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Lights, camera, degree: Film, media studies major approved by Faculty Senate

L.A. Cicero Film

Kristine Samuelson, a professor of communication who will become the director of the film and media studies program, and Scott Bukatman, an associate professor of art and art history who teaches on film.

BY BARBARA PALMER

"Film is a new technology—well, it's not that new anymore," mused film scholar Scott Bukatman, associate professor of art and art history, during in an interview in his office in Cummings Art Building last Wednesday afternoon. The image of Fred Astaire danced on a screen behind his head; magnets decorated with images of motion picture memorabilia were scattered across the metal front of his desk.

Bukatman was assessing the chances that the Faculty Senate would approve a recommendation to create an undergraduate major in film and media studies the next day. "I think Stanford is properly wary about whether this is a fad or not," he said, adding drolly: "I think at a certain point, they decided film is maybe here to stay."

The Faculty Senate confirmed that view by voting unanimously to approve the new major, which will be housed in the Department of Art and Art History and will be offered beginning Autumn Quarter 2005. The curriculum will focus on film and media history, aesthetics and theory.

Film has been artistically dominant in modern culture, and the idea that Stanford should offer an undergraduate major in film and media studies has been "gestating" in the Department of Art and Art History for the last few years, Howard Zebker, associate professor of electrical engineering and of geophysics and the chair of the Committee for the Review of Undergraduate Majors, wrote in a report to the senate recommending the major be approved.

Although students majoring in film and media studies will take an introductory film production course as part of the core curriculum, the program will emphasize academic, not production, skills. "We're really excited to finally be able to produce and provide opportunities for students to study film and media in a more formal manner," said Kristine Samuelson, an award-winning filmmaker and professor of communication, who directs the graduate program in documentary film and video and will become the director of the film and media studies program. "This won't be USC North—and we don't want it to be," she said, referring to the University of Southern California's School of Cinema - Television, which was founded in 1929 with Douglas Fairbanks as a faculty member.

"We've tried to set up a creative, challenging, rigorous discipline of study that is academic at its core," said Bukatman, who earned a doctorate in cinema studies at New York University and has taught film courses at Stanford since 1997, including courses in an undergraduate minor in film studies inaugurated in 2000. "Students are very visually literate and sophisticated about film and media. But their intuitive grasp is out in front of their ability to articulate what it is that they are looking at."

The addition of the word "media" is meaningful, encompassing forms such as computer gaming, "which is an amazing sort of environmental simulation, combining moving images and narrative with a new level of interactivity," he said. "It's inevitable that film has to be seen in a broader context, but we are dedicated to the idea that film studies as a discipline has a history."

The increased offerings in film and media studies will benefit non-majors as well, he said. As a cultural document, film attracts scholars from a range of disciplines, including sociology and history, who have their own reasons to study film, Bukatman said.

Bukatman will serve as the director of undergraduate studies for the major. Pavle Levi, assistant professor of art and art history, who holds a doctorate in film studies from NYU, joined the Stanford faculty this year. A search for at least one new faculty member will be made next year.

MFA to replace documentary MA

At the meeting, the senate also voted unanimously to authorize a Master of Fine Arts program in documentary film and video, also to be housed in the Department of Art and Art History. The MFA will replace the master's program in film and video, which has been offered by the Department of Communication. The program, already so highly regarded and rigorous that universities have modeled MFA programs on the master's program, will add film studies courses to its curriculum, Samuelson said.

The two-year MFA program will matriculate its first class in 2006, after students enrolled in the current two-year master's program have graduated. Samuelson and filmmaker Jan Krawitz, professor of communication, will move from the Department of Communication to the Department of Art and Art History in 2006. (Offices and facilities for Krawitz and Samuelson will remain in their current space, until new facilities for art and film are available, Samuelson said.)

The timing is fortuitous, Samuelson said. At the same time that discussion about the new undergraduate program began to "bubble up," administrators of the graduate film program were talking about how the master's program was not entirely serving the needs of documentary students, she said. For filmmakers, the MFA is a terminal degree.

Samuelson said she expects the programs to benefit one another and from the increased screenings, symposia and guest lecturers. "Up until now there have been a lot of silos doing a lot of interesting things around film," she said.

The MFA program is expected to matriculate the same number of students as the master's program: about eight students per year. The new undergraduate major is projected to graduate 15 to 20 students per year. The number is based on "foot traffic"—the number of students who come by her office asking about plans to add the major, Samuelson said. "We're a little worried we've underestimated" the number of students who will want to major in film studies and media, she added.

Students have been coming in "droves" to talk with him about the major, Bukatman said. "The students are way out in front of all of this."

At the Faculty Senate meeting, Pat Jones, professor of biological sciences and vice provost for faculty development, questioned moving film and media studies from the Department of Communication.

When film studies first entered the academy, it usually was located in English departments, Bukatman said in an interview Wednesday. "The emphasis was very much on film as a narrative medium." More recently, film and media studies programs have been lodged in communication departments, but communication can't really grapple with the notion of film communications as an art, he said.

In many ways, housing the program in the Department of Art and Art History is ideal, Bukatman said. "It immediately gets students beyond thinking about story. That's not in any way to denigrate the importance of story, but it is to say that what we want is for students to be aware of the media itself."

Contemporary artists, including the students in studio courses in the Art Department, already are incorporating moving images into their work, Bukatman added. "It becomes absolutely natural that both art history and film and media studies would move along some parallel tracks."

With film and media studies as an institutionalized component of the Department of Art and Art History, the graduate filmmaking and studio arts students "will be mingling really productively. I think that's going to galvanize everything."

In some ways, the elevation of film and media studies at Stanford—where Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering stop-motion photographs of race horses were created more than a century ago—was inevitable, Bukatman said.

"If you think about Muybridge at one end and Silicon Valley at the other end, then Stanford's involvement in the study of moving images seems pre-ordained," he said.