- Top of page
- Previous Research on Film in the International Studies Classroom
- The Classroom Research—Methods and Process
- Discussion and Conclusion
Much has been written in the last decade on using film as a pedagogical tool in the classroom and specifically in the teaching and learning of international relations (IR). Instructors assert that film has numerous beneficial effects in terms of student interest, engagement, conceptual understanding, and class performance. This article builds upon the existing literature and fills a gap by presenting and analyzing the empirical findings of recent classroom research on the usefulness of five films for student engagement, understanding, and interpretation of various IR topics (IR theory, media and war, and human rights). The data and their analysis reveal that film can potentially be a powerful and dramatic medium to aid student learning of IR, but the results are mixed. Students' written work also demonstrates that film's value can be overrated and that film can be superficial and confusing. This research sheds light on how we can better use film in the international studies classroom beyond its entertainment and illustrative value.
Contemporary globalization takes place visually—in images and videos transmitted by cell phone and webcams, state video surveillance in buses or on street corners, an activist or journalist's capturing of political violence then seen by millions, and the plethora of international films that document diverse global experiences. One of the main ways that most college students become aware of events and people across the world is through images. This is supported by a “pictorial turn” (Mitchell 1994) in contemporary culture, an “aesthetic turn” in international relations (Bleiker 2001), and the “society of spectacle” (DeBord 1995; Kellner 2003) noted by critical theorists.1 As one political scientist noted: “Our perceptions of current political events stem from the images and stories that our memory recalls from art—films, books, paintings, but also the recreated events on TV (Edelman 1995:2).” We do not objectively observe the world; it is translated and constructed for us primarily visually. A contemporary understanding of global phenomena requires visual literacy.2 In particular, film as one of the preeminent visual manifestations is a “potent form of political communication” (Engert and Spencer 2009:83).3
In light of this, film is one pedagogical tool that has been used more and more frequently in the classroom. In this paper, I evaluate with qualitative and quantitative data how film can be used to teach, understand, and interpret key topics in an international relations (IR) and international studies classroom,4 namely international relations theory, human rights, and media and war.5 More specifically, in classroom research, I sought to find out whether film can, in addition to illustrating and getting students interested in the material, help students better understand, interpret, and even illuminate or create new meaning within IR. While scholars claim that using film in the classroom (especially an IR one) can have positive effects on student interest, class performance, and conceptual understanding, there has been almost no empirical evaluation of these assertions.
This article thus fills a gap by providing data on both student perception and student written work to analyze the extent to which and how film is useful and whether it meets a number of key learning objectives; it also looks at potential disadvantages and ethical concerns with using film as a pedagogical tool. Moreover, I raise the question as to the relative value of using film in the higher education classroom, as many teachers may be concerned about its seriousness (for example, Broughton 2008; Sealey 2008). Finally, this study sets out a future research agenda on broader conceptual concerns related to images, politics, and violence that have not been considered in the pedagogical literature on teaching with film. To be sure, while research on one's own classroom and teaching presents a number of challenges, it nevertheless is useful to gauge whether the stated goals of a given pedagogical tool are being met.
The main research questions that this project seeks to answer are:
- Do students engage with and demonstrate an interest in the material through the watching of a related film?
- To what extent does film help students interpret, illuminate, and/or critically examine key topics in international relations?
In short, how useful is film in an IR classroom?6
This project finds nuanced mixed conclusions about the use of film as a pedagogical tool. Students in general perceived that film was useful beyond its entertainment value—for illustrating, explaining, and engaging them in IR topics. There were mixed findings regarding the relationship between students' film preference, their belief in its usefulness, and their ability to use it in written analytical work. Additionally, the fact that most students, when unprompted, did not use film in analytical essays may reveal that film was not as useful as traditional written text. This project has also found that entertaining, emotional, and dramatic narratives did not necessarily prevent or detract from students' learning and analysis and, in many ways, strongly engaged them and assisted in their learning. Conclusions are mixed in that film may increase students' understanding and interest in abstract IR concepts, but it can also sensationalize, simplify, and depoliticize importance issues in the discipline.
