Teaching in times of protest – Gina Marchetti
The year 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of China’s 1919 May Fourth Movement as well as the thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. University students in Beijing led both, and Hong Kong students actively participated in 1989 protests in support of greater personal liberty and democratic political participation in mainland China. The “Pillar of Shame” by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, commemorating those who died in Beijing on June 3-4, 1989, became a permanent part of the University of Hong Kong in 1997. Even though Hong Kong’s 2019 protests cut across various social strata for support, most leaders of the “leaderless” movement come from the ranks of secondary and tertiary students. The death of HKUST student Alex Chow, the sexual assault case of Chinese University student Sonia Ng, the teargassing of Vice-Chancellor and President Rocky Tuan of Chinese University, the siege of Polytechnic University, police actions on other college campuses, and the successful election of several university students and academics to the District Council on November 24 put Hong Kong higher education at the centre of current events.
Because I conduct research on representations of activism on screen, I am very aware of student movements, their portrayal in the media, and the hazards surrounding conversations about politics in the college classroom. However, although I came to Hong Kong shortly after the 2003 anti-Article 23 protests and I have followed several student-led movements in Hong Kong over the years including the 2012 Scholarism protests against the imposition of compulsory national education in Hong Kong schools, my first experience teaching at HKU during a time of mass protests came during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. At the height of the occupation of Central/Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mongkok, I was teaching CLIT2014 Feminist Cultural Studies. Since feminist activism, women in politics, and related topics were already key parts of the syllabus, I easily incorporated women in the Umbrella Movement, their depiction in the news, as well as 2014 debates involving civil disobedience, suffrage, and the role of feminism in the public sphere into my lectures. Films by female directors on women in Hong Kong politics, such as Ann Hui’s Ordinary Heroes (1999), were already part of the course, and these texts on the history of Hong Kong activism took on an added layer of significance during the demonstrations. Since many students were boycotting classes to participate in the Occupation, I made class attendance optional but participation via online learning mandatory. Students viewed lectures I videotaped either in person (if still on campus) or via the Internet. (Two or three students came to the lectures, and I chatted with them in informal tutorial sessions.) Students maintained contact with the tutor and their classmates via email. The occupied sites had “study rooms” and other areas set aside for students to keep up with their lessons, and most of my students were able to stay on schedule.
The situation in 2019 differed significantly. The HKU campus served as more than a staging ground for demonstrations in other parts of the city, and, because of confrontations between protesters and police taking place close to campus, maintaining regular classroom teaching became impossible. Eventually, the campus closed, many students left, and instruction moved online. Fortunately, I had completed most of the lectures scheduled for the semester as well as my online MOOC (Mass Open Online Course) Hong Kong Cinema through a Global Lens before the campus shut down. For the MOOC, which I co-teach with Aaron Magnan-Park and Staci Ford, we had already devoted a portion of our weekly round-up videos to the relationship between the protests and the cinema, including the depiction of the police on screen, romance among the protesters, as well as controversial comments by film stars such as Mulan lead Liu Yifei and Jackie Chan.
After all instruction went online in November, a single guest lecture for CCST9059 Poisons remained for me to deliver. Because of my involvement with the MOOC and related instructional technologies in the intervening years between 2014 and 2019, I approached the delivery of my lecture on poisons in the cinema differently. Rather than film in the classroom, I opted to shoot the video in our TELI studio. Punctuating short lecture segments with instructions to stop and view clips and/or participate in an online survey via Mentimeter, I asked students to navigate through the material much the same way MOOC learners do online. The Common Core pupils had opportunities to interact through word clouds, short discussion text boxes, and multiple-choice responses. While more students participated in the 2014 course designed primarily for majors than in the Common Core course in 2019 when instruction moved online, I feel that the availability of new instructional technology, as well as my experience using programmes such as Mentimeter, made the delivery of course content more efficient and effective in 2019.
Moreover, I modified the content of the lecture in much the same way I did in 2014. Routinely, I mention war films that depict the use of poison gas and other chemical weapons in my CCST9059 lecture. In response to the use of teargas, pepper spray, and other chemicals by the Hong Kong police, I expanded this part of the lecture to look more closely at film and media depictions of poisons used by the police to control unruly crowds. This gave me the opportunity to explore video work by Forensic Architecture, which charts the use of tear gas by using AI software to sift through images from around the world, as well as other recent depictions of tear gas in global media.
In my opinion, times of uncertainty and crisis give us opportunities as educators to bring events into the classroom and model academic discussion of controversial events without taking a partisan position. Rather than avoid topics or ask students to “take sides,” I prefer to look at aspects of the political crisis that relate directly to material in the course whether that involves women activists, Jackie Chan, or tear gas. Online or on campus, academic training can help students analyse, historicize, and, perhaps, better comprehend their natural, social, political, and cultural environment in our very uncertain times.