for that when we’re granting?

My predecessor Orlando Bagwell was working with Jana Diesner at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on a project, and we’re going to do a phase two of funding for that.  It’s a big data research tool that actually looks at the difference a doc might have made in knowledge and behavior using Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, as well as any publicly available legal files.  This search tool has been built to do wide ranging searches for terms, names… you can upload the transcript to your documentary.  What’s really interesting is when you start applying it longitudinally, you start to see changes geographically and within social networks:  What are you saying? Where are you saying it? Who are you saying it to? Is it negative or positive? The tool is open source and it will be free.  We want this to be free to the creative community so they have tools that are scientifically validated and robust as commercial entities have.

When filmmakers approach you, what kinds of things excite you, with regards to the way they talk about impact?  What kinds of things do you want to hear?

On a basic level, you ask them if they’re thinking about impact.  A lot of people are saying “I’m not thinking about it and I don’t want that” — and that’s fine.  I think it’s unfair to rely completely on the creative filmmaker — who has to move from being creative/coordinative — they have to function like a CEO of a corporation that comes into existence very quickly.  The leadership tools are not ones that all filmmakers have.  You look to them and you see if they can create a team around them that can engage with these issues.

Narrative is creative, but you cannot sacrifice fairness, accuracy, deep research, the forces at play in the issues you’re talking about.  The filmmakers that are willing to dig in and question their process — can I do more? can I change the narrative in order to highlight something that I now understand better?  It’s important that your subject changes as you’re making the film.  As filmmakers, your subjects are changing and the issue is changing.  You’re managing in multiple dimensions, trying to create these compelling narratives.  You’re thinking about audience as well.  We want to be vigilant that the creative conversation is paramount.  But you can’t sacrifice these other elements.  You need to be responsible to the subjects — these people that are giving you their lives, for sometimes very difficult access.

With regards to building a team around you, Jennifer MacArthur published a piece on the POV blog about impact producers.  How important is carving out this space for you, for these people that are working on the impact of the film, outside of the production of the film itself?

A number of us were together in a retreat with US and UK producers with BRITDOC right before she wrote that.  Impact is a question you ask at the beginning of your film — it can benefit your funding and the telling of your film.  Often the conversation about impact changes your story.  We’re looking to embed the questions of impact into the production process.

Part of the skill-building piece for this kind of work is to name the skills.  These are high-level, sophisticated skills.  As Jennifer says in her piece, no, your intern cannot do this.  It’s building a case that this position needs funding and needs support — that it needs to be a part of film teams.  We now have these tools, we can ask the question about impact as these films are being done, by looking at how the issue is changing during production.  As you’re building and releasing your story, this person will work with the publicist and distributor, to work with the movement and change agenda that’s happening around your film.

What about the people who feel that thinking about impact is limiting?  That it impinges on creative freedom?

For me, any time you decide you’re going to be a cultural creator, you’re asking people to listen to you and to take seriously what you’re creating.  If you’re expecting people to spend time with you and your creation, you have a responsibility to your audience.  You need to take these questions seriously if you want an audience.  You’re always going to care about what people think.  How much time do you want to spend on your impact strategy? There are examples of people who could care less about change but they do want an audience.  I can talk to those people on those terms. “What do you want your audience to feel?  These are the co-participants in your creative experience.  How do you want them to feel?”

What I don’t expect is for filmmakers to say it doesn’t matter.  A lot of filmmakers point to the fact that they don’t have a good answer to the questions that foundations are asking about impact.  There is funder education that needs to be done so that funders are not led by the numbers.  That’s a conversation in the donor world and the foundation world.  Is it the means or is it the end?  I completely agree with filmmakers who say that some people are led by that.  The creative needs to be very strongly present.

You’ve spoken before about the need for the different projects and divisions within the Ford Foundation to work together on film projects.  What is important about that?

