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UCL film education journal - FINAL (JUST

Towards an Anti-Racist Syllabus: Inclusive Pedagogy in Animation Studies and Beyond

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Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire © 2023 Disney and its related entities. All Rights Reserved.

This article provides the outcome of a roundtable discussion that took place at the Canterbury Anifest event in February 2021, where Fantasy/Animation co-founders Christopher Holliday (King’s College London) and Alexander Sergeant (University of Portsmouth) hosted a conversation with colleagues Kodi Maier (University of Hull) and Mihaela Mihailova (San Francisco State University).

Fantasy/Animation is a free-to-access and peer-reviewed educational resource, website, blog, and podcast dedicated to the relationship between fantasy storytelling and the medium of animation.

During the discussion, each participant was invited to share their observations regarding diversity and inclusion in the space of the classroom, and how the centring of BIPOC and queer identities, narratives, and creative voices has traditionally unfolded within the disciplinary boundaries of animation studies.

 

The roundtable focused specifically on the publication of Fantasy/Animation’s Black History and LGBTQ+ History themed blogs (curated by Maier), alongside its Anti-Racist Animation Syllabus collected by Mihailova, which began a conversation and resource exchange aimed at defining best practices for creating an anti-racist classroom.

 

The conversation also confronted questions of syllabus design and “decolonising” canons of knowledge; the challenges of tokenism faced by educators when centring marginalised communities and voices; and animation studies’ opportunities for retention, mentorship, and outreach in enacting meaningful change. 

Suggestions for classroom activities and further resources can be found after the transcript, at the bottom of the page. 

The Participants

Dr. Christopher Holliday is Lecturer in Liberal Arts and Visual Cultures Education at King’s College London UK, specializing in Hollywood cinema, animation history and contemporary digital media. He has published several book chapters and articles on digital technology and computer animation, and is the author of The Computer-Animated Film: Industry, Style and Genre (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), and co-editor of the collections Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: New Perspectives on Production, Reception, Legacy (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Mx. Kodi Maier is a non-binary (they/them pronouns) doctoral researcher at the University of Hull, UK. While their thesis focuses on the material culture of the Disney Princess franchise and the role the franchise plays in shaping gender myths in the US, their research largely focuses on queer identity and ontologies within animation. Their most recent work can be found at The Conversation and the Fantasy/Animation websites, as well as in Coraline: A Closer Look at Studio LAIKA’s Stop-Motion Witchcraft (Bloomsbury, 2021) and The Deep: A Companion (Peter Lang, 2023).

Dr. Mihaela Mihailova is Assistant Professor in the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University, US. She is the editor of Coraline: A Closer Look at Studio LAIKA’s Stop-Motion Witchcraft (Bloomsbury, 2021). She has published in Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Feminist Media Studies, animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, Flow, and Kino Kultura. Dr. Mihailova is the co-editor of Animation Studies (https://journal.animationstudies.org/) and currently serves as Secretary of the Society for Animation Studies.

Dr. Alexander Sergeant is Senior Lecturer in Film & Media Studies at the University of Portsmouth, UK. He specializes in the history and theory of fantasy storytelling, with a particular expertise in the Hollywood fantasy genre. He is the co-editor of Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018), and the author of Encountering the Impossible: The Fantastic in Hollywood Fantasy Cinema (SUNY Press, 2021), which seeks to understand the appeal of fantasy storytelling by exploring its psychological and philosophical routes.

