Alexander Spencer outlines four ways in which faculty can use film in the classroom: (1) to portray historical events; (2) to debate controversial issues in global politics, like terrorism and genocide; (3) to examine cultural narratives; and (4) to explain and critique IR theories. Each use has value.Selecting the right film is obviously important. There are countless documentaries, but here I’m really interesting in thinking about fictional works. Blogging at Foreign Policy, both Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner each offer their top ten films on foreign policy. Interestingly, the two scholars share just two films on their top ten lists: Cassablanca, which provides outstanding insights into resistance and colonialism, and Dr. Strangelove, the classic parody of cold war nuclear strategy. Fred Kaplan at Slate Magazine provides a longer list that covers some surprising oversights from Walt and Drezner—films like The Godfather, Burn!, Goodbye Lenin!, and High Noon. And Although somewhat dated now, Robert Gregg’s text International Relations on Film (Lynne Rienner Press, 1998), provides and extensive bibliography of films with IR themes. Collectively, the three lists provide a veritable who’s who of films on IR.
However, knowing which film to show is different from knowing how to show a film. Simply walking into the classroom and starting the movie is rarely an effective way to ensure student engagement. Students may enjoy the movie, but are they learning what you want them to learn? Are they engaging? Are they merely watching, or are they thinking?
Before selecting the film, think about what you are hoping to achieve. Which concepts or ideas are you hoping to illustrate? What learning outcomes are you hoping to achieve? You should also start thinking now about how you will measure those outcomes. How will you know if your students have learned what you hoped they would learn? What activity will you use to measure their understanding and engagement? And how will you integrate the film into the rest of your course content? You should also think about whether or not you need to show the film in its entirety. Can you achieve your goal by selectively utilizing shorter clips from the film(s)?
Before you show the film to your students, you should prepare them. Simply turning the movie on will ensure your students merely watch the movie without engaging with it. Ask your students what they already know about the film, if anything. Explain why you are showing the film. Tell them about the ideas or concepts that will be illustrated in the film. For some films, you may also need to provide some historical background to the events portrayed in the film. The Battle of Algiers is much more engaging (not to mention understandable) if students have some context for French colonialism and the anticolonial movement in Algeria.
You may consider providing a handout to your students, giving them a specific task to complete while watching the film. Perhaps you ask them to follow a specific character, look for examples of a specific theme or theory, or identify a specific event. Providing a handout to your students also signals that this will not merely be a time away from teaching, but that they are expected to follow and engage with the film.
After the film, be sure to have some kind of debriefing. You may want to provide the students with an opportunity to come to terms with their own ideas and understandings before moving to a more general class discussion (think-pair-share is useful for this). Alternatively, if you lack the time to have a debriefing immediately after the film, you could ask them to provide a written reaction to the film by the start of the next class, and then hold a short discussion to start your next class period. If you ask students for a reflection paper, it is important that you provide a response prompt that focuses the paper on the course material you hope to explore. Failing to do so, you will likely receive many papers in which students discuss whether or not they liked the movie.
How do you use films in the IR classroom? What films have you found effective? Please share your experience.