The Real Guide to Grad School
What You Better Know Before You Choose



Alison Trope grew up in Los Angeles, where she came to love film and hate Hollywood. "I'm something of a modernist," confesses Trope, who as an undergraduate designed her own major on early twentieth-century Russian and German history and art. But, now a sixth-year graduate student at usc, Trope is writing a dissertation that bridges the gap between high and low culture: It's a history of film exhibition in museum spaces, the Museum of Modern Art, the American Museum of the Moving Image, and Planet Hollywood among them. "Cinema exhibition has long been a subject of film studies scholarship," notes Trope. "With museums the issues are fascinating. When film was first shown at moma in the 1930s, it was deemed low culture, but today moma is perceived as an elitist outpost of film, while Planet Hollywood is seen as trash." Trope is explaining this shift and its relationship to the rise of middlebrow taste.

"After I finished college," recalls Kelly Hankin, "I discovered a whole new realm of scholarship, lesbian film theory, and I immediately became excited about being an academic--as a means of furthering my personal growth." For Hankin, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Rochester, the intellectual challenge of film studies is due in no small part to the field's overlap with her nonacademic interests. Hankin is a curator and programmer for the Rochester Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and through academic research she has uncovered material to program, while through programming she has learned to appreciate the value--and limits--of research. "Though you do want to challenge an audience, you can't just expect an audience to like a film that academics have labeled as critical. In order to know what to program, you have to know something about your audience."


When strangers strike up a conversation in a bus, bar, or supermarket, chances are they talk about the movies, not politics or Proust, because in the United States movies are the cultural vernacular, the demotic language of democratic culture. Of course, movies haven't necessarily assumed such status through popular appeal alone. The dream factories have long been economic powerhouses. In 1993, for instance, the total receipts for motion pictures alone were $48 billion. And in 1995, media conglomerates like Disney, Time Warner, and Turner Broadcasting further concentrated their power in the entertainment and communications industry with merger and acquisition deals valued at $93 billion, double the 1993 total.

No matter the cause, strangers do chat about film as much as they talk about the weather. And it is the film scholar's task to enrich that conversation--not only by surveying what people say about films but by discerning what films say to us about culture and society, whether it be in terms of economics, politics, entertainment, or art. Few film scholars expect their work to catapult them into a career as the next Pauline Kael. And for good reason: Film scholars tend to frown upon colleagues who manage to publish in mainstream venues like Cineaste, Sight and Sound, or the Village Voice. Nonetheless, though film studies tailors the study of mass culture to the interests of a select academic audience, film scholars take great pleasure in studying a subject that some academics still consider suspect.

Films have been made for over a century; film studies has existed for barely thirty-five years. Yet a remarkably diverse range of scholarship has appeared under the banner of film studies. To the uninitiated at least, the field may appear to be less a haven for intellectual diversity than a harbor for intellectual schizophrenia. Film studies scholars study television as well as film, Star Trek as well as Stella Dallas, porno magazines as well as Psycho, Ricki Lake as well as Citizen Kane, fascism as well as film stock. Besides having appointments in film studies departments, film scholars also teach in English, art history, comparative literature, communication, and media studies departments. Some university presses have even augmented their film studies offerings with media studies books about Disney, the Internet, and talk shows, among other things.

And the roiling mix of departments, institutional affiliations, and intellectual coteries is as diverse as the subjects being studied. Unlike a discipline such as linguistics, in which different scholars generally agree that a single figure, Noam Chomsky, is in large part responsible for the discipline's contemporary foundations, film studies is without an intellectual figurehead or a methodological consensus. Instead, departments and professors organize themselves around two unresolved controversies, the first long-standing and the second more recent: the place of mass culture in film studies, and the effect of digital media on film studies. Because film studies is such a mélange, the best way to survey the field and ponder graduate study in it is to become acquainted with the history of these two controversies, the kinds of trade-offs they involve, and the way they will complicate the pleasure you derive from sitting in the dark watching movies.