If you’re not partnering, you’re not doing it right.  I’m looking for partners at the institutional and individual level.  Partnership and collaboration is profound.  I see the world we live in as heavily networked, through the technology but also socially. There’s a phenomenon that the boundaries between disciplines and funding silos are more porous.  There’s a term in the foundation world — intersectionality — that acknowledges we’re all in this together.  You can’t talk about climate without talking about economy, health, gender.  Every time you pull out an issue, you’re pulling out a bunch of other issues.

The fact that I see things that way is perfect for this job.  We’re meant to work with all the other teams and see the commonalities.  While our structures may pull out certain things, part of the job of the storytellers is to rebraid and recombine all of the complexities of human experiences that reflect all of these areas.  There may be a labor story we tell we can find a gender story, a health story, a LGBT story.  Recombining so it looks like a human experience is really important.

* * *

~ This interview originally appeared on IndieWire, December 13, 2013, and was conducted by Bryce J. Renninger. 

Cathy N. Davidson Visiting In-Person for Lunchtime Discussion of #FutureEd

How do you unlearn? How do you remove the filters we have – like culture – that may prevent us from learning?

We’ll explore these questions and others having to do with the transformation of higher education in the 21st century tomorrow at our lunchtime discussion section of the meta-MOOC curated by Cathy N. Davidson.

And, as a special treat, tomorrow we’ll actually have Professor Davidson live, in person, with us at the discussion!

Everyone is welcome (if you don’t work at the GC, simply come to the building at 365 Fifth Avenue, at the corner of 34th St., show your photo ID, and proceed  to the Dining Commons, 8th Floor).  Look for the JustPublics@365 tent cards on tables near the back (the banquettes).

The discussion will be lead by: Lisa Brundage (Director, CUNY Advance), Polly Thistlethwaite (Chief Librarian), and me, Jessie Daniels (Professor, CUNY).


Roundup of Responses to Kristof’s Call for Professors in the Public Sphere

Nick Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, published an op-ed on Sunday pointing out the need for professors in the public sphere. His criticism is basically that most academics are not engaged in ‘today’s great debates’:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

Lots of academics immediately jumped on Twitter using the hashtag #engagedacademics (still going strong) and let Kristof know what they thought he got wrong, primarily that many of us are (already) engaged and we’re doing it through Twitter. Kristof replied via his Facebook page, saying (in part):

One objection is that in fact there are lots of professors on Twitter. Sure, but there are 1.5 million professors in America, and not nearly enough throw themselves into public engagement.

Basically, the Twitter critics of Kristof came down around a ‘cast a wider net for how you define engagement’ argument, such as this comment from Professor Blair Kelley (@profblmkelley):


The print edition of the New York Times has the letters to the editors they selected to respond to Kristof (I see mine didn’t make it), with a range of critiques suggesting:

  1. more user-inspired, policy-relevant research (Gromes),
  2. cast a wider net for defining engagement (Sugrue),
  3. change the outputs of scholarly research to include forms intended for public audiences (Iglesias)
  4. this is an old attack on academics and is anti-intellectual (Steinberger)
  5. think tanks are the answer, though even think tanks have a hard time finding academics who can speak to a broad audience (Selee).

A number of #engagedacademics  took to longer-than-140 blog post form to post their critiques of Kristof.  Here’s a roundup of what they had to say, organized very broadly by key arguments (of course, many posts make several arguments, so please do read the linked posts for more nuance than this bulleted list summary).

What academics need is more online navel-gazing: 

This is an old criticism:

  • Sarah Chinn, The Public (Anti-)Intellectual :  But beyond the specifics of whether academics do or don’t have anything to say in the public square, I’m more interested in the theme itself, which seems to reappear every now and then. In a nutshell, it’s this: oh you eggheaded academics! Why can’t you talk to the common person about interesting things? This is hardly a new development. Richard Hofstadter wrote the groundbreakingAnti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1966, for God’s sake, and he traced complaining about people who think they’re smarter than everyone else back to the very beginnings of the American Republic.

