In Mary Desjardins' First-Year Seminar, "Film and Female Authorship: American Women Directors," the writing assignments are designed, using clear and elaborate prompts, to lead students through increasingly complex critical thinking skills. Each assignment asks students to compare and contrast texts—but in each assignment, the exercise requires students to operate upon texts in increasingly sophisticated ways.
In her first writing assignment, Professor Desjardins asks her students to write a four-page paper that compares and contrasts the way two films - Clueless and The Blot—"construct a relationship between the ideas of femininity and consumerism."
Her prompt for this paper goes on to give the students writing advice—for example, to restrict the discussion of the movies to one or two scenes, and to be sure to use clear and specific examples. She also provides a series of questions to help students to develop their arguments. It's interesting to note that each of these questions begins by asking, "What kinds...?" "What kinds of ideals about femininity do the female characters in each film represent?" "What kinds of attitudes do you think each film has towards certain ideals of femininity?" These questions belong to the Division and Classification mode of discourse—a level of critical thinking more sophisticated than narration and description, but not as sophisticated as argument or analysis.
In short, Professor Desjardins is requiring a compare and contrast essay that asks her students to collect and then to compare observations, but that doesn't yet require students to create sophisticated academic arguments.
In her second assignment, Professor Desjardins presents her students with a more difficult problem. She provides students with articles from magazines, newspapers, and various academic journals and then asks them to consider "how contemporary women film directors have been 'constructed' as authorial agents in various print-media outlets."
In this assignment, too, students are asked to compare and contrast, but this time the comparisons are multi-leveled and more complex. For example, Professor Desjardins asks students to draw comparisons between the perception of women directors, past and present. In particular, she asks them to pay attention to differences and similarities in how women directors are talked about in different magazines (Ms., for example, as opposed to Time). She also asks students to consider any differences that might exist between how a woman director attempts to construct her own identity or media persona, and how this persona is being constructed by the media.
In this exercise, Professor Desjardins is using compare and contrast not only to move students to make sharper observations about a text, but to move them to understand text in context. It is interesting to note that in this assignment, instead of offering specific writing advice, Professor Desjardins outlines a source requirement: students must talk about at least three media outlets and must refer to at least three journal articles. This requirement also seems aimed at moving the students to contextualize both what they've read and what they've decided to write about.
While the first assignment helps students to sharpen their observations, and the second leads them to understand how to contextualize what they are reading, the third assignment moves students to consider the course's big question: Do the "marks of female authorship" reside in an artist's work, or are they constructed by her audience?
The prompt for this writing assignment carefully brings students to this question by asking them first to choose two films by a contemporary woman director to compare and contrast. The assignment then instructs them to contextualize the work. So far, the students are on familiar ground. Next, however, Professor Desjardins moves the students to the heart of analysis by asking them to look for patterns or trends within a particular director's work, and then to consider if the director's work can be comfortably categorized within the limits of an existing genre. Once the students have done this analysis, they are ready to take on the "big question." They can also start to consider whether or not the works of the director they have chosen will argue for or against the notion of a particularly female form of authorship.
In her fourth and last assignment, Professor Desjardins does not provide her students with a prompt. Instead, students must discover their own topics. Professor Desjardins hopes that the critical reading and thinking skills that the students have developed throughout their first three projects will prepare them to find, narrow, sustain, and support a topic that is academically appropriate and interesting.
We include here three of the four writing assignments from Mary Desjardins' "Film and Female Authorship" course. (The fourth is an open topic.) Please note how well-crafted these prompts are, and how they work together as a sequence of assignments that demands increasingly difficult thinking and writing skills.
1) Your first writing assignment is to write a 4 pp. paper comparing and contrasting the way Clueless and The Blot construct a relationship between ideals of femininity and consumerism.
This paper assignment asks you to analyze these two films, but because the required length (4 pp.) is so short, I suggest you try to organize your argument about these films in terms of one or two scenes from each film and/or specific characters or specific kinds of motifs (recurring elements) in each film. Try to ask yourself some of the following questions while you develop your argument:
- What kinds of ideals about femininity do the female characters in each film represent? Are they associated with certain kinds of social roles? Are they associated with certain kinds of appearances?
- What kinds of elements in the films seem to represent values about material goods or consumerism? Do those elements become associated with the female roles and appearances, and if so, how?
- What kinds of attitude(s) do you tihnk each film has towards certain ideals of femininity? Towards consumerism? What kinds of evidence is important in arguing for the presence of these attitudes?
Make sure to make your argument(s) clear from the beginning or introduction of your paper, and prove your argument(s) with clear and specific examples.
2) Your second writing assignment is to write a 6-8 pp. paper using some assigned reading (in xeroxed reader) and the hand-out reading material (provided by me) about contemporary women film directors.
You will be doing a "discourse" analysis of primary and secondary research documents ... to create an argument about how contemporary women film directors have been "constructed" as authorial agents in various print-media outlets (mass-circulated magazines for the general reading public, specialty film publications, mass-circulated magazines for specific female demographic, mainstream newspapers, alternative newspapers).
Your analysis should include some comparison and contrast with how earlier women directors have been "constructed" as authorial agents, as described and discussed in the article by Norden on early women directors, the two articles by Rudman on Lois Weber, and the interview with Dorothy Arzner and the article about her by Judith Mayne.
Pay attention to similarities and differences in how these directors are talked about—for example, are articles in Ms. Magazine more likely to bring up certain issues about women directors than Time Magazine? Is the director's appearance more important to some magazines or newspapers than others? Does social context seem more important to some articles? Is there a difference in how these women directors describe themselves (in interviews, for example) from how they are described by journalists or critics? How are the director-subjects' own words used in the articles? If photos are used, how are the women directors pictured? What do you think the significance of the photo is to the "construction" of these women? How much personal life is discussed vs. the director's work?
You may discuss all the articles, or pick some of them (you should talk about at least 3 from the hand-outs and 3 from the readings).
Be sure to cite the articles you use with the proper citations (see Dartmouth guide to sources).
3) For your third writing assignment, you are to write a 4-6 pp. paper discussing the "authorship" of a contemporary woman director by analyzing at least two of her films—one film seen in class and one film seen outsside class.
Your analysis should include at least a brief (couple of paragraphs) contextualization of the director's work and/or the working situations for contemporary women directors as discussed in your readings. Some of the following questions should be addressed: Are there patterns or trends in the director's work? Does the director work in a genre or genres that are typically associated with a female audience? If not, what is the result or implication of a woman director working in this genre(s)? From the films you have seen, do the "mark" or signs of the female director's authorship reside in the works or possibly in the reception context?
Your paper will be turned in after you have given the oral report in class. The feedback you get from me and the other students in the class should help you focus on these points, which may then be incorporated into your paper.
Last modified: Friday, 19-Oct-2007 00:39:47 EDT
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