Film Studies For Free: A Model for the Future

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Generally, film studies is understood as a humanities-based academic discipline that deals with theoretical, historical, and critical approaches to cinema. Since its establishment as a proper field of study in American universities in the 1970s, it has grown to become one of the more popular fields within the humanities as well as within the university system at large. Despite the fact that film, video, and photographic arts is consistently listed as one of the 10 worst-paying college majors (at least in the United States), prospective students still express a desire to study the cinema.

In my conversations last year with British scholar Christine Gledhill, she spoke of a consensus that film studies is a more “respected” discipline in the United States than the United Kingdom. There are perhaps a number of reasons why and I’m not well-versed in British culture to postulate, but it might be appropriate to note that there is a global film studies community, and some of its members, like Gledhill, Thomas Elsaesser, and Slavoj Žižek, are among the field’s superstar scholars. Moreover, interested students are enrolling in these departments from all over the world (a number of them write for this magazine), which suggests that film studies will remain a popular field of study for undergraduates as well as aspiring academics, regardless of declining job prospects and promised low pay.

However, despite persistent interest in film studies by both students and professional academics, major issues threaten the field and must be addressed if we don’t want film studies to diminish into an outmoded and irrelevant discipline. The purpose of this study is to call attention to these issues in an attempt to restore film studies as an important intellectual pursuit. The two specific issues on which I will focus are ideologically interrelated but remain distinct practices: academic writing and academic publishing. While I don’t claim to offer any definitive resolutions to these problems, I will offer a few suggestions that present an alternative model for future thinkers.

Academic writing can be understood as published material that is produced by professional scholars, most often professors or researchers, in an attempt to contribute information to a field of knowledge. In film studies, academic writing can refer to the industry studies by Tino Balio, the theoretical articulations by D.N. Rodowick, or the special interest anthologies by Christine Gledhill. The only thing that unites these distinct works of scholarship is the author’s intention to contribute to the academic discipline of film studies.

This brings us to the major problem that plagues academic writing. In order to contribute to the discipline, there is a sense that an academic must write for those within the discipline. It doesn’t take long for one to realize that academia is an isolated community, and that academics are merely producing work for one another. Consider, for instance, the concept of peer review. In order to get an essay published in an academic journal, it must be approved by anonymous “peers” with a film studies background. Then there is the conference presentation, which is simply an excuse for academics to engage in debates with each other.

In his book Film Theory: An Introduction, Robert Stam suggests that film studies needed to appropriate high semiotic and psychoanalytic theories in order to establish itself as a “worthy” academic discipline in the U.S. This is a complicated issue , of course, but it stems from the academy’s initial view that film was not a legitimate field of study because it is mass cultural entertainment. Why study Disney, for instance, when you can study Joyce or Michelangelo? The view, at the time, was that nothing intellectually substantial could be gleaned from popular entertainment, because popular entertainment is not art. Thus, scholars began to use high theory to explain the cinematic apparatus, thereby demonstrating the intellectual rigor of the film studies community.

Stam is correct to point out that the discipline has evolved since its emergence, with the most notable change being the turn away from semiotics and psychoanalysis to cultural studies and an emphasis on historiography. This turn was much needed, because it gave scholars room to explore issues that are relevant to the realities of everyday existence, such as audience relations, industry practices, and media effects. However, the turn from Lacan to Hall only altered the content of the writing, while the approach and intended audience remains the same.

So why is academic writing problematic, and how can we fix it?

For one, academics need to consider writing for a wider audience. Although I don’t have empirical evidence to support this claim, the proliferation of film blogs, message boards, and other online communities suggests that curious individuals outside of academia are interested in film studies. They would find the work of academics useful, but unfortunately academic writing is littered with jargon to the point where only other academics can comprehend it. When this happens, there is a general assumption that the problem lies with the ordinary reader who simply isn’t smart enough to “get it.” Academics often hide behind this misguided belief, and they use the lack of public interest in their published material as an example to support such condescending claims. Might it be, however, that academic writing isn’t widely read because academics have constructed an alternative vernacular that only a reader with a knowledge of the terminology can understand? If academics wrote for a general audience, wouldn’t they find that the mass public is also interested in their ideas?