  • Pat Thomson, academics all write badly..another response to a familiar critique: In the UK context, Kristof’s argument seems like a very cheap shot indeed. Another go at academics for being obscure and difficult. Yes, we all write the odd arcane paper and yes, it is rewarded and yes, it might only be read by three people. But we also try really hard to write other things too. Today’s academic writes and publishes for a range of audiences. What’s more, and by the way, I thought mentally wagging my finger at Kristof, the UK academy and the public are not as easily cut apart as that.

It’s the reward structure:

  • Austin Frakt, “Publish and Vanish”: academics are generally not directly rewarded professionally for translation and dissemination work, particularly via new and social media. Promotion and tenure is usually based on number and prestige of scholarly publications, classroom teaching, and “service” (e.g., roles on institutional committees). Of these, publishing is the most uncertain and angst-ridden process. “Publish or perish,” is a familiar characterization. But, if by publishing only in obscure academic journals, one disappears from broader, public view, perhaps we should say, “Publish and vanish.”

  • Syreeta, UofVenus/Feministing: Above all, his column and subsequent blog post just seem so out-of-touch with the machine of the academy. There are real-life economic interests that drive our intelligentsia towards publishing “gobbledygook…hidden in obscure journals,” which are inextricably linked to a very powerful interest by said academics in securing full-time employment. People need jobs, my dude! And publication is a critical motivator and performance metric for the academic seeking tenure at any private or public institution. Compounded by the rising cost of tuition and the painful underfunding of scholarly research (the social sciences in particular), these spots for long-term employment are coveted; in March, a vote led by Senator Coburn barred funding for scholarly research in political science that doesn’t promote national security or economic interests. Colleges cut tenure lines for departments with a frequency that I’m not able to quantify. Add as a multiplier the growing adjunct specialized labor underclass, highly competitive and woefully underpaid posts for emerging academics seeking entry into the academy, who also have to write and publish to gain visibility and survive.

  • Christine Cheng, Academia and Incentives: The core problem is one of incentives within academia: Academic prestige/tenure/promotion is based purely on publications. On the surface, this seems like a fair way of gauging merit. But it means that everything else that professors do tends to run a distant second (teaching, administration and service, public engagement). Given the fierce competition for academic posts these days, no one is going to give up their research time for public engagement (unless s/he enjoys doing it if they don’t already have tenure.

  • Stephen Manning, Transforming Academia: There might be another, underutilized way of making academia more progressive and impactful: hiring and promotion policies. Many of us scholars are involved in recruiting new PhD students and faculty every year. And oftentimes – let’s be honest – it comes down to a simple question: can this person publish or not? It should be obvious that this selection mechanism will reproduce the very mindset that prevents academia from making a more important impact in this world. Instead, I propose that hiring should be guided by: academic interest, mindset and experience outside academia.

  • Janet Stemwedel, Scientific American: “…ignores that the current structures of retention, tenure, and promotion, of hiring, of grant-awarding, keep score with metrics like impact factors that entrench the primacy of a conversation in the pages of peer-reviewed journals while making other conversations objectively worthless — at least from the point of view of the evaluation on which one’s academic career flourishes or founders.”

I would, but I’m teaching four classes (variation on reward structure):

  • Laura Tanenbaum, Jacobin: As one of those professors teaching four classes at a community college, I do wish I had more time for my (perfectly lucid if I may say so) writing, but I also have a crazy idea that teaching hundreds of working-class, immigrant, and first generation college students every year might be a way of serving the public. I didn’t realize the only way to do that was to be a consigliere.”

We’re already here (variation on ‘cast a wider net’):

  • Erik Voeten, MonkeyCage: Yet, the piece is just a merciless exercise in stereotyping. It’s like saying that op-ed writers just get their stories from cab drivers and pay little or no attention to facts. There are hundreds of academic political scientists whose research is far from irrelevant and who seek to communicate their insights to the general public via blogs, social media, op-eds, online lectures and so on. They are easier to find than ever before. Indeed The New York Times just found one to help fill the void of Nate Silver’s departure. I am with Steve Saideman that political scientists are now probably engaging the public more than ever.

