A Movie Script Ending: Bringing Film Into the Classroom

Henschel leads an editing workshop
Henschel leads an editing workshop. (John West/Trinity Communications)

Lauren Henschel is flipping the script on traditional evaluation methods. As co-leader of an interdisciplinary Trinity initiative that gives students in certain courses the option to create a video project for their final as opposed to a written paper, she’s introducing students to new skills as directors, interviewers and producers.

An Associate in Research in the Gender Sexuality and Feminist Studies department, Henschel is also a Duke alumna: she graduated in 2015 with a degree in Visual and Media Studies (VMS), and returned to Duke to earn her MFA in 2020.

While scrambling for a job in an upended world, she received an offer from Wesley Hogan, research professor in the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and the History department. Hogan gave her a clear directive: partner with professors to implement film production into their curriculums. This was at a time when different departments had funding in the summer to help students bridge gaps in employment when the pandemic occurred.

Jocelyn Olcott, professor of History, was one of the first faculty members to work with Henschel in this capacity in Fall of 2020.

“To be honest, I had nothing but reservations,” she said. “I was teaching a completely new class (History 232: Women in the Political Process) in person in Fall 2020, right in the hair-on-fire stage of the pandemic.” It was also the year of a historic presidential election and the centennial of the 19th Amendment, so Olcott, then chair of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (GSF), was feeling the pressure.

However, once Olcott connected with Henschel, her reservations were put to rest. The two worked together to integrate the filmmaking component into the class, offering students the choice of writing a paper or submitting a mini documentary as their final. Every student decided to create campaign documentaries about women running for elected office, using publicly available footage and Zoom-based interviews. Henschel taught them how to locate b-roll and create soundtracks, and how to edit and put together a cohesive narrative.

“Nobody in the class had ever made a film before, but — with a ton of mentorship from Lauren — they made the most beautiful short documentaries,” said Olcott. She believes the initiative is a scalable one and hopes that in the future there will be resources to make the experience available to students outside of GSF and History. “Teaching with Lauren has made me more cognizant of the different ways that students learn,” she said.

Henschel and co-instructor Rachel Gelfand (GSF) oversee student editing their final film projects.
Henschel and co-instructor Rachel Gelfand (GSF) oversee students editing their final film projects. (John West/Trinity Communications)

Henschel’s instruction is hands-on, and she acknowledges the challenge of working with students who have little to no filmmaking experience prior to joining the class. “There’s a little bit of danger in asking someone who doesn't understand the ethics behind filmmaking to go out there and do it,” she said. “So along with teaching them the technical components like how to interview, collect material from the archives and edit audio and video, we’re teaching them about film ethics and the choices filmmakers have to make.”

In addition to video skills and the ethics of filmmaking, students are learning how to reach out to the subjects they want to talk to, interview strangers, and how to collaborate with their peers. These are valuable skills they can use in all their future endeavors.

“They have to archive, they have to stay organized,” Henschel said. “Everyone initially dislikes group work, but I always tell students ‘‘The second you graduate, you're going to be doing group work forever, so we might as well learn it here. By the end of the course, they have learned how to have hard conversations with their peers and have a final product that they are collectively very proud of,’”

Justin Leroy, Professor of History, co-taught  History 189S: Slavery and Its Afterlives with Henschel. Her expertise helped put his innovative ideas for teaching the class into practice.

“I’ve been curious about integrating film into my classes in a more conscious way for a while, but I think it would have been overwhelming without a partner who could build the technical elements into the course,” he said.

Leroy had long been skeptical about research paper assignments, experimenting on and off with alternatives with some success. It wasn’t until he started working with Henschel that he honed in on what’s possible when educators think outside the box about what students can do with the skills they learn in class.

He hopes that other faculty and departments will see how beneficial this kind of learning is, not only to students, but to educators.

“Teaching this course has been among of the most fun, engaging teaching experiences I’ve had in 10+ years in the classroom,” said Leroy. "It shows the possibilities of putting instructors from different disciplines together.”

Student response to the classes is overwhelmingly positive.

Juliette Clark (T ‘24), a Political Science major, took her first class with Henschel, “Women in the Political Process,” her first year at Duke. After that, she took Henschel’s editing for film and video class, and is currently taking History 221: Food, Farming and Feminism with her. She’s stayed in touch with Henschel throughout her college career.

Clark said that she had no idea there would be a documentary component to the class when she signed up for it, and her initial reaction was apprehension.

Henschel had anticipated this, making it clear she was going to give students the tools they needed to make the documentaries and would grade on effort and improvement.

students working with Henschel in classroom
Students say the film component builds confidence, and helps them get out of their comfort zone. (John West/Trinity Communications)

For Clark, being given the space to try something new was a relief. “Around middle and high school, we are often told our skill set is locked,” she said. “It’s very rare to be encouraged to take a risk and fail as an adult; we are often told that we no longer have that luxury.”

Taking these courses proved to Clark that she could learn new skills, try new things, and succeed at them. This confidence has been invaluable: it led her to apply for jobs she didn’t think she could get and take new courses outside of her area of expertise. It also changed her academic trajectory, resulting in a VMS minor.

Jennifer Nash, Jean Fox O'Barr Professor and current chair of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, is adamant that Henschel is giving students a necessary skill while encouraging them to be creative and to take chances.

“What students get is not only the deep satisfaction of mastering something new, but also the capacity to speak in a different and very powerful language — the language of film.”

“This experience has helped me significantly alleviate my ‘imposter syndrome,’ at a university where I believed that everyone was more qualified to be here than me,” said Clark. “I can say confidently that it has changed my life for the better, and that I will never forget what it or Lauren has done for me.”