Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Syllabi as Intellectual Property?

Yesterday I was talking to a colleague who was lamenting the practice of potential employers who require sample syllabi. The syllabus, particularly a good syllabus, is the product of considerable work and intellectual labor, and as such belongs to the creator. I'm sympathetic to his point: job listings do ask for a lot upfront, given the high probably of a given application ending up in a veritable slush pile. And I know that I spend a lot of time on my syllabi.

However, as regular readers will know, each semester I share my syllabi with any interested readers out in the Internet ether and think it would be better if more scholars did the same. Some reasons:

The intellectual labor of syllabus writing has no direct renumeration: Much like our research, syllabi are loss leaders for the salaried positions we seek or hold. Of course, our feelings about this set up may vary wildly according to our particular material conditions - employment status, pay, position in the academic hierarchy.

The intellectual labor relies disproportionately on others' labor: How many of us can say we've created a syllabus entirely from scratch? We rely on existing scholarship to frame the way we approach our material. We use textbooks and edited volumes which are already structured pedagogically. We borrow, either consciously or more broadly, from syllabi from other scholars or our graduate TA experience.

Syllabi reflect only one portion of the labor of teaching: The scaffolding is important, but it won't erect the building. Moreover, two instructors will produce radically different courses from the same syllabus.

Syllabi are individual: At least the best syllabi are ones personalized to the expertise and interests of the scholar. Someone might well "steal" my syllabus, but might not save himself or herself labor by doing so, given that my choices are in part idiosyncratic.

Syllabi are part of scholars' maintenance of disciplinary knowledge: The above reasons suggest why I am not bothered by sharing syllabi. Their role in disciplinarity is a more active reason to share them. The way we teach and in particular the way we conceptually organize the raw material of our fields perpetuates and shifts in aggregate the way the discipline understands its object of study. From my perspective, if someone borrows from my syllabus, I'm glad that my contribution to the field extends beyond my own classroom.

Sharing opens the syllabus up to collective wisdom: In practice, we are too busy to go around reading everyone's syllabus. But to the extent that syllabi have a broader readership, the possibility exists for a dialogue to open up about it. Even the job interview can be an occasion to get valuable feedback. This has honestly happened to me.

I definitely see the other side here. And in crucial ways, the syllabus sharing issue is related to the issue of intellectual property and blogging. All of us who write weblogs with substantive academic content are aware that doing so consumes time and means the loss of control of what happens to our ideas. That said, the advantages - individual and collective - outweigh the drawbacks.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Give the Elites Some Credit

In the current issus of Flow, Tim Gibson writes about urban gentrification in the contemporary American sitcom:
Indeed, one of the reasons that revitalization guru Richard Florida commands big lecture fees is that he tells city officials exactly what they want to hear. If you want to attract growth and prosperity, he argues, you need to turn your city into the kind of place that “the creative class” enjoys (and by “creative class” Florida means highly-skilled professionals very much like city officials themselves). Once you attract the creative class, Florida argues, high-end employers—who are always searching for deep pools of creative talent—will soon follow.
I'm a Florida-sceptic myself and therefore am happy to see resistance and debunking of the creative class thesis. But the implication that city officials only are able to think in class-narcissistic terms ignores the high likelihood that political elites are engaged actively and sincerely in trying to steer the economies and cultural lives of their cities in new, post-industrial environments. We may not agree with their diagnosis in this, but neither is the diagnosis completely unrooted in the experience of some cities seeing virtuous circles of cultural and information economy. Urban policy schools of thought are ideology but not merely ideology.

All that said, Gibson's reading of the shift in televisual urban imaginary (yeah, I'm dissatisfied with that word, too, but it fits here) is spot on. And he proposes the novel possibility that the utopian vision of these newer television shows has a spillover effect to the specific policy circles of city governments. The question I have is what popular representations could have a beneficial effect in ideologically figuring (or cognitively mapping, if we prefer Jameson) a more optimal urban policy.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Film School, sorted

This blog normally doesn't cover film production or film production education, even though I'm currently teaching in a film and media production program. But it's worth noting that my friend Paul Harrill has drafted up what looks to be the first in a couple of posts on film school, walking prospective film schoolers in how to choose a program and how to apply.

Friday, October 19, 2007

CFP: 2008 Console-ing Passions

Console-ing Passions:
A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism
April 24-26, 2008 - Santa Barbara, California

Founded by a group of feminist media scholars and artists, Console-ing Passions works to create collegial spaces for new work and scholarship on culture and identity in television and related media, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality.