  • Erica Chenoweth, A Note on Academic (Ir)relevance: This is the part that surprised me the most about Kristof’s article: the supposition that our work is only relevant if it directly influences “important people.” But what if one’s work speaks to people outside of these traditional halls of power? Is such impact irrelevant? For example, many sociologists, whom Kristof writes off as a bunch of radicals who are hopelessly lost of any relevance, tend to be quite engaged with the problems of our day — just not in the way Kristof seems to privilege. Just check out Sociologists without Borders, or different proponents of applied sociology, and you will find that many sociologists work tirelessly (and often without compensation) to draw on the insights of their work to improve the lives of ordinary people.

Kristof things the category ‘public intellectual’ is only for white dudes: 

  • Raul Pacheco-Vega, Challenges of Public Engagement for Marginalized Voices: he reason that prompted me to write this post was the repeated process where the pieces most retweeted and engaged upon (even by Kristof himself) were those of white males. You could always say that it was only those academics who took it upon themselves to write a piece in response, and I’m grateful that they did. But there were several women who wrote very smart take-downs of Kristof’s column, and I saw less conversation and publicizing of those while I followed the conversation on Twitter.

Marginalized people are to be saved, not speak for themselves: 

  • Corey Robin, Look Who Kristof’s Saving Now:  I don’t ever expect Kristof to look to the material sources of this problem; that would require him to raise the sorts of questions about contemporary capitalism that journalists of his ilk are not inclined—or paid—to raise. But Kristof’s a fellow who likes to save the world. So maybe this is something he can do. Instead of writing about the end of public intellectuals, why not devote a column a month to unsung writers who need to be sung? 

Some practical advice for how to be more engaged:

  • Robert Kelchen, What Can We Do?Work on cultivating a public presence. Academics who are serious about being public intellectuals should work to develop a strong public presence. If your institution supports a professional website under the faculty directory, be sure to do that. Otherwise, use Twitter, Facebook, or blogging to help create connections with other academics and the general public. One word of caution: if you have strong opinions on other topics, consider a personal and a professional account. Try to reach out to journalists. Most journalists are available via social media, and some of them are more than willing to engage with academics doing work of interest to their readers. Providing useful information to journalists and responding to their tweets can result in being their source for articles. Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which sends out regular e-mails about journalists seeking sources on certain topics, is a good resources for academics in some disciplines. I have used HARO to get several interviews in various media outlets regarding financial aid questions.

Oh, look, we’ve built an organization (or two) to connect scholars to the public sphere: 

  • Amy Fried and Luisa S. Deprez, Talking Points Memo: “…in 2009, when recognizing the gap between those researching possible solutions to pressing policy issues and those in power searching for such answers, Theda Skocpol, a world-renowned professor of government and sociology of Harvard University, led the charge with other top scholars like Jacob S. Hacker of Yale University, Lawrence R. Jacobs of the University of Minnesota, and Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, to start the Scholars Strategy Network. The organization is a national association of professors and graduate students devoted to sharing their expertise with policymakers and the public to improve public policy and enhance democracy.”
  • An Open Letter from the Scholar Strategy Network.
  • And finally part of my, unpublished, letter to the editor in response to Kristof: PhD’s are rarely trained to be public intellectuals. Public engagement garners little reward in tenure and promotion structures that favor publication in journals largely out-of-reach to readers not affiliated with a subscribing university library. Last year, with Ford Foundation support, the Graduate Center, CUNY launched JustPublics@365, a project to connect academics with wider publics. More than 400 (with 1,000 more waiting) attended digital media training. More will train at the American Sociological Association meeting in August. Many professors want to engage more fully, they just don’t know how. It’s time for professors to go back to school, and it’s time for universities to reward public scholarship.

Still ruminating on Kristof’s provocation? Did I miss your favorite response? Post a comment.


Information Sharing as a Common Good

On the Intersection of Traditional Interlibrary Loan Services and Open Access Publishing

A scholarly communication system can enable information sharing. It can encourage it. Or, it can make sharing impossible.