Previous Research on Film in the International Studies Classroom
- Top of page
- Previous Research on Film in the International Studies Classroom
- The Classroom Research—Methods and Process
- Discussion and Conclusion
Before examining the literature on using film in the classroom, we should take note of the debate on the relative value of cultural products such as film within pedagogy. Scholars recount how graduate schools of education and the academy in general tend to be skeptical of the use of popular film, music, and pop culture in the classroom (Broughton 2008; Sealey 2008:1–2). No doubt, many professors of international studies would agree and believe that we should not cater to a youth culture saturated by media spectacles. One scholar cites a critic who claims that popular culture is “not just marginal, trivial, or disruptive, it actually dulls consciousness: “the vast entertainment machine is, among other things, an industry for numbing” (Broughton 2008:22).” By contrast, others have found that entertainment should not just be ignored as fluff since it “has the capacity to intervene in the crucial civic issues and to shape public opinion (Broughton 2008:23).” However, while different forms of media such as film can be a powerful supplement in the classroom, they should not be seen as a substitute for effective teaching.
An additional important point in this debate is to note differences in types of film and what is considered entertainment. For example, in this classroom research project, I would argue that two to three of the five films would not be considered mainstream popular entertainment by contemporary students, even though they would still be considered in general more “entertainment” than “educational.” Many independent and foreign feature films tackle political and social issues in a serious way and should not be seen in the same category as a Hollywood blockbuster. In short, one should not start from the assumption that cinematic education, the fusion of teaching and learning with the moving image, is just “junk food.” At the same time, as this research shows, instructors still need to be conscientious and skeptical.
The literature on the use of film in the classroom is diverse and cuts across many disciplines. It is primarily descriptive and prescriptive, rather than explanatory. Most of the studies, including those in educational psychology, claim that the use of film in the classroom has a number of positive benefits for students: “[It] stimulates the senses, grounds abstract concepts, engages the emotions, contextualizes history, and facilitates an active-learning classroom environment (Kuzma and Haney 2001:34).”
The most prominent and often-reported benefit to using film and visuals in the classroom is in getting students interested in the material and engaging them in the class (Schillaci and Culkin 1970; Rebhorn 1987; Burton 1988; Tipton 1993; Gregg 1998; Champoux 1999; Kiasatpour 1999; Simpson and Kaussler 2009; Waalkes 2003; Sealey 2008; Valeriano 2008; Engert and Spencer 2009). The visualization of abstract concepts or historical events may be more captivating for students than just reading about them; moreover, because film is already a familiar medium for students, it breaks down some teacher–student barriers and may encourage students to be more active participants in the class.
Scholars also emphasize how visuals can further students' understanding of the material, illustrate and/or illuminate an abstract concept or theory, and reinforce course topics (Rebhorn 1987; Jordan and Sanchez 1994; Feldman 1995; English and Steffy 1997; Gregg 1998; Champoux 1999; Kiasatpour 1999; Crawford 1999; Weber 2001; Waalkes 2003; Sealey 2008; Valeriano 2008; Engert and Spencer 2009). One instructor found that “Film clips can create useful hooks for individual students to hang brand-new theoretical questions upon (Waalkes 2003).” Some educational psychologists have found that students have a difficult time learning and recalling abstract concepts7 (Bruner and Anglin 1973; Kuzma and Haney 2001) and that film can be useful at dealing with this problem. In reference to teaching international relations theory, one teacher asserted, “students need to be able to view and identify with the various narratives used to describe international politics by first seeing them acted out and then only later can they understand them in conceptual form by referencing them as -isms (Webber 2005:388).”
A few examples from international relations instructors' use of film are instructive into the potential uses and benefits. “Films can transform concepts into quasi-lived experiences that students may therefore retain long after class is over. A concept like ‘deterrence’ can move—at least somewhat—from existing only on a page or in a lecture into a student's imagined world [in reference to the film Dr. Strangelove] (Kuzma and Haney 2001:35).” Two instructors provide another example of the use of film to replace lecture or to illustrate an event or concept: “Remains of the Day [the film] was shown to first-year undergraduates instead of a lecture to explain aspects of the Interwar period and idealism,” and that “Films like Blood Diamond or Munich can convey a sense of crisis, urgency, emotions, and tension that books cannot (Simpson and Kaussler 2009:425).”8 As one of the main scholars in this area notes, “it is the capacity of film to dramatize the undramatic that merits special attention (Gregg 1998:4).” For example, Gregg uses Pontecorvo's film Burn that shows the dramatic violent confrontation between European powers and people of the Southern Hemisphere to bring the idea of imperialism to life. However, he and other scholars do not sufficiently examine how exactly film achieves the claimed benefits, that is, what is specific and unique to the medium that makes it a useful pedagogical tool. This is taken up in the conclusion.