Since the early 1990s, Console-ing Passions conferences have featured new research on feminist perspectives, including race and ethnicity, post-colonialism, queer studies, globalization, national identity, television genres, the social and cultural study of new media, the historical development of media, and an ongoing feminist concern with gender dynamics in the production and consumption of electronic media.

Our consideration of television, digital, and aural media comes at a pivotal moment of political, social, cultural, and technological transformation. Key among our concerns for the 2008 Console-ing Passions conference is the fact that race, gender and important feminist issues will be prominent topics of political discourse in electronic and digital media during this crucial presidential election year. Issues such as reproductive rights, and gay marriage, for example, are hotly contested issues often addressed in the mediasphere. The introduction of blogs, viral video, and social networking sites has had a tremendous impact on traditional media, and their influences on politics represent a shift in the mediation of democratic processes in the U.S., and in different parts of the world. We are also interested in how new mobile video technologies (i.e., cell phones, and ipods) inaugurate a new era of “ubiquitous media” and participate in the renegotiation of the private and public spheres. Some of these recent changes are related to historical processes. As always, we are very interested in historical research on television, audio and new media.

Taking advantage of our conference location in Santa Barbara, California, which is very close to both the Hollywood film and TV industry, and the information technology hub of Silicon Valley, we also invite submissions that explore the position of women and ethnic minorities in these media and information industries.

We are interested in these and other topics that consider such developments specifically from feminist perspectives. We invite paper proposals that consider, but are not limited to the following:
  • gender, media and presidential politics
  • history and theory of television
  • women, race, and the Don Imus effect
  • feminism and the blogosphere
  • YouTube and social networking
  • gender, 'nature' and media
  • experimental media histories and criticism
  • women in media industries
  • gender and media spaces
  • media and reproductive politics
  • media and gay/lesbian politics
  • reality TV
  • second life, gaming, virtual reality online
  • religion and media
  • gender and technology
  • gender and violence
  • militarism
  • mobile media activism
  • theories of post-television
  • theorizing TV in the age of Tivo
  • gender, media and globalization
Deadline for receipt of proposals is November 1, 2007. Full guidelines at the call for papers website.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More Media History

This last weekend's conference had me thinking about the rhetorical gambits that papers and questioners alike use, in part because the type of gambits common to this conference seemed to me to differ from those I see in textual study and theory conferences. Of course gambits aren’t wrong necessarily. Knowledge production, at least and especially in the humanities, proceeds by rhetorical means. But a little self-reflexivity about are argumentation never hurts.

First, there's the evidence gambit: Inductive reasoning is (or maybe should be) the bread and butter of what media historians do, so it makes sense that Q&As should proceed with examples, counterexamples, and those stubborn bits of evidence that beg explanation. At the conference, a surprisingly high number of questions were of this nature (what about Cinerama? What about Shirley Temple's star image?)… surprising at least to someone from a theoretical background, where the questions are often based on differences in axiomatic assumptions or on logical procession of argument. I kept wondering, though, if larger disagreements weren’t being disguised as evidentiary issues, i.e. if the inductive reasoning was in fact sheep’s clothing for deductive debate.

The antecedent gambit: History of course not only narrates facts as events in a sequential order, but ultimately does so with an eye to explanation, usually of a causal nature. But it was remarkable how many papers and how many questions assumed that revelation of a historical antecedent itself provided that explanation. It can, but a few factors mitigate:
  • there could be formal or surface similarities between media texts from our perspective today that were not understood as continuous at the time (this is my argument about 30s vs. 40s problem films);
  • there might be a willing and distorting homology of surface tendencies for otherwise unrelated texts;
  • there could be a “lost history,” ie. an intervening time of discontinuous relation between texts where the second instance reinvents the wheel (Scopitones and music video, say);
  • there all sorts of antecedents, so that a proper explanation should focus not only on the text’s appearance/prior appearance but also ask why the alternative antecedents do not appear. The further the historical gap (one paper mentioned antiquity as an antecedent, another the early modern period), the more weight is on the historian’s shoulders to spell out the relation between antecedent and text.
A variation of this approach is the genealogy gambit: the tendency to pick two or more isolated moments in history and argue for some secret or hitherto understood connection to suggest these are actually the same moment. There may be well-thought out and theoretically articulated reason. Jim Lastra’s paper on sound design, while in some respects one of my favorite presentations, did just this, charting 1917, 1952, and 1979 (I think) as three iterations of a long duree of the sensorium. Which to my ear just raised the modernity thesis problems even more forcefully: if 1979 (Apocalypse Now) is ultimately expressing the same version of the senses that industrial films in 1950s did, what difference does it make that sound design changed then? Did the sensorium not change in 1970s? Did modernity inflect to some new version during that period? Was its inflection cause or result?