The blogs of David Bordwell and Henry Jenkins exemplify academics who attempt to reach individuals outside of their respective fields. Like many writers for this online publication and others like it, Bordwell and Jenkins bridge the gap between academic and popular writing as they engage in debates about issues relevant to the humanities and social sciences in vernacular that is accessible to a wide readership.

This is one way to remedy the problem. Scholars tend to think that they have to abandon high theories of Foucault or Gramsci in order to appeal to a mass audience, but really they just have to explain the theories in a way that general readers can understand without having had to write a book about the subject themselves. Moreover, they might be wise to do what writers on this website often do, and evoke the ideas of Foucault or Gramsci without bogging the discussion down in academic terminology. Surely we can discuss the ideas of “cultural hegemony” without writing the term, and surely Gramsci wouldn’t mind if we did this.

It is at this point where we might want to rethink the purpose of academic writing in general, as this can then bring us to the issue of academic publishing. That is, why do academics write in the first place?

Such a question may sound trite, but it bears mentioning. After all, my initial thought of academia after being immersed in it for a few years is that academics, for the most part, are writing for two reasons: to advance their careers and to discuss ideas with like-minded peers. There are exceptions, but most film studies scholars aren’t really concerned with the general public’s conception of their published material. They are more concerned with getting tenure and impressing the superstars within the field.

Above all else, however, academic writing should exist to contribute ideas not merely to a specific field of study but to humanity at large. The emphasis on publishing and tenure-track has given rise to a plethora of inconsequential scholarship that exists purely to fill in a gap that didn’t need to be filled in the first place. Some of the most well-regarded scholars are currently engaged in debates about concepts so far removed from reality that they might as well be speaking gibberish, and aspiring scholars follow in their path in an attempt to be noticed and advance their careers. Not to undermine the scholarly focus of any academic’s career, but does it really matter whether or not we stop using the term “classical Hollywood cinema”? Can’t we still talk about Hollywood without engaging in debates over proper linguistic classifications? If film studies is to remain relevant, it needs to change course.

Academic publishing is similarly in a crisis, and a few scholars have offered alternative models that have the potential to solve the problem. The issue, precisely, is that the majority of film studies scholarship isn’t open to the public. That is, in order to access it, one realistically needs to be enrolled in a university in which one can log on to the databases and research the latest publications. For instance, when I was in between undergraduate and graduate programs, I wanted to conduct research for a writing sample I wanted to submit with my graduate school applications. In order to do this, however, I needed access to a number of scholarly publications, and in order to gain access, I needed a university database. If you aren’t enrolled in a university, however, you don’t have access to a database, and the ability to conduct substantial research is severely hindered. It might be possible, but it becomes more costly and inconvenient.

Why does this happen? For one, scholarship is protected by copyright, and closed access ensures less plagiarism and other so-called intellectual property theft. In addition, the university is a business above all else, and if it protects its precious scholarship, it will make more money in the long term. Not only is academic writing often deliberately difficult to decipher with its jargon and terminology, it also is difficult to access. The general, curious reader who isn’t an academic is thus isolated from the community and forced to accept his or her status as an ordinary commoner.

A few scholars, however, have tried to change this. Catherine Grant, for example, developed the blog “Film Studies For Free” that is described as “a pluralist, pro bono, and purely positive web-archive of examples of, links to, and comment on, online, Open Access, film and moving image studies resources of note.” Not only is this a valuable resource for curious individuals who aren’t connected to university databases, but it also serves as a model for how to circulate scholarship. Grant calls the reader’s attention to published scholarly material that can be accessed by anyone, thereby eradicating the established relationship between ordinary individual and expert academic.

These problems won’t easily be solved since professional academics still need to make a living, and since publishers, universities, and the like still need to profit to function. However, film studies is a fascinating, engaging, and popular academic discipline, and websites like The Artifice prove that individuals outside of academia are interested in exploring cinema and its many facets. By closing its doors to those who aren’t in the academy, film studies runs the risk of losing its relevance. To be sure, there are countless scholars who would prefer to work within an isolated field, and there are numerous fields to where they can turn their attention, but film studies doesn’t have to follow in that path.