Introduction

As both a critical and pedagogical intervention, the roundtable examined the relationship between academic research and praxis in ways that build on contemporary discourses of curricular reform and processes of intellectual “decolonisation” that prioritise “reshaping the academic canon as well as pedagogical practices” as a route to “creating new institutional norms” (Begum and Saini, 2019: 198). Such practices traditionally seek to address “the entrenched exclusion of minority groups and perspectives within academia” that harm minority communities and prevent “universities, academics and students from realising the potential that only the acceptance and inclusion of diversity can facilitate” (Moosavi, 2020: 332). Framed by “decolonising” strategies that function as “open pathways to dialogue” to unsettle, decentre, redeem, reappraise, and seize upon Eurocentric epistemologies (Gopal, 2021: 892), the roundtable confronted questions of syllabus design and “decolonising” canons of knowledge; the challenges of tokenism faced by educators when centring marginalised communities and voices; and animation studies’ own opportunities as an interdisciplinary space for retention, mentorship, and outreach in enacting meaningful change.

 

Supported by a “critical consciousness” that decolonisation “cannot take place just in the classroom” (Gopal, 2021: 884), this conversation aimed to connect critical reflections on education and pedagogy to broader “state of the field” discussions to identify areas for improvement, but also to begin thinking through best practices that can be implemented across individual, institutional, and disciplinary actions.

The Discussion

CH: Thank you very much for being part of this Fantasy/Animation roundtable event. Beyond your shared expertise across a range of animated topics and subject areas, the reason we wanted to have this conversation was down to your collective involvement with the website and contributions to our commitment to diversity and inclusion. Mihaela, you curated for us the Anti-Racist Animation Syllabus in June 2020, which was published to begin a conversation and resource exchange aimed at defining best practices for an anti-racist classroom. There was a lot of social media activity around that (from the international animation scholarly community, academic publishers, Hollywood animators, and writers for the global animation news website Cartoon Brew), and it is something I have certainly been directing my own animation students towards as we think about how to enact change at both individual and institutional levels. Such transformations are not just set in motion through a greater sensitivity to microaggressions in classroom settings, but in recognising tensions around identity and experience that play out both through the politics of representation in the things we watch and are manifest in – and through – our own positionality as researchers and thinkers. The construction of the syllabus was quickly followed by Kodi’s guest curation of several blog posts from scholars, artists, and creative practitioners to celebrate both Black History (October 2020) and LGBTQ+ History (February 2021) months. What we wanted to do in this very brief session was talk about the origins and design of the syllabus on the one hand (which you can still find on the Fantasy/Animation website), and the opportunities and challenges of themed curation in light of “decolonisation” as an overdue educational imperative. Hopefully this will feed into a broader discussion about the possibilities of animation – perhaps as the medium responds and as we respond as scholars – around positionality in relation to animated media, which has begun to powerfully embrace and centre a number of creative voices. To kick things off, perhaps we could talk about the origin story of the syllabus, which really comes out of your combined efforts?

KM: It was the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. over the summer of 2020 that really inspired me to try to start this conversation, because in my own personal activism, I have always been committed to anti-racism, to undoing my own racism, and doing what I can to uplift people who are marginalised, even if it is not my own marginalisation, such as disabled people or people of different religions. Racism is a huge problem in the US, and so I felt that with the George Floyd protests I needed to do something more, I needed to step up in my own community and say, “What are we doing to address these issues within animation studies?” I wanted to see those conversations start. That’s what brought me to sending out the email initially to the Society for Animation Studies mailing list (in May 2020) to ask, how are we addressing this? Are we making sure that our pedagogy in the classroom is anti-racist? How are we uplifting Black, indigenous, and other people of colour? How are we uplifting those students? How are we supporting those postgraduate students and PhD students? Where are the gaps in our structures that may be keeping these people out, and maybe letting these people down? It’s a huge conversation to have, and it certainly can’t be done overnight, but those pushes are important to me.

CH: This was an initial call to arms then, and an initial sharing of resources? What was the objective? You had the big aims and the big questions – that this was really to open out a set of conversations amongst the community of animation scholars, essentially?

