Monday, September 28, 2020

My Thoughts on Online Teaching

I've been at this online teaching stuff for five weeks now, and here's what I've concluded: it's pretty much like any other kind of teaching.

If you're a good teacher, you'll do fine online. If you're not a good teacher, well, you'll probably never do very well in any venue.

I am a firm believer that the best teachers are likely born that way. I don't know to what extent teacher training (especially at the college level) really does much of anything for making better teachers/professors.

Sure, I needed some training on our school's online delivery platform. After nine hours of training (mainly self-learning) I had it pretty much down... determining fairly quickly "yes, I'll use this" and "no, that's just a fancy bell and whistle so won't even be trying that."

What do you really need to teach, especially at the community college level? Well, expertise to be certain. And, not expertise in the online platform, but expertise in your subject matter. You need to know what they need to know, and you need to be able to assess that they've learned what you want them to learn.

Also, try to boil down what you really want them to know to three or four things. Know what you find to be essential, and make almost everything relate back to that. For instance, in my freshman composition course, I boil most of the course (and my commenting) down to what I call the S.E.E. Philosophy. Good writing is Specific, provides Examples and, when necessary, provides Explanations.

You then need to get over your own expertise and think, "Ok, now how do I deliver this to people who don't know it as well as me, might struggle with it and, in some cases, might not really be all that motivated to learn it?" You gotta transcend yourself and think in terms of audience.

You need to care. You need to want it for them. And, in some cases, you need to want it more for them than they want it for themselves. Teaching requires compassion coupled with standards. Too much compassion without standards, and you could find yourself passing someone who should have failed because they have a sad story. That does nobody any good. Your compassion needs to be aimed at their rising to the standards.

I had a student in my online lit course who missed the 5 p.m. deadline on Sunday to take his quizzes. He emailed me to explain that he'd had a hellish work week, and that he'd put off my course until Sunday. Once he'd watched the lecture videos and read the stories, the quizzes had already closed. "Could I," he wrote, "still take the quizzes. I'd understand if you had to take off some points."

I told him, "No, a deadline is a deadline, and you need to learn..."


Hell no I didn't write anything stupid like that. I wrote him and said the quizzes would be open until 5 p.m. on Monday (for him and for anyone else who had yet to take them).

He scored 8 out of 8 on both quizzes, which I did bring down to a 7 out of 8 on each quiz.

I remember reading an article once that too much of schooling gets its roots from Puritanism. So, punctuality, listening attentively, good attendance, meeting deadlines, etc are sometimes more rewarded than learning... which is stupid. Be flexible, but not to a fault. If he had emailed me this coming Thursday, I'd probably say, "Too late this time around." In his case, however, he sent a timely email that showed humility.

I've found in the online environment that my biggest benefit to them is that I respond to things immediately. If a student emails me, they will likely hear back in 10 minutes (I'm on my computer a lot). If they don't hear within an hour (except for overnight emails) that's a long time. Students have emailed me to say how pleased they are with my quick responses. I think that's online teaching. You just have to be on your computer more. That's more important than the bells and whistles or knowing how to share your screen on Zoom (btw, I don't use Zoom with my courses). Just respond immediately.... or try to.

Clarity is super important. You need to be clear in your expectations, your lectures, your examples. And, you have to know why you're doing what you're doing with them. No busy work! Nothing that doesn't augment their understanding of the material.

I find there's a purity to this online teaching racket. You simply teach. The physical classroom comes with some artifice, some performance... and in some cases, activities that "fill the time."

My online teaching has some performance, but it feels like it's more focused on the subject matter at hand.

Of course, motivation and self-discipline work against you. Students have to be motivated, and motivating them online is even more challenging. They also have to have the self discipline to "show up" regularly to the online environment.

I've sent out some emails lately (that assumes students are reading their emails) letting individuals know, "hey, according to the Progress Tracker, you've only logged on for 45 minutes this week" or "I noticed you're missing a quiz... what's up?" These reach-out emails seem to be going a long way toward keeping them on track. That's how you show them you care in the online environment.

