Four things you cannot say in a job interview …
My contract at the University of Central Lancashire ended in July 2008, and since then I have been looking for another full-time teaching post at a British university. I have been very successful at getting interviews at a whole range of different institutions, but not at actually landing the job itself. On the one hand, this is frustrating. At the same time it has been enlightening, as I have spent the past year traveling around the country talking to different people at different types of institutions about film and media studies. This post is a series of observations I have made about film studies in the UK, but which I have not yet shared with anyone – largely because what I have to say is critical of the current state of affairs and these are the types of thing that prospective employers do not want to hear in a job interview. (I will not, however, name names).
A growing subject
Although still not entirely accepted as an academic discipline film studies and media studies has shown prodigous growth in the number of institutions offering some type of film studies and/or media studies degree, or offer these subjects as paths to joint honours, or includes some provision of film as part of other degrees (e.g. modern languages, English literature, art history, American/Canadian studies, etc). The number of students enrolled on these degrees has expanded enormously (see Figure 1), and there are reported to be some 30,000 students studying film and media at A-Level in the UK. As I have shown elsewhere, film studies has been successful in attracting a substantial amount of research funding from the AHRC over the past five years (read the analysis here).
Figure 1 Undergraduates enrolled in Cinematics and Photography and Media Studies degrees at UK universities, 1998-1999 to 2007-2008 (Source: HESA)
Things, it would seem, are looking up – but I’m not so sure.
What is Film Studies?
This is a question that goes to the very heart of the problem. The expansion of film studies/media studies has advanced at pace, but in an uncoordinated manner. Universities have been falling over themselves to set up these degrees because there is at present a market for them, but there is very little consensus on what the answer to this question should be. The benchmarking guidance produced by the QAA for Communication, Media, Film and Cultural Studies is so vague as to be meaningless, while SEFT ceased to function long ago, and the BFI has no real educational purpose other than being a publisher of books about film and television and a distributor of DVDs. There is, then, a lack of sensible framework for defining the subject.
This is how I answer the question: What is Film Studies? 
Film Studies is broadly comprised of four types of analysis:
- Industrial analysis: the political economy of film industries; the organisation of film industries; technologies of film production, distribution, and exhibition; practices of film production, distribution, and exhibition; government policies.
- Textual analysis: representation and the symbolic meanings of film; film form; film style.
- Ethnographic analysis: the composition of audiences; rituals of cinema-going and film experiences; cultural meanings and issues of identity.
- Cognitive-psychological analysis: the viewer’s perception of a film; communication and information in the cinema; psychological processes of meaning-making in the cinema; the psychological basis of the viewer’s response to a film.
Films can be analysed as institutionally produced commercial commodities that function as cultural artifacts inscribed with meanings which are then consumed and interpreted by audiences, whose experience of the cinema is predicated cognitive-psychological processes of perception and comprehension. Film Studies is a research programme analysing films in institutional, textual, ethnographic, and cognitive-psychological terms. These different forms of analysis cannot be separated: for example, a question of film style (the dominance of continuity editing) may require an answer that draws on the cognitive-psychological processes of the viewer (the perception of the spatial organisation of a scene) and the production practices of the industry (the division of labour in classical Hollywood cinema).
It is the highly inter-disciplinary nature of the subject that makes it so challenging and so rewarding. For me, this is what is so exciting about the subject. I also trained as a historian – which I enjoyed immensely – but I could never shake off the feeling that I was learning more and more about less and less. Film Studies is so open and requires such a range of different skills that I never lack for some new area to explore. In 2007, I had three papers published: one on UK film policy, one on the representation of the Welsh landscape in film, and one on motion perception. What other subject requires its students to be (at the very least) competent in art history, economics, psychology, sociology, politics, neuroscience, etc. How exciting it is to be a film student!
This definition does not reflect what is being taught at most UK universities under the title of film studies. Most film degrees are limited to textual and ethnographic analysis (and then mostly the former), with little emphasis on industry (if any). There are very few courses in cognition and perception at all. At the risk of alienating film lecturers everywhere, I venture to suggest that you cannot properly consider yourself to be academically qualified in film studies unless you have covered all four of these areas. Too many film studies degrees in the UK do not meet this requirement and too many students are being awarded degrees with only a superficial knowledge of some of these areas and none at all in some cases.
