It was the Arts Assembly, the annual presentation arts teachers make wherein they speak to an all-school sea of students to describe and pitch the content of their elective arts courses prior to the sign-up period.
Holding my phone in front of me, I walked to the front of the room and gave the crowd my usual warm greeting. A familiar, cheerful electronic clink sounded as I hit record.
“I’m taking a video of you all right now! Make some noise!”
I panned back and forth across adorable, smiling faces, many of them waving excitedly at the camera.
As I lowered my phone-holding hand — the stop-button’s little biddle-boop sound again audible to the students — I began to address sans camera. “Now, I just took a video of you all.” Little heads nodded. “But did I just make a film?”
I let the question hand there, and after a beat, amidst many murmurs of “uuhh…” one or two decisive student voices could be heard. “No!”
I pointed in their direction, and said, “why not? What’s the difference between a film and a video? And I’m not talking physically. I don’t mean the difference between actual film strips and digital video. But in today’s era when everything is digital, I mean conceptually. I mean philosophically, I mean artistically. Can we call Miranda Sings a filmmaker? How about Pewdie Pie? But then again, some people who call themselves filmmakers create entire careers out of producing content exclusively for YouTube. What’s the difference between the things we go to theaters to see and the things we watch on YouTube? And how can we tell? What are the specific artistic elements that make up that difference? Why does it matter? When does it matter? We’re going to be producing both films and videos in this class, and while we’re producing them, we’re going to be exploring these questions.”
That was Thursday of this past week. By Friday, 22 students had signed up for the course. In this particular private school setting, where there are only 8 students in the entire 6th grade, this high number means a great deal to me. I’m particularly thrilled to have full classes because (somewhat selfishly, I admit) I’m beyond excited to delve into these ideas with my students. I’m a scholar of media studies, and such questions about how digital citizens make sense of the content they’re watching pop up all the time. I think about whether watching Netflix can or should be considered “watching TV.” I think about the specific aesthetics of Buzzfeed videos, for instance the yellow tag that flies in and unhinges itself and the accompanying sound it makes, and how a lot of the videos they post are in fact documentary shorts, how the presence of that tag mediates my experience of the rest of the content in such a way that it registers with my brain as “video” instead of “short documentary film.” I think about the history of film studies, the struggles it took for cinephile professors to get the rest of academia to take films seriously enough to warrant them as worthy of academic study, and I think about how much has changed, how the word “film” is now the esoteric alternative to “movie,” the airs of pride or pretension it can carry when used in certain contexts.
The act of exploring with students philosophical questions in which I’m genuinely curious myself? One of my favorite parts of life. I can’t wait for the first day.