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In defense of Cinema Studies

From Bruce Sheridan in Chicago

I saw your tweet re President Carter's recommendation about Cinema Studies plus additional information sent to you in response to the tweet. I am writing to provide an accurate explanation of the nature of Cinema Studies at Columbia College Chicago and to explain errors in data and the resulting conceptual mistake that lies behind the recommendation to which you reacted. Given your interest in the department and your standing in the world of film criticism it is important you have the correct information.

Cinema Studies in the Columbia College Chicago Film & Video Department is not now and has never been a major of any kind and certainly not "a specialized major in theoretical studies". This misstatement is likely the result of an error in managing data from our departmental report. That is not how the department is structured. There is a single major called Film & Video within which students may choose one or more areas of concentration including Cinema Studies -- or they may choose no concentration at all.

When the college began the prioritization process a decision was made to define "program" at the "concentration" level. It was also decided to use only one definition regardless of the differences across disciplines and departments. While there are fields in which a workable equivalence exists been "program" and "concentration," that is not the case in Film & Video by virtue of the fact that filmmaking is an entirely collaborative art, which in turn is the reason that best practice film education is integrative: The specialists such as directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, sound recordists, editors, audio designers etc. learn in a context that carefully manages both discrete craft skills and their expression through collaborative production. (This is the same with medicine: a carefully managed matrix of discrete and integrated learning so everyone speaks the same language and understands all the team member roles and responsibilities when the scalpel comes out.)

Early in the prioritization process I corrected this definitional error and was told that the matter had been taken care of. Some time after that -- I have no way of knowing at what point -- the error was reintroduced and it distorts President Carter's recommendations. There simply is no Cinema Studies degree program for the Film & Video Department to review the viability of. We could stop applying the term "concentration" to Cinema Studies (or any other concentration) and it would not have the effect aimed at in the recommendations.

It is important to understand the crucial categorical difference between a major and a concentration in an undergraduate degree. A major is a learning matrix in a distinct field of study that commits an institution to run certain courses and provide associated resources even when enrollment fluctuates. A concentration is a marker or label by which curriculum pathways are identified so as to indicate learning relationships of the prerequisite and co-requisite kind and does not commit the institution in the same way a major does (especially in the case of Cinema Studies where there are no production resources required).

Cinema Studies as currently structured (and unlike all other concentrations) only requires the college to provide classroom space and instructors for courses that enroll the required number of students: if a course doesn't enroll we reallocate the resources (space and faculty) to one that does, which is much easier with a classroom than a highly specialized movie studio. The Columbia College Film & Video Department does not run any Cinema Studies courses exclusively for students who have declared that concentration. All Cinema Studies courses contribute curriculum to the other Film & Video specializations either as required or elective elements, or both, so if they are removed there will be no net gain: other courses with the same content will have to be created in those remaining concentrations. Cinema Studies courses also have the highest class sizes in Film & Video; if Cinema Studies elements have to be inserted into courses in all the other concentrations (directing, cinematography etc.) the production requirements of those classes will force an overall net reduction in class size, which is definitely not in the best interests of the college.

Since the President's recommendations were released we polled 6 of the other leading film schools that are benchmark programs for us: Emerson College, USC, NYU, North Carolina School of the Arts, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin (institutions we monitor every year as we constantly adjust curriculum and "prioritize"). All confirmed that our approach is best practice: Cinema Studies is just as central to learning to be a filmmaker as it is to learning to be a film critic. Film viewing, analysis, aesthetics, theory, etc. are inseparable from learning blocking, how to read a light meter, or the aesthetics and technical skills of editing.

To summarize: Cinema Studies is wrongly categorized as a "major" (simply an error of fact that has nothing to do with interpretation). This in turn has yielded a recommendation that is pedagogically unsound and can provide no educational or fiscal benefit. Sadly this is a distraction from the very exciting future planning around Cinema Studies that the department completed over the last two years but was obliged to put on hold through the prioritization process.

It is important to note that President Carter's document only "recommends" and is subject to adjustment before it goes to the Board of Trustees in just over two weeks. As part of the feedback process it is quite possible that the recommendation will change when the data errors are brought to light. Dean Bargar and I are well aware that a film school without Cinema Studies is like medical school without anatomy courses. We will do everything in our power to ensure that the Film & Video Department continues to offer a complete education of the kind necessary to maintain its standing as one of the premiere programs in the world -- both alum Mauro Fiore (2010 Academy Award for Cinematography on "Avatar") and current student Wonjung Bae (2011 Student Academy Award for Documentary) received educations dependent on and significantly enhanced by Cinema Studies.

You are absolutely right about the place of Cinema Studies in the future and it will be exciting to recalibrate how that discipline is incorporated into overall film education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels once we are past this unfortunate misunderstanding.

Professor Bruce Sheridan
Chair, Film & Video Department
Columbia College Chicago

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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