Teaching Tools: Swim Lesson

From the Series: Swim Lesson

Photo by Melissa Lefkowitz.

I nearly failed my first assignment in a pedagogy course. We were asked to provide written comments on a student’s first-year essay. I extensively marked up the paper, circling almost every grammatical mistake and covering the margins with suggestions and comments. My professor used my flawed assignment to caution the class on the risks of over-teaching, explaining that my extensive notes would probably overwhelm the student and obscure what the student should focus on. Driven to make the paper perfect and correct what I saw as every error, I missed the larger purpose: to provide helpful feedback that would guide the student to revise their own composition. I had forgotten to consider the experience from the student’s point of view.

Keeping the student's perspective in mind, however, is difficult. When teaching a familiar subject in a familiar setting, we forget how unfamiliar or disorienting the educational process can be for students. In Swim Lesson (2018), Melissa Lefkowitz offers a humbling and visceral reminder of what it is like to learn something new. The film follows an adult through the course of one swim lesson, intersplicing the swimmer’s inner monologue with his view of the water and instructor. When the swimmer jumps in, the whole world seems to shake, upending the surety of up and down. Showing the pool’s lopsided edges from the swimmer’s eyes, the film portrays the jarring changes of perspective required to learn and the sensory overload of a new experience. It also depicts its possible joy: the newfound calm space existing under the water and the swimmer’s brief euphoria upon finishing his task.

By creating a view of the learning process from the swimmer’s perspective, Swim Lesson reminds teachers to act with humility and to carefully consider their students’ experiences. We see the instability of the swimmer’s vision in the pool and the overwhelming process of trying to remember the instructor’s comments while fighting the discomfort of getting water up his nose. In this manner, while the instructor’s directions seem simple, the film depicts the amount of effort it takes for the swimmer to put them into practice.

Discussion Guide for Instructors

Screen the short film as part of a professional development training for instructors, particularly those teaching beginning undergraduate students. Use the film to prompt a discussion about the learning process.

  • Before the screening, ask participants to think of a time they tried to learn something new and unfamiliar.
    • How did they feel? What was intimidating or challenging, and what was enjoyable?
  • Which factors of the process (location, instructor, community, etc.) changed their experience?
  • After screening the film, circle back to those reflections.
    • Which of their memories resonated (or differed) with the swimmer’s experience? Did they identify with the swimmer in any way?
  • Ask instructors to consider their classroom through the lens of a “new swimmer” in higher education. What might be overwhelming about their coursework or classes for a new student? What assumptions do they make about a student’s abilities or knowledge of how higher education works? Encourage instructors to consider their classroom content and expectations through the eyes of a student, with the overall goal of adjusting their practices to be more accessible to new students.

Discussion Guide for Students

The eight-minute film could also be used to introduce sensory ethnography to undergraduate students. The simulated proximity of the viewer to the swimmer generates a sensory immersion into the world of the film. Use this immersion to guide students as they grapple with the use of the senses in anthropological practice. Consider pairing the film with anthropological texts on bodily technique and senses, such as Kathryn Geurts’s (2003) work on sensing, or bodily ways of knowing. Other possibilities include Paul Stoller's (1989) writing on the senses in ethnography or Lalaie Ameeriar’s (2017) conceptualization of the “sanitized sensorium” which applies sensorial analysis to illuminate processes of exclusion and othering. Use these pairings to open broader questions: how do history, culture, and place inform what the body can do and sense? What roles do the senses have in anthropological practice and writing? How can—or should—anthropologists depict sensorial experiences and worlds which exceed textual representation?

  • Without preparation, screen the film for students. First, discuss emotional and personal responses to the film.
    • How did the film make you feel? Did you identify with the swimmer? Why or why not?
  • Then, move to a discussion of how the film induced those feelings.
    • How do the videography choices simulate a swimmer’s perspective? What was the effect of using the swimmer’s inner monologue? How might the film be different if it featured the instructor’s point of view?
  • The film is short enough to screen twice in a lesson period, allowing time for students to re-watch and practice their observation skills. After the second watch, focus on the film’s technique and aesthetics.
    • Which sensory responses does the film evoke, and why? How did the aesthetics of the film shape these responses? When did the camera angles change? How did the sound effects of the bubbles contribute to the overall effect? Did you notice any additional details you missed on your first watch?
  • Wrap up by comparing the initial responses to those after the second watch. How did their reactions and observations differ? Open the question up to broadly consider how to analyze sensory and affective reactions to film.
  • After completing the in-class activity, consider assigning students a different to film to watch and respond to (see below for suggestions). Ask them to go through the same steps, completing one viewing for initial response and a second viewing for more detailed observations, and write a short response paper on the process.

Suggested Supplemental Readings and Films

Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab

Ginsburg, Faye. 2018. "Decolonizing Documentary On-Screen and Off: Sensory Ethnography and the Aesthetics of Accountability." Film Quarterly, 72, no. 1: 39–49.

MacDougall, David. 2006. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Nakamura, Karen. 2013. “Making Sense of Sensory Ethnography: The Sensual and the Multisensory.” American Anthropologist 115, no. 1: 132–35.


Ameeriar, Lalaie. 2017. Downwardly Global: Women, Work, and Citizenship in the Pakistani Diaspora. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Geurts, Kathryn Linn. 2003. Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stoller, Paul. 1989. The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.