Dennis Dillon observes that traditional scholarly publishing, maintained by copyright protections and subscription licensing, exploits and encourages competition. Talent, funding, and resources accrue easily to élite universities with large budgets and huge libraries. Traditional publishing does little to ensure widespread, unfettered access to academic knowledge. Within this system, however, libraries have devised and improved systems to share and redistribute information otherwise purchased or licensed — at great and increasing expense – for regulated, discrete academic audiences.

Open Here

Embracing the mission to preserve and to provide meaningful access to the world’s cultural record, librarians have developed interlibrary loan (ILL) and cooperative collection management. These innovations defray the individual burdens of cost and preservation, allowing libraries to diversify, to collectively assemble more material, and by opening collections to use by others, to provide greater access to a broader range of library resources for more people.

However, there are significant limitations to what libraries can share under this framework. While no library, even the wealthiest, can afford to purchase everything, neither can libraries perfectly distribute items so that everyone who wants something can get it. Not everything is available via ILL, and some of it is expensive, slow, and troublesome to deliver.

Given the successful interventions libraries have made to democratize access, it is particularly troubling that publishers now increasingly preclude libraries from sharing. ILL has worked well for PDF journal article distribution, and it has not toppled the academic journal subscription system as was once feared. But e-book publishers are threatened by the ease and speed with which PDFs can travel through ILL networks. E-books are not generally distributed in PDF. Instead, publishers license e-books to libraries on an array of proprietary platforms that regulate reader use and prevent sharing. Even those e-book publishers buckling to reader demand for PDF often prohibit libraries from sharing titles via ILL. These anti-sharing licenses force libraries to reduce service again to only those regulated, discrete audiences from the days before the creation of efficient high-speed ILL networks.


Open access publishing, in comparison, epitomizes barrier-free information sharing. It’s the scholarly community’s best improvement on a publishing system attempting to restrict and regulate, not to expand and de-regulate, distribution of scholarly work.

As long as all information is not equally available, because of cost, rarity, copyright or license restrictions; as long as it exists in different formats, including print, libraries will continue to facilitate sharing. Our mission – connecting people and information through discovery, evaluation, preservation, print, media and computer access – remains as important as ever. Whatever it takes, we continue to work to build a world where information is freely distributed, scholarship is freely read, and libraries are free to share.

Authors: Silvia Cho and Beth Posner

FutureEd Recap: Neoliberalism and Higher Ed

Our Valentine’s Day noontime #FutureEd discussion transcended MOOC platform and performance commentary and got on to the topic of neoliberalism and higher education.

See the JustPublics@365 near blow-by-blow captured in Storify mini-documentary format, featuring live tweets from the discussion.

As you can tell from the Storify, we identified neoliberal ideas and imperatives that shape and reflect our work in higher education, for example:

  • Return on Investment (ROI) is expected, researchers must demonstrate excellence in a framework that factors in profit
  • Some higher ed initiatives profit while others do not; administrators balance this
  • Higher Ed rewards transcend a likely (or promised) higher salary (and taxable income)
  • Education hides its value; benefits are elusive, unpredictable, uncertain
  • a recent LSE Impact Blog points to the limits of neoliberal argument; the greatest imperative to open access (OA) scholarship isn’t that it will save higher ed $$
  • Is the move to “massify” higher ed necessarily neoliberal?
  • Digitization and OA scholarship has opened medieval studies to new, larger audiences
  • How do we resist the influence of money in higher ed?

Additionally, we circled back a couple times to the multiple choice test, reading the course’s perpetual correct answer “all of the above” as critique of a flawed form.

And, we admired Michael Wesch’s and students’ A Vision of Students Today that crafts a student-reported survey into a cohesive narrative critique of higher ed’s lecture format. Form=content.

A final tip: the free Coursera mobile app offers an additional platform for the course. It’s perfect for watching videos and linking to most readings, but it doesn’t fully support all forum interactivity on all devices.  Download it to experience another MOOC platform and to do your course work on the subway.

