Professors have long relied on movies like Dr. Strangelove (1964), Red Dawn (1984), and Thirteen Days (2000) to teach about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. While the active-learning literature validates the effectiveness of using movies like these, today’s college students may relate better to more contemporary movies. Do unconventional movies, from such franchises as Fast and Furious, Star Trek, DC Comics, and Marvel’s X-Men and Avengers, work just as well? My experience suggests that they do. When combined with activities derived from the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, I find that they are valuable tools for teaching important political science theories and concepts.
Although many students may have seen these movies by the time they enroll in my courses, I often leave this activity until the end of the term so that they have acquired sufficient knowledge of course material. The key to the assignment is that students are not told where the course content is portrayed in the movie. Students have to think more critically while viewing the film, and thereby apply what they have learned to a new setting. They use this worksheet to help make these connections.
The movie assignment consists of five steps. First, I discuss the movie worksheet to explain what is required, while reviewing some of the course content. Second, I require students to take notes on the worksheet while watching the movie either in class or on their own. Third, students form small groups in class to discuss the scenes and characters they identified on the worksheet. Fourth, I reconvene the entire class so that each student can convey to the others why a particular scene or character in the film depicts specific course content. Finally, on the final exam, I ask students to draw from the movie to answer a question related to the course material.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight works well in my Politics of the Middle East course because the plot mirrors the region’s anarchic international environment. The movie centers on the fictional city of Gotham, which finds itself in the hands of a madman, known as the Joker, who, along with various mob bosses, can represent political actors such as ISIS. The Dark Knight (Batman), working with Gotham’s Commissioner Gordon and District Attorney Dent, seeks to save the city. Sadly in the chaos, Dent ends up with half of his face burned, thereby transforming into a character known as Two-Face. While Batman successfully takes down the Joker, Two-Face goes after Commissioner Gordon, whom he holds accountable for the death of his love Rachel. After Batman rescues Gordon’s family from Two-Face, he convinces the Commissioner to allow Gotham citizens to believe that the Dark Knight murdered Dent so that his work as District Attorney does not come undone. This juxtaposition of Batman as the villain and Dent as the hero helps students to understand the complex politics of the Middle East. Students often compare the initial alliance between Batman and Dent to the once amicable relationship between the United States and Middle East countries. Students find similar connections to course material each time I run this activity.
I have found that one must be creative with the worksheet in order to challenge students to identify the scenes and characters that best exemplify course concepts. I have used these unconventional movies as pedagogical tools in my international relations, comparative politics, and foreign policy courses as well. While I normally follow the same five steps, I revise the worksheet as needed for the course and the movie I have chosen.
For additional information, please refer to Gigi Gokcek & Alison Howard, “Movies to the Rescue: Keeping the Cold War Relevant for Twenty-First Century Students,” Journal of Political Science Education 9, 4 (2013): 436-452, or contact Gigi at the email address listed above.