These are not the best of times for people completing their doctorates and looking for academic posts, especially in fields like film studies, and when we recently advertised two jobs in the area at the university where I teach, we knew we’d have plenty of applicants. Even so, we were taken by surprise when the number totalled 190.
The chores that come with academic life, like shortlisting job applications, can sometimes prove highly instructive, and this was an example, especially for the contrast with the last time I took part in shortlisting on such a scale for a film post at my previous institution, when we had to plough through some 70 forms for one post. On that occasion, about seven years ago, I came to the conclusion that there was an overproduction of PhDs dealing with Hollywood and the mainstream. Since the post asked for expertise in theory and criticism and one or other area of world cinema, it was easy to pick out the few who fitted the bill. This time round we were looking for competence in film history and criticism to teach a key module in the first year of our BA in Film, and the task was much more difficult, not only on account of the numbers, but because the range of expertise was very much wider.
There were only a smattering of traditional genre studies (among which horror still holds its own), and not many auteur studies (the directors concerned included Satyajit Ray, Pasolini, Herzog, Roeg, Tarkovsky and Mel Brooks). There were as many candidates who have worked on European cinema as Hollywood, but there were also a large number of topics in world cinema—including specialisms in Latin American, African, Hindi, East Asian, Japanese and even Chinese cinema—most of which treated their topic under the rubric of postcolonial, diasporic, or transnational approaches. There was also a now expectable range of candidates focussing on gender and race, as well as digital cinema, experimental film and video, film and memory, and space and the city. Shortlisting was a challenge. One by one, I found myself muttering ‘sorry’ as I added applications to the rejected pile.
If this shows that the field is in overall good intellectual health, there was also evidence here that the PhD experience is reasonably effective in giving postgrads a modicum of savvy as teaching or research assistants. What follows—and this applies to the great majority of the applicants, with PhDs completed within the last few years—is temporary part-time employment, usually in the department where they’ve been studying. This situation has its downsides. Everybody always works harder than the number of hours they’re contracted for (especially if they’re angling for a permanent job); they may not have enough time or wherewithal to build up their research record, nowadays an essential element in the job stakes; but worst of all is the insecurity. Especially in areas like film and cultural studies, our universities have long depended on part-time lecturers to deliver the teaching load, while at the same time they’re hedged in by complicated regulations governing hourly-paid teaching and fixed-term contracts which the unions have succeeded in negotiating over the last few years. Where the unions have been active, part-timers have benefitted, but not all the problems have been resolved. In other cases, since part-timers cannot be made redundant after four years, their employment is discontinued before then, and fixed-term contracts are not repeated. Add in the cuts announced a few months ago and those doubtless to come, and no wonder we had so many applications. The problem is systemic, and in present conditions, our 95:1 jobseekers ratio suggests that a growing number of unemployed PhDs is virtually certain.
Another thing to note was the large proportion of foreign, mostly European applicants, but also some from further afield. Among the former, practically all were people who came here to do their doctorates, which further testifies to the health of postgraduate film studies in the UK. And now they want to stay. In fact one of the good signs is the number of foreign scholars teaching and researching here, a real cultural and intellectual benefit of the European project, and of course it doesn’t only apply to film studies but goes right across the humanities. Government encourages especially those from beyond Europe who pay several times the European fees, but at the same time seems intent on undermining the business, and not only by stricter immigration controls. As policy-makers are seduced by arguments that privilege technical and scientific subjects which they deem to contribute directly to economic growth, then faced with unwieldy national deficits, they are prepared to impose draconian cuts on the humanities. Their agents oblige—witness the morally bankrupt decision at Middlesex University to close its top-rated department of philosophy (Save Middlesex Philosophy).