So, yeah, this online teaching stuff? Well, it's just teaching. You're either good at teaching or you aren't (and it's sad how many people fall into the field that aren't). I'm not good at many things, but I know I can teach.

When this pandemic is over, I imagine I'll still keep some of my courses online. And, if my school comes at me saying, "Well, to do that, you'll need to take our 3-credit Internet Teaching Techniques course" (which is much more in-depth than the 9-hour crash course I took) I'll fight it tooth and nail. 

I mean, I was okay to teach online for a year, but now that the pandemic has subsided, I need more training? That would get from me, the proverbial "F that!"

I already know I'm good at online teaching. I'm just a good teacher. I would bet my online course is better than the online courses of people who have been teaching that way for years.

I think it's ok to know you're good at something, and I know I'm a good teacher... whatever the venue.

If you find my blog posts instructive or illuminating (or even entertainingly arrogant), please consider purchasing a copy of my new book of short stories, The Neighborhood Division.

From the Publisher (preferred): here

From Amazon: here

Book Trailer: here

Sunday, September 20, 2020

John Guzlowski's Suitcase Charlie: A Book Review

Earlier this spring or summer (or whenever... who the hell can keep track of the passage of time right now?) I read John Guzlowski's novel, Little Altar Boy (read the review: here)

As it turns out, it was the sequel to his first novel in the series, Suitcase Charlie.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Little Altar Boy, I got a hold of Suitcase Charlie and dove in. With online teaching going on right now for me, I find myself with less time for reading. Regardless, when I did get time, I found myself immersed in the gritty world of post-World War II Chicago.

My guides through that world? Hank and Marvin, the same two hard-boiled police detectives I followed through Little Altar Boy. My other guide was Guzlowski himself, who knows not only his police procedures, but his history.

It's got a bit of everything: historical fiction, mystery, crime procedural, and even literary thoughtfulness.

The novel begins when a suitcase, left on a street corner, is discovered. Inside is the cut up body of a young boy. It's almost too much for Hank, but as much as he wants to wake up and believe the whole thing was a dream, he instead hears the news that more such suitcases are being found around the city.

As with the crime in Little Altar Boy, the case takes Hank and Marvin all over mid-50s Chicago.

Some of the pleasure in reading Suitcase Charlie comes just as much from the characters as it does the plot. Both Hank and Marvin saw action during the war. They are scarred by it... Hank quietly and Marvin loudly, especially with his obvious penchant for booze.

Not only are the bodies of the children cut up, but forensics shows that their blood was drained from their bodies through small triangles cut into the bottoms of their feet. It starts to look as though someone wants the city to believe that these are ritualistic Jewish killings of Christian children.

Hank doesn't buy it (actually nobody in the city seems to except some sensationalized rag newspapers), but Hank still wants to know why. The war and the camps he helped liberate showed him plenty of hate for Jewish people, and yet he doesn't fully understand from where the hate comes.

The first night of their investigation has the detectives interviewing Samuel Fisch, a Jewish man who lives in the neighborhood where the first suitcase was found. They want only to know if maybe he had seen anything.

They return to Fisch's place later in the book with more questions as most of their "leads" thus far have turned up nothing. Hank questions Fisch, especially regarding why someone would try to implicate a Jewish killer.

Fisch: "What do I think is going on? I'm a Jew. Here in America, it's pretty good for Jews. The Christians don't let us into their country clubs in the suburbs like Oak Park and Evanston, but they don't burn us in ovens either. That's good. What kind of reason would someone have for killing little boys and draining their blood? Maybe they want it to be here a little more like it is over there, in Germany, in France, in Europe. Maybe they want to paint blood on the hands of the Jews and get people afraid of us, angry at us. You read your history, Detective Purcell, and what do you learn? First there's suspicion toward the Jews, fear, then hatred, and then there's pogroms and ghettos, and then Auschwitz and the ovens."

It's one of the most compelling chapters in the book, sandwiched in between other compelling chapters of plot. Hank's conversation with Fisch alone makes Suitcase Charlie worth your purchase. Given the divisive political climate we are in with an emboldened white nationalist contingent and a broiling discontent with minorities, Fisch's thoughts and comments begin to sound a little less like history and a little more like prophecy.