Another related and important advantage that the literature examines that is particularly relevant for this research is the role of emotional learning. In learning, the categories “cognitive” and “emotional” are not distinct, but are aspects of one another (Sealey 2008). Dramatic films, personal stories, and visuals engage emotions and therefore can be an important learning tool (Berry, Schmied and Chad Schrock 2008; Gregg 1998; Engert and Spencer 2009; Kuzma and Haney 2001). “Research in neuroscience points out that emotions drive attention, create meaning, and have their own memory pathways. Strong emotions securely imprint information in memory (Kuzma and Haney 2001:35).” For example, in studying the Holocaust, one could argue that the uncomfortableness, silence, sadness, and shock felt by students upon viewing Holocaust images (for example, Resnais' Night and Fog) are essential parts of the learning process and experience and should not be ignored (Eaglestone and Langford 2008).9 Nevertheless, within the literature on images and violence, there is debate on whether viewing tragic and emotional images brings viewers closer and deeper to the subject or whether it can drive them away and encourage indifference and anger (cf. Sontag 1977, 2003; Haney 2000; Linfield 2010). Regarding the former, personal, dramatic, and emotional films can potentially be significant in fulfilling a number of learning objectives in the teaching of human rights and ethical issues in international affairs (Swimelar 2009),10 but some types of emotional films, such as war films, could also be misleading, inaccurate, and thus detract from learning.
Engert and Spencer (2009) discuss how there are four main ways of utilizing film in the IR classroom: to teach (i) events; (ii) issues of importance; (iii) cultural identities and narratives; and (iv) theories. The first two ways are more traditional and common, for example, using Thirteen Days to introduce students to the Cuban Missile Crisis or Hearts and Minds to explore the Vietnam War. As the authors reveal, there are a number of potential problems with using films in this way since popular Hollywood movies are made to entertain and earn a profit, not necessarily to accurately portray a historical event or educate students about a concept or theory. They also come with their own biases and assumptions, as well as privileging hegemonic discourses and societies (Ryan and Kellner 1990). As Valeriano (2008) notes, most IR films have a strong emphasis on war and the realist perspective that can hide other important aspects of IR, such as international organization, international political economy, and ethical concerns.
Engert and Spencer's category of film toward cultural narratives and theories is in a similar vein as Cynthia Weber's work on the subject. Both draw our attention to poststructuralism which would critique the traditional use of film as an illustrative supplement to traditional text and argue instead that “movies are neither objective nor culturally neutral texts, but socially constructed transcripts of reality: inherently subjective, equally valid, and most of all, culturally bound stories” (Engert and Spencer 2009:91).11
Cynthia Weber's substantive work on film and international relations theory goes the farthest regarding using film in the classroom by moving beyond its illustrative power to focus on its constructive power and its subjectivity. Weber focuses on having students interrogate different IR myths, such as “international anarchy is the cause of war (Weber 2001:281).”
I use popular films as vehicles through which students can rethink IR theory and IR myths…Popular films provide students with answers to the question, ‘How does an IR myth appear to be true?’ In so doing, popular films point to how politics, power, and ideology are culturally constructed and how the culture of IR theory might be politically reconstructed (Weber 2009:xxiii).12
Her International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction is an excellent text to teach international relations through film as she pairs and evaluates multiple international relations approaches with a popular film and an IR myth, for example Lord of the Flies (realism), Independence Day (idealism),13 and Wag the Dog (constructivism).
Despite the lack of empirical evidence on teaching with film, one study does include some limited data on student assessment and tries to measure the effects of using film (Kuzma and Haney 2001). The instructors gave a pre- and post-survey to gauge student knowledge about foreign policy concepts and conclude that all students “passed” the post-survey and showed that their level of knowledge increased. But they do not provide data on this, and it is also not clear whether student knowledge would have increased even without the film.14 Kuzma and Haney note that written work understandably “provided better indicators of student learning,” than the surveys, but they do not provide details. They also admit that the short descriptions of course concepts in the post-survey “did not reflect the depth and complexity of their gained knowledge, their increased analytical and evaluation skills, or their ability to link the movies with the course readings.” But understandably, these are hard to measure. They also generally note that students liked the class, even those who were critical of many of the films.