Coursera app from iTunes

Coursera app from iTunes

Join us next Friday, 2/21 at noon in the GC Dining Commons (8th Floor) when the word on the street is that Cathy Davidson may, in fact, visit with us in person for our lunchtime chat.

You might also follow the #FutureEd CHE weekly student-centered blog . This is the first time that we know of that the Chronicle has created a blog for students, inviting the 21st century learners to talk about their experiences with the massive, open, online platform.

Teaching and Learning with Documentaries in the Digital Era

Young people entering college today have grown up immersed in a multimedia digital environment. Yet, the classroom environment they encounter often reflects nineteenth-century pedagogy of “walk and chalk,” of a lone professor standing in front of a chalk board, professing about their subject. Not surprisingly, emerging research indicates that teens are not engaged by this antiquated mode of instruction.  Moreover, the work force our students are entering demand a different kind engaged learner.

Multimedia Worker

(Image Source)

At CUNY, I’m also honored to have a wonderfully diverse student body. That incredible diversity presents some pedagogical challenges. How do you have a conversation, use examples, illustrate points when people don’t share a common cultural background? Once in a gender course, I tried to use an exercise about the gendering of Halloween costumes only to have it fall flat when half my class reminded me that they didn’t grow up with Halloween and the whole thing still seemed bizarre to them. In another course, the students included one woman who had been a sargeant in the Bosnian army and another who had fled the famine in Somalia.

This set of challenges required more of me as instructor than writing a new lecture or getting students to put their chairs in a circle. We needed to find a way to have a meaningful, deep discussion about the course material. And, unfortunately, the books and assigned readings were often as much a barrier as they were a gateway to those discussions.

In re-thinking my strategy in the classroom, several years ago I began experimenting with various forms of digital media to engage students in learning the abstract, sometimes difficult, concepts of the basic sociology curriculum. My explorations led me to documentaries, a medium experiencing its own digital revolution, as a mechanism for engaging students, encouraging critical thinking, and enticing them to complete assigned readings.

Nat'l Geographic Documentary Crew



(Image source)

For at least a decade, educational scholars have urged teaching critical media literacy through popular culture. Popular culture is often an easy pathway to student engagement because it has already captured young peoples’ attention, and then instructors can scaffold more difficult concepts around that interest. The images that drive much of popular culture may be part of the key to this as a pedagogical strategy. Scholars in cognitive psychology are finding that students learn more deeply from visual media (words and pictures) than from words alone (Mayer 2001).

Shifting Paradigms: Docs, Digital Media & Distribution 

Today, there are simply more documentary films in existence than ever before due to the rise in the independent and documentary film industry, widespread use of digital video cameras by the general public, and the rise of documentary-style television. Prominent documentarians such as Michael Moore (e.g., Sicko, 2007; Fahrenheit 9/11, 2005), Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, 2006), and Morgan Spurlock (e.g., Super Size Me, 2004) have experienced mainstream commercial success with the theatrical release of their films. In addition, documentary-style television shows (e.g., Discovery Channel and A&E have re-branded their entire programming schedules around these shows) and made-for-television documentary series (e.g., Transgeneration for Sundance Channel) abound on cable channels. HBO Documentaries led by Sheila Nevins, an arm of the cable powerhouse HBO, has built an impressive archive of documentary entertainment over twenty years, many of those titles concerned with social issues. For instance, in a landmark collaboration between National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, HBO launched Addiction(2007), an award-winning collection of documentary films by some of the leading directors in the field. The ascendancy of the documentary form has led some commentators to suggest that we are experiencing a “golden age” of documentaries.




(Image Source)

At the same time that professionally produced documentary television and films are rising in prominence, the price of digital video cameras and digital editing software are falling, effectively lowering the barrier to would-be documentarians.  The shift from more expensive analog celluloid film stock to less expensive digital video, and the equally important shift to digital editing software, has meant that more people are producing, directing and creating documentaries.  Indeed, digital video technologies are becoming commonplace in American households.