You can buy Suitcase Charlie: here

It'd be a good way for you to get on the ground floor of Guzlowski's series. Not only do Hank and Marvin reappear in Little Altar Boy, but I'm told that Guzlowski has a third book in the series coming out... and he's working on a fourth!

Jeff Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. His latest collection, The Neighborhood Division: Stories, is now out through Whistling Shade Press and available: here.

An Ode to Cinema Detroit

I live about two hours north of Detroit. I will admit that I have never been to the independent movie theater, Cinema Detroit (website), but it has a soft spot in my heart. I watch their posts on Twitter. I have donated some cash from time to time. I bought one of their Cinema Detroit t-shirts and wear it most days when I am shooting a new film project.

I just like the idea of Cinema Detroit... that it exists. It's like the Two-Hearted River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I haven't fly fished it yet, but the idea that the river is there is enough for me some days.

I plan one day to sit in the Cinema Detroit theater and watch a film.

I guess I just really like the idea of an independent cinema curating quality films for a public in need of quality films screened in a movie theater experience. There's nothing like seeing a film in a movie theater.

And right now, without taking risks, we really can't see films in a movie theater.

Cinema Detroit wisely remains closed to the public during a pandemic. What could the price be for their wisdom... well, the possibility of shuttering their doors for good. It's going to happen to a lot of businesses.

It shouldn't happen to Cinema Detroit.

Cinema Detroit also hosts an independent film festival of sorts called The Short Film Block Party. That was my hope... that one day they would accept one of my films, and that would be my reason for making the trek to Detroit. I've submitted several times, had some near misses, but an acceptance has yet to materialize. That's the nature of independent filmmaking. I'm not bitter in the least. In fact, I'm thankful just to have a venue to submit work to.

If you make independent film, you should support independent theater, especially in these times. That's why I'm taking the time to write this. I want you to seriously consider donating even five dollars to Cinema Detroit. Help see them through these challenging times the same way they may one day help audiences see your independent film. And, if you don't make independent film... well, support them anyway.

Since March, I've opened the door to our porch many times to find packages from Literati Bookstore (website) in Ann Arbor. Like Cinema Detroit, Literati is independent and brings a unique bookstore experience. They host readings there (I was scheduled to have one in June for my new book of short stories until Covid hit). My wife's purchases, along with the online purchases of many others, go a long way toward making certain Literati Bookstore is still there when this pandemic finally dissipates.

That's the thing. Literati still has a product that they can transition to online. They have a fiercely loyal customer base. I'm happy for that, and I'm happy that some of our budget goes towards books from their store... supporting both it and authors.

Cinema Detroit, however, sells experience. The experience of seeing a worthy film in a movie theater with popcorn and fellow citizens... (films that the mega-theaters might never show, driven as they are by profit rather than curating quality films). Cinema Detroit sells the experience of hosting independent films made by independent filmmakers craving to see their work on a movie theater screen.

Cinema Detroit is passionate about film. They have an excellent mission. But, right now, they can't sell the experience that they provide. They can't replicate it online. And so, in short, they need financial support in the way of donations. It's that simple.

And, they deserve it. In your mind, let Cinema Detroit represent the various independent theaters scattered across the country. Think of this as an adage: "Supporting one independent theater is a way of supporting all independent theaters... supporting the idea of independent theater altogether."

Help Cinema Detroit still be open after this pandemic. Let them remain as a lodestar for others to follow. Let others think, "Hey, there is a fiercely loyal customer base for independent theater. Just look at Cinema Detroit. Restricted from being able to show movies, they survived Covid-19. If they can do that, then surely I can start an independent theater in my hometown. It's possible."

So, I'm asking... even imploring. Make a donation to Cinema Detroit today. Maybe buy a t-shirt.

In this political cycle, you have all kinds of folks constantly asking for your money (I'm looking at you DNC)

But right now, I'm asking that you make a much needed donation to independent theater. I would love to get an email from Cinema Detroit saying, "Hey, thanks for the blog post. We raised $_________ and it helps so much!"