Unfortunately, it is those aspects of film studies that lend themselves to empirical investigation that are least covered. I recently had an interview at a university in the north of England. During the interview I talked about my work on British film policy and the statistical analysis of film style, but it was clear that they were not interested in this. The interviewers seemed to think this was beyond the limits of film studies and that the work on film policy, for example, belonged in the field of economic/cultural geography (which it does but it is film studies as well). The most depressing moment came when one person said that they were quite surprised that I took such an empirical approach to the subject, because he thought that film studies was all Freud and Lacan. Now, to be fair, this person was not a film studies lecturer, and had been invited onto the interview panel as the outsider to the department (he was a sociologist), but I have to say that this is the most depressing thing I have ever heard. That someone should be surprised by an empirical approach in higher education should set alarm bells ringing – at best the subject has an image problem that needs to be addressed; at worst, the empirical basis of film studies is in serious doubt.
Film Studies and NOT Media Studies
As you can see from the definition of film studies above, it is a broad and wide-ranging subject that requires a great deal of students – and, if done well, offers great rewards. Film studies is a large subject. Howver, it is typically delivered as part of a joint honours degree with another subject or in conjunction with either Television Studies or Media Studies. There are only about 20 degrees in the UK for which the title is simply ‘film studies.’ Given the size of the subject, this is clearly a problem as students are compromised in terms of the attention they can devote to the subject. Expecting them to do media studies as well as film studies puts too much of a burden onto the student as they have to cover such a broad range of topics (film, television, radio, print media, digital media) that they cannot get to grips with any of them in a meaningful way.
Film studies and media studies are very different subjects. Film studies has emerged from a humanities background, from English and Art departments, and this explains the focus on textual analysis – we study the work in great depth as we would a novel or painting. Media studies, by contast, emerged from sociology and is not interested in the work itself, but in the social relations between the institutions of the media and its audiences. This is why semiotics persists in media studies in a way that it does not in film studies: media studies is not interested in the work itself per se but the work is necessary as this is how institution and audience communicate. Therefore, there must be a system of communication and the theory of the sign provides a simple mechanism that can be invoked to explain this communicative relationship. But there is not the same level of detailed analysis of the work that we find film studies.
A further problem is that is not really clear what we mean by ‘media’ when we say .media studies.’ Do we use media as a plural, and expect students to study lots of different mediums (if you’ll excuse the syntax)? Or do we mean something more abstract, that is best captured by some sociological theory, but which cannot be reduced to a single specific object such as film or television? It seems to me that ‘media’ in the first sense asks too much of students and can only cover so many different media in a superficial way, while the latter risks becoming so nebulous that we lose sight of the subject itself. Media studies degrees in the UK use the term media in both ways depending on where you choose to study – so much for benchmarking.
Television studies wants to have it both ways and fails to combine film studies and media studies in anything that could be called a satisfactory manner.
Film studies is a large subject, but by having a limited focus on film, this can be overcome as students have the same object of inquiry throughout their studies rather than jumping from TV to radio to digital to photography to whatever.
For these reasons – different approaches, unclear meanings, and the sheer quantity of work required by students to become even modestly proficient in their chosen subject – I do not think that film studies should be taught with media studies.Of course, I have said this in job interviews where it is clear that the university has already made up its mind that there exists some sort of natural link between film and media, and openly disagreeing with the head of department about the development of the degree subjects is not an advisable interview strategy. I still think I was right.
Care should also be given to students study film as part of a joint honours programme, which can be rewarding, but also runs the risk of failing to provide a proper basis in the subject. (Most students, I assume, are not quite so wilfully interdisciplinary as me – I felt that doing joint honours actually helped me to do both subjects well – and this is why I keep going off on tangents).
Film students are not necessarily learning about film
With the rapid growth of film studies degrees, there is obviously a need for people to teach these courses. Too many of these have been drafted in from other areas. This places a great deal of stress on academics whichthey could well do without, but it also creates problems for the delivery of the degrees themselves. Too much of film studies in the UK is just semiotics taught from a text book by tutors who do not have a sufficient level of specialist subject knowledge. Clearly not the academics fault (given the standard of management in higher education in the UK), but a serious problem. I have seen modules, taught at UK universities by academics whose background is not in film, which claim to be film studies but are, in fact, not. What they tend to be are courses in critical theory that use films as their texts for study. Now I am sure that the tutor genuinely believes that what they are doing is film studies – they seemed pretty damned convinced when I spoke to them; but is clear that the focus of the module is the theory and not the films. Were students enrolled on a critical theory degree this would be great – but if they are enrolled on film studies degree then the primary object of study should be the cinema in one of the forms of analysis listed above. (Here discretion was the better part of valour, and I refrained from pointing this out). Critical theory might be useful on doing this (you never know), but is not a substitute for it. There are too many students enrolled on film studies in the UK who are not studying film.
I am aware that criticising academics who are under pressure is not fair – but the future of the subject depends on its reputation. This is something that needs to change.
