Teaching Film and Media Studies in Liberal Arts Colleges/ Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 2 (2) Spring 2014










Teaching Film and Media Studies in Liberal Arts Colleges

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 2 (2) Spring 2014
Co-editors: Elizabeth Nathanson and Carol Donelan

Table of Contents

Understandably Critical (of Neoliberalism) by Maurizio Viano
Teaching Production in a Liberal Arts Context by Paul McEwan
Sound Studies in a Liberal Arts Curriculum by Jay Beck
Collaborative Models for Engagement by Bryan Sebok
Flipping German Cinema by Karen Achberger
Local Truths, Tactical Pedagogies: Documentary, Ethics, and Service Learning by Chuck Tyron


Elizabeth Nathanson and Carol Donelan

The economic recession, rising student debt, and high levels of unemployment have once again put into question the “value” of a liberal arts education. Given the bleak outlook for recent grads, repeatedly trumpeted in the popular press, it is difficult to ignore the claim that a liberal arts education may not be “worth it.” In the current popular mindset, the “value” of a liberal arts education is understood in economic terms, as a “return on investment,” with the price of the degree measured against the earning potential of graduates in the job market.

“I promise folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they can with an art history degree,” President Obama remarked recently in a speech to Wisconsin factory workers.  The President immediately qualified his statement—his intention was to promote the trades, not diss art history, and he later wrote a letter of apology to a University of Texas art historian regarding his “favorite subject in high school,” but the gaff reveals a deep-seated, seemingly unshakeable anxiety regarding the uncertain “value” (read: “market value”) of a liberal arts education.  Sure, you can get an art history-film studies-English-philosophy degree, but what can you do with it?

Faculty at liberal arts colleges are feeling the pressures of this moment. A “liberal arts college” is generally defined as a four-year institution, attended by students aged 18-21, with curricula “resistant to highly specific vocational preparation and insisting on a considerable breadth of studies” (Hawkins 1999, 23). Liberal arts faculty are not inclined to “value” the education we provide based primarily on the job-getting and salary-earning outcomes of our graduates, but anxious parents and students facing big bills have a right to ask.  And since they are asking: liberal arts grads, by their mid-50s, are employed at similar rates and make more money than those who studied in professional or pre-professional programs. Turns out, even when the economy is shaky, liberal arts grads are the answer to the age-old question, “What do employers want?”  In a 2013 survey, over three hundred employers were read the following definition of a liberal education—without identifying it as such: “This approach to a college education provides both broad knowledge in a variety of areas of study and knowledge in a specific major or field of interest.  It also helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as intellectual and practical skills that span all areas of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”  Seventy-nine percent of the employers endorsed “this kind of education” as the “best way for young people to prepare for professional and career success in today’s global economy.”

Liberal arts faculty, questioned by parents and students regarding the “utility” of the subject matter we teach, may need to fine-tune our message for the different audiences we hope to reach. By adopting a “both-and” rather than “either-or” response we can continue to champion our traditional understanding of the “value” of a liberal arts education to those who appreciate it as we do, while developing the case we might make to those who prefer to “value” education in monetary terms or seek more of a direct correlation between college-going and job-getting.

Film and Media Studies faculty are uniquely positioned to contribute to the conversation regarding the “value” of the liberal arts, given the hybridity of our curriculum, which tends to be situated between the traditional liberal arts and experiential or applied learning.  What case can we make to students and parents regarding the “utility” of a liberal arts education and majoring in Film and Media Studies?  How is our curriculum evolving in response to the different ways the liberal arts are viewed by parents, students and employers?  How—or to what extent—are we preparing students to be critical thinking “citizens” as well as skilled “professionals” in the job market?  This Teaching Dossier brings to light the perspectives of Film and Media Studies faculty who are grappling with the challenges and opportunities inherent in teaching and “valuing” Film and Media Studies in the liberal arts today.

The first two essays establish frameworks for discussion, exploring “Curriculum in Context.”

Maurizio Viano kicks things off by charting the ripple effects of “neoliberalism” on liberal arts education, wherein “the logic of free enterprise is creeping into every corner of human existence” and affecting faculty and student experience in Film and Media Studies.  In response to these developments, Viano highlights for our consideration two perspectives from outside of Film and Media Studies: the call to revive the generalist tradition of undergraduate teaching and the movement to create a “hybrid humanities.” Viano goes on to discuss how he and his colleagues at Wellesley College have responded to these ideas in their recent curricular and hiring decisions.

Paul McEwan engages the call to embrace the “generalist tradition” by requiring students in his film production courses to develop films drawing upon topics or concepts encountered in their general education courses.  As McEwan explains, such an approach yields films premised in substantive ideas and “helps to make the case that film and video production do not have to run alongside the liberal arts curriculum, but can be an integral part of it.”

The next two essays offer “Creative Solutions” for reinventing Film and Media Studies curriculum to accommodate the different ways it is “valued” today.