Donate: HERE  

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Screenwriting: The Promise in a Premise

To fully appreciate this post, you should probably read my post on the Narrative Structure of Movies (here).

I teach in a Film Production program at Delta College. I notice that my film students are often chomping at the bit to get behind the camera, so they can “really start making a movie.”

My reply and mantra? “It’s all movie-making!”: from premise to treatment (or movie map) to script to script breakdown to storyboarding to shot lists to shooting, etc.

And, importantly, each stage of the process will only go as smoothly as the dedication to the stage that came before it. For instance, no storyboard? Well, your shoot is likely going to take two to three times as long (and the resulting shots likely won’t be as good/cinematically sound).

And so, especially with a feature (but short films, too) The Premise is the starting point. The best premise has the promise of a movie baked into it. If you can’t get your premise to sound intriguing, you’re likely not working on an intriguing story… or you haven’t fully thought it through narratively.

Meaning, you aren't ready to move on to the treatment or movie map.

For instance, here’s a premise I wrote for the movie The Graduate:

A disenchanted college graduate returns to the stifling world of his parents’ home, only to be offered a sexual affair by Mrs. Robinson, the alcoholic wife of his dad's business partner. At first Benjamin flees from the offer, but soon finds himself feeling again like an infantilized trophy child in his parents' world. Adrift, with nothing much happening in his life, he calls Mrs. Robinson to meet at a hotel and start their affair, which will make things very complicated when he falls in love with the Robinson's daughter.

Though they struggle with it, I urge my students to keep their premises to three sentences (albeit, often longish sentences).

The book that I use says a premise should have Visual Opportunity, Interesting Characters, and Intense Emotion/Conflict.

The Graduate delivers in spades.

Here’s what I think the book that I use misses, however. First, I wonder if the book shouldn’t start with narrative structure before it moves to explaining premise (at the very least giving an understanding of Inciting Incident and Plot Point 1).

Why? Well, first--and the book doesn’t really explain this--a premise is not a summary of the entire movie. In fact, it only suggests the first 30 minutes of the movie (and even then, just the key points of the first 30 minutes)
And about 30 minutes in is where Plot Point 1 usually kicks in for the narrative.

The best premises already have the Inciting Incident and Plot Point 1 baked into them.

Let’s look at The Graduate again:

A disenchanted college graduate returns to the stifling world of his parents’ home, only to be offered a sexual affair (Inciting Incident) by Mrs. Robinson, the alcoholic wife of his dad's business partner. At first Benjamin flees from the offer, but soon finds himself feeling again like an infantilized trophy child in his parents' world. Adrift, with nothing much happening in his life, he calls Mrs. Robinson to meet at a hotel and start their affair (Plot Point 1) which will make things very complicated when he falls in love with the Robinson's daughter.

With an understanding of Narrative Structure, I believe it would be much easier for people to truly write solid and useful premises… and they will already have worked out two key elements of their narrative.

Oh, and having a solid premise can be very helpful when you finally need to write the dreaded log line for pitching your screenplay to people! (though the log line has the challenge of being one sentence!)

If you find my blog posts instructive or illuminating, please consider purchasing a copy of my new book of short stories, The Neighborhood Division.

From the Publisher (preferred): here

From Amazon: here

Book Trailer: here

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Narrative Structure of a Movie

For the last twelve years I have taught fiction writing at Delta College in Michigan. For six of those years I have also taught Introduction to Screenwriting as part of Delta’s Film Production program. Arguably, screenwriters and fiction writers are going about the same thing, even if in different forms: they are trying to tell a good story. I certainly can’t say that the ways I teach screenwriting and fiction writing are universal, but I have noticed that, while the two courses essentially focus on storytelling, my pedagogical approaches for each are very different.

When I teach fiction, I usually focus on the “craft” of fiction. I use words and phrases like “conflict,” “character development,” “backstory,” “interior landscape,” and “dialogue.” When it comes to plot, though, I find myself saying something cryptic like, “Plot comes out of character. Whatever your protagonist does must be true to his or her character.” It’s good advice, I suppose, but it doesn’t really help students understand what makes for a solid plot. When I talk about fiction writing, the vibe is mystical: “You don’t need to know where you’re going. Just sit down and write. Discover what you have to say sentence by sentence. Let the journey surprise you.” Sometimes I’ll even quote E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I love that simile, but the more realistic side of me notes that it’s also a perfect situation for crashing and going nowhere.