Alongside these methodological questions, there are a few conceptual strands worth highlighting from the conference, if only for my own reference:

“Futurism”: Ron Becker’s paper proposed that a “futurism” has aligned administrative goals of universities with scholarship in contemporary mass media, to the detriment of a longer view of television history. (Film history has been remarkably resilient.) His comment got much seconding in the Q&A, so he is clearly not alone in the frustration at the place of television history in the academy.

Transnational: I really valued Kathleen’s Newman keynote talk, particular for the clarity with which she conceptually distinguished the transnational from the international or the global. One of the questions

Culture of complaint: The label is in jest of course, but what struck me is how the conference format predisposes folks to be dissatisfied with the field. And maybe people are. But I happen to like (in some respects, at least) the methodological mushiness of film and media studies. The lumping together in one "discipline" textual/formal-oriented theory with traditional historiography provides productive challenges in addition to conceptual problems. Or for that matter television, cinema, and newer computer information-based media. Part of the fun of this conference was an ability to sit on scholarship being done in the history of radio or videotape formats or international sitcomes and reflect on how their findings might inflect my own research.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Screen Essay

My essay on the prestige film is out in the current issue of Screen (online version, fee or institutional subscription required). Below is the abstract for the essay. Also, since the journal was skittish about including the frame enlargements of Dodsworth and Marty, the two scenes analyzed in the essay, I figured the blog would be as good a place as any to bring them to the light of day.

"Two Modes of Prestige Film"
Chris Cagle
Screen 2007 48(3): 291-311

This essay argues that two modes of prestige film have defined Hollywood’s attempts at “serious” filmmaking. Classically, the prestige film served as a production category for the studios, marshalling resources for elevated production values to match the high culture credentials of the source material and marking films for special exhibition. Alongside this traditional mode, however, prestige film increasingly stressed the film viewer’s ability to recognize quality; in this mode, film artistry lay less in the industry’s treatment than in the consumer’s own apperception of the artistry in certain films. Over time, the newer mode of prestige film became dominant. Crucial to this shift was the postwar cycle of social problem films, which provided a new industrial model and new reading formation. Where the economics of studio divorcement drove many of the changes in Hollywood’s prestige film, the changing class makeup of mid-century America shifted the middlebrow reception championing prestige films. With the rise of the postwar social problem dramas, a mutually reinforcing process between industrial transformation and reception was set in place.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Conference Wrap-up

Well, the last panel has wrapped up, and in alll the Media History conference was a rewarding one. I initially worried that too few of the papers were reflecting methodologically, but as the weekend went on, more and more papers not only reflected on film, television and media history but gave attendees a forum to discuss where they see themselves in the evolving disciplines and changing university environments.

One of the bigger shocks I've had is how identified "media history" at this conference has been with Wisconsin and Texas. Good reasons, for that, of course, but as someone doing history yet not emerging from a media history-oriented graduate program, it felt a bit like crashing someone else's party... fun, but a reminder that there is a subfield separate from film theory for largely institutional/subcultural reasons. That said, I've met a surprising number of kindred spirits, and seen some terrific papers.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Media History Today

I'm currently down in Austin for the Media History conference at the University of Texas. (conference schedule | pdf). The conference is subtitled "what are the issues?" and deals with the methodological issues facing film, television, and media historians at this this historical juncture and point in the state of the disciplines. It's a great line up of speakers and presenters, and I'm looking forward to it all. Hopefully I'll have more to report back soon.