Jay Beck discusses the steady growth of Sound Studies in the Cinema and Media Studies curriculum at Carleton College.  Sound Studies, an emerging field, has faced somewhat of an uphill battle to be accepted in the liberal arts.  Curiously, this is due not to budgetary or technological limitations; rather, it stems from the relative invisibility of sound discourses in higher education.  By fostering the study of sound and getting students to integrate sound into their production projects as early as possible, the curriculum has developed a new sensitivity to sound practices in CAMS majors as well as students from across the college.

Bryan Sebok explores how a familiar model in Film and Media Studies, the singular “one (wo)man band” faculty member responsible for the entire core curriculum—critical studies as well as production—can foster an “orchestra of support.”  The collaborative model he describes entails engaging technical support staff as well as faculty from other departments, enlisting their collaboration and cross-listing their courses.  Crucially, it also requires a shift in thinking about students as “key collaborators” in faculty research and film production “rather than conceptualizing student labor as a burden requiring additional management efforts.”

The final two essays offer case studies in “Engaged Pedagogies.”

Karen Achberger has “flipped” her German Cinema course and now asks students to view micro-lectures online before coming to class.  Class time is devoted to collaborative learning, with student teams engaging the assigned films as active producers rather than passive consumers of knowledge.  By working collaboratively, thinking critically, and grappling with issues and problems specific to other cultures and historical moments, students are developing the skills they need to thrive in the global workforce.  Flipped German Cinema is but one example of the growing interest in and support for the Digital Humanities initiative at St Olaf College.

Chuck Tyron describes the institutional contexts and motivations for reinventing a basic film aesthetics course as a service-learning course on documentary ethics and production at Fayetteville State University.  The newly repositioned course skews away from a disciplinary model emphasizing film form and style.  Instead, students study weekly documentary films from the perspective of ethical practice and representation.  They then partner with community organizations to produce films serving the needs of the community while attending to the ethics of their own directorial practices.  The course helps students develop skills in critical thinking and gain real world professional experience—two objectives of liberal arts education.


Works Cited

Hawkins, Hugh. 1999. “The Making of the Liberal Arts College Identity.” Deadalus Vol. 128, No. 1: 1-25.



Elizabeth Nathanson is Assistant Professor of Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College.  She teaches courses in feminist media studies, television history, cultural theory and documentary research.  She is the author of Television and Postfeminist Housekeeping: No Time For Mother (Routledge, 2013).  Her article, “Dressed for Economic Distress: Blogging and the ‘New’ Pleasures of Fashion” appears in the anthology Gendering the Recession (Duke University Press, 2014). Her work has also appeared in Television and New Media and Framework.

Carol Donelan is Associate Professor and Chair of Cinema & Media Studies at Carleton College, where she teaches courses in film analysis, history, theory and genres.  Her research interests include archival film history and contemporary film genres.  She is the author of Electric Theater: The Emergence of Cinema in Northfield, 1896-1917 and has an essay on the Twilight Saga franchise forthcoming in Quarterly Review of Film & Video.

Maurizio Viano is Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Wellesley College, where he pioneered and currently co-directs the CAMS major and teaches courses in film history and European Cinema.  His research focuses on Surrealism, the Neo-Baroque, and the cinema of Raúl Ruiz and he is the author of A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice as well as numerous book chapters and articles on film.

Paul McEwan is Associate Professor of Media & Communication and Film Studies at Muhlenberg College, where he teaches both production and studies.  He edited a special section on “Teaching Difficult Films” for Cinema Journal in 2007 that included his essay on The Birth of a Nation. That film is also the subject of a BFI Classic volume he has recently completed, to be released later this year.  He is currently working on an annotated bibliography on film pedagogy for Oxford Bibliographies and is the author of a book, Bruce McDonald’s Hard Core Logo (2011) and a forthcoming essay on Griffith’s Intolerance for the Companion to D.W. Griffith.

Jay Beck is Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Carleton College. He co-edited Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound, is American co-editor of the journal Music, Sound and the Moving Image, and his current book project is Designing Sound: Technology and Sound Aesthetics in 70s American Cinema.

Bryan Sebok is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies at Lewis & Clark College, where he teaches courses that integrate film and media studies with production.  A working filmmaker, he has produced a narrative feature, Dance With the One, and is currently directing a feature documentary on the mobile food movement.  He has also published articles in Velvet Light Trap, MediaScape and Spectator.

Karen R. Achberger, Professor of German at St Olaf College, teaches courses in German language, literature and cinema.  “Flipping” her German Cinema classroom was made possible through a 2013 Digital Humanities grant funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and “Contextualizing Caligari” will be supported through a 2014 Mellon Foundation grant for “Digital Humanities on the Hill.”  She is the author of two books and 27 articles on 20th century German writers, especially the Austrian Ingeborg Bachmann. She has published two translations of stories by the East German writer Irmtraud Morgner and is currently completing an annotated translation of Bachmann’s critical writings for Camden House.

Chuck Tryon is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Fayetteville State University.  His research focuses on the transformations of movie and television consumption in the era of digital delivery. He is the author of Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (2009) and On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies (2013), both from Rutgers University Press. He has also published essays in The Journal of Film and Video, Jump Cut, Popular Communication, and Screen, as well as the anthologies, Moving Data: The iPhone and My Media and Across the Screens: Science Fiction on Television and Film.

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