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Kay Sohini Kumar is a comics maker based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University. Follow her at @KaySohini on Twitter, or check out her website.
When I started teaching a class on “Global Film Traditions” this Spring, I mentioned to my students that they could do a multimodal project in lieu of a final paper. Halfway through the semester, New York declared a state of emergency, our university shifted to remote instruction, and the classroom as we knew it changed. We were asked to revise our syllabi to adjust to the needs of remote teaching. Some of my students were returning to their home countries, some had moved in with their families, some were still working under trying circumstances, and others were struggling with proper access to the internet. My learning outcomes for this class had changed overnight. I could no longer focus on wanting my students to learn to appraise films impeccably (before you think that is pedagogically irresponsible: we did continue discussing films on Blackboard, much as we would have in class). Instead, I wanted them to be able to work on something in which they would truly be interested, that they would actually enjoy working on under our strange and diminishing circumstances. In any other semester, I workshop the final paper assignment with my students over the course of 3-4 days in the weeks leading up to the submission. I explain the basics of citation and bibliography, secondary resources, thesis statements, etc. I run a peer review session and give individual feedback during class time. In an emergency remote setting, I could no longer do this. Synchronous Zoom classes are not very accessible, and I was just starting to learn how to teach via Zoom. So, I was especially reluctant to mandate a final paper to a lower division class without a hands-on workshop on writing academic papers.
Therefore, I let my students choose their final project. There were no restrictions in their choice of subject or medium. I only asked them, if their project was completely unrelated to the material covered in class (which about ninety percent were), to submit a statement of purpose along with their creative project to help me understand their motivation, their process, and the execution of it. They certainly delivered and how!
Screencap from Joshua Chwe’s documentary shot in Mexico. Link below.
Joshua Chwe submitted a documentary (he was able to do the filming just before the social distancing rules went into effect) he shot in a small town in Mexico, where his mother grew up. He writes,
“I’ve heard and seen a lot of bad things about Mexico in films, news, and other people’s opinions but I know now that although there is the bad there is a lot of good. I wanted to show that with my documentary.…When I returned from my trip I thought I had all the footage I needed, besides the interviews I wasn’t able to get due to the pandemic, but as I worked on the film I kept telling myself “I wish I recorded this or that.” After this project I’m actually thinking about making another documentary this time longer and more personal for me, my family, and future family to watch and enjoy.”
X (name withheld) made a heartrending comic on how “to stay grounded when everything seems to be going out of control.” In her work, she makes use of formal features such as variation in paneling, color palette, and perspective, to narrate the story of a man who just lost their job. She writes,
“First, the panel borders—they start thick and square at the start as the main character is stuck in the mindset of routine, but as the story goes on, they change shape a little, get thinner, and eventually disappear by the end. On the second page, the panels shrink to give a sense of claustrophobia and anxiety, as the man experiences failure after failure.”
As a comics maker myself, I was blown away by her use of formal features of the form to further the narrative of her story wordlessly. Like X, Runchen Lii and Yueqian Wang went for an art project. They started out to do an animated short film made up of retro pixel art that they could not finish due to extenuating circumstances. However, their work in progress—a short story called “The Fool” by Yueqian and sketches by Runchen—was quite impressive in itself.
Yueqian Wang, Runchen Li’s preliminary sketches of “The Fool”
Daniel Cruz did what he calls “a visual podcast” on Studio Ghibli, since he wanted to show clips from the films he talks about. He used OpenShot—an open source video editor—to record himself over the clips. I strongly recommend you hit play on the recording here, if only for Daniel’s outstanding voice modulation and a surprising little cat cameo (yes, really!)
Shaheer Khan, son of two immigrants from Nepal and Pakistan, stated that he “was the only brown speck in [his] neighborhood and in [his] school.” He writes,
“The only time I would see someone like my family and I would be when I would watch Bollywood movies, television re-runs of Sri Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana, Nepali folk music videos, or visiting the Mosque on Fridays. This was my escape from the white, homogenous reality I was living.”
But as a young adult, a political science major with increasing awareness about gender, colorism, class and other issues, he realized that, like most nineties Bollywood films, KKHH was undeniably problematic, especially when it comes to gender. So, for his final project, he decided to make a parody of his once favorite film to highlight how regressive/ridiculous some of the plot actually is.
Alina Kachar submitted a short video filmed on her smartphone. It started out ordinarily enough with an assortment of lighthearted clips from her dorm life. However, at around the forty-five second mark, the film quickly but seamlessly shifts focus to the effects of the pandemic on mental health, especially amongst college students. She writes that her “motivation for this film was [her] life itself, and it is based on the emotions [her] peers and she are going through right now”.
Screencap from Alina Kachar’s short film on how COVID-19 has affected our lives. She ends on a dystopic note, set in the future.
These are only a selection of the very many cool projects I had the privilege of grading this semester. Muhammad Sahibzada came up with a reflective podcast on life pre- as well as during COVID-19. Joseph Nestor Tan came up with this informative, yet engaging website on Bong Joon Ho’s Okja that touches upon issues of capitalism, animal agriculture, and GMOs, in addition to providing overviews of the characters and a compilation of noteworthy reviews of the film, awards received, etc. Yet another student created a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. If I had more space, I would have written about them all at length. It is utterly amazing what students are capable of surprising you with—if you just let them. I am not discounting the importance of analytical papers. My students certainly had the option of writing one but save for two reflection papers (which were also a delight to read), pretty much everybody went for a multimodal project. In my experience, letting students choose their projects made them far more invested in the work. Moreover, the clear consensus (from their Statements of Purpose) was that they learned something new and developed an appreciation for their choice of craft, even as they faced challenges in executing it. And, I did not have to grade run-of-the-mill final papers this semester, but that was only a fringe benefit.
As you can tell by my 1200+ words worth of persistent gushing about student projects, I am categorically thrilled with the final work they submitted. However, let me emphasize that I am equally (if not more) appreciative of the range and enthusiasm my EGL 121 students displayed this semester, and not just with the quality of their respective submissions. They did not simply rise to the occasion. It seemed to me like they were waiting for it.
Note: Explicit permission was sought from students before sharing their work.