Indeed, as Martha Nussbaum argues in an extract in a recent issue of the TLS from her new book, Not For Profit: Why democracy needs the humanities, education systems all over the world, not just in the UK and not just universities, are undergoing a dangerous shift towards economic instrumentalism and away from the ‘liberal arts’, which are seen by policy-makers as useless frills, to be discarded in order to stay competitive in the global market. In the process, the politicians, despite being mostly educated in the best liberal arts traditions themselves, brush aside awkward contradictions, like the detail that subjects like film and media are feeders for the ‘creative industries’ which are strong national economic performers, contributing significantly to exports, tourism and domestic consumption. They created a system which responded to student demand, and then they change the rules of the game.
The principal agent of the philistine position in the UK before May 6th was the unelected business secretary Peter Mandelson, whose department took over responsibility for higher education when the twice disgraced politician was brought back into government by the hapless Brown; one of the few good results of the general election is to see him out of power. It is not a good sign, however, that there it now remains, albeit under the charge of the more liberal figure of Vince Cable. But the problem goes much deeper, because as Nussbaum argues, it isn’t just that the humanities are neglected. To the ideologues of economic growth, the promotion of critical thinking is anathema, and they’d be happy to put it down. If what they want is useful, docile, technically trained cadres with ‘transferable skills’ suited to short-term profit-making, then the cultivation of the student’s critical freedom, their imagination and capacity to think independently about their social role, to empathise with the suffering of others and question the structures that entail such oppression—this is not only awkward but positively dangerous. Perhaps it would even take us back to the 60s—although forwards to a really new kind of politics would be better. This is exactly why the mainstream media, and especially the tabloid hacks, have always attacked media and cultural studies, calling them ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees and accusing them of dumbing-down, when they themselves are the cartoon characters and down-dumbers of contemporary culture.
Film studies occupies an ironic place in this cultural confusion. It was instrumental in introducing new forms of critical theory in the humanities, and nowadays no-one within the academy, except a few old fuddy-duddies, would dream of supposing it wasn’t a serious and demanding pursuit. It has served in preparing new generations of school teachers to engage with the cultural predilections of their pupils growing up in the new media ecology, where cinema, far from being eclipsed by new media, has retained its extraordinary prestige. It has provided the media industry itself with scribes and hacks who are more than just film-buffs, although that is doubtless their primary requirement. It has also produced knowledgeable recruits to support the public sector as curators and programmers—of which several of our applicants boasted interesting experience.
Most of all, it has encouraged precisely the qualities that Nussbaum finds so crucial in the confrontation with capitalist globalization. The capacity to empathise with the other, to see the other not as an object but as a sentient human being, to think in terms of human relationships at all levels. A comprehension of the narrative imagination, the stories we are constantly being told, the way a narrative is assembled from fragments of facts and evidence—the very essence of film study. And an awakening to the complexity of the world we live in, the global interdependency which none of us stands outside, because ‘the global economy has tied all of us to distant lives’. Sorry if this sounds like an alternative list of course objectives in a student handbook. The point is that a critical programme like this depends on properly deconstructing the spectacle of the screen which the mainstream media are intent on promoting, and it therefore acquires an ideologically subversive edge. To succeed means tampering with student predilections for escapism and phantasy, it means challenging their prejudices and received assumptions, mobilising their emotional as well as their discursive intelligence. But that is surely true of all good education.
Anyway, Nussbaum is right. We need more of the kind of education that can’t be measured by student questionnaires. It also needs to be more integrated with the practical creative skills called into play by digital technology, if pedagogic practice is not to become ossified again. I mention this because even though our job advertisement hopefully specified that skills in creative practice would be an advantage, the weakest aspect of some of the presentations to the teaching team by our shortlisted candidates was poor use of what are nowadays basic electronic teaching aids, including the dreaded PowerPoint. Do we assume too readily that computer literacy is something people nowadays pick up easily enough? But then the other thing that can let a good candidate down is poor self-projection. This is an old problem: not everyone is a natural performer, but every good academic knows that lecturing is an act of performance, and if it doesn’t come naturally then it has to be learned. I include these remarks by way of advice to prospective interviewees. The competition is really tough, and you need to be aware of these things.
Long live film studies!