Film in educational research
Can film help us understand educational phenomena? My guest today, David Cole, has co-written a new book called A Pedagogy of Cinema. By analyzing images in various films, he attempts to produce philosophical insights into education systems dominated by a digitalized, corporatized, and surveillance-controlled world.
David Cole is an Associate Professor in Education at Western Sydney University, Australia and the leader of the Globalisation theme in the Centre for Educational Research.
Citation: Cole, David, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 34, podcast audio, June 27, 2016. https://freshedpodcast.com/davidcole
Will Brehm 1:13
David Cole, welcome to FreshEd.
David Cole 1:17
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Will Brehm 1:21
You have a new book on the pedagogy of cinema. What is a pedagogy of cinema?
David Cole 1:30
Well, pedagogy of cinema is using a Deleuzian concept of cinema in education. So, the next question, obviously, what is the Deleuzian concept of cinema? This appears in his two books on so called cinema, where he analyzes changes in cinema from, really from I suppose the 1940s, the 1950s to the present day, which for him was the 1980s. So, it’s trying to use his understanding of cinema for educational purposes.
Will Brehm 2:16
And what’s the value of using such an approach?
David Cole 2:19
Well, I think it’s an unexplored and new resource for educators, for teachers, for thinkers, and researchers in this field of education. The values are manyfold, I think. The first of them is to actually really not place a lens over cinema, an educated lens over cinema, which diminishes from what the film itself and more specifically the images in the film can do for thinking. Deleuze has this concept of cinema thinking. This is a philosophical concept that the actual film itself thinks. So, instead of saying, for example, I’m a critical pedagogic thinker and then placing that frame over films to use as examples of critical pedagogy. Someone like Henry Giroux writes about critical pedagogy of film and in that, he uses film, in a way, to illustrate how critical pedagogy works. So, instead of going in that way, which kind of overlays film with an educational approach, we’re trying to get really to cut down into the images themselves.
Will Brehm 3:55
Of film? So, that would be the cinema thinking?
David Cole 3:59
That is it. Yes. Cinema thinking. So, what Deleuze is doing in his construction over those two books, where he uses a host of philosophical arguments is he’s questioning the subjectivity, the human aspect of constructing these films. So, that he is trying to get the images to think themselves.
Will Brehm 4:21
So, what type of films can you use the approach of cinema thinking to think about education?
David Cole 4:31
Alright. Well, in the book -it’s always easiest to think about or to use films that you yourself have some investment in. You’ve watched them, you’ve thought about them, you’ve taken note of the connections within the images that you can make to other aspects of life itself. So, in the book, for example, in chapter two, I look at Suspiria, which is an Italian horror film. I look at the work of David Cronenberg. And I look at a recent horror film called Under the Skin. So, each film, each image itself within that film, according to the Deleuzian perspective, you could say it has a philosophical possibility there. Obviously, it’s up to the educator or the teacher, and how it’s applied to get to that level where these images can think themselves.
Will Brehm 5:38
So, is a pedagogy of cinema a way to read film as analogous, or as an analogy, to understand issues within education? Is that what you’re getting at?
David Cole 5:52
That can be part of it. It’s a very open approach in that respect. Whether how self-reflexive it wants to be, that’s according to what particular films you choose, how they relate to the cohort that you’re using them with, what questions come up due to the cinema thinking, the philosophy underpinning these films. In the book itself, I choose a lot of examples that tell us something about globalization. And I think this is kind of a positive use of Deleuzian’s idea of cinema in this context because it connects to an analysis of capitalism, which was one of Deleuzian’s big concerns anyway.
Will Brehm 6:51
So, let’s go into the globalization example. So, what sort of films did you analyze to try and understand globalization?
