First-year students compare films about college to their own experiences

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November 18, 2013

College is no “Animal House,” and as students in the “College Life in Cinema” first-year seminar are realizing, movies do not always get everything right.

“Films are all lies in some respect,” Jonathan Slade tells his class, pointing out the unrealistic portrayal of dorm life in the horror flick, “The Roommate” (2011). The Danish filmmaker had never even set foot in an American dormitory, evident by furniture better suited for a fancy hotel.

Still, the representation of college in film, however inaccurate, affects how people perceive it, the Communication and Cinema professor said.

First-year students compare films about college to their own experiences
Professors Richard Brett and Jonathan Slade show off some of their favorite college life films.

First-year student Brandon Bond, from Hebron, Md., said this was true for him.

“Not going to college before, you think that’s how it’s going to be. Most times, it’s totally different,” he said.

Slade wants his students to consider how the media may have impacted their perceptions of college before they got to McDaniel. Not only do class discussions address issues of narrative, form, and historical context, but they also give students the opportunity to reflect on their own experiences.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to talk about what it means to come to college,” said Slade.

On Wednesdays and Fridays, Slade screens films like “The Social Network” (2010), “The Freshman” (1925), and of course, “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978). He pauses frequently to point out things like cinematography and lighting, which gives students a starting point for the integrative journals they write over the weekend.

Even though Nina Breece worked in a movie theatre over the summer, she had no experience with film analysis. However, the first-year student from Petaluma, Calif., says she now notices more than just the storyline and is seeing improvement in her journals.

Becoming stronger at writing is one of Slade’s goals for his students, who he says “have gotten increasingly more sophisticated in their analysis.” With an eight- to 10-page research paper due at the end of the semester, writing skills could not be more important.

First-year students compare films about college to their own experiences
Brandon Bond and Nina Breece.

Bond feels up to the task, however. Since Mondays in the class are spent going in depth into analysis of the previous week’s film, he feels ready to apply what he has learned to the film of his choice, “Back to School” (1986).

His experience at McDaniel does not match how the movie industry portrays college. In “The Freshman,” the college president gave a dry, boring Convocation speech, but Bond recalls President Roger Casey catching the attention of students by rapping in the middle of his speech.

Breece is also starting to think of film more critically and college more reflectively. She never realized how much thought directors and writers put into seemingly simple things, like the names of characters. This course has enabled her to come up with her own definition of college.

“Seeing so many movies that show the college experience so differently, it’s kind of what you make it,” she said.

These reflections are just what Slade intended when he came up with the idea for “College Life in Cinema.” He makes a concerted effort to connect the film of the week with that week’s flex session, an aspect of the First Year Program that further orients students to campus resources, like the Wellness Center and Hoover library.

“I hope it’s a way to facilitate conversations about the first-year experience,” he said.

Communication and Cinema professor Richard Brett, who helped develop the course and taught it last year, offers an even simpler goal.

“I want them leaving never looking at movies the same way again,” he said.

First-year students compare films about college to their own experiences