The do-it-yourself digital video technology allows almost anyone to document the most microscopic details of their existence and make them available to the larger public, in effect becoming a new, visual form of memoir. This democratization of documentaries further contributes to their wide availability for the sociology classroom and increases the likelihood that beginning students will have some familiarity with the documentary form. Taken together, the rise in the number and the success of professionally-produced documentaries alongside the DIY (do-it-yourself) documentary and digital video means that today there is an ever increasing array of documentaries from which instructors may choose. Given this greater selection, it is now likely that there is a documentary film that addresses nearly every topic covered in the typical introductory sociology class. Not only is it likely that there is a documentary for each unit in an introductory college class, it is also now possible to acquire said documentaries through a shift in distribution networks.

Distribution networks for films shape the way they are used in the college classroom. Professors have long used feature films as teaching tools in college courses. At least in part, this pedagogical practice was shaped by the distribution networks for feature films produced by Hollywood studios. Conventional distribution networks, such as chain video stores and cable television channels, made feature films widely available to the general public and thus more accessible for sociologists interested in using films in the classroom.

The explosive growth in the production of documentary films means that there are simply more documentaries to distribute.  And, the commercial success of a few of those documentaries released in theaters has made distributors more aware of the broad audience for the non-fiction film.   Most importantly, vastly diversified distribution networks mean that many of the economics of the “long tail” work to the advantage of documentaries without a wide theatrical release.




(Image Source)

According to Chris Anderson’s theory of the long tail, creative products and content of all kinds with a smaller than mass-market appeal can find modest commercial success through distributed networks; so, for example, one can now find obscure tunes via iTunes which would have once been difficult to locate in record stores based on old distribution networks that relied on mass-market appeal.


And, this shift in distribution networks has affected documentaries as well, most notably through the online retailer Netflix which has gained a reputation for distributing relatively hard-to-find documentaries.  In addition, literally millions of short documentary films and clips from longer documentaries are available at no cost through online video portals, such as,, and

Taken together, these shifting trends in digital video technology and distribution networks have led to an increase in the number of non-fiction films being produced, and this increase in the number of films has driven down the overall cost of acquiring documentaries for individual instructors and educational institutions.

Transforming (my) College Classroom through Documentaries

The wider accessibility of documentaries has transformed the way I approach the classroom. Now, I combine documentary films with peer-reviewed articles or other assigned readings around key concepts. My background and training is in sociology and I teach in a public health program, so the content I teach is, broadly, in the area of “medical sociology.”

In courses I design, there is some overlap between the films and the readings, this repetition is meant to reinforce the material for students, as well as provide opportunities for insights about the connection between the films and the readings. In order to highlight the importance of authorship and credibility, near the beginning of the semester I describe for students the process of peer-review for publication and contrast this with the publication process for print-based journalists and for new media journalists, such as bloggers.

In lecture and class discussion, I drive home the importance of peer-reviewed literature and emphasize that this is the research that professionals consult and rely upon for their work. I challenge students to master the ability to find and read the peer-reviewed literature as a basic standard for becoming a college-educated and engaged citizen. As I introduce the first documentary to the class, I revisit the issues of authorship and credibility in visual texts. For each film, I provide students with a “Video Worksheet”  prior to the class the day the film is shown through the a learning management system (e.g., Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard).  Students are required to bring the worksheet with them and to complete the assigned reading before the class. The “Video Worksheet” includes questions about the key concepts, the content of the film, the connections between the film and the assigned reading, and asks about the mechanisms the filmmaker employs to convey their message.

After the film, class discussion – either in small groups or with the class as a whole – focuses on answering the questions on the worksheet. I collect these worksheets and give participation points based on completion, but do not grade them closely for accuracy; rather I rely on the class discussion following the films to drive home the correct answers. Questions from the worksheets are often adapted as exam and quiz questions. The “Video Worksheets” also help scaffold the development of students’ critical media literacy skills by helping them understand the “point of view” (POV) of the director by analyzing the component parts that make up the documentary.

