TITLE: The Cut AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 15, 2018 9:22 AM DESC: ----- BODY: 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.
Charlie Brown's teacher drones on
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. -----