Inexcusably Self-Indulgent

A number of years ago the BBC put together a documentary on the creative approach Charlie Chaplin used in his early film career.  And by early, I mean really early.  In 1916-17 Chaplin had gotten a contract with Mutual Film Corporation to churn out short comedies. Moreover, he was given a free hand by Mutual to do things his own way.

The documentary (Unknown Chaplin) was comprised of hundreds of outtakes that were never meant to be preserved.  Someone failed to destroy them and they were rediscovered in the 70s.  Arranged chronologically they provided a fascinating look at how Chaplin worked.  Indeed, his early shorts and even his later full-length films emerged from a slow, exploratory process of innovation and trial and error.  He might begin without even a plot.  All he would have was an idea for a gag, or a prop, or maybe he would have the set builders run up something to play with: an escalator, a high dive. 

From there he added elements, characters and new gags. Sometimes he would film 100 takes exploring the possibilities of an idea only to throw it away and veer off in an entirely new direction. Because this was the early days of Hollywood (and because Chaplin was such a star), there were no Mutual accountants or producers pacing nervously just off camera with clipboards and spreadsheets.  Chaplin had a creative freedom that subsequent filmmakers could only imagine.

What struck me about the documentary is how similar Chaplin's approach was to the way I figure out a new class.  I tinker with bits, go off in wrong directions, circle round, try this, try that, abandon everything and start over.  I should admit upfront that I am no pedagogical Chaplin. Not even close. Still there is a creative discovery process that accompanies figuring out how to teach something that is not unlike what Chaplin was doing.  And here's my guilty secret: it's what I really like about teaching.  I just love the process of figuring it out in the classroom.  This means of course that the first few times I teach anything it's going to be hit or miss.

A few years back we had a wonderful speaker at our summer institute, a fellow by the name of Dee Fink.  He had worked out a very logical and scientific approach to course design. Most of us, Fink said, have very unsound methods for putting together significant learning experiences.  You have no idea how I inwardly quailed upon hearing this.  He was talking about me and my inexcusably self-indulgent method for creating my courses.  I am, frankly, the poster child for this sloppy approach to teaching and learning. 

For nearly two hours I tried to follow Fink's method and then I slumped off at the break and never went back. The idea of having it all planned out before the course begins, of having a unified design with each day and activity targeted for maximum impact, is really, really smart.  It's what I should be doing.  But I won't lie. I don't want a script and I don't want a shooting schedule. Where's the fun in that?

Hollywood, of course, had to change.  Directors had to be reined in.  By 1952 they wouldn't even let Chaplin back in the country let alone a Hollywood studio.  A few years after that Universal took a chance on Orson Welles, allowing him to direct Touch of Evil, a 'B picture' with a tight budget.  On the first day of shooting, Welles set up an almost four-minute continuous crane shot.  It took the entire night to get right and the bean counters at Universal were apoplectic. The producers made it clear to him that he and his so-called creative process were on a short leash.  They were watching.

Eventually everything succumbs to rationalization.  That's true in higher education today.  Increasingly our teaching approaches and our results are under scrutiny by accreditors and the federal government.  There are new assessment demands, faculty evaluation instruments and a concerted push for that most grown-up of all words: accountability.  This is as it should be, no doubt.  We've had it too good for too long.  Nobody gets Chaplin's Mutual contract these days.

Sometimes I find myself imagining that somewhere there is a grim, small-minded man locked in a stuffy office.  He's neatly dressed and at his desk poring over enormous ledgers filled with long columns of tiny numbers.  He's on a mission and he won't be satisfied until he's finally located, targeted and eradicated the last few parts of this job that actually make it fun. 

He's a determined fellow.  I'll give him that.


Anti-Dada said…
Ugh. Good for you for not sticking with Fink's method. Science and logic have no place in the creative process ... except as props to be used in the process. Creativity, by its very nature, can't be a slave to order and reason! It's the other way around! Frickin' bean counters. There's one way science can contribute, though. It's been well-documented that play, whether as a child or an adult, effectively engages attention for long periods of time; the longer the focus of attention, the more likely learning, especially complex learning, will occur.
Professor Quest said…
Well, to be fair, Fink's course design model is really good. I just can't get my act together enough to use it, and the diatribe above is mostly a cheap justification of my own shortcomings.

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