Film departments were first established in five universities--usc in 1932, and UCLA, New York University, City College of New York, and Boston University by the end of the 1940s. By the end of the 1950s, a handful of English, art history, and speech and communication departments at such places as Indiana University, the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of Texas at Austin offered individual courses in film history and criticism, often under the innocuous title "film appreciation." The nascent field finally acquired academic legitimacy in 1959 with the founding of a professional society, the Society of Cinematologists. The society has since scrubbed away the scientific veneer: It's now called the Society for Cinema Studies, or scs. In 1969 scs had one hundred members, in 1979 more than three

hundred. Today it has swelled to over 1,300 members, roughly 400 of whom are graduate students.

Film studies coalesced around the culture of postwar American film buffs that flourished in film appreciation societies sponsored by the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. These societies prized European art cinema--Italian neorealism and the French New Wave--and its critical stance of auteurism, which treated film as the aesthetic medium of a director's personal expression. By 1957 these societies were so active that moma sponsored a conference on motion picture education, which met for the next three years. And in 1959 many society members joined the fledgling Society of Cinematologists.

In 1963 in the Journal of the Society of Cinematologists, Robert Gessner, a founding member of the Society of Cinematologists, proposed a way for film study to take its place in academe's sacred halls. First, there was the question of language. "`Movies' and `scholarship,'" wrote Gessner, "are words which sound strange when heard in juxtaposition. The two [have] not been considered marriageable in the traditional halls of academe." Gessner hoped, however, that "a wider acceptance of cinema [would] eventually signal admittance at a high-church ceremony." By the late 1960s, film studies scholars were accepted into the university because they had acted on Gessner's plan and developed curricula devoted to art cinema, not "movies." Explains David Bordwell, a professor of film at Wisconsin-Madison, they were able to prove that film studies is "a clearly humanistic endeavor with three basic concerns: theory (aesthetics), history (empirical research), and critical analysis (interpretation)." Film scholars outfitted themselves with the humanists' tools by culling critical and research methods from literary study, drama, history, and communication departments. Their archival research techniques were from historians, and their close reading techniques from the New Critics, literary critics who saw the text as a free-standing aesthetic object with a structure that should be explored in its own terms.

Film studies, then, took shape in a procrustean bed of high culture that chopped off film's existence as a medium of popular culture. The nascent field favored "films" like Citizen Kane or Bicycle Thief, not "movies" like Picnic or West Side Story. Nonetheless, the mere fact of film studies' existence was--and continues to be--scandalous to those academics who prefer Plato or Ezra Pound over what they call Hollywood trash. Some film scholars even speculate that many introductory film courses are scheduled at night because film is still regarded by academics as mere entertainment, something to kick back and watch after a hard day in the physics lab or the philosophy seminar.

But precisely because film studies has built a foundation on its reputation as a school for scandal, it has been keen to establish intellectual precedents in the academy. Over the years scholars from different areas of the humanities have migrated to film studies because it has been receptive to different critical theories, especially those considered too flashy or radical for other disciplines, such as sociology, philosophy, or even American history. So, since the 1960s, when it was cobbled together from interdisciplinary resources--drama, literary studies, communication--at many universities, film studies has been a vanguard discipline, home of perpetual intellectual ferment.

One crucial period of ferment was the mid-1970s, when film studies was transformed by a wave of Continental critical theory. At this time it became de rigueur for American and British film scholars dissatisfied with auteurism and aesthetics to do a stint of coursework at the Center for Critical Studies in Paris, where they tackled the work of Roland Barthes, Jean-Louis Baudry, and Christian Metz, among others. Observing film through the lens of semiotics and psychoanalysis, these scholars stressed the link between film's form and ideology, or film's reproduction of dominant social values. Film was seen as an expression of mass culture.

What's more, Continental theory was especially crucial to feminists, who made serious inroads into film studies by using theory to explain both the patriarchal perspective of classical Hollywood cinema and the ways that alternative cinema, both male- and female-authored, subverted that perspective. New publications like Screen, New Left Review, Camera Obscura, and the British Film Institute pamphlet series made semiotics, psychoanalysis, and feminist film theory widely available to faculty and students who couldn't make the trek to Paris. At conferences and in curricula, the theories of film as mass culture competed with the appreciation of film as high culture.

