• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Filmed Plays

As genres evolve.


March 17, 2015

A new genre usually takes a while to grow into itself. In its infancy, it resembles other things that came before. After a while, it’s easy to forget that what has come to seem normal was once radical and threatening.

The 19th century novel was like that. The “omniscient narrator” voice was still in development, which is why it wasn’t unusual for a while for authors to slip into “direct address” mode to the reader. (“Reader, I married him.”) That would seem jarring now, or would signal a different kind of project altogether. Early movies, too, started as filmed plays. If you’ve ever seen a filmed play, you’ll notice quickly that it’s vastly inferior both to live plays and to movies as we know them now.  The distinctive visual language of movies took time to develop.

My impression, which may be wrong, is that the speed of development is accelerating. Music videos developed a distinct visual language within the first two years or so. By about 1983, just about every music video had to include, by law, an image of a woman’s high heel crushing something. Videos faded to obscurity when MTV went all-in for reality shows, but have come back with YouTube. I recently introduced The Boy to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” which I remembered as an undisputed classic. He didn’t get the joke. These things move quickly.

(On the other hand, I showed him the 1962 French film “La Jetee” on Hulu a couple of weeks ago, and he really liked it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the half hour. Fun trivia fact: it’s the inspiration for the 90’s Bruce Willis movie and current tv series “12 Monkeys,” but it’s better.)

As I mentioned in passing yesterday, I think online classes are still in the “filmed play” stage of development. They’re only beginning to develop their own distinctive identity.  And online support services mostly aren’t even at that stage yet.

I’m wondering what the “movie” stage, as opposed to the “filmed play” stage, might look like.  In other words, instead of trying merely to recreate the in-class experience, what options might the online mode uniquely lend itself to using? A movie like “Boyhood” simply couldn’t work as a play; it takes advantage of quirks of its form that no other form would allow. What’s the online class equivalent of “Boyhood”? What could an online class achieve that would go beyond mimicking the classroom and become its own distinctive thing?

Rutgers University ran into some nasty issues recently by trying a little too hard to recreate proctored-exam conditions in students’ homes. Apparently, some students balked at paying extra for the privilege of inviting the panopticon into their kitchens. Can’t say I blame them.  

Rutgers made several mistakes, including a lack of transparency around options and springing a fee on students at the last minute. But at some level, the root of the issue was the attempt to recreate a testing center. If online classes were conceived as “different,” rather than “lesser,” some of those issues might not happen.

So I’m wondering, what would the “movie” stage of online classes look like? And have you seen it?


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