David Cole 7:03
Alright. So, I mainly looked at globalization in chapter six. I used the films there of Brazil, in the first place. Brazil, I think is a good one to look at. This is by the American director, Terry Gilliam in 1980s. And it’s a sort of reworking of 1984. So, that in itself brings in lots of images thinking, what these images mean, what they do in the world, and how they relate to globalization. So, it’s a dystopic vision of the world, science fiction, or extending facts of today into a fictionalized version of the world, and explores aspects of power, bureaucracy, psychological torture. So, some of the images that I use, one of them is where the hero is being tortured in one of these huge Ministries with a guy with a child’s mask on. So, you can see how that torture, psychologically trying to get you to conform to the system. All of that sort of thing. That’s in that image. Next image is a Ministry of Information. So, the contradictions. So, this was an Orwellian concept really, the kind of “double think” that we have going on. So, the Ministry of Information, and all the information obviously is protected and safeguarded, and is almost a military industrial complex around information. So, that image speaks to that. Then there’s the hero of this film itself -there’s sort of they’ve been like- in 1984, you’ve got Winston Smith as the anti-hero, the hero in 1984. And he’s kind of innocent. He’s just in all of these clearly difficult environments, where information, where the truth, where secret police are watching everything you do, where surveillance has been ramped up so we have to be very, very careful what we say, how we act otherwise we might get called out. In that environment, the innocent hero, during the film, his images show you how he’s changing, how he’s realizing all of these things, all of these power concerns around him. So, the cinema thinking, the questioning that happens unfolds through his character. Through the narrative and the connections that he makes. Obviously, he falls in love and so that, for him, is a way out of this repressive environment where he’s just made to do bureaucratic futile, repetitive tasks all the time and look for information. That gives him a point. It gives him a focus. It gives him an end to all of this repetition. And so, in the book, I talk about these images as being a reading of globalization and the specific images that Gilliam creates helping us to think beyond just a simple analysis, or an educated analysis of globalization to making all the different connections.
Will Brehm 10:53
So, what sort of connections are you making through the cinema thinking of Brazil and contemporary globalization?
David Cole 11:03
Well, I think the situation has changed since the 1980s, and Gilliam was making Brazil. I would say the bigger connections that we can make in terms of our cinema thinking is in terms of financial capitalism, the global financial crash in 2008. And the ways in which globalization and finance has really converged and makes thinking through these types of power complexes even more complex than it was before. This is what I would advocate in terms of using Deleuze Guattari. Deleuze Guattari, their work came out in the 1970s. So, their analysis of the contemporary situation is based in the 1970s. So, really to do the work today, to understand globalization today, you’ve got to try and update it with the latest effects of capitalism. I would say that the latest that I can understand it, is financial capitalism, and the ways in which crises are part of the way the system ebbs and flows. The next one I looked at in the book was Memento, which was an early 1990s film. And that looked at time in particular. And time is an important part of Deleuze’s thesis in his cinema books. His thesis is essentially that the early films were about movement images. So, directors and filmmakers, they were trying to show movement through their films. But what happened at the beginning of the 1960s, and with pivotal directors, such as Hitchcock, is that the time image came more and more important. So, it’s a playing with, and it’s a use of time through film. And so, Memento is a really good exemplar of that because it’s playing with somebody. The central character has a problem with time, and can’t remember things. He has a form of amnesia. So, he wakes up not being able to remember his immediate past. So, in terms of the image, cinema thinking, and the images of this film in the book, trying to sort of spread it out into this thought of globalization. We live in a time where we’re bombarded with image, where there’s so much information. Everything is readily available through the internet, through almost being forced to digest too much information. And that can lead to, as I argue in the chapter, a form of oversaturation of image, possibly leading to problems with memory. So, it’s not as if the film shows you a definite analogy that this is what it’s like nowadays, but it shows you this trajectory, this this possibility, in which the memory is less important, that constantly living in a very visual data-rich environment in which it becomes more easy to be manipulated. And this is what happens, and the film gives us that sense in a very visceral way that the main character is manipulated through his loss of memory by these other characters who exploit him for their own gains. So, it’s a vision of loss of self-control, which I think, again, is an interesting way to understand globalization.
Will Brehm 15:19
So, I’m sorry to interject, but how do these films say something about education? Or how do you apply the cinema thinking that you found in these films to education?
