Monty Python and the Holy GPA


There are many ways in which I'm a hard-ass ball-breaker of a professor--my students assure me of this--but one way in which I'm nice as nice can be is the fact that I allow my students to make up for missed quizzes and minor assignments by watching movies. That's right: for students who are earning passing grades on major assignments like papers, I'll let them compensate for bombed or missed reading quizzes (which I never had as an undergrad 25 years ago, because it was assumed that we'd just actually read the work assigned, and we actually did) by renting a movie. Actually, they can rent not just a single movie but as many movies as they need--for students who aren't total goof-offs, I offer unlimited extra credit (although it only applies to missed quizzes and the like, not for crappy papers, which makes the writers of crappy papers upset) in the form of watching films I deem relevant and worthy. Not only that, but I email them a list of such films owned by the college library, so they don't even have to leave campus to watch these movies if they see fit.

There are many reasons why I do this, most of which involve the fact that it makes my life easier. It makes my life easier when I can tell a student who missed class the day of a pop quiz, "Relax. This doesn't have to have any impact on your semester grade. You can just watch a movie or two to make up for the lost points." It makes my life easier to ask, "How many of you have seen Sunset Boulevard?" and see most of the hands go up. I often invoke great movies as a way of making points about books we're reading, and it's depressing when none of my students have seen something that is both a terrific movie and an important cultural touchstone like A Streetcar Named Desire or When Harry Met Sally....

They need to see this stuff, and if I have to bribe them in order to get them to see it, well, I'll do it! All they have to do is watch the movie, and then "write a brief summary that demonstrates to me that you actually watched the movie instead of cribbing a summary of it off the internet somewhere." And what they often write in such summaries is something along the lines of

I was so bummed when I first started to watch Dr. Strangelove because it's old and in black and white, but before long I really got into it and was surprised at how funny it is. Now I want to see more movies with Peter Sellers.


When I first started watching On the Waterfront, I thought I would hate it because it's old and in black and white. I still think the gangsters were kind of lame (Tony Soprano would completely laugh at these gangsters) but I was really glad to know where the "I coulda been somebody! I coulda been a contender" stuff came from. Plus, I totally get the whole Marlon Brando things now! Watching this movie changed my life, because I've never been sure what to major in before, but now I know I want to major in film studies.

That's right: watching a Marlon Brando film for one of my classes changed someone's life. I admit I'm rather pleased by that.

Not all the movies I suggest are in black and white; I also try to find recent movies that are relevant to works we've read, so when we discussed Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong I offered credit for watching The Magdalene Sisters. I offered then EXTRA extra credit (15 points instead of the normal ten) this semester to see Brokeback Mountain, because it was out in theatres and we were reading David Sedaris on what it meant to be gay and because Brokeback Mountain was both really, really good and important. When we read Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syal about East Indian culture in Britain, I offered extra credit if they watched Bride and Prejudice.

Recently a very good student came to my office to ask about his quiz grade. I'd given a pop quiz on one of only two days he's been absent this semester, which is why he's getting a B instead of an A in that portion of his grade. He said he'd be happy to watch a movie to improve his grade but was in the mood for "something light." He's a bit older, 28 or 29 instead of 20 or 21, and has both a good work ethic and a really lively mind. Since he wanted something light, I said, "Have you seen any Monty Python?" And he had not.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have an extremely bright student who is almost 30 and who has never seen a single Monty Python movie! Is this OK? I submit to you that it is not!

I am giving this student a chance to improve his grade simply by watching Life of Brian or Monty Python and the Holy Grail!

When I taught high school on an Apache Indian reservation, I had the school buy Holy Grail so I could show it to my students--I feel that strongly that they need to be familiar with the cultural references in it--and they freakin' LOVED IT. Not one of them had seen the movie before, but they all got it, and they walked around afterward saying, "It's only a flesh wound" and "‘Can't I have just a little bit of peril?' ‘No, the peril is too perilous.'"

How can you go through life not having seen The Holy Grail? It's unthinkable. But there will be people on this planet who have seen this movie because of ME. And on certain nights when I can't sleep, I remember that fact, and it calms me.


