When I get back to campus on the 12th of January classes will have already begun. I have arranged for a colleague to show a film to my Understanding Vietnam class and pass out the syllabus. In working out that syllabus I followed chronology and convention in dividing up Vietnamese history, but also in the back of my mind were a number of “frames” through which to view the conventional and chronological (which are themselves frames, of course); there is the frame of my personal involvement, my narrative, but while that animates much of my passion about the subject, it only really has content for me. As I swing my camera around on the streets of Hanoi, I am framing my own experience and am all to aware of the conventional categories into which that experience so easily falls.
The film, Thirteen Days, that I’m having my colleague show on the first two days of class, though, illustrates what I mean. It’s about the Cuban Missile Crisis and only mentions Vietnam twice, in passing, once at the beginning and again at the end. But the portrayal of the politics of the Cold War provides a way for me to frame certain preconceptions Americans have about Vietnam and about “Communism.” I want to lay those preconceptions before my students right from the start, as well as get them used to the idea of shifting frames. For instance, we’ll also look at Vietnamese history as a series of conflicts internal to Vietnam; and we’ll use literature to frame certain pervasive cultural attitudes. And so on. The frames are important in themselves, but perhaps even more important is for my students to become proficient at shifting between frames and superimposing frames as necessary when trying to think critically about the “objective” and conventional stuff from the textbooks.