KM: Yes, because I feel like animation studies is really my academic home and I feel like if I want, for me personally, to be comfortable in this home, then I have to be active in helping to build it. So initially, yes, it was, “OK, what’s everyone doing in their classroom to be anti-racist?” and also “I need resources so I can step up and put more clearly, and publicly, my money where my mouth is.” Rather than just saying “I am anti-racist” and then reading a book and then not doing anything, I actually wanted to take some personal steps myself to make things better. I started getting all of these resources, and I was worried about some backlash just because I’ve had experiences early in my career that made me think, “Well, I don’t know how receptive the Society for Animation Studies, or the animation community, is to change.” But I was really happy to see how many people did step up and did share resources, and I think that’s what brought us to Mihaela’s syllabus because people were emailing back to my initial call to arms in the mailing list in dribs and drabs, and then Mihaela came out with an entire list that I was just like, “OK, wow, this is great.”

MM: For further context, the Society for Animation Studies listserv is normally a very active email community, and as a scholarly organization we use it to exchange resources, to ask questions, to network. I think Kodi’s call to arms was incredibly well-placed there, and I’m very glad and grateful to you, Kodi, for jump-starting that conversation. It was very timely, obviously, and it has led to some very interesting resource exchanges and further conversations. But what I was noticing is that people who were sharing resources were having a kind of haphazard conversation, it was very piecemeal. It felt like everyone was trying to help, but they were committing maybe one or two sources, or one or two ideas, and I felt that it needed to be more consolidated and slightly more formalized, and just appear in the shape of an actual list, which is at least a little bit curated. So that was my thinking when I sat down and did some extra research, and I tried to have it be something that people can build upon. That was always my thinking behind that initial list, because obviously I have my own specialisms and I have my own geographic regions that I am more comfortable with and more familiar with, as a result of where I’m from and where I studied. But there are many other areas of the world where we have colleagues who have better access to both people and resources, and I was hoping they could then contribute and expand on what I did and say “OK, here are more people you should know about, here are more publications, here are institutions.” That was essentially what happened before Chris said, “why don’t you make this into an actual blog post and contextualize it a bit more, expand it, and then let’s publish it outside of the listserv, so people who are not members of the Society of Animation Studies can also have access to it.” It’s a great idea, and in fact it has really paid off because I have been contacted by people outside of our immediate network just to say that “we are using this in our department now,” or “we want to use it, let’s keep in touch and talk more,” and that’s been very gratifying.

CH: We’ve talked informally about the way that we, as academics, design syllabi and are able to reflect on our own scholarly positions, and so I was thinking about what both Kodi’s curated months and the syllabi seek to do, and what this means for the spaces in which we write, research, and aim to affect change. But it is also interesting with the syllabus that you have this whole process of collecting it – you have all the pieces, the new things that come through the mailing lists, and so forth. But obviously, this whole discussion is really around marginality, decentring and decolonising, of trying to adopt these sorts of alienated subject positions. As you say, we have our own research specialisms and what we’re trying to do is rebel a little bit against those, thinking about our positionality across these different disciplines, subjects, and fields, which then links back to a broader discussion of the politics of inclusion and exclusion. But then actually as part of the curating process, you presumably then have to decentre yourself to start looking outside, as you say, outside your specialisms and outside the things that you’re familiar with, and presumably that then comes with its own challenges because by its very nature a lot of this stuff is hidden, or it’s difficult to find, and so you obviously drew from the stuff that was in response to Kodi’s original post? But then, what was next? Were you literally reaching out, looking at your own syllabi? I’m really interested in how, on a practical level, you went about collating that material.