Since the 1970s, much of the controversy in film studies has stemmed from the differences between scholars who focus upon film and its institutions as their primary object of study and those who use film, or any other media, to raise theoretical questions about identity and mass culture. Scholars who take film and its institutions as their primary object of study advance the mission defined by scs in its early stages. They use archival research and the close analysis of film texts to explore the aesthetic dimensions and industrial protocols of film production. They write histories of film conventions and institutions and analyze film style and narrative, changes in the technological apparatus, genre characteristics of national cinemas, and the economic organization of the film industry. Noted scholars in this tradition are David Bordwell and Noël Carroll of Wisconsin-Madison, who together edited Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies; Kristin Thompson of Wisconsin-Madison and Janet Staiger of ut-Austin, who co-authored The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Modes of Production to 1960; Lea Jacobs of Wisconsin-Madison, who wrote The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942; Charles Musser of Yale University, who edited The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907; and Janet Wasko of the University of Oregon, who wrote Hollywood in the Information Age.

Film and media scholars who downplay film-based questions in favor of theoretical or sociological studies of institutions and audiences think their work is valuable exactly because it defies academic standards of canonization and taste. Reception scholarship--the outgrowth of theories of spectatorship, which appeared in the 1970s as alternatives to text-based aesthetic criticism--studies the metapsychology of viewing, considering a viewer's response to a film, and especially how a viewer experiences social ideology or personal pleasure. Following the lead of British critic Stephen Heath and French film theorist Christian Metz, feminist film scholars like Laura Mulvey of the British Film Institute, UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom, and University of California at Berkeley professor Kaja Silverman drew on semiotics and psychoanalysis to explain that a film is a system of signs encoded with social meanings, and that this signifying system defines a certain role or identity for the spectator.

But some scholars, feminists no less, grew frustrated with theories of spectatorship because they skirted the nettlesome question of how audiences interpret what they watch. Feminists wanted to study not only how mass culture traffics in certain images of femininity, but also how women and men react to those images. Thus, newfangled reception scholars turned to ethnography to develop a more supple method for examining media's meanings and uses. In fact, over the past decade, reception scholars working in film, tv, and video have been the major architects of cultural studies, which has infused many of the other disciplines described by this guide, and which claims that cultural consumers are active makers of meaning, not dupes who passively and uncritically absorb mass culture. To clue yourself in on the scholarship that reception scholars produce, you might peruse Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins of mit; The Future of an Illusion: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis by Constance Penley of the University of California at Santa Barbara; Make Room for tv: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America by Lynn Spigel of usc; and The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s by Mary Anne Doane of Brown University.

Another reason that film studies is changing is that the film industry itself constantly develops according to technological innovations. Most recently, digital media has drastically altered image production and forged new links between the entertainment and communications industries. Faculty and students in film studies and in other disciplines are using hypertext, cd-roms, and the Web to do research, write papers, and conduct seminars. Syllabi are crammed with books and articles about the Web, virtual reality, and hackers. Unlike the theory revolution of the 1970s, which radiated from Paris to British and u.s. satellites, the digital revolution of the 1990s is diffuse. Faculty stress that semipermeable departmental boundaries and interdisciplinary curricula are vital for anyone who wants to study digital media or use it to produce research. According to Marsha Kinder, a professor of film at usc and author of Blood Cinema (a cd-rom about Spanish films), understanding the hybrid nature of hypertext involves studying it from many disciplinary angles: print media, tv studies, computer science, architecture, and communication. Working with digital media can also take a film scholar far afield. When producing the Blood Cinema cd-rom, Kinder worked closely with a visual designer and an interface designer, and she notes that her collaboration with them was much more demanding and enlightening than what usually occurs between, say, the author of a book and the designer of the book's dust jacket.