David Cole 15:36
Well, it shows you what you can do in education. You know, rather than sort of setting an educational lens like the example I used for critical pedagogy, which can be useful in some ways in understanding aspects of capitalism and exploitation. And so instead of prefiguring how you’re going to use these images, just having these images kind of rawly speak, and to be used in education, I would say takes them further. It makes them come alive, it gives them a philosophical credence, and an ability to think for themselves, to actually become something else in the classroom which is non predictable. That is the potential. So, for example, the last film that I talk about in chapter six is Melancholia, the von Trier film. And you could say that this is quite a confronting film. In terms of education, you wouldn’t maybe go to this type of film. Why? Because it’s quite jarring. It’s like the end of the world type scenario. And it deals with depression. It deals with lots of difficult aspects of contemporary life. But again, I think this is kind of the joy of the Deleuzian aspect of cinema that it’s not judging beforehand how education will use it. You take the images as raw data and you let them think, you let them take you on a journey as far as you can. And making as many connections with phenomena around you. Obviously, it’s going to be dependent on the thinking possibilities in the classroom and your students. You don’t want to think for your students. The opposite of a Deleuzian approach to cinema is saying to your students, “This is what this film means”. It’s setting up the context or the educational ability in the classroom to let the images think and take them as far. To experiment. To let the students draw on as much experience, and knowledge, and thought, and creativity as they can muster. So, the careful choice of film -this is why I’ve chosen these four films in this. The other film that I chose in this chapter was the recent one Snowpiercer, the science fiction film, which again sets up these possible analyses of what is going to happen when environmental catastrophes celebrate to a certain extent, and humanity is turned into this enclosed crippled rabble on a train which is fighting for existence, you know. What happens then? What would be a revolution in this context? So, you don’t want to predict, well, your class is going to say this, it’s going to interpret these images in this way. No. That’s the opposite of what you want to do. You want to actually leave it open, I would say, as a field of semiotics so it can be studied in that open signs type of way.
Will Brehm 19:02
So, cinema thinking, you’re saying, is a way in which to let the images in film speak for themselves and then you can try and interpret them? And then that sort of approach, you’re advocating, should also be in classrooms? Is that correct?
David Cole 19:22
That is correct, yes.
Will Brehm 19:25
Using a pedagogy of film for a movie like Memento, what does it reveal and tell us about globalization in education that other theories do not?
David Cole 19:39
The Deleuzian approach, in many ways is quite a -it’s not an exclusive type of approach. It doesn’t knock other approaches out. What it does is, it often sits in between other approaches. So, what it’s trying to do all the time is open up possibilities within one’s pedagogy, within one’s teaching. So, what it does for something like Memento that other approaches might not do is really take seriously, I think, the connection between this time dimension in films, and how we can think it in our lives. How we can really do something with it. This is why he relates it to Bergson’s Duration, which is a very creative idea of time. It’s an intense time. It’s a time where things come together, where thoughts happen. It’s almost a philosophic -Deleuze calls it univocal. It’s a time where expression builds, and extends, and increases, and works together. And so ultimately, I think that’s what Deleuze gives you. It gives this bigger, it’s almost a metaphysical approach to going from the image to thinking all these connections, all these possibilities.
Will Brehm 21:06
So, this Deleuzian approach that you say, continuously opens up new spaces for new thinking; how do you incorporate that into your own teaching?
David Cole 21:19
Oh, goodness. Well, I was an international English teacher for 11 years. Now, I’ve been a university lecturer for 12 years. So, I suppose I’m constantly questioning my pedagogy. I never really think I know a lot or enough. I don’t ever try and come across as authoritarian. I’m always looking to play with the power relationships in the classroom. You know, objects, images, things, students -thought can come from all sorts of unlikely, interesting, unusual places. Not just from the usual teacher-student transmission model, or kind of direct instruction. So, I suppose I’m always trying to play and use as much as I can in my context and around me to create these new possibilities for education.
Will Brehm 22:24
Yeah. It seems like your research focuses on Deleuze and therefore tries to open up spaces to think about these concepts in education, like globalization, or power in new and creative ways. And then you also apply the same approach to your own teaching. So, an issue that I see is how do you in your teaching, teach Deleuze? How do you end up teaching the concepts of a pedagogy of cinema in your classes? I mean because the concepts are quite challenging to grasp. So, I would imagine many students have a hard time trying to not only understand the ideas but then apply them in their own research.
David Cole 23:15
I think you’re right. I think it’s quite rare that I meet students able to take up that challenge. But interestingly, I’ve just come back from Iran, where I gave a keynote address to a philosophy of education society conference, their national conference in Iran. And I found students -it was interesting, because they asked me to do a workshop, and then a keynote address. And in the workshop, I was told they wanted me to talk about critical thinking. So, I gave quite a straight sort of analytical philosophy approach to critical thinking. Obviously, everything I said was mediated, it was translated. But the students could tell that my approach was different to the one that I was just telling them about, which is the sort of standard version of critical thinking. You know, to look at logic and sort of language-based approach. And so, they pushed and pushed, and they wanted me to talk about the Deleuzian approach. But there, because they had a handle on the philosophy of education, and they could quite easily go between critical thinking, and pragmatics, and analytical philosophy. So, because they had that at their fingertips, the Deleuze approach fitted into that. So, unless you’ve got students able and prepared to really think about the theory behind their pedagogy, it really isn’t worth introducing the Deleuzian approach other than just demonstrating it through your pedagogy. I’ve been doing this now for a number of years and it’s rare that I’ve ever met a postgraduate student who fully grasps it?