"Come and see the violence inherent in the system!" There is a textbook I have used entitled, International Political Economy, with readings for the fatigued -- great title, eh? but only an okay text. However, it had one thing that would sell it to me even if the rest of it had been total garbage: one of the readings for the fatigued was Dennis's explanation of the workings of the anarcho-syndicalist commune and the legitimate bases for political power. "I mean, if I went 'round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!"

A lovely bit of political theory, matched in its pedagogical usefulness by the fractions of the Judean People's organizations in Life of Brian. For historians, then, "what have the Romans ever given us?"

For me, though, "Oh, there you go bringing class back into it again."

Who is Monty Python?


If I had professors like you when I was in university, I might not have dropped out to become the white Whitney Houston.

One day while I was still in grad school a bunch of us were practicing Grading Avoidance by talking about classes we'd like to teach. Somebody suggested that you could teach Western Civ just by showing films, and before you knew it we had the syllabus drawn up. I don't remember all the films, but it started with "Cave Man" and of course included two Monty Python films and "History of the World Part One."

When I had a class of my own I allowed students to accumulate additional credit (good only when all other assignments had been completed) by watching historically based movies and then trying their hand at critique.

For one summer class (Twentieth Century History Through Film) I assigned parts of Friedan's _Feminine Mystique_ and then had them watch Doris Day in "Calamity Jane." Initial laughter gave way to expressions of dismay and boy did they ever discuss it. Film is such an insidious way to disseminate cultural values. It's also a great way to call attention to that same fact.

I could go on but don't want to hog yer blog.

It's a wonderful feeling, knowing that people have watched Python because of you. Of all the many people I personally know, the ones that have watched them have done it because of me. I can't tell you how proud I feel.

One of my friends, when he gets a phonecall from someone he doesn't recognise, always says, "WHAT .. is your name?"

"No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

Monty Python and most things British are so worth the time and effort. For good laughs, see "The Vicar of Dibley" with Dawn French. Of course, I know that's not even the cream of the crop, but it's good for some wonderful belly laughs and horrendous innuendo.

Good for you for giving your students another avenue for learning.

You're brilliant and if I ever go back in time, I'm asking to be assigned to your class.

It's such a thrill having someone discover things that you've aimed them at. I do this too with my own obsessions and get paid in gratitude because I have exceedingly good taste.

And does this mean that S.O. is now on crack and married to Bobby Brown?

Yes, I know so many who won't go near a black-and-white film! So it's very cool that you entice your students to look past "new release" into the world of classic gems.

Dear Commenters--glad you also like movies in general and Monty Python in specific!

Spike--glad to know that discussions of how pop culture offers brilliant explanations of complex intellectual issues can make it into a textbook that actually gets published.

Juti--I love your idea for a Western Civ class based on film. And I may someday borrow your idea of how to explain The Feminine Mystic.

Aditya--I wish I had the courage to do as your friend does and use a Monty Python line on the phone, but my work as a receptionist (and the experience of being fired because I said something that offended a friend of the boss) makes me unable to be anything but polite until I know it's a telemarketer, and then I just hang up.

Janet--I've seen a few episodes of Vicar of Dibley--I confess I prefer Father Ted, about three Irish priests on a remote island called Craggy Island. It's terribly irreverent but very funny--one of my favorite exchanges involves the housekeeper asking an irascible old alcoholic of a priest, "What do you say to a nice cup of tea?" His reply: "Feck off, cup!"

Yeah, well, it's funny if you like that sort of thing.

Dale--if SO is married to Bobby Brown these days, he's been holding out on telling me about it. I can only say that when I first met him, he was involved with some Jim Morrison wanna-be who went by 0--not Zero, but 0. It fit him, in a number of ways. Bobby Brown might be an improvement.

I had dinner last night with an older guy from Ireland and a guy from New York. I was struggling to make a point, and finally I said "It's like the witch-burning scene in the Holy Grail." They immediately got it. Cross-generational and cross-cultural! Definitely required viewing.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on April 24, 2006 9:38 AM.

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