Finally, the literature draws our attention to many potential drawbacks and challenges to using film that have been found by the authors reviewed here. Briefly, these can be summed up: (i) technical and logistical issues related to DVD use and access; (ii) the heavy use of in-class or out-of-class time to show full films may take away from other important course material and activities; in light of this, one teacher uses primarily clips to achieve similar purposes (Waalkes 2003); (iii) overexposure in the films to too much irrelevant content which may lead students to focus less on the academic concepts; (iv) driving students away due to anger, apathy, and emotional overload, as discussed above; (v) bias, such as a preference for certain topics (such as war) and certain theories (such as realism) to the exclusion of others (Gregg 1999; Valeriano 2008); (vi) movies can distort and simplify and also revise history (Engert and Spencer 2009). Thus, as Murray Edelman tells us, art makes order out of disorder, but this ordering can be oversimplifying and manipulative. The above two points however could be used to an instructor's advantage to lead a critical discussion about subjectivity, selectivity, and “truth.”15
The Classroom Research—Methods and Process
- Top of page
- Previous Research on Film in the International Studies Classroom
- The Classroom Research—Methods and Process
- Discussion and Conclusion
This research was conducted in two introductory international relations courses during the fall of 2009 and had Institutional Review Board approval. Almost all students consented to participate in the project; thus, there were a total of 30 student participants in section A and 25 in section B of the same course (55 total students).16 Five films that had been used in previous classes were chosen based on how well they fit with key themes of the course and key learning objectives related to engagement, illustration, and interpretation. I sought to choose diverse films, some that were metaphorical, not overtly illustrative of any IR event issue or theory and that were not contemporary or popular (for example, Lord of the Flies and Rashomon), and to pick others that were explicitly political and relevant and more mainstream and contemporary (for example, Wag the Dog and Sometimes in April). In support of Cynthia Weber's work, some of the films chosen also represent an attempt to get students to see films as inherently subjective texts and objects of analysis themselves, that is, texts that themselves contribute to our contemporary understanding of international politics. Each film was connected to an event, issue, and/or theory of the course: Lord of the Flies (realism and liberalism IR theory); Rashomon (postmodernism); Wag the Dog (media/war/foreign policy); Sometimes in April (Rwandan genocide and humanitarian intervention), and Standard Operating Procedure (human rights torture and humanitarian law). All films, except the first one, were screened outside of class in the evenings. After examining the distinctions between documentary film and narrative feature film and then providing brief summaries and points of relevance to IR of the five films, I examine the class structure and types of data used.
First, we must note the distinctions between documentary and dramatic narrative film. There are basic differences between the genres: the former presents information and/or educates about the social, political, historical world in the form of reconstructing or representing reality, while the other is concerned more with storytelling either of purely fictional nature or based on real events (Hill and Gibson 1998). However, the assumption is often made that documentary film is more effective for educational use because of its direct relationship to the “actual” as opposed to a constructed fictionalized narrative. But this does not always have to be the case. The line between documentary and dramatic narrative is not always easy to draw. As documentary theorist Bill Nichols notes:
“Narrative as a mechanism for storytelling seems quite different from documentary as a mechanism for addressing non-imaginary, real-life issues. But not all narratives are fictions. Exposition can incorporate large elements of narrative…Documentary film may also incorporate concepts of character development and subjectivity, continuity, montage editing, and the invocation of off-screen space. Like fiction, documentary can also suggest that its perceptions and values belong to its characters, or adhere to the historical world itself (Nichols 1991:6).
Nichols' point is especially apt considering the work of Errol Morris, whose film Standard Operating Procedure is the only official documentary used in this classroom project. Morris utilizes artsy re-enactments and special effects to paint Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in exaggerated nightmarish hues; the stories told by American soldiers of prisoner abuse serve a similar purpose as fictionalized stories. Morris's film shows us the way in which “images—whether still, remembered, moving, fictive, or borrowed—accrue meaning to become what appears to be a coherent story (Orgeron and Orgeron 2007:241).” Moreover, the film itself provides an excellent opportunity for a conversation about how we even know what is real or fiction.
