This is the second post in which I am doing some public brainstorming about my plans for a new syllabus (again, this is republished from my personal blog). I’m getting closer to mapping out this particular course, but I would appreciate any responses you might have–including suggestions of favorite documentaries, especially those that test the limits of what we mean by the term.
For the first time in several years, I will be teaching Fayetteville State University’s senior seminar in the spring. The course fell into my lap late in the semester, so I haven’t had the time to prep that I would normally want, but I’m excited to have the opportunity to explore a set of research questions in detail with my students. The last time I taught this course–way back in 2007 (!)–I focused on the theme of “Documenting Injustice,” a phrasing that I hoped would encompass a wide range of activist, narrative, non-fiction texts in a wide range of media. Because the course is taught in our fairly traditional English department, I wanted not only to include a focus on literary texts but also to respect approaches based in textual analysis. Thus, while I’d enjoy teaching a course on the political economy of digital cinema (say), I don’t think my students would receive the “capstone” experience this course is supposed to represent.
That being said, the students who have signed up for the course know that I am the “film guy” in our department and know a little about my interests. So, with that in mind, I have decided to do an updated version of that course, which I am tentatively calling “Reframing the Documentary,” in part to entertain some slightly different questions about various forms of non-fiction. For the previous course, I sought to discuss a wide range of media forms–written non-fiction, photography, and film–and I’ll maintain that cross-media focus this time. Once again, I will require my students to read Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, texts that explore different aspects of documentary and observation with the goal of some sort of social change. But unlike last time, I am going to add David Eggars’ category-defying narrative, Zeitoun, in which he tells the story of a Syrian-born Katrina survivor, writing from Zeitoun’s voice.
In addition, I want to introduce some significant case studies on photography, such as the Dorothea Lange “Migrant Mother” photographs, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier,” and others. I’m planning to avoid directly studying most of the recent controversial photographs (especially the Abu Ghraib photos), although I may teach at Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. Instead, I’d like to look at some of Morris’s essays on older photographs, possibly including this essay on whether photographs lie (new to me: Morris’s New York Times essays on photography have been anthologized in a book). Or, more likely, that I will be teaching The Thin Blue Line, Morris’s blog posts on documentary re-enactments. I’ll supplement this discussion of Morris with screenings of either Strange Culture or Road to Guantanamo (or both).
From there, I ams till trying to decide how to engage with some of the “limits” of documentary. By that, I mean definitional limits, rather than where documentary itself is limited. I will likely include the animated Israeli documentary, Waltz with Bashir, and I’m thinking about doing a couple of mock documentaries, most likely Confederate States of America, and, thanks to some recent research by a former student, the boundary-defying film, The Watermelon Woman. One other area of emphasis will likely be autobiography, and I’m leaning towards Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, if only because I am familiar with it and because its production history is pretty catchy.
Finally, given some of my own recent work on “transmedia documentary,” I will likely finish with a couple of recent documentaries that used online media to expand the limits of what counts as a documentary, including The Age of Stupid. Following up on this idea of “transmedia documentary,” I’d very much appreciate any suggestions about online videos, photography series, or articles that depict aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement. One “text” that I would certainly like to discuss would be the “We are the 99%” tumblr blog, but I may also set up a discussion of how iconic images of #OWS, such as the macing incident at UC Davis, have been remixed or repurposed.
I recognize that this post is all over the map–and mostly consists of a list of possible texts–but I am still brainstorming to some extent, trying to decide how, exactly, I want to frame this course. I am looking forward to doing an in-depth study of documentary, activism, and narrative, but I’d welcome any reminders about texts that I’ve neglected, including short essays, short stories, or other explorations of how we document our lives and how we use non-fiction images, sounds, and narratives to represent significant social and political events. Feedback (on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments) is welcome.