Student Harvesting and the Dilution of a Discipline

Sitting in the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theatre in Lincoln, Nebraska as graduate students, taking notes in the dark with our pens scribbling wildly across the page, these were the first steps in our film studies training.

News of the impending closure of two liberal arts colleges, Sweet Briar College and Tennessee Temple University, as well as Arizona Governor Doug Ducey's budget call to eliminate state support for the three largest community college districts in his state, serve as a sober reminder about the vulnerability of higher education and of the Liberal Arts programs, in particular.

With the dip in enrollments and austerity as the new normal, the competition for students at colleges and universities is greater than ever, even among departments. Faculty have also adopted various strategies to draw students to their courses, including the incorporation of film, music, and popular culture.

While we recognize the impulse behind these faculty-based campaigns to harvest students, we think there are some significant dangers associated with them, both for students and instructors, not least among them the devaluing of film, for example, as an actual field, with its own methodologies and language.

Film as a discipline can help students see that the award-winning artistry of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman is worthy of our critical attention, but so is the recent controversy over Lily James' impossibly small waist in the new Kenneth Branagh directed live-action Cinderella film from Disney.

While what a film does matters as much as how it is made, the richness of film study is found in a dialogue between the two, a dialogue formal film studies fosters and explores.

For all or part of six years, we devoted ourselves to genre theory, critical film theory, film history, film production, and cinematography, not to mention hundreds of films from around the world, including big slices of Soviet, African, and Indian cinema.

The one-page, double-spaced film analysis of a three-hour Satyajit Ray film almost broke us, but also honed our thinking at the intersections of narrative and visual imagery.

It was rigorous and our professor demanding always pushing us to be better, more sophisticated critics and theorists in preparation for "one day" becoming competent film scholars.

Although our careers have taken us along separate paths, one to university and one to community college, we both draw on our training to do what we both love, teach film. Yet in both environments we encounter similar situations, where colleagues say, "Anyone can teach film."

Excuse us if we bristle at such an assertion.

Lest we be called gatekeepers or snobs, we are not saying that film cannot be fun or an important addition to any syllabus, but most often, the focus is on thematic currents running through the films that are related to course topics rather than on technique, genre, criticism, or history.

One of the first things we have to teach our students is that the movies they love have critical and cultural weight, that they have value and are worthy of scholarly analysis.

This takes more work than one might expect. "Movies are just entertainment" becomes a familiar refrain, usually coupled with "I don't go to the movies to think, but to escape."

We try to teach the means by which that escape is made possible, how the art and artistry of film must remain invisible in order for them to "lose themselves" in a film.

Inevitably, one will ask, "Are you going to ruin movies for me?"

Doing so is always a possibility, but never our intention, as we pull back the curtain to reveal the mechanics and machinations of the Great Oz. Understanding the magician's secrets doesn't make the magic go away.

Film has great narrative and thematic appeal. After all, moving image is the water through which we all swim. Visual culture, especially film, is the currency of our students' lives. If we allow them to take it seriously as a discipline, film studies can usher them into the academy and keep them there.

Let's not integrate film and popular culture into our courses at the expense of important disciplinary lenses, and, as a result, risk losing students altogether. Doing so will affect far more than the bottom line.

This piece is co-authored by:

Domino Renee Perez is the Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She is an Associate Professor in English and in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas Austin where she teaches courses on film, literature, and popular culture. Follow her on Twitter @Domino_Perez

Barbara Williamson is a faculty member at Spokane Falls Community College, where she teaches courses in American literature, cultural studies, writing, and film. She occasionally lends her voice to Movies 101, a local film review show on Spokane Public Radio.