Students ask me, “Why should I take this class when I can buy a camera and read a book on my own?” I suppose this is a valid question, but the answer depends upon the desired outcome. Ostensibly, an adult chooses to attend university in order to earn degree status in a particular subject. Depending upon the subject, this degree may lead directly to a job or it may not. In the case of Art or the Humanities, it is rare to find a job directly related to the degree. Regardless, many students begin attending university thinking that it is some red tape they need to get out of the way before they get a job.

Deciding to attend college is not a consumer transaction in which a student pays for specific information in order to buy a ticket to a specific job. Our culture, the parents, and unfortunately in some cases the institution, sells students this idea. There is no doubt in my mind that a person with a college degree (in any subject) will obtain better jobs and make more money over the course of a lifetime than s/he would have without a degree. However, this pragmatic idea is but a minor point to consider. Choosing to attend university is a decision that aligns one within an academic tradition meant to empower individuals and society by educating the whole person.

The real reason for attending university is to learn how to think for yourself, to improve your ability to articulate those thoughts, and to discover your own agency in life, i.e., critical thinking. Maybe it sounds simple, but this is the number one hurdle with freshmen: socializing them into the expectations and rewards of attending university, and helping them understand that this new endeavor requires active participation. Out of all of the levels I have taught, I really appreciate freshmen because they aren’t jaded yet and they have fewer bad habits. Yes, they think they know everything already, but I like to believe that I might be the one to sow the seeds of a lifetime of critical thinking. As a professor you never know how or when you might make a difference. It could be today, next week, or years down the road. I know from my own experience that attending university changed my life in ways that I never could have suspected. I am driven to share this process with others.

If we agree that we are in the era of postmodern relativism, this does not mean that because everything is in question, therefore I can throw everything out that came before and think whatever I happen to feel that day. To shut down or give up in the face of information overload is not a rational option. The field is wide open and I am allowed to make new connections between disciplines, but at the same time I cannot blindly trust that all information is good information simply because it is available at my fingertips. Open to the positive aspects of the postmodern condition, I now have decisions to make. What I must do is work twice as hard to locate appropriate, specific, and reliable information to support and defend my position on every topic.

Frankly I don’t see how this is any different than when I had to drive to the library, walk through the snow, check out twenty books on a topic, then actually read them in order to write a research paper. The problem is that current students may not understand this level of commitment. They have been sold an idea by our culture that the information superhighway is the positive answer to everything. They have been told that it is so easy to obtain information that they need not trouble themselves to look further. If they do try to dig deeper, the sheer amount of information available on the internet must be the emotional equivalent of sitting in a room with random books piled to the ceiling and having no idea which book to choose first.

My answer to the original question, as to whether or not to teach yourself or choose to attend classes, is simple. If you attend my class my job is to provide structure and guidance. I make the choice of camera and which book to read because I have experience in the subject, and this saves the student trial and error with too much information to choose from. We will discuss the projects we make and the reading we do as a group, and in this way we learn from each other more quickly than can be accomplished alone. We will learn from observing each other’s mistakes. We will view popular films together and learn to deconstruct them, to critically analyze both film language and technical structure. Most important, we will discuss the content of the work produced in the class and challenge each other to make work that is rich in meaning.

Most students already know that they are suffering from information overload and too many of them have shut down. Few understand their own agency in discerning reliable information or how to utilize discovery to create a unique voice. The process of becoming is so much more than compliance with the rules or passively completing the assignment. My goal as a professor is to encourage desire within the student toward the impulse of lifelong inquiry, and to reveal how this practice may be integrated into an individual identity through the artistic process. Images have power, and I teach my students that they have a responsibility to themselves and to society to use the tools of film in an attempt to connect their ideas to the world at large. Whether I happen to be teaching film studies or a production course, I ask my students to push themselves beyond simplistic assumptions readily available in our culture. Ultimately, I want my students to feel comfortable taking active risks with their ideas. It is up to me to provide a nurturing environment in which students can learn to trust and use their individual agency to overcome the fear of being different.

Not only is difference acceptable, it is the preferred model for success. Many students copy what they have already seen in an attempt to emulate what has proven successful in the past. This might eventually land them some sort of entry-level job, but it is only those students who learn to express themselves passionately in a unique way that become leaders. Once students gain mastery over basic technical skills they have the rest of their lives to use those skills doing what someone else tells them to do. This is why it is crucial to use the brief years spent in school experimenting with a more thoughtful, independent model of filmmaking. This may be the only time in their lives that students have the space to develop their own ideas apart from the concerns of earning a living.

Anyone can be taught to operate a camera, push the buttons on a computer, or follow a formula for a narrative script. What students need is to be asked to examine how they have come to their own beliefs and biases. They need to be given the space to experiment, and sometimes fail, in order to discover their own passion and voice. Not every student is interested in, or capable of, following this model. Regardless, it is my job as a film professor to help create the most well-rounded individuals I can in order to provide students with a solid education from which to experience the rest of their lives—whether they eventually find a job in the film industry or not. The only way to do this is to provide opportunities for critical thinking and demand nothing less, as each student navigates his/her own way through the learning process.