At the same time, Sometimes in April, is a fictionalized story, but can perform similar functions of a documentary by illustrating the facts and events of the Rwandan genocide and the subsequent criminal tribunal (yet in more dramatic form). Nevertheless, the very genre of dramatic narrative film means that writers and directors do not have to stay close to the truth, and therefore, instructors are right to be cautious about using these kinds of films in the classroom, especially those that claim to be based upon real events, as there is a risk of blurring fact and fiction and potentially confusing students. This is especially true when students come to the class with low levels of historical and political knowledge. But this also presents an opportunity to discuss multiperspectivity and reasons why a political film may want to play loose with the facts.17
In this project, I made a conscious decision to use primarily dramatic narrative (fictional) film over documentaries for a number of reasons. Part of the goal of this research was to inquire precisely into whether film that (a) does not have a primarily educational goal or political message and that (b) most students would see as entertainment, can have pedagogical spillover effects. Students would not naturally see these films as political or as speaking to international relations concepts and theories, thus providing an opportunity to talk broadly about the power of a constructed reality.
Second, because of my interest in the relationship between the emotion and learning, I reasoned that narrative films that tend to be more personalized and dramatic would better address this question. While many political and human rights documentaries are emotional and can present compelling stories (for example, PBS's Ghosts of Rwanda), narrative film as a genre clearly has a greater potential to speak to the audience and connect them to particular characters and stories (for example, Sometimes in April). Related to this point is the fact that dramatic narrative film compared to more traditional documentaries has higher production values and can be creative with sound, light, and cinematography in a way that may dramatize the story better than a documentary.
Lastly, if part of the rationale for using film in the classroom is to test the relationship to student interest and engagement and likely increase them, then one may likely assume that dramatic narrative films would have an edge over documentaries. For this very reason, some instructors may not want to use feature film, seeing it as unserious, or even unreliable, a claim that this paper seeks to counter. Perhaps this is why dramatic narrative film is a good hard case, so to speak, to illustrate what film can do in the classroom.
The first film used in this classroom research was Lord of the Flies (1963, dir. Brook, UK), based on the classic book by William Golding about a group of British schoolboys who are stranded without adults on a deserted island after the plane that was carrying them away from war-torn Britain crashes. At first, the boys manage to cooperate well and rationally divide the tasks needed to stay alive and be rescued. But soon, without any higher power to enforce the rules (such as parents or the state), the boys form factions, put self-interest above the collective good, and use fear and violence to create alliances and competition over cooperation. The film is an excellent metaphor for the realist assumption about international anarchy (Weber 2009: chapter 2).
Rashomon (1952, dir. Kurosawa, Japan) is a Japanese classic that tells the story of the rape of a frail wife and murder of her samurai husband in thirteenth century Japan from at least five different perspectives, thus leaving the answer of “whodunit” open ended. On first glance, this would be an unappealing film for students given it is old, in black and white, and subtitled; moreover, it is not at all obvious how this film connects to international relations or even politics. But this is precisely why it is such an important film. Through a mysterious story, some of the central tenets of postmodernism are illustrated—the notions of subjective reality and multiperspectivity. This film is also useful because the discussion of fact vs. fiction tied in well to the idea that all films have a point of view regardless of genre.
Wag the Dog (1997, dir. Levinson, USA) is a satirical dark comedy about the collaborative efforts of a Hollywood producer and a Washington spin doctor to distract the public from a presidential sex scandal weeks before an election by fabricating a war with Albania. It is an intentional mix of unrealistic hyperbole and realistic critique of the relationship between what we see, what we believe, and how the media and government affect public opinion, especially during wartime. While Weber creatively uses this film to explore constructivism, in the classroom research project examined here, it was paired with readings on media and foreign policy and the book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning (2002) by Chris Hedges18 that looks at nationalism, militarism, the media, and the “drug” of war.