MM: I don’t think that there is a magical formula for putting that together. But what I did is a combination of things. Firstly, I looked at my own animation book library, and I went through every book that I didn’t remember the table of contents for, to see if in any of the anthologies that we regularly assign there are any sources, or any chapters, that might be relevant to this discussion, and in the process I noticed how few there actually are. The other thing I did is look at websites and resources that I’m familiar with, that a lot of academics use, such as the National Film Board [of Canada], because some of them are already ahead of us in terms of curating this kind of content very well, and in ways that are easy to find and engage with. The National Film Board especially is doing amazing work with indigenous animation, and that’s something that you can very easily incorporate into a week on the National Film Board when you’re teaching, because they have indigenous animation or indigenous cinema as separate categories on their website, and they have the movies there. I also just did research. I looked up every single term that I could think of across my normal range of sources that I go to. I looked at the Society for Animation Studies blog and the journal, to see what we have done as a community, because there’s some very interesting themed months and also special issues. I wanted to do due diligence and really incorporate the work of our own community but go beyond the straightforward. I also went to the streaming services as some of them have, let’s say for Black History Month, curated content right on their front page which is very useful. But even if they don’t, you can look over their content and figure out what is going to be easier to stream, and then you have to figure out which parts of the world have access to that. For instance, Netflix is currently a lot more accessible than HBO Max or Disney+, so that also involves keeping track of so geographic challenges and people having different streaming subscription ‘landscapes’ in their own countries. So it was a combination of things, and, to tell you the truth, looking at former syllabi that I have put together and other people have put together was actually not helpful, and that’s part of the reason why I wrote this. A lot of our syllabi are so steeped in an idea of an animation canon that I think we have inherited, and are just unproblematically and unquestioningly passing on. The syllabi that I’ve had access to, or been exposed to, or syllabi that I have put together in the past, have not been up to snuff in that sense. They have had token weeks, which is what I mentioned in my post, and that’s not how I want to do things going forward.

AS: Your response, Mihaela, made me think of this issue of accessibility, and I think this is the next challenge that we’re probably facing as a website. To sort of reveal to listeners the labour division between Chris and I behind the scenes, Chris is very much in charge of getting the posts existing out there, and then my fingers are slightly more on the pulse of what then happens to the posts, and who sees it, and the analytics and all the meaningful data one can assemble in the digital world about that kind of thing. And when the post happened, I was on one hand surprised and delighted, and on the other hand, slightly disappointed. What I was delighted by was the level of enthusiasm when it was received, and the sheer number of people that accessed it is obviously pleasing. The whole point is to have it read, and we had quite a few comments through various of our social media channels saying it was good and from those liking it. But utopically and naively, I was hoping at the back of my mind that we would have some sort of back and forth, and the list would grow and we would be in a world where we’re all adding to this equation, and therefore increasing the diversity of voices involved in the project. Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room, we are all four white people here discussing anti-racism, and whilst one must do one’s effort, I think accessibility and access to voices is key. I think our next challenge is how we can make our voices exist in spaces that can allow for that kind of accessibility, because we as Fantasy/Animation are still struggling with how we communicate to our readership and listenership, and therefore what kind of listenership and readership we are encouraging and creating and curating. Our readers and contributors to the website are predominantly white. Our responses tend to be predominantly from white individuals. Our fanbase seems to be largely white, at least the ones that are visible. So I think we might be inhabiting – and inheriting – both intellectual and digital spaces that encourage a certain demographic of people to participate, and discourage others. I do not think we, as an organisation, have quite cracked how to fix that yet. There are certainly challenges of making educational projects and resources like this accessible in all domains to all kinds of people, and particularly the kinds of people who are marginalised and victims of prejudice.

