The online course Cinema and the City’s virtual tour of the history of cinema that uses Toronto as a model has earned York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) recognition far beyond the Ontario capital’s urban boundaries.
Film 1900: Cinema and the City, as it is known in course listings, was the runner-up for 2017’s top e-learning prize in the academic division of the International E-Learning Awards, given annually by the International E-Learning Association. Winners of the academic division awards were announced on Sept. 28 at an international conference in Budapest. The University of Calgary took top spot, with honourable mention going to Fachhochschule Campus Wien in Vienna, Austria. (Submissions for this year’s competition open March 15 and are due by June 10. Contact the Teaching Commons for details.)
“It was a big surprise and I was very pleased to be so recognized,” says Professor Gillian Helfield, the course director, who had received funding from the Academic Innovation Fund to turn the blended course into a fully online offering.
Cinema and the City is geared toward non-film majors, focused on giving them “an understanding of film’s foundations and development as an urban phenomenon and instilling a deeper connection between cinema and the city,” she explains.
“The course illustrates how cities are represented in cinema and how the city is part of cinema, focusing on the mutual influence of the two, beginning in the late 19th century; students see how the city and the cinema ‘grew up’ together.”
Helfield sees the city and the cinema as “benchmarks of modernity and mobility” that helped shape our social environment. The course syllabus takes the students on a tour of cinema and the city, using Toronto as a model. The lectures are filmed partly at city intersections or in neighbourhoods, which correspond to the subject matter of that week’s unit.
For example, lecture two, which is about the development of the Nickelodeon and early silent cinema, is introduced at the corner of Yonge and Adelaide Street, site of the city’s first Nickelodeon theatre; the beginning of lecture three, which addresses the city’s representation in 1930s film as a modern Utopia or Dystopia, is filmed with the Financial District’s skyscrapers in the background. Sports films in lecture eight are discussed using the old Maple Leaf Gardens as a backdrop, while Chinatown is home base for lecture nine’s exploration of urban ethnic identity in the cinema.
For their final assignment, the students are required to create their own “Cinema and the City Tour,” which they must illustrate with a brochure or map. They can combine cinema and the city in any number of ways, such as using urban film festivals, film studios or film locations.
“I want to get the thinking about city and the cinema, but also remind them that Toronto is one of the top film cities in the world,” Helfield says.
The course, which regularly draws between 400 to 500 students, is considered a foundation course within the faculty. In addition to the online lectures, the students are asked to take part in online discussion forums with their fellow tutorial group members and teaching assistants.
“As it is an online course, I try to emphasize the importance of participation and engagement,” Helfield says.
To create and design the course, she worked closely with the staff in AMPD Computing Services, including Technology Coordinator Lillian Heinson.
“We had so much fun creating it,” Helfield says. “There’s also a great crew of students helping us, who filmed me on location, designed the website and created a beautiful jazzy montage to introduce each lecture.
“We’re continually improving it, making it look more cinematic. There’s new software coming out all the time that AMPD Computing keeps abreast of. There’s a great synergy and it’s wonderful to collaborate with other people who love what they are doing and are so good at it!”
Consider the course a gift from current film aficionados to the next generation of film lovers.
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus