A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Kelly Ritter’s Reframing the Subject: Postwar Instructional Film and Class-Conscious Literacies

Reframing the Subject: Postwar Instructional Film and Class-Conscious Literacies by Kelly Ritter, U of Pittsburgh P, 2015, 368 p. 

 Jason Palmeri, Miami University

 (Published April 8, 2019)

As a scholar and teacher who works with digital video, I’ve been a regular user of the online Prelinger Archive of mid-century instructional films. I’ve taught video composing to students by engaging them in remixing films in the archive, and I’ve sampled the archive in my own collaborative, born-digital scholarship. Despite the many hours I’ve spent viewing and remixing the Prelinger collection, I’ve tended see its instructional films mostly as a source of humor and never really considered them as a rich archive for re-seeing composition history. After reading Kelly Ritter’s Reframing the Subject: Postwar Instructional Film and Class-Conscious Literacies, however, I came to recognize that the history of instructional film (both within and beyond the Prelinger collection) can play a crucial role in helping us critically historicize and reimagine the role of multimedia technologies in writing instruction. 

In Reframing the Subject, Ritter turns an incisive critical eye on a range of instructional films from the 1940s and 1950s that sought to model “correctness” for students in both writing and social behavior in ways that reinforced classist hierarchies. Although instructional films were often heralded as radical innovations that could engage students and combat the fatigue of overworked teachers, Ritter shows how instructional films in this period reinforced a “current-traditional” rhetoric (Berlin) that positioned writing as simply a matter of correctly expressing the truths of established authorities. In addition to enriching our understanding of the history of current-traditional writing pedagogies, Ritter’s work also moves beyond historical recovery to demonstrate how some contemporary approaches to online writing education (especially MOOCS) continue to replicate the classist legacies and current-traditional pedagogies of the instructional film—demonstrating that the use of online instructional video for writing education may not be as new or transformative as many have assumed.

As a historian, Ritter is deeply committed to offering a complex, contextual analysis of the diverse array of material and ideological forces that influenced the development and enactment of instructional film in English classrooms in the post WWII period. Accordingly, the first three chapters of Reframing the Subject focus not on close readings of particular archival films, but rather on painting vivid portraits of the diverse contexts which gave rise to the instructional film movement. In the first chapter, Ritter situates instructional films in relation to the broader class politics of literacy education, synthesizing a wide range of historical, ethnographic, and theoretical scholarship in literacy studies that has demonstrated how the persistent rhetorical construction of literacy instruction as the key for social mobility has functioned (and continues to function) to mask the how educational systems work to maintain class stratification. In this way, Ritter establishes her overarching claim that the classist rhetorics of mid-century instructional films were not a pedagogical aberration but rather one additional node in a complex network of educational technologies and practices that have worked to maintain class stratification over time.

In the second chapter, Ritter situates the development of the instructional film in relation to the context of citizenship education in the World War II era. Looking closely at a range of WWII-era articles from NCTE’s English Journal and the government-sponsored Education for Victory, Ritter tracks how English teachers sought to position their work as contributing to the war effort and how government agencies specifically promoted the war film as a teaching tool in that effort—setting the stage for the later development of a range of instructional films designed to reinforce normative, patriotic values. Although Ritter recovers the work of numerous English teachers who used WWII as an occasion to engage students in thinking and writing critically about issues of war and peace, she ultimately shows how rhetorics of nationalism in English teaching helped propel a return to “basics” in literacy education that positioned “correctness” in speech, writing, and behavior as essential for good citizenship—reinforcing a narrow vision of a literate citizenry that would later inform the proliferation of the instructional film in English classrooms.

Following this critical analysis of the military-industrial sponsorship of the instructional film, chapter three turns to exploring how the development of instructional film was influenced by private foundations, educational organizations, and textbook publishers. Demonstrating how print and cinematic media interanimate one another, Ritter traces the classist rhetorics found in high school and college writing textbooks in this time period—rhetorics that were largely replicated in instructional films she later analyzes.  In this chapter, Ritter also looks closely at the Payne Studies of children’s film viewing—funded by a private foundation and published by the Macmillan textbook company in the early 1930s. These studies showed that children often retained information from films more readily than other media, suggesting the potential power of film as a teaching tool. The Payne Studies also sounded cautionary warnings about how films could cause students to “day-dream” about living lives that exceeded the boundaries of their class positions. In this way, the Payne Studies helped set the stage for the instructional film industry to develop a range of products that harnessed the educative power of film to attempt teach students to avoid imagining alternative futures and instead to learn how to function efficiently within the class structure as it existed.

In the fourth chapter (about the midpoint of the book), Ritter turns to presenting close readings of several “mental hygiene” films produced by the Coronet company in the 1940s and 1950s—all of which are available in the Prelinger Archive. While only one of the films analyzed in the chapter focuses on writing specifically, all of them seek to model “correct” approaches to social interaction and thus were marketed as appropriate for English instruction. Closely analyzing both the dialogue and the mise-en-scene of these films, Ritter demonstrates how they exude a “middle class ethos . . . of seemingly effortless assent” (190) in which the middle-class teens on screen demonstrate how they trust authority figures, carefully regulate their emotions, follow etiquette rules, use their abundant leisure time effectively, and make elaborate plans for their class-privileged futures. Importantly, the films present these middle-class codes of behavior as norms that their presumed audience of middle-class students already know. In this way, each of these films “models ‘best’ behavior for students and simultaneously silences individuated instruction or discussion about these models; children who are unable to see themselves—or their communal values—on-screen are offered no alternate reference points or alternate scenarios” (Ritter 150). In other words, these films do not enable critical discussion about class inequalities nor do they effectively teach middle-class codes of social interaction to students who don’t already know them. As such, the Coronet “mental hygiene” film ultimately worked to reinforce middle-class codes of behavior and experiences of privilege as normative and only accessible to students who are born into them.

In the fifth chapter, Ritter takes a deeper dive into the Coronet archive to engage some largely forgotten instructional films that focus specifically on writing and rhetoric. These films were marketed as a way to assist overworked English teachers facing the challenge of attempting to teach writing to large classes of students with diverse needs. While the films primarily reiterated current-traditional writing principles that had been taught in the past via textbooks and teacher lectures, the medium of film was presumed to be a better way to engage students who were otherwise bored by writing instruction. In addition, the films promised to contribute to efforts to standardize writing instruction as they took agency away from individual teachers in defining what “good writing” meant in their classrooms. Along with emphasizing neatness and correctness in writing, these instructional films also encouraged students to choose the “easiest” topics to address in their writing and to focus largely on restating the “facts” as determined by authority figures. There was no room in the world of these instructional films for students to ask questions that didn’t have simple answers, or to challenge the veracity of the “facts” they have been told by those in power. While our current political moment has led many teachers (including myself) to re-emphasize the importance of helping students differentiate between falsehood and fact in various media, I concur with Ritter that the simplistic information literacy practices promoted in these films were not sufficiently complex to help students critically engage the information environment of the 1950s (or today).

As the book concludes, Ritter turns her attention to the present moment. Resisting the notion that the online video instruction of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is a new and transformative innovation, Ritter suggests that MOOCs can be seen as in part a “remediation” (in Bolter and Grusin’s terms) of the past technology of instructional film. Although instructional films and online course platforms certainly have differing affordances, Ritter provocatively argues that both the MOOC and the instructional film rely on a similar logic that presents a one-size-fits-all “product” as a replacement for the “collaborative learning experience” of “interactive literacy education” (245). While contemporary writing scholars often tend to imagine that current-traditional pedagogies are a relic of the past, Ritter calls attention to how some recent MOOC writing classes reinforce a current-traditional vision of writing as primarily a matter of grammatical correctness. And, even when Ritter looks at examples of writing MOOCs (such as Duke’s) that place greater emphasis on higher-order rhetorical concerns, she usefully questions whether the goals of these more complex rhetorical MOOCs can truly be met without ample opportunities for robust interaction between students and teachers. In addition, Ritter calls attention to how MOOCs (like the instructional films that proceeded them) have been promoted by a nexus of governmental and corporate power as easy fixes for persistent access inequalities in education, even though they ultimately do little to address structural inequalities and in fact often work to reinforce class stratification.

As I reflect back on my reading of Reframing the Subject, what I most admire is the depth of its historical analysis. Ritter brilliantly demonstrates how a historian can take an everyday pedagogical artifact such as an instructional film and then copiously tease out the complex network of forces that have worked to shape how this artifact has been developed and employed.  Furthermore, Ritter articulates the value of situating composition history in relation to the broader history of writing instruction in K-12 contexts—an important move that can usefully complicate many of the common stories we tell about the development of our field.  Finally, Ritter’s text powerfully demonstrates how excavating the technological antecedents of contemporary digital pedagogies can help us resist the persistent rhetoric of newness that often masks the ways in which digital pedagogies can be used to reinforce oppressive pedagogies and social structures.

As much as I admire the depth and critical insight of Ritter’s historical analysis, I also recognize that her commitment to close, deep analysis necessarily limits the scope of the book. For example, while Ritter offers copious evidence of the classist implications of instructional film, she does not fully elucidate the ways in which these films also reinforced sexist, racist, heteronormative, and ableist hierarchies. I imagine future scholars might turn to archive of mid-century instructional film and more intensively interrogate the problematic pedagogies of gender, race, sexuality and disability that can be found therein. Furthermore, while Reframing the Subject importantly works to “reset the accepted timeline whereby ‘media literacy’ concerns” (Ritter 22) enter the field, it ultimately recovers only a limited slice of the mediated history of English studies (with a focus on one media genre in a relatively narrow time period). In other words, more historical recovery work remains to be done, and Ritter’s text offers scholars a useful model for how we can critically excavate the long pre-digital history of media technology in writing instruction. In closing, I urge you to read Reframing the Subject and to heed its timely call for compositionists to critically historicize and interrogate the diverse media technologies that have long permeated our work.


Works Cited

Berlin, James. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985.Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. 

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.

Ritter, Kelly. Reframing the Subject: Postwar Instructional Film and Class-Conscious Literacies. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.