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Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

Virginia Kuhn, Author

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Central Course Concepts

A key concept we discuss in IML340 is compassion fatigue, about which students did this initial remix exercise during the second semester the course was run (2009). The video zooms in and out of continents across the globe (this was before Google Earth recording technology, so they did this by hand using key frames in Final Cut Pro), as they identify issues that seem particularly thorny on each. The digital argument was fueled by their research and the statistics they uncovered. Compassion fatigue, or psychic numbing, is an ongoing source of discussion throughout the class; we also discuss power differentials and the ethics of representation. 

The constructed nature of documentary films and, indeed, of films themselves which seem to capture reality in an ideologically neutral way, is another area we must cover. Trinh Minh-ha's work helps to disrupt the notion of monolithic truths, identity essentialism and representations of the other.  Likewise, this piece from The Colbert Reportwhich features Stephen Colbert interviewing prominent documentarian Ken Burns, is helpful in shedding light on the constructed nature of the documentary genre. 

Another aspect to consider is student resistance to the authoritative voices found in course materials, as well as in the larger culture.  A guiding premise is to question authority. As a teacher, I would rather confront student resistance head on, and either justify course structure, or encourage students to help change it. Not only does this help me to reaffirm aspects of my approach and improve others (there are so few signposts in the digital realm), it gives students the practice and confidence necessary to question larger societal structures that foster inequity. The question is not one of pandering to student whims; rather I hope to encourage them to be fully engaged with their work and build a scholarly community. 

And inevitably we confront the nature of the digital realm itself and the tendency to reduce complex issues to soundbites and memes that circulate and claim attention among the barrage of mediated information that assaults us. Digital argument offers the opportunity expose binaries and simplified truth claims, much the way that cultural studies does, while it also offers the opportunity to express analytic depth by marshaling word, image and sound, and then layering these modes in the service of an argument. Using this full range of resources can result in more complexity than a single mode can accomplish. Obviously not every digital argument will be successful, but working with and through them is vital to advancing the larger conversation about the production of knowledge in the digital realm. 
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