Monday, October 08, 2007

October at Penn

There's a bevvy of great TV and film studies talks coming this month at Penn:

Wednesday, October 10, 5:00 pm
231 Fisher Bennett-Hall
Annette Kolodny. "Tropic Trapping in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and Joseph Nicolar's Life and Traditions of the Red Man"

Thursday, October 11, 10:30 am
138 Fisher-Bennett Hall
Lynn Spigel. "Designing the Smart House: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production"

Thursday, October 18, 5:30 pm
113 Jaffe Building
William Boddy ."’Is it TV Yet?’: Visions of the Post-Broadcast Television Audience"

Plus, a number of Werner Herzog events:

Monday, October 22, 6:30 pm
Slought Foundation
"Walking on Ice: Werner Herzog's Metaphysics of Filmmaking"
A public conversation about the work of Werner Herzog. This event will feature Timothy Corrigan, Thomas Y. Levin, Heidi Schlipphacke, and Alan Singer in a conversation introduced by Karen Beckman, and has been jointly organized by Tim Corrigan and Aaron Levy on the occasion of "Ecstatic Truth: Documenting Herzog 'Documenting,'" an exhibition exploring the work of Werner Herzog, on display in the Slought Foundation galleries from October 22 through November 15, 2007.

Tuesday, October 23, 7:00 pm
International House
Screening of ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (Werner Herzog, 2007)

Wednesday, October 24, 5:00 pm
B-1 Meyerson Hall
Werner Herzog in conversation with Paul Holdengraber: Was the 20th Century a Mistake?

Thursday, October 25, 7:30 pm
Slought Foundation
"Ecstatic Truth: Documenting Herzog 'Documenting'"
A public conversation between Werner Herzog and Karen Beckman. This event has been organized in conjunction with an exhibition featuring work by Werner Herzog, accompanied by images of the filmmaker by photographer Beat Presser. The exhibition will include manifestos, films, and photographs that engage Herzog's continued explorations of "ecstatic truth" and the boundary between fiction and documentary practice.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Library Pointers for Film Study Research

I wrote up the following as a guideline for a research paper I've assigned my students. Some of it is specific to the assignment, but enough touches on the nuts and bolts of film studies research, that I though I'd share, in case any readers find it useful, either for themselves or their students. Any feedback is welcome, and I'll try to revise to a fuller guide when I get time.

Library use for Film and Television Studies

Beginning students often feel understandably overwhelemed by the university library. There are so many resources, yet one does not always find articles or books on one's topic. Research therefore involves practical problems: how do I track down useful material? how do I match these database hits to the assignment? But equally, research involves knowing what you are looking for and why.

Primary research is the research you do as a student historian. We’re talking about the raw material that historical interpretation deals with – documents, news articles, reviews, and even films. (Note that not all types of research papers require primary research, only - usually - history papers.) Trade periodicals are newspapers and magazines that cover an industry for a readership largely inside the industry. Examples include Variety and Advertising Age. These should not be taken as gospel, but they're a good start to study Hollywood and television as industries. Popular periodicals are newspapers and magazines with a mass audience. Examples include Time and Newsweek. Historical issues of trade and popular periodicals are sometimes digitized and sometimes bound, but usually you will need to use microfilm or microfiche to read older copies of either trade or popular periodicals. Reading microform can strain the eyes after a while, but there is no substitute for the discoveries you can have delving right into the material from the past, rather than relying on someone else's version of it (if such a history exists).

Secondary research is the research that others have done before you, that you can use in your own paper. One of the signs of maturity as a college student is to move away from the high-schooler’s use of sources (as mere authority) to a scholar’s use of sources (as part of a conversation into which you are entering). As such, secondary research can provide historical background, interpretations with which you agree or disagree (or both), or a source of concepts that help illuminate your material. The best papers do not relegate scholarship to an afterthought but use it to spur the creative process.

Secondary research should look primarily to properly academic sources. What’s a proper source?

Single-author books put out on a scholarly press, often a university press.
Edited volumes from such presses
• Articles in peer- or editorial board- reviewed journals

Reviewed journals in film studies include Cinema Journal, Screen, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Camera Obscura, The Velvet Light Trap, and Film and History. Some non-reviewed journals may also contain rigorous scholarship. A simple rule of thumb is that if the writing lacks footnotes/endnotes, it is very probably not an academic source.

For fields like history, there is a little more leeway as books intended for a popular audience can hold some use for the scholar. Even here, though, endnotes serve as a documentation system that guarantees our ability to corroborate information.

Journal articles will be indexed in a database. The major databases to check for film and television studies are Film Literature Index, MLA Bibliography, and Communication and Mass Media Complete. Sometimes, full-text databases will have entire articles available in .pdf version. Use these electronic resources, by all means, but do not limit yourself to these. You will need to hunt down books and photocopy articles. Get familiar with the stacks in your library: the PN 1992-1998 range will contain most of the film sources and many of the television studies sources. Browsing the stacks can be a surprisingly helpful research method. Also, don't overlook bibliographies to books and works cited/footnotes to articles as a pointer to material for your paper.