Screenwriting often seems so much more practical and story-oriented. Right out of the gate, I am talking with students about the importance of movie-mapping. Much more time is spent on the plotting of the story to make certain that “something happens” and that the movie is always escalating tension and conflict as it moves toward the climax. For such a modern form of storytelling – barely 125 years old – screenwriting seems to draw much more of its understanding of plot from Plato’s dissection of narrative structure.

Before my students begin to learn screenplay format, I first ask them to consider their film’s major dramatic question, or MDQ. In screenwriting, the major dramatic question is a yes-or-no question that is answered by the climax. For instance, in the 1977 classic Star Wars, A New Hope the MDQ would be, “Will Luke blow up the Death Star?” Before ever writing, my students are encouraged to know their MDQ and to know the answer. They have to know what they are writing towards in order to make every scene lead the audience there naturally and believably. To understand how movie structure works, we talk about a movie’s Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Mid-Point, Plot Point 2, and Climax. Screenwriters are encouraged to know their ending before anything else, which seems very different from all of that driving blind in the fog business.

Star Wars: A New Hope provides a good example of the rest of the plot points. The inciting incident of a movie is the event that is necessary to get the movie going. Usually the first ten minutes of a film focus on character and situation introduction, but right about ten minutes in, something happens that calls the protagonist to his or her quest. In Star Wars, the inciting incident occurs when the droids escape Princess Leia’s ship with the plans to the Death Star inside R2-D2. (Notice how the inciting incident already alludes to the MDQ.) If the droids don’t escape Leia’s ship, then we don’t have Star Wars…or at least not the Star Wars that we know.

Right around 25 to 30 pages into the script, the screenwriter must begin to think about Plot Point 1. This is a moment in the movie that makes action on the part of the protagonist necessary. In Star Wars, Luke isn’t really sure what he’s doing with the droids. He’s chasing R2-D2 rather than making his own choices. Even when Ben asks Luke to join him, Luke says that he can’t leave his uncle’s farm. It’s only when Luke races back to the farm to find his uncle and aunt dead at the hands of the Empire that he can commit to his quest. Nothing is holding Luke back, and his hatred toward the Empire has been fueled.

About halfway through the script, screenwriters need to give thought to the Mid-Point. The Mid-Point often shows us a strength in the character that we have not seen up until this moment. In the first half of Star Wars, Luke takes a backseat to the much more interesting Ben Kenobi and Han Solo. It’s only when Luke is free of them that he can truly shine. Rescuing Princess Leia, Luke faces a daunting chasm. Storm troopers are slowly opening the door behind him. Across the chasm, stormtroopers fire upon him and Leia. Oh, and as you’ll remember, the bridge across the chasm is no longer functional. Probably unknowingly using the Force, Luke flawlessly tosses a grappling hook up to an overhead pipe and swings himself and Leia to safety. He does this on his own. That’s the movie’s midpoint, which helps the audience believe what happens in the climax because it reveals that strength of character that the audience had yet to see.

Finally, to escalate conflict and to make success that much more difficult, a screenwriter has to think about Plot Point 2, which is a major setback to the protagonist. In Star Wars, the setback happens when Ben is killed by Darth Vader. It’s a major blow to Luke, and it makes their entire mission against the Death Star seem that much more hopeless. Watch nearly any movie, and right around three-quarters into it, something really bad will happen to the main character. That event serves to escalate tension and keep the audience uncertain.

The rest of the movie now plays out toward answering the MDQ. If the movie has been plotted well, the climax is not only satisfying but believable.

If you find my blog posts illuminating, please consider purchasing a copy of my new book of short stories, The Neighborhood Division.

From the Publisher (preferred): here

From Amazon: here

Book Trailer: here

My Thoughts on Online Teaching

I've been at this online teaching stuff for five weeks now, and here's what I've concluded: it's pretty much like any other ...