Teaching in the New Normal: Professor Sebastiaan Faber
These days, the classroom has taken on new meaning for both faculty and students at Oberlin. In this series we are sharing stories from faculty on how they are navigating this new normal. How have you adapted instruction to a remote learning environment? How have students shifted how they learn and participate? What’s changed, what’s stayed the same, or what has come as a pleasant surprise? Please share an example or anecdote that addresses one of these areas.
Professor of Hispanic Studies Sebastiaan Faber describes how a chance assignment that would explore The Exterminating Angel, a film about contagion and confinement by surrealist Luis Buñuel, has become a fitting discussion piece for students in his senior seminar (HISP 447). Faber explains that the film displays particularly eerie parallels to the current state of the world, much of which is in a state of forced confinement.
An upper-class dinner party takes a dark turn when the guests suddenly seem unable to leave the sitting room. There is no physical barrier blocking them; some other power is holding them back every time they approach the threshold. Over the following days of compulsive confinement, base instincts inevitably break through the razor-thin veneer of civilization as the guests try to make sense of a situation they don’t understand, surviving like castaways on a desert island. Some fall victim to superstitious delusions and feverish hallucinations. Others turn into murderers or rapists. While a black bear and a couple of sheep roam the empty mansion—preemptively abandoned by the serving staff, who felt something eerie was aloft—life outside goes on. The authorities cordon off the entrance gate and mark it with the yellow flag indicating contagion.
This is the disturbing premise of the film that my course syllabus happened to have scheduled for the weekend Oberlin students spent hurriedly packing their bags, a week before Ohio declared a state-wide lockdown in response to COVID-19. The Exterminating Angel was shot in 1962 by Luis Buñuel, the father of surrealist cinema. Buñuel—whose son was an Obie, Class of ’57—had a knack for disturbing practical jokes. He couldn’t have come up with a better way to mark the weird and unexpected transition from in-person classes to a second module in which we’re teaching and learning in a state of forced confinement.
Two and a half weeks into this new world, I am happy to report that neither I or my students have succumbed, as yet, to murder or delusion. Sure, teaching to a screen of fifteen video thumbnails does not compare to the energy of an in-person class. Using Zoom is awkward and uncomfortable. It unsettles habits and routines. But in a way, our subject matter has helped prepare us for this: The first six weeks of the semester, too, were often awkward and uncomfortable. It couldn’t have been otherwise.
The Exterminating Angel is part of a senior seminar fully dedicated to Buñuel’s work and its legacies. Although the class is taught in Spanish, the twenty Buñuel films we’re viewing were shot in Spanish, French, and English in Mexico, France, Spain, and the United States. Some of them are downright hilarious satires of bourgeois life. Others are melodramatic and mysterious. Yet they are all profoundly disturbing. If Buñuel had a single goal throughout his career, it was to use the power of cinema to confuse his viewers while undermining their beliefs about the world, humanity, religion, morality, sexuality, desire—and themselves. Having your beliefs undermined is not a pleasant experience. Discomfort and frustration reign. And to make things worse, Buñuel’s movies stubbornly resist interpretation. As he liked to say: “Nothing in this film means anything.” Not a promising point of departure for a class discussion of any kind.
Yet in hindsight, those first six weeks we got to spend in each other’s physical company were a useful boot camp for the online experience we’re limited to now. We were able to build a community—even if it was based on shared discomfort and frustration—that has survived into our current state of confined dispersion. What has also survived is the rigorous routine of (almost) daily viewing and writing we put in place before COVID-19 changed the world (two dozen films, twenty response papers, three papers with two drafts each).
Our virtual meetings, meanwhile, have also had some unexpectedly positive aspects. Students who watched the films together on campus now sometimes share them with their families, who become unwitting focus groups for their papers. Zoom’s panopticon effect—students don’t know when the teacher is looking at them—puts everyone on their best behavior and makes cold-calling more acceptable. Although breakout rooms frustratingly put students out of the teachers’ view, the fact that the groupings are random allows students to work with people they didn’t sit next to in class. And being able to use a shared Google doc for in-class group writing or brainstorming in real-time is useful for quickly generating—and visualizing—ideas.
Has Buñuel’s surreal take on the world as we knew it prepared us for the surreal world we’re finding ourselves in now? “I feel I’m appreciating this quarantine differently,” a student writes. “How linear or logical is time anyway? Why do we insist on analyzing this abnormal reality with normal eyes?” “I feel like this whole pandemic could be a Buñuel film,” another tells me. “He would very much enjoy its ironies. The wealthier ‘bourgeois’ groups in our country have continued to socialize and travel, for example, while the pandemic impacts low-income communities to a much greater extent. And Buñuel would find great pleasure in critiquing religion, as religious ‘devotion’ has become a catalyst for the rapid spread of the virus. The parallels between Buñuel's films and our current state are painfully absurd, and his films seem more appropriate now than ever.”
- Professor of Hispanic Studies
If students here are anything, it is intellectually engaged—intensely, and almost constantly. They’re easy to turn on to new things. This also means that they are easily distracted. This creates problems of its own, of course. But from a professor’s point of view, it’s a great problem to have.