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  • Lisa Patti

Critical Dialogues

Chapter 4 of Writing About Screen Media – “Entering the Conversation” – begins by explaining that “scholarly writing should advance an argument” (43). I draw on the work of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein who, in their book They Say, I Say, encourage writers to “write the voices of others into your text” (quoted in Writing About Screen Media 43). A scholarly argument thus relies on the same strategies that students use when participating in a class discussion: “When we engage in scholarly dialogues in our writing, we are in effect transporting the principles of a rigorous yet respectful conversation into our own prose, acknowledging the points made by previous critics, analyzing them carefully, and then responding to them” (43).

There are several accessible ways to model the creation of a critical dialogue within our writing. First, whenever possible, I share video recordings of panel discussions with the students in my classes. For example, I might select a discussion among television showrunners moderated by a journalist from The Hollywood Reporter for my Media Industries course or a discussion with actors and directors at the Toronto International Film Festival for my Global Cinema course. In these discussions, media professionals build on the ideas shared by the other panelists, and the moderators often suggest connections between and among the contributions to the conversation, quoting previous comments as they invite new ones. These conversations model the ways in which writers can productively “write the voices of others” into their work.

Second, I ask students to read critical conversations that unfold in online journals that permit public commenting. I select relevant short articles (for example, from the online publication In Media Res) and ask students to read not only the original article but also the comments posted by other scholars. Students then add their own comments to these threads via our course learning management system as part of an asynchronous online discussion among the students in the course. By framing a scholarly argument as an actual dialogue in which scholars (and journalists and other critics) respond directly to one another’s ideas, these assignments allow students to approach scholarly engagement as an embodied, social practice.

Finally, I scaffold the concept of argument-as-dialogue into multi-stage assignments. For example, in my Global Cinema course, in preparation for a discussion of the film Lust Stories (2018), I ask students to read an online dossier of essays about the film published in Film Quarterly. The dossier features contributions from four scholars – Meheli Sen, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, Monika Mehta, and Anupama Prabhala Kapse – along with an introduction by Girish Shambu ( I then ask each student to create a critical dialogue by selecting passages from the essays and then transforming them into a script, in effect reimagining the dossier as a live panel discussion among the writers. The Lust Stories critical dialogue project enables students to identify nodal points between and among the essays, and the scripts they prepare highlight both the common concerns that the scholars share and the different approaches they adopt to address those concerns. Students publish their scripts and brief reflections about them online, and they read each other’s scripts in preparation for our discussion of the film in subsequent class meetings.

Students have remarked that the process of producing the scripts helps them to define and distinguish each writer’s arguments, alerting them to the diversity of scholarly approaches to a single text and reassuring them that as student writers they can make original contributions to a scholarly conversation. As students craft their own critical arguments in formal essays about the film, they write the voices of the contributors to the Film Quarterly dossier into their prose and then situate their own contributions within that critical dialogue, imagining themselves as part of that conversation.

To bolster their understanding of themselves as scholars, I structure their formal writing assignments so that they are required to cite and engage not only the published work of established scholars in the field of film and media studies but also the work of their student colleagues. A sample paragraph in a student essay might include quoted passages from an article in Film Quarterly and a student colleague’s comment published in one of our online discussions (and appropriately cited in the essay’s bibliography). As we move between writing and speaking as modes of critical engagement, students develop a sharper understanding of Graff and Birkenstein’s advice to “write the voices of others into your text” (3) and use their writing as a foundation for the ideas that they voice in class discussions.


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