Re: Teaching film [Was: Experimental films showing at various Universities]

From: Patricia R. Zimmermann (email suppressed)
Date: Sat Nov 29 2008 - 08:48:15 PST

First, thanks Fred for a cogent and grounded response. I could not agree more with your points.

Right now, in programs all across the country, administrations are using budget cuts to control curricula and faculty. Many faculty, at small comprehensive colleges like the one I teach at, and at the bigger more elite universities, are concerned that budget crises will be used to diminish the humanities and critically oriented courses.

 It's become a customer market not only in serving students, but in offering courses---courses in this economic environment are no longer offered because they are intellectually significant as part of our discipline and a larger conversation with the world. They are offered and are sustained ONLY if they attract students. That's the part of the global market economy panic that is infiltrating academia.

Class sizes are increasing, especially for critical studies faculty who generally teach more students. Faculty autonomy to teach in their research specialities is diminishing, with administrators making decisions based on how many students are in a course and how many credit hours they will yield.

This insidious inscription of panic and the hysteria of the market economy and declining endowments has infiltrated many professors work lives. WE've heard many stories on this list of faculty burning out from fighting for 16mm equipment, fixing projectors, arguing every semester for budgets to rent films, projecting prints themselves (without a professional projectionist).

In other words, doing a lot of infrastructure building that is taking them away from their disciplines, their students, and the world of ideas. And for production faculty, making work and engaging the world beyond their own institutions.

This is the new face of global panic. It is destroying the academy and damaging psyches of faculty with work speed ups The students--and our discipline--lose. The world of ideas gets diminished to (necessary) instrumental tasks just to keep a bit of the field alive.

 And courses that are smaller, like many studio based production/creative oriented courses, that administrators call "experiential learning" often survive while critical studies courses where students watch some of the works that contribute to our field are amputated from curricula. We are all part of this larger political economy, and solidarity is necessary at the moment.

 We've heard stories on this list from various colleagues who are burned out, frustrated, gave up jobs. We've heard stories from students who contend faculty just teach subspecialities and critique other faculty. To them, I would state, the field of film/media/digital studies is large and complex, and good departments with an academic mission try to create a large heterogeneity of specialities so that students can engage in a larger conversation about ideas beyond the self.

 The bigger problem most critical studies faculty in film/media/digital studies confront is that students often prefer "experiential learning" to engaging with the abstract conceptual thinking and close textual analysis critical studies requires.

 Most of us--except maybe some on this list at the more elite universities--are dealing with very remedial tasks in critical studies classes, like teaching how to do an exegesis of a book, read a film closely, deploy a theory/method carefully, write an analysis clearly, write with grace and style.

Most students I teach want to have a "personal opinion" about works rather than engage a body of knowledge and learn the real skills involved in close textual reading. It's hard work to not be loved in the classroom and to deny "experiential learning" and push abstraction. It's an indication of the obsessive consumerist individualism of our society that the difficulty of engaging with ideas beyond the self is so difficult. It's not the students, it's the political structures we are currently operating within.

Panic and paininduced by this economic reorganization impelled by the currenteconomic collapse--around the world and in college endowments--has made all of these issues much more salient. And much more vital. And much more contentious. And much more fraught with argument. Individualism seems to be trumping solidarity to actually organize to fight all of these disturbing trends. It's way beyond arguing whether we should show 16mm film, fight for budgets, screen Zorns Lemma, preserve avant garde film.

This terrain is no longer contentious simply because different individuals have different opinions about the avant garde, documentary, film history, canons.

 It's contentious because the field of film studies and practices has expanded significantly, and in quite interesting ways, that are transmedia in formation and interdisciplinary in orientation. Film studies has grown into a discipline that includes not only film, but media, cultural, digital studies. And the "subspecialities" mentioned in an earlier post are not simply one professor, but an expression of a field that is large, interdisciplinary, and filled with exciting multiple theoretical modalities and methodologies.

But in the current economic crises that is being used to destroy labor rights on campuses and diminish the humanities in favor of more instrumental or experiential education, these debates on this list will seem archaic perhaps in just a little time as the devastation to higher education continues.

Here's an example. I've taught Non Fiction Film Theory for decades on my campus. This year, the administration--without any discussion with me about the intellectual and academic issues of our very diminished and nearly non existen film studies offerings---canceled the course. I was, without any discussion whatsoever (note, I'm a tenured full professor, so word to the wise)reassigned to teach a section previouisly given to a graduate student of Hollywood and American Film.

I see this egregious act as an example of how economic crises are facilitating the amputation of works and discourses outside of global capitalist imperatives. And I also see it as an example of a management perogative based on instrumentality rather than collegiality and intellectual analysis. I think we will all see more of this, and maybe others on this list have experienced similiar levels of disrespect for their labor?