KM: From my own experience, after I sent out that email and Chris said “OK, so clearly there is momentum here, how do we carry that forward?” (which involved publishing Mihaela’s syllabus), that is where the idea for a curated series of blog posts on anti-racism and specifically written by BIPOC to tie in with Black History Month came from. One of the things that I had in mind when I was working on the call for papers was the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory. It really was a lot of Black scholars just highlighting the systemic and institutional racism in academia, and the difficulties that they face – Black PhDs struggling with white professors and white supervisors who think that their project is too aggressive because it deals with the experience of Black people, or isn’t worthy of consideration because maybe it doesn’t focus on the white canon. So what I was hoping for with the curation was to find and uplift any Black or indigenous scholars that might be either in animation, or in animation studies. Every time I think about those curations, I always think of the line from Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989): “If you build it, they will come.” I was trying to do my own part to build it. But I think when the resources aren’t there because of a larger systemic issue, then you’re not going to be able to build much. If we don’t have BIPOC animation undergraduate students, if we don’t have animation studies by POC postgraduates, if we don’t have BIPOC professors, then the field is going to stay quite white, and so I was hoping that through the curation I would be able to find people and pull them in to the Fantasy/Animation community and thereby make those spaces, build those spaces. But it was very difficult to find people who would contribute, and that might be because I’m white or they saw the CFP and thought, “OK, well, this white person isn’t going to understand,” or “this is someone who we are not going to be able to communicate with.” I understand this sort of scepticism and worry it might be present in animation studies. I was hoping that I could pull more people in, and support them, and then that would bring in more regular BIPOC contributors to Fantasy/Animation. But after running that curation I do think the issue is far more systemic and much more widespread, and I think it’s our responsibility to seek out marginalised students and bring them in rather than waiting for them to come to us.

CH: I was going to ask you similarly about online spaces and streaming platforms. I work with a colleague who is interested in the algorithms and architecture that underlie the way in which marginalised, or specialist, areas are organised digitally. Her interest is specifically queer cinema, and the way that such media that might fall under that heading are quite literally badged or collected on certain kinds of platforms, and looking at the way that Netflix, or Amazon have framed and shaped content in particular ways. Alex and I have talked about this with regards to the Fantasy/Animation book, and what shelf the book sits on in the British Film Institute (BFI) library in London. It is in the animation section of the library rather than the fantasy area of the library. So there’s a relationship here between algorithm and tokenism, because the whole aim is about these issues and the kinds of voices that we need to centre. These things are knotted rather than root and branch, and this is a trap that we have fallen into in terms of the curated months. Such months are both the solution and part of the problem. It’s the solution of “this is more content and material that is being produced, which could then move onto a syllabus,” which is great, but then also you do lapse into these ‘specialist’ months, which go against or run counter to some of the ways in which we need to treat these kinds of problems that you raise. This brings me to a point about unlearning, because in the syllabus Mihaela you talked about the “resources below put together in an effort to begin unlearning,” and so I was interested in that element, and whether that process of unlearning also relates to some of the aims of the curated months? You sit students down in front of something like a syllabus, and explain that these sources here are going to get you unlearning, now off you go. So I am just interested, in what sense unlearning?

MM:  First of all, I want to emphasise that I do not recommend borrowing directly the categories that Netflix and other streaming giants come up with for their content because they are not useful. They were useful to me in the sense that I could find what’s out there, and then hopefully read more about it and figure out how to fit it into my own thinking and categories. But they do tend to be very reductive. But in terms of unlearning, I have struggled with the idea of canons all throughout my graduate education, because it was very canon-based. Without going into too much detail about it, I have concluded for myself as an educator that the idea of having an ossified list, or lists, of ‘great works’ that we can never challenge or push against or build upon is not productive, and it’s in fact usually very much rooted in all the politics that we’re trying to push against here and go beyond. The fact that, in general, canons tend to be incredibly white and male and Western has been true of animation, too, unfortunately. It is reflected in the way a lot of us teach animation. It is reflected in the way a lot of us assign readings, so that’s what I meant by unlearn. Firstly, to try to figure out and essentially question my own ingrained assumptions as to what constitutes an essential animation text. Whose work am I assigning in terms of both creative work and scholarly work to represent the richness – or essentially the value – of animation studies, and is it only white people? Is it only white Western people? So unlearning is a lot about your biases, both the ones that you’re aware of and the ones that are so deep, deeply ingrained, that unless someone starts a conversation like this, you are not actually going to think about when you put together a syllabus. But unlearning is secondly a larger disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) project that I hope we can engage with because, as Kodi was saying, a lot of these issues are systemic, and I think we have built a very good scholarly community. Obviously the field itself is thriving, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t take stock of what we have done right and what we have more work to do on, and try to do better in terms of how we teach, and whose work we’re teaching, and whose voices are being heard, and who we are actually inviting to the conversation, and that can be anything from whose film are you going to assign, to who is the guest lecturer. Who are you mentoring? I’ve seen this a lot in graduate programs – people just mentoring essentially a younger version of themselves, and that obviously leads to further marginalisation.