It’s not uniqueness – it’s solipsism
Everywhere you go you find a world class university. (Maybe universities are like spaceships – coming soon, the new galaxy class!) And everywhere you go, there are universities that are delivering high quality degrees in a unique way.
First, a job interview at a higher education institution is not simple an interview – it’s a ‘process.’ Typically, this involves giving a presentation – and what is the requested topic du jour? Well, its ‘How does your research relate to your teaching?’ I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have been asked this question, but evidently all these ‘unique’ universities are thinking the same thing.
What’s worse is that it is a load of nonsense. Check out the Teaching-Research Nexus (TRN) website from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council. This really is funny: under What is the TRN? they declare,
Despite the faith in the teaching-research nexus (TRN) and the espoused belief in its benefits, the precise character of the relationship between teaching and research is not well understood. In fact, the empirical evidence for a correlation between research performance and the quality of teaching is not strong.
Shortly to be followed by:
This project takes as its starting point the view that teaching and research offer mutual benefit and that ‘research-led’ or ‘research-infused’ teaching and learning can benefit student learning. The TRN is one means of enhancing teaching and learning in higher education and improving graduate attributes.
So, theres no evidence for it but we’re sure it is of benefit. Genius! Welcome to higher education.
They go on to outline the benefits of the TRN:
- Benefit 1: Deepen students’ understanding of the knowledge bases of disciplines and professions, including their research methods and contemporary research challenges and issues
- Benefit 2: Build students’ higher-order intellectual capabilities and enhance their skills for employment and lifelong learning
- Benefit 3: Develop students’ capacity to conduct research and enquiry
- Benefit 4: Enhance students’ engagement and develop their capacity for independent learning
Now maybe it’s just me but this seems to be the definition of a higher education degree, and I would venture to suggest that if you degree programme does not ‘build students higher-order intellectual capabilities’ or ‘develop their capacity for independent learning’ then you should not be calling your self a university.
This is banal nonsense, but it is being pushed by the HEA and it is what every university wants to hear about.
This is one example of how universities are not unique – the seem genuinely surprised when I tell them that I’ve already done presentations on this. Hell, I’ve even read the website of Australian Learning and Teaching Council!
Another example that is of particular concern for film studies is the limited variability of module choice for students across film studies degrees across the UK. Everywhere I go I find the same choices being offered to students: a course on Hitchcock (usually with the word ‘auteur’ in the title), a course of documentary (with ‘real/reality/realism’ in the title), New Hollywood, Horror film (teaching horror cinema is the fourth largest sector contributing to the UK’s economy), a course in British national identity (but not British cinema, becasue that would involve some sort of focus on the film industry), and adaptation. The same films are taught in the same way at every university – and yet they all insist on their uniqueness.
Well, it’s not uniqueness – it’s solipsism.
There is so much that could be taught that isn’t – why is it always Hitchcock and not Hawks or Lang or Ray or Ford (which I did at Kent, but was then apparently dropped for Scorsese) or Varda or Herzog or Mizoguchi or anyone else? Universities could position themselves in the market place to attract students and build up their reputations yb doing somehting different, but at present this is not happening. Now, there are some very good film studies degrees out there – Kent, Warwick, and, in particular, UEA have been very successful. But for the rest? It really doesn’t matter where the student goes as they will get pretty much the same thing everywhere. This will, in the long term, harm the subject because it will compromise an institutions competitiveness. Look at the websites of the universities offering film studies degrees in the UK and you’ll find most of them list their choice of modules. See how many modules in New Hollywood cinema you can find.
The only regret I have from the various job interviews (apart from my conintuing unemployment) is that I have not spoken up about this homogeneity when I had the chance.
These, then, are the four problems that I think the teaching of film studies in the UK has to face :
- We need a clear and useful definition of the subject.
- We need to establish what we expect students should be doing when they study film.
- We need to make sure that students get a fully rounded education in film, and not just watch horror/New Hollywood films.
- We need to create a little originality and diversity in the teaching of film studies in the UK.
The numbers game of higher education presents film studies as being successful, but this reflects students enrolling before tuition fees were (or are going to be) raised and increases in students enrolling during a time of contraction for the UK economy, and is masking real problems for the subject. But where can you raise these issues – you certainly can’t say any of this stuff in job interviews.
- This definition draws on Andrew Herman, Thomas Swiss, and John Sloop, ‘Mapping the Beat: Spaces of Noise and Places of Music,’ in Thomas Swiss, John Sloop, and Andrew Herman (eds.) Mapping the Beat: Popualr Music and Contemporary Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998:3-29.
- Reader should also check out my earlier post on research funding for film studies in the UK.