The computer is both friend and foe. Internet research, unless well-designed, comes across as lazy. Wikipedia should be used like an encyclopedia (and not a fully reliable one at that): as a reference for your own background information but not as a source. Do not cite Wikipedia in your papers. Instead, find the original and more reliable source for the information or claim.

Finally, if you're doing the right thing and looking at the academic literature on your topic, you are likely to come across writing that seem obscure, jargony, or difficult. Make what you can of your material, prioritize what is useful, and do not sweat the details. You are not being asked to contribute at the same level as a seasoned or specialized scholar but rather to provide a fresh insight, some original research, or a new way at looking at film and television. Even a modest contribution to our understanding of media and its place in the world can be rewarding for you and your instructor.

[post amended per comments]

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Daisy Kenyon

Lately, I've been interested in films which pose the question of both typicality and exceptional quality. Maybe speaks as much to my position as a cinephile who's also interested in non-evaluative historical explanation. And certainly some film scholars, such as Thomas Schatz or Paul Willemen, articulate the paradox in novel ways. Further, as my post on Underworld, suggests, as I expand my viewing I keep seeing good examples.

Daisy Kenyon (Fox, Otto Preminger) is just such a film. On one hand, it is a typical Fox approach to the woman's melodrama, with somber tone, and understated formal choices to match (the studio's understated formal choices are not always better ones, I should add: I much prefer The Lawless to Gentleman's Agreement). On the other hand, it is a Preminger film, when Preminger was arguably at his best. Great cinematography, fluid camerawork, and most of all a deft hand in directing three stars (Crawford, Fonda, and Dana Andrews) who don't naturally meld into a coherent diegetic universe. Like Fox's George Apley, Daisy Kenyon was a pleasant surprise, a revelation even.

What's even more relevatory was how much social problem content the film took up. The returning veteran, child abuse, and anti-Nissei discrimination: there was actually more topical content than films classified as social problem films. In some ways, these are as superficial as a McGuffin, but no matter: what's interesting was the reach of the social problem mentality in Fox's house style, so that it inflected films across genre lines. Mind you, I still have not tracked down the Fox musicals, which may hold out as the exception.

Friday, October 05, 2007


I ended up venturing to the New York Film Fest last night to catch the retrospective showing of Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927). I'm glad I did. First, the film itself was just incredible, and particularly beautiful in 35mm. Second, it was a nice reminder how generalization about genre or film history are often predicated on highly selective. As Richard Pena noted in his introduction, so many tropes (visual and thematic) later taken up by the gangster film appear in Underworld. Finally, the film made me realize how little I know about 1920s silent cinema. Like the early sound film applause, it's the sort of film that surprises in defying my expectations of what the period meant. Underworld uses fully realized classical language, but also shows a deft hand at, say, montage editing (the montage sequence has hardly been Hollywood's only use of Eisenstenian montage). I know Underworld may be more exceptional than typical, yet it's a good reminder that Sunrise or other more widely seen silent classics are not alone in what they do. I'm dying to see more 1920s Hollywood to understand the typical, the exceptional, and the contributions the industry made to the art form.

CFP: 2008 Screen Conference

Screen Studies Conference 2008
organised by Screen journal

University of Glasgow, Scotland
4 - 6 July 2008

The 18th international Screen Studies Conference will be programmed by Screen editors Karen Lury and Simon Frith.

Please note that proposals may be on any topic in screen studies. The focus of the plenaries, however, and a key strand within the conference this year, will be Sound and music in film, television and video. Proposals for this strand are welcome on contemporary and historical work; independent and popular representations; and western and non-western contexts.

Proposals and enquiries should be sent to Elizabeth Anderson by e-mail:
screen@arts.gla.ac.uk (mark subject box 'Conference 2008' ) Please send your 200-word proposal to arrive no later than 7 January 2008. Joint submissions of up to three speakers forming a panel are also welcome.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Crisis in Academic Publishing?

I'm one to be cautious in tossing the word "crisis" to describe every turn and imagined disfunction in academic publishing. But this can't be good, can it? "Excess inventory in our U.S.-based warehouses"? How many copies did UC Press print of Barbara Klinger's or Dana Polan's latest books anyhow?