The interdisciplinary nature of digital media, however, is defined as much by administrative timidity as by intellectual upheaval. Kinder warns that students keen on digital media need to keep in mind that the conservative fiscal policies of departments, deans, and publishers have hampered research and development. "Things are moving very slow on the money end," Kinder says, "because administrators and publishers are leery of making big investments in an undefined area that people are still trying to understand." In fact, Kinder formed her own company to produce Blood Cinema after the university press that published her book balked at the idea of publishing a companion cd-rom. At many universities there is not an umbrella department for media study, nor a single program on digital media, let alone tv or video, and this sends faculty and students scrambling to different departments to study digital media like Tom Stoppard characters in search of a plot.

Interdisciplinarity is currently an institutional necessity for studying digital media because intellectual resources are dispersed throughout the university. This situation is likely to change, though. Professors like Kinder are busy establishing themselves as authorities on hypertext, virtual reality, and digital culture in order to establish the academic viability of the field and thereby increase their chances of convincing a dean to fund digital media programs.

In terms of assessing digital technology's impact on film studies, scholars are clumped into three groups: traditionalists, pragmatists, and trendsetters. Traditionalists are excited about digital media but nonplussed about their effects on the study of film. This small, tenacious group, led by Bordwell and Carroll, is convinced that there are formal problems and research issues unique to film, such as film exhibition and industry self-regulation, and that film scholars should remain committed to studying them. If anything, they argue, digital media will enhance the study of film-based problems: Scholars can upgrade their research and pedagogical methods with state-of-the-art tools, like cd-roms. If there are formal problems specific to digital media, they believe, some other program should study them, as has been the case at Wisconsin-Madison and nyu.

For pragmatists, "film studies" has become an elastic term, both a handy conceit for the study of visual and popular culture that includes a constellation of media (film, tv, video, virtual reality, hypertext, the Internet) and a necessary reminder of the discipline's historical roots in the study of film, the first technology of visual mass culture. For pragmatists like UC-Santa Barbara's Constance Penley, film studies should embrace scholars who focus on the cultures and social institutions that feed on visual technologies. Pragmatists study Star Trek fans, mud users, pornography consumers, film-industry regulators, the FCC, gay fans of Hollywood musicals, and the censorship of children's media. Pragmatists envision film studies as a big tent.

There are digital enthusiasts, however, who are less sanguine about the ability of traditionalists to fend off the challenge of digital media. These trendsetters foresee the obsolescence of film's mechanical- and celluloid-based medium. After all, they stress, computer-generated moving images now appear alongside words, achieving an intertextuality greater than that of most films on celluloid. And increasingly, films in production are transferred to video and edited on an avid computer, not in the cutting room. With more audacity than trepidation, trendsetters predict that film studies will go down one of two paths: either retreating as a university discipline into media or visual studies, or hardening into full-scale connoisseurship and joining ranks with art history. "Film studies programs risk becoming archaic if they don't change to adapt the new media," warns David Rodowick, a professor of film and visual culture at Rochester. "They will be overwhelmed by the telecommunications side of things. It's hard to imagine film studies standing alone; film will have to be understood as a part of a constellation of other media." To upstarts like Rodowick, traditionalists who champion truth in advertising (film studies is about film, as in celluloid, damn it!) are simply circling their wagons.

But those who hear the death knell of film studies in the whir of a hard drive are actually carrying on the kind of boundary-testing that has always been a film studies tradition. In fact, although they value different kinds of intellectual ferment, the traditionalists, the pragmatists, and the trendsetters make their cases on much the same grounds. Each group stakes out traditional humanities turf, claiming that its own approach to film or media provides students with the critical skills necessary for understanding the cultural vernacular, be it crash-and-burn Hollywood cinema, television melodramas, or the Net's trendy anarchy.