Will Brehm 25:03
Do you think you fully grasp it?
David Cole 25:05
Probably not. Probably not. I go to Deleuze studies conferences. There’s one in Korea, I think this week. And I’m not going to be there but I’ve been to quite a few and obviously, Deleuze gets applied to all sorts of things. But I think a lot of those things that he gets applied, to you can say, “Well, this is about thinking about what you’re doing”. So, for example, art practice. It gets applied to a lot of practitioners in the arts who are making for example, new conceptual art. So, what Deleuze does, it gives you a thinking frame where you can question capitalism, you can question the human behind that new bit of artwork, you can question the semiotics, the signs, whether that piece of artwork will give you. But what Deleuze gives you is a framing that brings all this together. So, it’s not just one simple, sort of homogeneous approach to it. It gives you quite a fractured, heterogeneous approach. And that’s interesting to articulate.
Will Brehm 26:18
How is your approach using Deleuze accepted? Or maybe what is the challenge of using such a more artistic, creative, philosophical approach? How is it accepted or not in the study of globalization and education?
David Cole 26:38
Well. The challenge is getting people to really buy into it if they haven’t read it, and they haven’t thought about it. Because in education, people tend to want quite a simple dot point explanation of what it can do for them. And the Deleuzian approach always sort of works against that. So, for example, I recently published a book which I call Super Dimensions in Globalization and Education. And so, contributors, they came with what I would say, generally speaking, a critical approach to globalization and education. Looking, for example, at inequities between the first world, the second, the third world, or that sort of thing. The problems in global education that has to do with the unequal distribution of wealth and all that sort of thing. So, what I tried to do by framing it in this Deleuzian ways, is not discount those approaches, but integrate them into, as you said, a more philosophical, creative, affective approach as well. Which doesn’t discount the critical approaches to global educational inequities but I would say, gives a different way of dealing with them.
Will Brehm 28:03
Do you think that you are simply using Deleuze’s thinking and philosophies and theories? Or are you advancing them in certain ways?
David Cole 28:18
Again, good question. Deleuze himself, in a newspaper interview, said that he’s providing a conceptual toolkit for people to use. And he just says, “Use it in any way you want”. And that’s kind of what he was looking for. There are obvious regressions when you start doing Deleuze, and just kind of endlessly explaining what you mean, for example. That doesn’t advance anything. I think the most creative, the most progressive, the most forward-thinking way is what it does, it always looks between, alright, what is understood, how can Deleuze work here, and coming up with something new. So, some sort of new conceptualization and having data, having evidence around that data. For example, I’ve been working with a Canadian professor for a number of years on this multiple literacies theory. So, I would understand it as a form of semiotics. But you could also just look at it as I would say, advanced progressive literacies study that doesn’t ever homogenize literacies into for example, English teaching as being about you know, very top-down, power-based learning.
Will Brehm 29:52
Does the cinema thinking apply to this multiple literacies?
David Cole 30:01
Yeah. It does. Well, as I said through semiotics, cinema has all sorts of possible applications and uses in education. Obviously, it’s about visual data. So, you could say it’s like a visual literacy. But also, within those images, there are all sorts of other things you can talk about, you can discuss, you can use with your students to help them improve their literacies. So, it’s dividing down, down, down. And more and more into what all the regime of signs, the Deleuzian material regimes of signs within these images are to get the educational content out. So, all about content. And that is the resource, that is where it is, that’s where the progressive nature of it is, is that. So, getting stuck in one position, that’s the danger. Getting stuck in sort of one way of thinking about these things. So, I haven’t written about multiple literacies for a while, even though I still lecture in ESL, and my approach to ESL is all about engaging with the first language as well as with English. So, creating this transference between the two languages. So, it’s not about in any way imposing English on a subject. And cinema is another strategy for that. I haven’t used it yet but it’s definitely there.
Will Brehm 31:37
Well, David Cole, thank you very much for joining FreshEd.
David Cole 31:41
Okay, thank you.