 There are rumors we will lose our projectionist. Our film rental budgets for all of our three or four film studies courses--that's all we have at the moment--have been slashed over the last couple of years. It's dispiriting to see capital go to equipment and not to film rentals, but that is the priveleging of certain kinds of thinking, and it is also an expression of anti intellectualism.

I find my own situation emblematic of what Fred describes.

In the 1970s, when I was in graduate school, many of us on this list debated the linkages between theory and practice as a political way to orient cinema towards larger social and political goals. We saw a lively film and media culture with lots of different film styles and genres and lots of different ways of thinking about cinema as a way to change the world. We argued about moving cinema beyond the US, into a conversation world cinema. Chuck and Jump Cut were leaders and visionaries in this area.

 When I first came to my professor job in the early 1980s, my department was 50% PHD and 50% production, reflecting many of these debates and how they were materialized. We taught a full range of film studies courses focusing on cinemas and practices from around the globe. Now, my department has a lot more faculty--but only one PHD, and only three (well, four, but one was canceled) critical studies courses. Period. Out there, beyond my institution, is a vibrant, exciting, academic discipline and cutting edge film festival embracing enormous heterogeneity. But within many institutions, my own included, humanities oriented courses in film/communication schools have been reduced to the minimum and are vbeing reframed as credit hour generating machines.

In the mid 1990s, many institutions dealt with downsizing, and it felt like there was at least some solidarity. Now, I see more individualism, more fighting, more careerism, and very little solidarity.

I do not pretend to have any answers. But I do think that on this list, and in our work, we need to look at the larger economic and political contexts of these debates and struggles.

We need to figure
 out a way to join together to see if there is any possibility at all for a real win that provides our students, our colleagues, filmmakers, and our discipline with the courage to fight for theory and practice, for all of these things we need and that are being destroyed day by day, and for some semblance of a bigger picture and higher goal.

 Otherwise, my fear is that administrators will exploit the current crisis and turn all of us into credit hour machines---and debate will drain out of the academy, the kinds of works we analyze and engage students with will be reduced to commercial releases on DVD, and our students will ultimately lose, since they will lack the abstract thinking thing skills and intellectual and creative agilities to survive in this outsourced entrepreneurial economy.

Patricia R. Zimmermann, Ph.D.
Professor, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts
Roy H. Park School of Communications
Codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies
Ithaca College
Ithaca, New York 14850 USA
Office: +1 (607) 274 3431
FAX: +1 (607) 274 7078
email suppressed

---- Original message ----
>Date: Sat, 29 Nov 2008 09:00:14 -0600
>From: Experimental Film Discussion List <email suppressed>)
>Subject: Re: Teaching film [Was: Experimental films showing at various Universities]
>To: email suppressed
>To Beth, of course I agree with you that the schools could and should do
>more. The faculty is *supposed* to determine what it is the students
>should learn. It's just that since the 1960s there's been a certain
>"lunatics taking over the asylum" tendency in education. I once had a
>student berate me for criticizing his writing on a short paper on the
>grounds that this was an art course, not an English course, and I sat
>there reading his answer (this was 1996) thinking, "How did we ever get
>to this point."
>Anyway, I think that the film faculty in most art schools simply do not
>agree with me. Many didn't themselves study cinema (or theory) in the
>intensive ways I'm advocating. That could be OK if they bring other
>important passions into the classroom and stimulate the students'
>interest. Mostly I'm advocating intensive involvements of the arts in
>general, or related fields. But to learn how to use the language of film
>it helps to have studied what was done in the past. Otherwise you're
>still being influenced, but by the way Eisenstein or whoever has
>filtered into those TV commercials James Cole mentions, rather than by
>the source.
>Absent a disciplined program, make your own program! See films, read
>about them, see the same films again. Chicago has some great exhibition
>venues: The Film Center, Doc Films, Block Cinema, Bank of America
>Cinema, The Music Box, Facets Multimedia, White Light Cinema, The
>Nightingale, and others. I especially recommend Doc at the moment.
>To Thomas McCormick, I didn't mean to make this generational. Most young
>people in Brakhage's era who were interested in cinema, whatever that
>may mean, would not have taken his intensive approach. And it's quite
>right to point out that he dropped out of college -- after only two
>months. And "not likely" did not mean there were no such people today. I
>know that there are. But schools have to survive by getting a whole lot
>of students to pay tuition; they don't survive on the serious few. That
>was kind of my point.
>About canons, my approach would be to "impose" a small canon, not
>because it is "correct" but because it can give people a reference
>point, and even, something to rebel against. I'd stress early film from
>the beginnings through the 20s avant-garde and the Soviets and Murnau
>and Dreyer, which helped establish the "language," and then be more
>selective in later periods, but would include giants like Bresson and
>classical Hollywood and the avant-garde movement that began in the
>1940s. But then there should also be time and resources for each student
>to choose additional areas to explore in depth.
>Fred Camper
>For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.

For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.