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Moving Pictures – Moving Targets
While preparing for this panel on teaching German film, I came across a remarkable phrase in an essay on teaching literature, written by Amherst College’s new president, Biddy Martin: “Learning to read requires suspending the demand for automatic intelligibility.”1 This aphoristic statement strikes me as the best formulation of what lies at the heart of a liberal arts education in general, and the humanities in particular: learning involves not only the acquisition of new information and skills, but also the ability to let go of preconceived notions, to open up to new perspectives, to endure uncertainty, and to aim for a deepened understanding. Teaching, then, to a large extent, involves an undoing, helping students in this process of letting go. Learning to “read” in the metaphorical, general sense I take Martin to mean, requires time and effort: slowing down to engage with the material at hand; working hard to achieve a different, non-“automatic” intelligibility. Given the ever-accelerating pace of life for both ourselves and our students and the erosion of attention spans – hopefully, not our own, but primarily those of our students! – what are the implications of this situation for the teaching of German film?
When I first started teaching German film, some twenty years ago, the students who would take German film courses taught in English could easily be divided into three distinct groups, with minimal, if any, overlap: some came with considerable expertise in film studies – let’s call them “the cinephiles” – who were attracted by a largely auteurist interest in the great names of directors, or by the allure of a mythologized period, such as the Weimar Republic or the New German Cinema. Such students tended to have strong skills in visual analysis but limited or no knowledge of German history and culture. The second group of students had a background in German – let’s call them “the Germanophones” – and usually had a neutral interest in the topic; they took the courses to fulfill the requirements of their German Studies major, or they were heritage learners with a decent grasp of literary or cultural history but little or no specific skills in visual analysis. The third group consisted of random students without background or interest in either skill set – let’s call them “the clueless” – who may have been vaguely attracted to a course they thought would be “easy” and “fun” since it promised to involve “watching movies.”