Sarah C. Mazer

Film and the Composition Classroom: Using Visual Media to Motivate First-Year Writers

I still remember the Saturdays I spent in the early 1980s in the Texarkana (Texas) Community College Auditorium, watching movies that my father showed as part of his Institute on Film. I was a child--younger than ten for all those summers during which Dad conducted the Institute--yet I willingly attended the screenings, as eager to watch and listen as the graduate students who were taking his course for credit. My enthusiasm for movies stemmed, in part, from my love of books; my father, an English professor, had cultivated in me a passion for the written word by the time I started public school. During those Film Institute summers, I discovered that I was as fascinated by narratives on screen as those on paper. In my senior year of college, I transformed that fascination with cinema into a scholarly interest by registering for "The South in Film," a history course in which the professor utilized two mediums--commercial film and academic research--to promote the oral discussion and written analysis of the title subject. Only a few other classes have so thoroughly engaged my analytical writing skills. These two memories--of my childhood and college experiences with film--have informed my decision to integrate film into my teaching of English 11, the first semester of beginning composition, at the University of North Carolina.

The administrative coordinators of composition studies at UNC offer this daunting description of what students should learn in English 11: Students "write to acquire particular ways of communicating as college students, as prospective business people, historians, and teachers. They learn the written ‘dialects’ that these disciplines sanction. They practice the forms of discourse appropriate for communicating with other members of the community."My primary concern is how to make such abstract topics as "sanctioned dialects" and "appropriate professional discourse" interesting to first-year students who likely have never heard those terms and who presumably would be intimidated by them. In order for novices to mature into professional writers, they must feel comfortable with and excited about (rather than intimidated by) the materials utilized in the classroom; otherwise, they have no incentive to participate in their own development as crafters of language. Joan M. Shiring, a high school teacher in Texas, contends that the materials typically assigned for analysis--books and articles in print--fail to engage students on the level that visual texts do.2  Like Shiring, I believe that, by using film as the medium through which first-year students learn about audience, point of view, voice, editing, and other topics related to scholarly communication, I can actively engage them in the writing process.

UNC teaching assistant Jennifer Heller argues that "a more engaged paper is a better paper" and confirms that film promotes enthusiastic student commentary and writing: "Students like the material. Movies are a part of their lives. Film is a part of their shared language (like any grad student being able to sing ‘Conjunction Junction’). So I think it gives you an advantage in constructing a sense of community in your classroom from the beginning, because you tie into something that is common to all."3 As Heller intimates in her final comment, this "shared language" is familiar to a much larger population than college students. Film is a part of almost every American’s language because it is a popular medium, one accessed and commented on continuously by the general public rather than exclusively by scholars. Dudley Andrew elaborates on the cinema’s uniquely strong ties to popular culture:

Cinema is not only a good index of culture, but better, perhaps, than painting, music, or poetry, because it visibly partakes of the stuff of cultural life. Moreover, the solutions it arrives at in the artistic struggle to represent that life can be trusted as broadly social solutions, tied to groups who lived through the era, rather than to the private comprehension of the gifted, but inevitably more isolated, [people] who dominated those other arts. The very compromises and business decisions leading to the production of a film ensure that it will be related to its era.

How does a film exist in culture and culture in film? As satisfying is the metaphor of movie screen as cultural mirror, the power of the cinema to set the scene of culture is a power much stronger than that of mere reflection. The cinema literally contributes to a culture’s self-image, inflecting, not just cap-turing, daily experience.4  (my italics)

If his premise--that film is a genuine cultural document, intimately related to those who create it as well as those who consume it--is valid, then Andrew justifies the integration of film into English 11. Film is a particularly relevant medium for unit one, Popular Culture, in which students examine "areas of popular culture as defining influences in their lives" and discover how they themselves "play crucial roles in several discourse communities." Each student can tackle these issues through a critical investigation of: (1) the types of movies s/he prefers to watch and why; (2) the issues that those particular movies explore; (3) whether s/he agrees with the opinions presented in the film about those issues; (4) what impact the film has on her/him; (5) what impact the film might have on others who view it; (6) what the popular reception of the film says about American attitudes toward to the primary issues raised; (7) what impact the popular and critical reception of the film might have on the future production of similar films.

For example, an in-class analysis of the recent film Enemy of the State (starring Will Smith) would likely generate discussions about why Americans like action/adventure movies, as well as about these more substantive topics: the presentation of the stereotypical handsome, heroic, and invincible lead male; the portrait of "Buppie" (black urban professional) life the film provides; the dangerous potential of information technology to create an Orwellian world in which "Big Brother" monitors even the most innocent of citizens; and the present level of paranoia among American citizens about the federal government and whether it is justified. Each of these topics represents the promising seed of an analytical paper. However, such sophisticated discussions probably would not occur spontaneously among young students, as Jessica Kem suggests: "I remember the first film class I took, which was my second semester of my [college] freshman year. I was a little disoriented at first to be writing about--and treating in an academic manner--a media I formerly had regarded as solely entertainment."6