Can you give me an example? 

As just one example of this approach, I offer this example of one of the more difficult topics I cover: medical sociology and race.

Race, a socially constructed category, is nevertheless an important determinant of health. This can be a difficult concept for students to understand. By providing some historical context for contemporary health disparities, a deeper understanding of racial discrimination in the U.S., as well as the ethical violations in medical experimentation can be an effective strategy for teaching this concept. To address this topic, I show “The Deadly Deception” (Denisce Di Ianni, writer, producer and director; Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 1993, 60 minutes), a documentary that deals with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted by public health officials in the U.S. from 1932 to 1972. The film features first-person accounts of African American men who were enrolled in the study and a number of doctors who were investigators on the study – some of whom objected to the study and one white doctor who still defends the study as a worthwhile scientific endeavor. In addition, the film features archival footage and interviews with experts in medical sociology. The documentary is quite affecting and holds up well even though it is now older than most of the students.

For most traditional-aged college students (born around 1995 or 1996) who are unfamiliar with the history of the Tuskegee study, the film is compelling. For an introductory class, the power of this documentary is further enhanced through the assigned readings and there are a number of articles that work well with this film. For an early undergraduate course, “The Tuskegee Legacy: AIDS and the Black Community,” (1992) is a short (three page) article written in easily accessible language. For more advanced classes (and learners), Thomas and Crouse Quinn’s article, “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932 to 1972: Implications for HIV Education and AIDS Risk Education Programs in the Black Community,” (1991) works well as a companion reading to the documentary. Both articles provide a connection between the historical background on the Tuskegee study and contemporary distrust of medical intervention on the part of African Americans. Rather than seeing resistance to medical professionals as an artifact of social isolation, lack of education, or cultural superstition, these readings provide students a way of seeing the deeply rooted, systemic racial oppression that pervades the U.S. and the consequences this has for the lives of African Americans. The film students with an engaging and critical background to the history of racial discrimination in the U.S. and its attendant health consequences. The film also raises important questions about the ethics of medical experimentation and about public health research that focuses exclusively on one racial or ethnic group. The peer-reviewed readings take the background provided by the documentary film as a given, and add further complexity by exploring the implications of this history for the health of contemporary African Americans. Without the film, most students unfamiliar with the history of the Tuskegee experiments would have a more difficult time with the peer-reviewed readings; without the peer-reviewed literature, students who only saw the film might erroneously assume that the lessons of Tuskegee were confined to a remote historical period. The “Video Worksheet” and class discussion build on theses lessons and introduce students to critical media literacy concepts by asking questions about the point-of-view of the filmmakers and the way they used particular filmic techniques to construct an argument visually.

But, is this an effective strategy for teaching and learning? 

I’ve published a couple of pieces on the results of some research I did on how this teaching method works. The shortest answer is: it seems to work well for increasing student engagement in course material. I have a good deal of data (both quantitative and qualitative) on student responses to this method, but perhaps my favorite is this quote from an undergraduate student:

“The videos helped because they were usually taking a stance on an issue, while the text briefly described the arguments/positions. Seeing and hearing video is much better than reading the text because the historical footage, impassioned speeches, and other interviews are relayed with much more clarity. The videos are easier to watch for 90 minutes than 90 minutes of reading the text, so even if the information was the same, I grasped more of it.”

As an instructor, hearing a student say this method of teaching enabled me to “grasp more of it” is gratifying.

I measure the effectiveness of this as a teaching strategy in other ways, as well, such as the number of other instructors who have adopted this method. The wiki I set up to catalog documentaries has, at latest count, received more than 67,000 visitors.

We are living in a different era, one that is saturated by multimedia and students come into the classroom expecting to learn this way, but they are often disappointed. This method of combining visual culture through non-fiction films digitally distributed with traditional peer-review literature as a way of teaching critical thinking provides a way forward.

If you’d like some help getting started using this teaching method, here are some resources:

Happy doc watching! ;)