If cinema is indeed the first mass cultural entertainment, then it only makes sense to direct its scholarship to the masses.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here:

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  1. Andrea Paul

    Love this article and completely agree. Some of the most knowledgable people in the industry could have such a massive impact on the public if they learned to cater to a greater audience. That being said, I myself have more of an academic background in film and find it extremely difficult to switch my “voice” to one that would be attractive to the general public. Do you think that adding more “film criticism” classes or programs that concentrate more on the popular culture aspect of media studies would help to make the discipline more relavant?

    • Jon Lisi

      I think more classes on popular culture can help, and it would be extremely beneficial to show that mainstream, Hollywood can be studied in the same way as Breathless or Hiroshima Mon Amour.

  2. GREAT article! This:
    “They would find the work of academics useful, but unfortunately academic writing is littered with jargon to the point where only other academics can comprehend it.”
    Is a very good point. Something that I can relate to.

  3. Just spent an hour on David Bordwell blog, thank you for the link. Very useful resource.

  4. Ewan Wilson

    A great article, I think a middle ground between academic writing and film journalism or blogging would benefit everybody. Like others here, my engagement with film writing is mostly academic, but while I have a grasp of the jargon there are plenty of casual film buffs I know who have a better knowledge of the ins and outs of the film world than I do. While, as an aspiring academic, I can see why such writers might want to remain an isolated group, surely the point is to share ideas; if free resources allow those interested in the subject to engage with it, if not perhaps as fully as with university study, good.

    • Jon Lisi

      I think the balance is appropriate. But good writing is good writing is good writing, and I’ve encountered some of the best writing on film in the lowest places (i.e. blogs, forums, etc.), but it’s not taken seriously by academics because it isn’t published and approved by academics.

  5. Lachlan Vass

    I’d say that these days students would be better off learning to produce webvideos for sites like Youtube than big-budget productions that could take years to put together

  6. Michelle Webb

    Wonderful ideas presented in this article, a fantastic read – so thank you. I thought of Henry Jenkins as I was reading, then saw your mention. I completely agree, and I enjoy that you write with such passion, and truth.

  7. Marchbanks

    Can’t help to agree with everything. Shared on fbook.

  8. Sean Hodges

    It seems history isn’t the only subject with the problem of inaccessibility, then! A great article, and a particularly great point; I for one would love to engage more with film in this sense, but given that I don’t have any kind of academic grounding in it, I’d have to agree that engaging in the debate seems a little difficult right now.

  9. Racheleb

    Great article, very convincing and very true. Your arguments are solid and valuable, and I believe we all relate to your point about the inaccessibility of film’s academic “jargon”. Thank you for the links, they are really useful, an enjoyable read!

  10. Fantastic article, very strong and interesting argument.

  11. My one problem with what you present is the concept that 1) academic work must be tailored to a popular market, which changes like the tides and is often populated with people unwilling to engage in intellectual discourse and 2) that academic writing is made up of needless jargon. It isn’t, and what you’re essentially proposing here seems to be a dumbing down of academic discourse because others can’t be bothered to learn what cultural hegemony is. That’s not the way to advance intellectual development, or to make film studies respected as more than simply people watching movies. Bordwell is one of the more popular and less-interesting film writers working today, mostly because he’s parroting what smarter writers have done before. He might have an engaging style, but that does not mean he has an engaging intellect.

    • Jon Lisi

      Thanks for your comment. It’s certainly not as simple as I make it–but when you write that I’m proposing the “dumbing down of academic discourse because others can’t be bothered to learn what cultural hegemony is,” you’re only reinforcing the hierarchy I’m trying to eradicate. I don’t have all of the solutions, but as many of the comments here already suggest, there is a disconnect.

      Also, I’m not a formalist or a cognitivist, but even I can admit that Bordwell has an engaging intellect.

      But you are right when you say that film studies is more than simply watching movies, and the biggest task is to find that balance.

  12. J. Bryan Jones

    Nice job. You bring a lot of knowledge to this topic.

  13. I did not know that Žižek was prevalent in film theory. Good to know. Thanks!

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