Heller and Robert F. Moss, a veteran professor of composition, echo Kem’s concerns. Heller testifies to the difficulty of getting students "to see underneath the ‘entertainment’ value of a film. . . . Some background work needs to be done in class on separating the individual engagement we feel with films (entertainment value) with understanding their form or function or message (analysis)."7  Moss reiterates that, though film almost unfailingly appeals to students bored with "the prosaic rhythms of ordinary classwork," the instructor nonetheless faces the difficult task of generating meaningful discussion about cinema: "The overriding principle [of using film in the composition classroom] must be to usher students into the enticing pleasure-dome of popular culture, but then to force them to scrutinize what they find there, to analyze and probe where otherwise they would only laugh, cheer, and applaud."8 The experiences of Kem, Heller, and Moss have prompted me to design a practical plan for helping my students make the transition from passive viewers to active critics of popular culture.

George F. Custen notes that discussions about individual movies usually begin with "relatively simple acts of evaluation concerning parts of the film a viewer either liked or disliked."9  In order to develop these discussions into more than mere recitations of personal preference, students must be introduced to relevant critical terms in both literature and film studies. I therefore plan to follow Jennifer Heller’s admirable example of beginning the semester with a variation on the standard vocabulary lesson. Heller describes her 1998 discussion section for English 42 (her lesson plans are so valuable that I quote her at length):

My film unit began with a short list of film terms, and we watched clips from a few different films to practice ‘reading’ a scene, seeing how film techniques created the meaning of the scene. . . . I actually took suggestions from my class [regarding what scenes to view and discuss] so that they would feel more ‘in control.’. . .We watched one clip, and I narrated my impressions of how the film was functioning, what devices were used, and what effects were created as we went. We showed each clip a few times, and for the last 2 we talked about the clips as a group as we watched them. They caught on quickly. We then voted on a film we would all see together outside of class, either one showing on campus or in the theater. They had to take notes on the film, and next class period they worked in small groups to focus on one theme or scene they found interesting, and to practice using evidence from the film to support their interpretations of the theme/scene.

The film terms were a ‘key’ that opened up interpretations to them. I think that using some technical vocabulary helped to make their interpretations stronger, more professional, and more incisive. These activities took 2 50-minute class periods, and by that point they were able to write feeder 1, analyzing a scene from a film of their own choice, fairly competently.10

Like Heller, Moss emphasizes the importance of selecting films in accordance with students’ preferences. "It is not the art of the cinema that is to be promoted here, after all," Moss reminds teachers, "but the craft of good English prose."11 I am therefore reluctant to designate, even in this paper, "theme" materials (i.e., a group of film clips which would raise questions about the South in film, or questions about representations of femininity or masculinity in film) around which I could build the unit on popular culture.

I have, however, designed three potential "feeder" assignments. The first extends Heller’s requirement that her students take notes about the film the class views in a campus or commercial theater. In order to encourage students to review their log of impressions before drawing from them in class discussion, I will ask students to neatly copy or type their notes, adding additional commentary as it occurs to them in the revision process, and turn these in to me for review. This will be an ungraded assignment, but one which will provide me with the opportunity to determine if students have learned to successfully analyze cinema. The second feeder will be a group project constructed through small-group interaction. I will ask students to compare their notes with each other, carefully observing and documenting differences in individual responses to or interpretations of the film. The third feeder will be split into two parts. I will first ask students to (individually) draft a proposal for a comparative paper on the film already discussed and another film of their choice. After approving the students’ selections, I will ask each one to find and succinctly summarize three critical reviews (including one from an online source12) of the movie s/he has chosen as a comparison film. The final project will be a longer paper in which each student will compare and contrast two films that address the same issue.

I have attempted to integrate the suggestions of the teaching handbook into each of these feeders. The first should help students "become confident participants" in discussions about popular culture in film; by reviewing the students’ notes without grading them, I hope to provide constructive feedback on their preliminary critical analyses without invoking anxiety about grades. The second feeder gives students an opportunity to "practice those oral communication skills necessary to participating effectively in small groups and in situations requiring public speaking"; this will be particularly effective if I ask someone from each group to give a short oral report on their interactions. Finally, the third feeder forces students to "become familiar with a variety of research methods and resources, including electronic sources."13  Edgar F. Daniels explains the value of this last assignment by pointing out that "exposure to a variety of opinions about a familiar medium is a good way of approaching objectivity in research for the beginning researcher."14

After gathering and outlining critical film reviews, students will be prepared for the second unit of English 11--Examining Public Issues--in which they will be required to consult outside sources in preparation for an oral presentation. The use of film can be carried over easily and fruitfully into this unit. I may, for example, ask students to choose a particular issue and compare/contrast its representation in cinema with its "real" status in American society (i.e., Dave’s relatively easy erasure of the national debt in Dave v. the current status of America’s national debt, the proposals recently put forth to decrease it, and the controversies over those proposals). Kem suggests that cinema might be integrated into even the third unit of English 11, Professional Communities: "Film is essentially cross-disciplinary, incorporating music, visual art, dialogue/writing, etc. The last unit could benefit from this approach that reaches across traditional disciplines."15  In the interest of providing my students with the most focused opportunity possible to develop their analytical skills, I will attempt to devise a specific plan for integrating film into the Professional Communities unit.