Sometimes in April (2005, dir. Peck, France/USA) is potent visual text that spurs students to ask questions about how states and international organizations grapple with the legal, political, and moral dilemmas of mass violence and genocide, and particularly in Rwanda. It is especially powerful because through the personal story of a targeted mixed Hutu/Tutsi family and a Hutu extremist brother on international trial, we see the Rwandan genocide personalized, thus making something so distant seem closer and more understandable. Moreover, Sometimes in April's portrayal of a typical middle-class Rwandan family likely not too different from many students' families, makes it relatable and helps avoid the standard stereotypes of a poverty-stricken, perpetually violent Africa.19 Finally, the film covers multiple aspects of the genocide—causes, process, outside intervention, war crimes trials, and reconciliation.
Standard Operating Procedure (2008, dir. Morris, USA) is Errol Morris's superb documentary that analyzes the Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos and the American soldiers who took them. Millions of people around the world have seen, for example, the image of the Iraqi prisoner draped in black, standing on a cardboard box, with electric wires strapped to his hands. The effects that the massive dispersal of these photos has had, particularly abroad, are important illustrations for students of the significance, power, and effects of images. The film offers a unique window into the Abu Ghraib prison, offering lessons about the individual psychology, the power of representation, and causes of human rights violations. One of the central notions in all of Morris' work is that photographs are inherently deceptive despite the conventional wisdom that pictures tell the objective truth or even “the whole story.” This is an illuminating point for most students, as most of them in this class claimed the belief in (the myth of) the photograph as something that reveals the “truth” and is “worth a thousand words.”
Three main types of data were used to answer this study's research questions. The first was student perception based on answers to a pre- and post-survey.20 The pre-survey focused on levels of knowledge of key IR concepts. The pre- and post-surveys asked similar questions about the role of film in society, but more importantly, the post-survey asked students which films were most liked and were seen as most useful for a variety of learning objectives.
Second was an assessment of written student work: online Blackboard film responses/reflections and take-home analytical essays. This is perhaps a better method to assess student learning since it directly examines whether and how students could articulate and show what knowledge, analytical skills, and meaning they gained from the films in interaction with the texts. For example, the online response questions for Sometimes in April were as follows:
- How did the personal, emotional, and tragic nature of the narrative/images of the film affect you in terms of your connection to/interest in the topic and in your understanding of the Rwandan genocide and genocide/human rights in general? Explain with specific reference to the film.
- What did you understand from the film about the reasons why states in the international community did not come to the aid of the Rwandan people during the genocide? To what extent does your answer to this question change after having read the nine-page reading by Mark Amstutz on the genocide?
The prompt for Lord of the Flies was
- Lord of the Flies can be seen as an illustration of the two main approaches to international relations: realism and liberalism. Discuss the character(s) and/or events/scenes that represent each theory, that is, how do they represent each approach, for example, in terms of worldview and personality, visuals, dialogue, and action.
- How has the film helped you understand IR theory—specifically realism and liberalism—and concepts in IR (such as collective goods problem, power, principles in IR, alliances). Give examples. (If it did NOT help you understand IR, please explain).
The motivation behind the first set of questions was first to address the common assumption that film increases student interest and engagement and in particular that emotional or dramatic stories can have a positive effect on interest and understanding as well. For both sets of questions, the aim was also to examine students' ability to grasp content and make meaning from visual sources. Could they make direct links between the film and the theories/concepts/and academic material?
Each student also completed a five-to-seven-page analytical essay for each topic/set of films (three essays in total). Two of the three essays did not ask students to write about or analyze the films, only that they should use any of the class materials and texts to answer the question, including the films. Thus, my assumption was that when unprompted, the more a student made use of the film as evidence and the way in which they used it would be indicative of important learning through film, in particular, addressing research questions two and three.21 By contrast, the essay on media and war (related to Wag the Dog) and that specifically was tied to a book asked students to analyze the film. This provided a comparison to the other two, where they were not asked or required to use the film.22 After the conclusion of the course, the essays were carefully re-read in order to code a student's use (or not) of the film. Use was coded based on minimal low-level use or “illustration” or more substantive higher-level use—”interpretation” or “illumination.” I also compared films that were most used in the essays with the extent to which those same films were reported as being liked or useful by students.
Lastly, another source was instructor perception of learning based on students' in-class comments and analyses and a teaching journal where observations from class discussions were recorded. Class time following the film consisted of small group discussions and then full-class discussions of questions, from the instructor and from students' own online responses.