CH: Presumably, Kodi, this unlearning process is also central to what you’ve been doing too? As you said, you’ve been pulling these people, pulling voices into animation studies, which raises questions about animation studies as a hermetically sealed thing as opposed to animation as something that’s available to lots of different areas and voices. So I wondered from your experience in curating, how unlearning presumably relates to interdisciplinarity because you’re pulling people in, or at least speaking to people who are within certain disciplinary boundaries and trying to think about what animation means to people working in a cultural studies department, rather than necessarily a film in media or film and television department. This goes back to conversations we are currently having at my own institution about syllabus design, and the way in which we deliver material and the quotes that we have on slides, the voices that we see, and also how long we spend on them. Essentially the time that you allocate. But from your practical perspective, you spoke a little bit about the challenges of pulling people into animation as part of your project. Was that different second time round? You obviously followed your anti-racist curated posts for Black History Month with new posts sourced for a special LGBTQ+ History Month, so I wondered if you have encountered similar issues when inviting all these voices into an interdisciplinary project to broaden animation’s critical study?

KM: It was still a little difficult to pull in and solicit curations for the LGBTQ+ History Month. But because I have been very vocal about my research interests in queer animation, and queer ontologies in animation, it means that I am also fairly well connected to people who are interested in the same thing, so trying to find people within the animation studies community was not too much of a challenge. I borrowed people from comic studies, and another from musical theatre, so it was more luck that they were interested in writing. It was a lot more of an active pulling, but again, the contrast with the LGBTQ+ History Month is that I already had quite a few people within animation studies, which I do feel is a little bit hermetically sealed. I don’t know if it’s the infantilisation of animation that people don’t really take animation seriously, or that it’s worth a serious inquiry or serious study compared to other media. But one thing that I did notice when I was assembling this curation is that again, we all may be queer, but we are all white and I did try in the call for papers for that month to say if you were Black, if you are indigenous, a person of colour, if you’re disabled, please come talk to me. I want to centre your work. But for some reason I did not get a response. I don’t know if the people aren’t there, but again that would speak to what Mihaela was saying about mentoring undergraduate students. We have to really start thinking about who we are mentoring and who we are – not just pulling in laterally from our peers – but drawing up from our resources of students. What students are we nurturing so that their scholarship can make it out into the world?

AS: I am known on the Fantasy/Animation podcast for asking impossible questions each week, so the impossible question for us all, which we can offer our thoughts on as a sort of ‘to be continued’ is what do we do next? What is there to be done next to continue this work that needs to be done?

MM: I think it depends on whether or not you mean what should we do next within the discipline, or outside of it, and I think those are two pathways that we need to consider at the same time. By which I mean it’s very important to continue having that conversation in public-facing events that are not specifically dedicated to academic studies and are not only attended by academics, because otherwise we’re just going to keep having conversations in our own echo chambers and we know how well that works in actually enacting meaningful change. But at the same time, I think people within our own networks do need to have these conversations with each other so we can support each other in this group endeavour, exchange tips and ideas, and also plan for future events. Obviously, our annual conferences are a huge platform, and a huge chance to do both the mentorship work and actual organisation work, to have events that are dedicated to this topic, and to sort out our publications. Both publications that are aimed at a broader readership like yours at Fantasy/Animation, and our specialty journals. I think the challenge there, once again, will be avoiding tokenism, because if you just have one special issue on, let’s say, Black voices in animation, and then you say “I’m done, I did my duty,” that’s not systemic change. That’s just a gesture. So I think instead of doing that, we need to be making a conscious effort of – as Kodi was saying – encouraging people who are not in our usual networks to contribute work, and also making sure that we retain them in the community, because if they don’t feel welcome, they will stop contributing. I think retention in addition to outreach is something that we should think about.

