When I was an undergraduate at Georgia State University studying journalism and political science, I skipped more classes than I attended. I spent much of my time writing for the student newspaper, sitting in the school cafe debating the current writings of film critics like Pauline Kael, Robin Woods, and Andrew Sarris, and attending screenings of the student film society.
One day, my political science mentor, William Thomas, called me into his office and said, “No offense, Henry, but it seems your real passion is film and not political science. Maybe you should think about going to graduate school to study cinema.” This was a revelation to me on two levels. First, I’d never really thought about going to graduate school before. No one in my family had a graduate degree. And Second, I never knew you could study film at an advanced level. Georgia State offered only a few film classes at that point — and then, only as electives. You always had the vague sense you were getting away with something when you took them. If I knew of advanced film studies, it was through the discourse of the “movie brats” who came through production programs at USC, UCLA, and NYU.
Once I started looking into it, I couldn’t stop thinking about going off to study film. I spent more time in the university library reading through the books there, trying to figure out where the authors were based. (I should have noticed when the books were published since the library was then a decade plus out of date and we missed out on most of the real energy that had turned film studies into a full academic discipline during that time.) I ended up writing a several hundred page undergraduate thesis on American films of the Depression era, a project which took over my life and further insured that my teachers didn’t see me in the classroom. (Well, that and dating the woman who would eventually become my wife.)
The larger problem was that I didn’t have the financial resources to go to graduate school and wasn’t sure how I would pay for it. I wasted two years trying to save up money when someone finally said just apply and see if they offer you financial aid. As I was filling in where to send my GRE scores, I had one empty slot and something in the back of my head told me to choose University of Iowa. In the end, I got accepted every place I applied but the University of Iowa was the only place which offered me full financial support. I will always be grateful that the faculty at Iowa took a chance on me, because otherwise I don’t know how I would ever have been able to get a graduate education and enter the profession which has dominated my life for several decades now.
I had no idea what to expect when I came to Iowa. What I found was a program which was then arguably one of the top few programs in the field of Cinema Studies. I was woefully under-prepared for the classes I took there and much flew over my head in those early years.
For example, right off the boat, so to speak, I had a chance to take a seminar with Dudley Andrew on the film theory of Christian Metz which culminated with Metz’s appearance at Iowa and a chance to spend one on one consultation with this key international film theorist. I took a seminar that first semester from Edward Branigan, who was one of an amazing area of key film critics and theorists who came as visiting scholars during the time I was with the program, and he adopted me as a pet project, helping me to find my bearings in film theory. I ended up taking a range of courses with him and we’ve remained close friends down to the present day. I soon had a chance to take a class on narrative theory from Rick Altman, who similarly helped to shape not only my thinking about genre and narrative but modeled for me what a graduate seminar that straddled multiple disciplines might look like and I still channel some of Altman’s approaches in my own teaching down to the present day. I had a chance to study Japanese and French cinemas with Dudley Andrew, a leading authority in this space. I had great conversations with Richard Dyer McCann, who had covered the glory days of Hollywood and had vivid stories to tell about his own front line perspective on the history of American movies. I met John Fiske there, when he was a visting scholar, and was introduced to the work of British Cultural Studies, which would become a key methodological and theoretical underpinning of my work down to the present day. Through the visits of former Iowa students, I got connected to a network of people doing cutting edge thinking about popular entertainment — who had in many ways mapped our modern conception of film genres. I will always be proud that I was one of the graduate students asked to speak at the opening of the new Communication Studies Building and one of the last to have much of my graduate experience through the Old Armory which had been the base for Cinema at Iowa for many years.
Ultimately, I decided to leave Iowa at the end of my masters to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for my PhD. I have always felt some of my strengths as a scholar came from being able to combine these two great traditions, to have studied under a much broader array of faculty than I would have worked with at either place. These days, I am much more closely associated with Madison than with Iowa, but I remain deeply proud that I had those years in Iowa City. The faculty and students at Iowa helped me to make the transition from someone with a passion for film but little knowledge of film theory into someone who could hold his own at some of the top film programs in the country and helped to lay the foundations for my career down to the present day.
It is hard to imagine contemporary Film Studies without a strong Iowa tradition. The school trained many key figures who helped to establish the field, hosted many more as visiting scholars, and organized and hosted key conferences which transformed the fields of both film and television studies. I recall not only gatherings of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies but also the first Console-ing Passions conference, an earlier Television Studies event which may have helped consolidate that field, and an important gathering which explored the value of cognitive science to film theory, each of which represented important turning points in my own research and teaching.
I was stunned, therefore, when I received a letter from Cory Creekmur, currently the Director of the Film Studies Program at Iowa, to describe the current plight of the program. I will share some of the news in his own words:
Dear Alumni and Friends,
An ad hoc entity called the Provost’s Task Force on Graduate Education and Selective Excellence has just recommended the elimination of the PhD program in Film Studies at the University of Iowa, along with the MA and PhD programs in Comparative Literature. It has also recommended that the MFA in Film and Video Production be moved to a newly proposed Division of Communications (with Journalism and Communication Studies), and that the MFA
in Translation be moved to a newly proposed Division of World Languages and Cultures (with the foreign languages). These undesirable and illogical moves would in effect dismember the current Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature. Ours are not the only programs under threat, but ours is the only department that would be obliterated if the committee’s recommendations
were to be followed.
The committee was made up of mostly non-Humanists, and it did its work mostly on the basis of statistics like time to degree, GRE scores of applicants, and years of support offered to grad students. It identified the placement of Iowa Film Studies graduates as “good,” but did not note
that our graduates can be found at many of the world’s finest universities, including Yale, Brown, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, among many others. It did not employ any outside evaluators. It did not collect information on the work of faculty. It did not collect information on
program costs (the members of the committee know very well that Humanities grad degrees are dirt cheap by comparison with degrees in lab sciences). In short, the excellence of our programs was not something the committee had any basis for evaluating. We are preparing a response — due very soon — and would like your help, in part because you are in the position to offer an evaluation.
Clearly, the impressive legacy and ongoing vitality of the Film Studies program at Iowa were ignored in this decision. We are enormously proud of the accomplishments of our graduates, who have been crucial to the development and continued growth of Film Studies as a scholarly discipline in North America and beyond. Our current students promise to continue that legacy into the future. Former Iowa students are among the most productive scholars and influential teachers in the field, and while we do our best to continually inform the administration of this fact, we would now greatly appreciate your helping us to clearly and forcefully articulate the
importance of the excellence of our programs to those who will be deciding on the future of our programs.
Please send me a brief testimonial – a few lines would do it – about the importance of the program/s, Iowa’s place as a leader in X (your choice), how study here helped you, etc. While the MFA in Film and Video Production is not currently threatened, the committee did not consider the MFA as connected to Film Studies, although the programs have always benefited
enormously from close cooperation and linked interests. Its recommendations suggest in fact that it saw all the programs as separate entities that can be shoved around without affecting the program health of the others. If they do this, I think it will destroy not only Film Studies and Comp Lit but harm Film and Video Production and Translation as well.
Director of Film Studies
Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature
The University of Iowa
I know many in the Film and Media Studies field read this blog. I am hoping that you will join me in expressing your dismay and concern over these developments and lending our support to Corey and the other faculty and students at Iowa. Destroying the Film Studies PhD at Iowa would be a tragic mistake!