Moss attests that "If a thoughtful choice of movies is made, the following can definitely be achieved: greater student attentiveness and involvement, increased receptivity to facts and information that the instructor deems important, and a more energetic, committed effort on writing assignments."16  Of course I hope to validate Moss’s claims through the use of film in my first-year composition classroom. Most of my peers agree that it can be done. John Adrian comments:

Using a visual medium like film creates some complications for the instructor . . . [who has to] figure out how to get the necessary equipment (TV, VCR, video tapes) and how to make the materials available to students who miss class or want to review them outside of class. But it does seem worthwhile, as you say, because people are generally eager to talk about movies. At least once a week someone asks me, "Have you seen [name of a recent film]?". . . Consider all the hoop-la over the Oscars. It’s rare to hear the same kind of talk in the hallways about magazine ads or other forms of popular culture. I think that movies definitely have the potential to "spice up" a freshman composition class.17 I am aware of the "complications" Adrian mentions and have given them serious thought; but I keep returning to memories of Saturdays in the 1980s when I sat spellbound, watching films and then listening to my father’s graduate class discuss them. I hope that my first-year students will possess an equal respect for and interest in film, and I intend to provide them with the same opportunity that I had in college: the opportunity to turn an extracurricular interest into an avenue for engaged critical study and scholarly research.


1. "English 11," UNC Department of English website on Composition Studies. Retrieved 17 March 1999 from the World Wide Web:

2. Joan M. Shiring, "Free Reading and Film: Two F’s That Make the Grade," English Journal 79, no. 6 (October 1990), 39.

3. Jennifer Heller, email to the author, 22 March 1999. Heller has taught basic English composition courses and a discussion section of English 42 (Introduction to Film Criticism).

4. Dudley Andrew, "Cinema and Culture," Humanities 6, no. 4 (August 1985), 24-5. Retrieved 26 February 1999 from the World Wide Web:

5. Staff Manual, 1998-99. UNC Department of English, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, pp. 79-80.

6. Jessica Kem, peer review of the first draft of this paper. Retrieved 17 March 1999 from the World Wide Web:

7. Heller, email to the author.

8. Robert F. Moss, "English Composition and the Feature Film," The Journal of General Education 37, no. 2 (1985), 123-124.

9. George F. Custen, "Talking About Film" in Film/Culture: Explorations of Cinema in its Social Context, ed. Sari Thomas (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982), 240.

10. Heller, email to the author.

11. Moss, 123.

12. Though it is somewhat outdated, Bert Deivert’s 1995 article "Shots in Cyberspace: Film Research on the Internet," lists a number of still-active links to film criticism sites that students might find helpful as they research. The article was published in Cinema Journal 35, no. 1 (Fall 1995), 103-125.

13. Staff Manual, 75.

14. Edgar F. Daniels, "The Movie Review as a First Step in Research" in Writing Exercises from Exercise Exchange, ed. Littleton Long (Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1976), 131.

15. Kem, peer review.

16. Moss, 142.

17. John Adrian, personal interview, 21 March 1999. Daily Tarheel columnist Verna Kale points out the popular appeal of the Oscars in her 18 March 1999 column, "Run, Don’t Walk, to Watch Oscar Presentations." Kale writes: "Who says America has no culture of its own? In response to that statement, I always point to film. Film is a fantastic medium and when well-executed, it can stand among any other art form and enjoy the same validity. . . . Everyone goes to the movies. It’s fun. And like no other art form, work of the highest level can reach the masses. . . . [F]ilms speak to us."

Works Cited

Adrian, John. Personal interview. 21 March 1999.

Andrew, Dudley. "Cinema and Culture." Humanities 6.4 (August 1985): 24-25. Also online:

Custen, George F. "Talking About Film." Ed. Sari Thomas. Film/Culture: Explorations of Cinema in its Social Context. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982: 237-46.

Daniels, Edgar F. "The Movie Review as a First Step in Research." Ed. Littleton Long. Writing Exercise from Exercise Exchange. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1976: 131-32.

Deivert, Bert. "Shots in Cyberspace: Film Research on the Internet." Cinema Journal 35.1 (Fall 1995): 103-25.

"English 11." UNC Department of English website on Composition Studies. Retrieved 17 March 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Heller, Jennifer. Email to the author. 22 March 1999.

Kale, Verna. "Run, Don’t Walk, to the Oscar Presentations." The Daily Tar Heel 18 March 1999.

Kem, Jessica. Peer review of the author’s first draft. Retrieved 17 March 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Moss, Robert F. "English Composition and the Feature Film." The Journal of General Education 37.2 (1985): 122-43.

Shiring, Joan M. "Free Reading and Film: Two F’s That Make the Grade." English Journal 79.6 (October 1990): 37-40.

Staff Manual, 1998-99. UNC Department of English, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.