KM: As Mihaela was talking about this, I was thinking about my home group, the Society for Animation Studies, but also too about the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS) and the other major screen organizations. One thing that I would like to see conference and symposium organisers explore is funding for BIPOC, disabled, queer, marginalised students, and scholars, because there will be real financial barriers to them attending conferences and presenting their work. If we can help them remove those barriers, whether offering travel bursaries, waiving conference fees, helping with hotel fees, paying for food or things like that, I think that would be a huge help in perhaps bringing in fresh blood, or fresh ideas, or enriching screen studies in general. If we have to consider the external systemic barriers as well, in terms of financial barriers or social barriers, we should consider what may be blocking people from joining our community and then trying everything we can to remove those barriers. I know I personally have no control over my university’s purse strings, or over the Society for Animation Studies’s finances, so that’s not really something that I can do personally, but it is in my heart to continue to try and work with people to publish these voices as best as I can. And to network with people, see who else is out there, and then bring them to people like you, Alex, and Mihaela, and saying “look, I can vouch for this person’s work” or “I think it needs to be out there,” or “It needs to be in front of people.” So that kind of networking in that kind of community building is something that is extremely important to me.

CH: In terms of this kind of much-needed intellectual and social engagement, I was thinking about animation as a medium often being understood as responsive, responsible, and reactive to the world. In my own teaching and in the classroom, I have often reflected on the way that animation has that unique and creative ability to interrogate systems of power, cultural formations, and questions of identity to help us determine what’s happening ‘out there.’ I always tell my students that animation is the thing that exists between us and the world. We must always ask what are some of animation’s historical, social, political, cultural, and geographical contexts, which might support our intellectual curiosities. More broadly, why and how is knowledge constructed and contested, rather than settled and fixed? It seems like if these are the fundamental qualities of the animated medium, then the interdisciplinary studies of that same medium can and should ask the same questions as part of this commitment to enact change.

Ideas for the Classroom

Targeted animation projects can identify the ability of the medium to effectively communicate elements of language, cultural representation, and aid in the development of literacy. For teachers interested in reflecting in action and ‘problem setting’ (Schön 1983) with the challenging issues of diversity and inclusivity raised by the participants of the roundtable, the following activities are intended to be implemented to reflect animation as a practical pedagogical agent in the emergence of non-Eurocentric paradigms and the decolonisation of ‘taken for granted’ intellectual heritages.
 
 
 
 

  • TASK #1 – adapted from Eugenia Zuroski’s exercise that seeks to question ‘mundane academic structures and conventions’ (2020) through reflective enquiry, this activity asks students to examine the relationship between personal and intellectual positionality as much as their broader academic interests and expertise. Utilising the historical and cultural authority of certain forms of animated media, students are asked (as part of their introduction to the session and interest in the animated medium) to think about how their own knowledge is situated through a consideration of personal identity and, in turn, how such positionality guides their identity as interlocutors of culture. How have different kinds of knowledge in their experience of animation been generated in places and sources where they studied? Have these experiences set up certain assumptions about what is permitted to count as knowledge? This task therefore allows students to identify how their pre-existing understanding of animated media are shaped by political core/periphery hierarchies of visibility, accessibility, and marginality.

