TITLE: The Cut
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: January 15, 2018 9:22 AM
Walter Murch, in In the Blink of an Eye:
A vast amount of preparation, really, to arrive at the
innocuously brief moment of decisive act: the cut --
the moment of transition from one shot to the next --
something that, appropriately enough, should look
almost self-evidently simple and effortless, if it is
even noticed at all.
This can apply to software development, I think, but I haven't
thought about that yet. I read the passage at the beginning
of a new semester, when my mind is filled with another offering
of my programming languages course. So I've been thinking about
how this quote works in the context of my course: the overall
structure of the course as well as the structure of individual
class sessions. The course consists of three major units,
connected by a thread, with the third having its own substructure.
Each session is a more cohesive story with its own microstructure:
the flow of a lecture, the sequence of exercises students do, the
sequence of examples that students see. Moments of transition are
everywhere, at multiple scales.
When a session goes badly, or not as well as I'd hoped, I am quite
aware of the cuts that did not work. They seem awkward, or
ill-motivated, or jarring. The students notice some of these, too,
but they don't always let me know of their disorientation right
away. That's one benefit of building frequent exercises and
review questions into a class session: at least I have a chance of
finding out sooner when something isn't working the way I'd planned.
Reading Murch has given me a new vocabulary for thinking about
transitions visually. In particular, I've been thinking about two
basic types of transition:
These are a natural part of any writer's job, but I've found
it helpful to think about them more explicitly as I worked
on class this week.
For example, I've been trying to think more often about how one
kind of cut can be mistaken for the other and how that might
affect students. What happens when what I intend as a small
move within a context seems so disconnected for students that
they think I've changed contexts? What happens when what I
intend as a big shift to a new topic sounds to students
like the WAH-WAH-WAH of
Charlie Brown's teacher?
I can always erect massive signposts to signal transitions of
various kinds, but that can be just as jarring to readers or
listeners as unannounced cuts. It is also inelegant, because it
fails to respect their ability to construct their own understanding
of what they are learning.
Trying on Murch's perspective has not been a panacea. The first
session of the course,
the one with a new opening story,
went well, though it needs a few more iterations to become good.
My second session went less well. I tried to rearrange a session
that already worked well, and my thinking about transitions was
too self-conscious. The result was a synthesis of two threads
that didn't quite work, leaving me feeling a bit jumbled myself
by connections that were incomplete and jumps that seemed abrupt.
Fortunately, I think I managed to recognize this soon enough in
class that I was able to tell a more coherent story than my
outline prepared me to tell. The outline needs a lot more work.
In the longer run, though, thinking about transitions more
carefully should help me do a better job leading students
in a fruitful direction. I'll keep at it.
- one that signals motion within a context
- one that signals a change of context