My Discovery

Written by Monty Ross, film director and producer, and current instructor of film and cinema at Old Dominion University. Ross is a co-producer of the new film “Our Nation,” which will premier at the Birth of an Answer event at the Attucks theatre in September. 


This past April, I completed my first semester of teaching as an adjunct instructor, after spending nearly 25 years in the motion picture business. I taught a class on African-American cinema. To get a sense about what was in store, I started by asking professors, instructors, and educators about what it’s like to teach at a university in the 21st century.

Quite often I heard a variety of responses, most were positive, thoughtful or engaging, however, the one response I heard frequently was: “You’ve been working in the film business for 25 years, you’ve worked with so many people, and you’ve co-produced some important movies, like School Daze or Do The Right Thing, so teaching should be easy.” Well, not quite the answer I was looking for.

With more questions, than answers in mind, I asked my father-in-law, Dr. Roland Wiggins, a retired music theorist and educator with more than 60 years of educational experience for assistance. Dr. Wiggins, over coffee and rolls, provided an excellent perspective. “There are many resources in a classroom that are valuable to the learning process, but the most valuable resource is the one that is underutilized; the student. Quite often students perform significantly better when a teacher makes it a priority to put them first.”

His perspective helped me feel better about my challenges almost immediately. I now had a better grasp on what would be important to teach, how to possibly structure the course and what my likely outcomes could be. To find more information about this process, like most, I went online for answers.

I discovered educators were using a concept called student-centered learning. What was different about student-centered learning vs. the traditional approach to college teaching? In the traditional approach, students spend the majority of the class listening to a lecture, taking notes and responding to questions from the instructor; with student-centered learning students have more options to actively get involved by taking control of the learning process by working individually or in small groups on assignments.

Would this approach be effective in the classroom? How would students respond to this type of approach? More questions: How do I develop the right kinds of class activities? What type of assignments will help me reach the learning outcomes I am required to use to complete the course? What about the average student learners vs. those who are advanced? Should the same course structure be used for both?

Here I was, the teacher looking to build the right kind of educational experience for my students without adequate answers to the questions I posed. Then it dawned on me that if I wanted to use this process, I first had to be open to the process and step back and learn how to trust an alternative classroom experience.

Learning how to trust the process meant I had to learn how to let go of the traditional classroom approach not completely, but I would have to ask my students for guidance about what was best for them more often. That wasn’t easy, but I realized; I’m a professional filmmaker with years of experience on multi-million dollar film productions, we abandon one plan and opt for a completely different plan frequently in order to produce the best results for the project. This would be no different.

As I look back and reflect I remember being very nervous that first day, but to my surprise, when I walked into my class I discovered it was equipped with a high-end computer, large desktop and wall monitors, a high-definition projector, a DVD player, Internet access and many of the students owned designer smartphones, laptops, and tablets, but how could I use this to my advantage?

Relieved, I took a deep breath and began. Over the course of the semester, I used a variety of student-centered learning methods before selecting active learning as the best method to use. With active learning I allowed students to use their mobile devices to conduct research, send responses to questions via email, or they were allowed to post their responses to classroom assignments to one of our social media platforms. As it turned out, that was the best choice to make.

I had an absolutely amazing experience with my students. I truly believe that one of the most difficult things a teacher can do is relinquish control of the class because it goes against everything that we learn in our training. However, learning that it was okay to let go of the need to control every aspect of the classroom experience led to wonderful results.

There was no way around it; parts of American society and culture are ugly, disgusting and downright mean. During the course of the semester as students conducted research online for their class projects; acts of police brutality, racial discord and murders of innocent of African-American citizens took place. Initial reactions included feelings of sadness, weariness, and despair, yet students seemed hopeful that society would change for the better. To guarantee society would move toward a better way to live, to address these issues, students were required to develop a fictitious production company, complete with a logo and a position statement to discuss their feelings, reactions, and responses to these situations. In addition, they were required to develop three original projects for theatrical release complete with a 30-second teaser trailer. I was very impressed with their concepts and ideas and the results of their choices.

Selected Student Projects:

1. What if the Revolution WAS Televised? By Bria Long

2. Capturing Africa by *Taiwo Owens*

3. The Fight Continues by Shannell Smith
Selected Topics during the course:

1. Understanding the Power of Cinema
2. African-American Movies About Historic Events
3. Branding Racial Identity: Power, & Class–1915 – 1950
4. Economic Empowerment in African-American cinema-1980-2000
5. Corporate and Financial Independence in African-American cinema–2000-2015
7. Classical Narrative / Mise En Scene
8. Feminism and Media: Black Women Executives, Producers & Directors
9. Film Festivals for Black films
10. Multimedia Content: Analysis of African-American cinema online

Selected Bibliography:

Chris Rock Is Right: Hollywood Isn’t Fair to Black Films (Mark Glassman, 2014)

Why Directing ‘Selma’ Was So Personal For Ava DuVernay
Website:…/ava-duvernay-selma family_n_6390908.html

Rebirth of a Nation – Part 1 (DJ Spooky)

Classical Narrative / Mise En Scene (Introduction)

Top 12 Black Film Festivals – Independent Film
Website:; Investment;

Multimedia Content: Analysis of African-American Cinema;
Website: Issa Rae;