  • TASK #2 – how might we conceptualise the animated medium’s telling of queer narratives, and its depiction of queer representation? Does animation function as a necessary tool for queer activism? Is animation itself a queer medium in its plasticity and potential for redefining more ‘orthodox’ forms of representation? In a current political climate marked by a volatility and hostility towards minority communities (and with few curricula explicitly including LGBTQ+ history), animation can be used as a potent and vital form of social justice and anti-racism. This task engages the fundamental queerness of animation as a transformative medium and the new possibilities of expression it engenders. Students are asked to source a suitable example sequence of what they determine queer animation, either in its subject matter or treatment of gender/sexuality. The aim here is to invite students to recognise via medium specificity the value of animation in the creation of ‘artistically oriented education’ (Desbarats 2021) by cumulatively curating their own screening series within the classroom of what it might mean to site animation along a spectrum of queerness in its radical freedom of form.

  • TASK #3 – students are invited to reflect on animation’s historical relationship to propaganda and rhetorical potential for political communication. In the style of a classroom debate, students are organised into opposing teams that argue for and against the allegedly ‘innocent’ language of the animated medium, thinking about its potential for subversive acts through devices of satire, caricature, symbolism, and metaphor. Students discuss in teams whether animation, on the one hand, dilutes political content on account of its fundamentally graphic nature, or whether on the other the medium ultimately accentuates any ideological messages through its ability to sharpen meaning by transforming ideas into accessible images. To what extent is it effective and/or ethical to use animation as a medium to facilitate propaganda? How do caricature and cartoon aesthetics desanctify reality and challenge authority? How can the medium be accused of exaggerating prejudice via stereotypes of vulnerable and marginalised groups?

  • TASK #4 – this task thinks through knowledge production and questions of the canon. Students find their own academic source that falls within the interdisciplinary field of animation studies and engage with the argument developed by the author(s) through the source’s content, intellectual scope, and methodology. Looking only at the source’s bibliography or reference list, they examine what material is being cited/not cited, and what factors might account for such references; what critical conversations are being held, and what are the stakes of any intellectual exchanges and omissions; and what kinds of evidence the author(s) is elaborating upon. The intention is to allow students to connect what their chosen text is ‘doing’ intellectually with the broader politics of citation in higher education, and especially how value and power are reproduced and sustained by practices of syllabus design that may (or may not) obscure the contributions of minoritized scholarly communities.

Resources

The Centre for Education and Animation (CAP) website includes numerous courses, workshops, and projects related to animation as an alternative learning and communication tool.

The Leeds Animation Workshop website offers a free downloadable guide for teaching young people how to create their own short animations.

3 / Animated Minds

Animated Minds is a collection of animated documentaries that uses ‘real testimony combined with animation to make compelling short films about a range of social and psychological themes.’ Available to view free online.

The Cartoon Museum website includes free learning resources and downloadable templates for drawing caricatures, designing comic books, and illustrating a range of diverse character body shapes

The Society for Animation Studies blog animationstudies2.0 includes several articles written by academics and creative practitioners discussing undergraduate animation studies courses, how to conduct animated field research, and the value of animation as an interdisciplinary mode of pedagogy.

References

Begum, N. and Saini, R. (2019). ‘Decolonising the Curriculum.’ Political Studies Review 17 (2): 196–201.


Desbarats, F. (2021). ‘High-school cinema curricula: Evidence of new trends in education.’ Film Education Journal 4 (2): 125-135. https://doi.org/10.14324/FEJ.04.2.03.


Gopal, P. (2021) ‘On Decolonisation and the University.” Textual Practice, 35 (6), 873–899. https://doi.org/10.1080/0950236X.2021.1929561.  


Moosavi, L. (2020) ‘The decolonial bandwagon and the dangers of intellectual decolonisation.’ International Review of Sociology, 30 (2), 332–354. https://doi.org/10.1080/03906701.2020.1776919.


Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.


Zuroski, E. (2020). ‘Where do you know from?’: An Exercise in Placing Ourselves Together in the Classroom.’ MAI Feminism 5 (Special Issue: Feminist Pedagogies). https://maifeminism.com/where-do-you-know-from-an-exercise-in-placing-ourselves-together-in-the-classroom/.

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