As you consider your graduate school options, a crucial decision is whether to enroll in a film studies department proper or to study film or media as part of another humanities Ph.D. program. There are a handful of American universities with graduate departments in film studies, and they are generally regarded as the most prestigious because they are the oldest film departments in the country and because most of them focus exclusively on film. These departments are the ut-Austin (radio, tv, film), Iowa (communication), Wisconsin-Madison (communication), nyu (cinema studies), Northwestern University (radio, tv, and film), usc (critical studies), and UCLA (film and tv).

ut-Austin, Wisconsin-Madison, nyu, and UCLA attract students mainly interested in national cinemas (especially American cinema), archival research, and the aesthetic tradition of scholarship. Wisconsin-Madison, nyu, and UCLA are also known as media-specific programs: Instead of working on many media, students must focus their coursework on the history and theory of one medium--film, tv, or video. usc and Northwestern, though, attract students who want to study television as well as film and who want to study media through the lens of social or cultural history. Iowa is known for pioneering work on film and media theory.

It's common knowledge among professors and graduate students that the production side and the critical side of film programs rarely share common interests, at least within graduate school. At nyu, UCLA, and usc, there is a long-standing history of standoffs between the m.f.a. students who do film production and the Ph.D. students who write film history and theory. The scholars accuse the producers of being anti-intellectual, while the producers accuse the scholars of murdering creativity with analysis. At least as a Ph.D. student you have the consolation of not having to worry about paying off the tens of thousands of dollars in debt that an m.f.a. student can incur producing a thesis film, a debt often piled on top of thousands of dollars in outstanding student loans.

The majority of the academic venues for studying film and media studies are small, interdisciplinary programs. If you thumb through the scs membership directory, you will notice that most of the members are not affiliated with a film studies department or program per se. They're part of mass communication; telecommunication; media ecology; media studies; twentieth-century studies; modern culture and media; drama; philosophy; English; American studies; cultural studies; visual and cultural studies; visual culture; art history; and rhetoric. Notable interdisciplinary programs are at UC-Berkeley, Brown University, the University of Illinois-Urbana, Duke University, Indiana, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the University of Pittsburgh, Rochester, and UC-Santa Barbara.

Since these programs are not media-bound, they afford you more latitude for defining your interests. The downside is that, even if you do outline an earth-shattering idea about ethnographic film and photography, you may be swamped by a double workload that prevents you from developing it. Film students in some comparative literature and English departments must often fulfill language and teaching requirements not germane to their work in film. And a film student in an English department may find herself teaching composition courses instead of introductory film courses. Because the requirements of these interdisciplinary programs vary widely, you should investigate interdepartmental programs on a case-by-case basis.

To make an informed decision about where to go, faculty and graduate students alike stress the importance of considering a department's or program's interdisciplinary affiliations with other humanities departments. What is a film studies department's policy on students taking courses offered by an English or comparative literature department, which historically have been home to the best scholarship on film and media outside film studies proper? How do the specialties of a film studies department predispose it to work in other departments? For instance, a film studies department like that at Wisconsin-Madison, which favors a cognitive approach to the study of film reception, is likely to establish alliances with behavioral science departments. But a department like that at UC-Santa Barbara, which studies film reception through the lens of social identification, is likely to forge bonds with sociology, anthropology, or literature departments.

If you're considering an interdisciplinary film or media program, carefully investigate how often faculty will be teaching courses in film or media, or what kinds of interdepartmental obligations might prevent them from advising dissertations. Many eager students have been sold by brochures that tout a program's luminaries only to learn after enrolling in the program that these figures hardly cast any light at all, since they only teach one course a year, and spend much time jet-setting around the academic lecture circuit. You need to research these nitty-gritty issues to avoid getting lost in bureaucratic black holes, getting caught on the borders of interdepartmental turf wars, or being abandoned in the aisles of the academic supermarket.

Well-established programs at large schools have a decided advantage over small programs when it comes to resources. Small programs sometimes have trouble scraping together film-rental budgets for graduate students teaching introductory film courses, and so allocating funds for digital media on the scale of, say, usc, which is known for its rich resources, is very difficult for them to do. Also, departments like Wisconsin-Madison, ut-Austin, UCLA, and usc have huge print and paper archives, which are crucial if you want to do historical research.

