- Introducing Film Studies
I teach film in the English Department at Oregon State University, a land and sea grant school that embraces its mission as a public state institution. Consistent with such a mission, the administration here boasts that professors at Oregon State actually teach for a living. It's a remark that on its face sounds silly, but those of us in the business know exactly what it means. Despite fairly stiff teaching loads, promotion and tenure as well as salary decisions generally hinge upon publication and patents, not pedagogy. Given the practicalities of the profession, then, writing and teaching can often be competitive as opposed to complementary tasks. For those assigned to teach introductory courses, the distance between the classroom and the archive can seem vast, and the time devoted to teaching, writing, and service can feel hopelessly out of balance, especially with regard to compensation.
Struck by the pangs of responsibility to the public university mission and to my own nascent pedagogy, in 1985 I decided on my own to offer Oregon State's first Introduction to Film Studies class. The class implied that there was a discipline to introduce, and in 1985 that seemed to me a point well worth making. What follows here is a rumination on how I've come to balance teaching and scholarship, focusing mostly on the teaching of a three-term sequence of Introduction to Film Studies (which constitutes half my yearly assignment) and how it has both been relevant to and benefited from my research and writing over the past twenty-five years.
When I first hit the job market, I applied to all six film positions advertised on the Modern Language Association's job list. English Departments were just beginning to get into the film business, mostly to bulk up their faltering student credit hours. Plenty of the old guard in these departments viewed film classes and film professors as something of an embarrassment, but they appreciated the practical advantages of big classes (taught by someone else).
For my campus talk at Oregon State I decided against reflecting on my writing to that point. And I decided not to showcase a work in progress, mostly because I feared that a discussion of Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe, and the American 1950s was too focused on pop culture for the occasion. I instead spoke to what I believed was the issue at hand: how film classes might fit in an English Department curriculum. I [End Page 93] got the job but later discovered that what tipped the scales was not my talk but that I had an MFA in creative writing and some graduate coursework in literature. If the film classes didn't work out or just got too embarrassing for the Joyce and Shakespeare scholars, I might still be of some use.
Film Tragedy and Film Comedy
When I arrived at Oregon State there were two movie classes: Film Tragedy and Film Comedy. My colleagues were surprised to hear that I found the titles overbroad and kind of embarrassing. When I proposed dumping those courses to instead teach an intro class, their glazed looks suggested, "An intro to what?"
My primary goal was to move away from the "film as literature" or "film and literature" model in order to teach in a way that was more consistent with my graduate experience and my ambitions as a researcher and writer. The strategic move to establish Film Studies within the larger curriculum met with little opposition, in part because the classes from the start enrolled five times as many students as other introductory classes. At the time I found the task of defining the discipline daunting, and I didn't appreciate how much freedom I had as the only Film Studies professor on campus—freedom those in film, media, or communications departments often did not (and do not) enjoy.
What Do Students Know?
I wonder how often I really thought about this question through the first twenty years of my career as a writer, even when I pitched a book to a publisher as being well suited to the classroom. But this question has always been...