Some smaller programs, however, do boast unrivaled advantages. Students at Rochester can intern and do research in the library and print and paper archives at the George Eastman House/International Museum of Photography, indispensable also because it curates programs that feature visiting filmmakers, retrospectives, and touring shows, as well as films culled from its massive archive. If you go to school in the vicinity of New York City, you can see a lot of films, and you can easily use the film and document archives at moma and the American Museum of the Moving Image, or the tv archives at the Museum of Television and Broadcasting. Students who attend small programs on the West Coast like UC-Santa Barbara or UC-Berkeley also have access to important research resources. In Los Angeles, in addition to the usc and UCLA archives, there are the various studio archives, a new branch of the Museum of Television and Broadcasting, the American Film Institute archives and library, and the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences Library. The Pacific Film Archives, which houses paper documents, is in Berkeley. And students close to the Hollywood production hub can conduct field research on the Hollywood culture industry or the Pacific Rim digital technology industry.


Academic jobs in film studies are less specialized than those in other disciplines. Job listings in English, for instance, are usually narrowly defined in terms of a form (drama), period (Romantic), or nation (England), but in film studies, job listings are wide-ranging, defined in terms of media (film, tv, video, digital media) and methods (historian, theorist). It's uncommon, for instance, to find a listing for a specialist in American cinema. Moreover, job advertisements often call for more than one specialty: not just film history, but also tv, popular culture, video, or digital technology. In light of these factors, the consensus among faculty is for job-seeking graduate students to hit the bricks with a résumé that demonstrates their versatility. You must develop the depth that enables you to shine in your field of specialization, as well as the breadth necessary to teach different historical and theoretical approaches to a single medium, or even courses in different media.

Versatility is crucial also because film studies departments do not have a monopoly on film and media studies appointments. Though there is a chance that you might land a job in a well-established program that boasts eminent film or media scholars, it's more likely that you will end up in an English or communication department, where teaching introductory courses on film history will probably be your bread and butter.

But faculty stress that no matter how versatile your knowledge or what kind of academic job you seek, it's essential that you go on the market having already demonstrated a commitment to the profession's standards. Most importantly, you should go on the market having completed your dissertation. Also, you should have attended conferences and presented papers at them in order to see how the field works, to stay abreast of issues, and to become acclimated to professional discourse. Faculty opinion is more mixed about graduate students needing to have published articles to gain a competitive edge on the job market. Some suggest that publications indicate a commitment to scholarly exchange, whereas others interpret resumes with long publication lists as a sign that a student has sacrificed intellectual development for hyperprofessionalization.

For those who want to work in film outside of the academy but still want to acquire a degree of expertise and education at the postgraduate level, earning an M.A. from an East or West Coast film studies department is your best bet for landing a job reading scripts for a production company or working in its business office. Some students have hitched an M.A. to a law degree and worked in the public policy area of communications or entertainment law.

But there is more to the nonacademic employment scene than working in Hollywood. People who hold M.A.'s have ended up as film programmers at art museums, or as curators in film archives. They have also worked for off-beat film distributors or media production companies. The problem is that these jobs are not advertised in academic circles; you'll learn about them only because you have kept an ear to the ground in nonacademic film and media communities.

Some caveats about going the M.A. route: Unlike most Ph.D. students, who are granted stipends or teaching assistantships, M.A. students almost always pay their own way. Moreover, a Ph.D. program is less likely to dote on M.A. students because it is not making a long-term investment in them, and the department does not profit from their labor. Unlike Ph.D. students, M.A. students don't teach introductory courses to undergraduate students. And M.A. students are often faced with less than desirable course offerings. It's not unheard of for them to find themselves lumped together with juniors and seniors in upper-level undergraduate courses, for which they earn graduate credit simply by writing longer papers or writing more frequently than undergraduates.

Society for Cinema Studies
(314) 984-7532
American Studies Association
(301) 405-1364
Modern Language Association
(212) 475-9500

Camera Obscura
Cinema Journal
Jump Cut
The Quarterly Review of Film and Video
The Velvet Light Trap
Wide Angle

Web Addresses
Consoling Passions: Television,Video, and Feminism
American Film Institute

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UC-Santa Barbara


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