Teaching Film Studies in the Age of Media Studies

As we know, the discipline of film studies in many institutions in Australia is closely tied to or subsumed within media studies programs. For this reason, I would like to contribute to today’s discussion by considering current transformations in media studies pedagogy, and the implications of these changes for our discipline. I want to start from what Graeme Turner identifies as a crisis in media studies in Australia and internationally in Re-Inventing the Media. [1]

In this new book, Turner re-thinks media studies for the contemporary post-broadcast, post-analogue and post-mass media era. The premise is this: “While media and cultural studies has made much of the changes to the media landscape that have come from digital technologies, these constitute only part of the transformations that have taken place in what amounts to a reinvention of the media over the last two decades”. [2] Turner thus proposes a new approach that encompasses the whole of the contemporary media-scape by focusing on three large, cross-platform, transnational themes: 1) the decline of the mass media paradigm; 2) the ongoing restructuring of the relations between the media and the state; and 3) the structural and social consequences of celebrity culture.

This approach differs from other broad analyses of media change not only because of its insistence that there is more to this change than the shift from analogue to digital. It is also a scathing attack on the discipline of media studies by one its leading scholars:

[T]he current state of media studies is no longer fit for the purpose of properly understanding these changes, accurately assessing their implications, and then addressing these concerns. That needs to be fixed. (emphasis mine) [3]

The targets of this attack are: 1) the formation of creative industries studies and its alignment with the entrepreneurial values of cool capitalism; and 2) the bifurcation of media studies around traditional/old media and new media, as a by-product of the rise of new media studies. He is particularly critical of the treatment of television in new media studies:

All disciplines are subject to intellectual fashions, of course, but rarely are they hitched up to such exorbitantly fashion-driven vehicles as the media technology industries. A version of media studies which describes what is still and for the foreseeable future the dominant media platform globally – television – as ‘legacy’ media, is the product of fashion rather than informed knowledge. … New media has not displaced television globally, for instance; South Korea has the highest percentage penetration for broadband worldwide, it sets the standard for internet speeds, but more than 90 per cent of its citizens have subscription television and 90 per cent of them use their subscription television to watch free-to-air television, which consequently still leads the ratings. In the UK, television viewing is on the increase again … [4]

What Turner does not add is that Korea produces more than 100 feature films per year which share over 50% of the approximate 217 million cinema tickets sold in that country in 2015. Nor does he mention the rise of the Korean New Wave or the Korean Horror film (more on such absences below). What he does mention, however, is pedagogy. He is sympathetic with colleagues who are under pressure from their universities to include new technologies in their curricula as a way of making courses more “attractive” to current and potential students. The problem as he sees it, however, lies in the way in which this technology is being introduced. That is what he claims is the now “common pedagogic strategy of approaching the media as an anthology of affordances arranged in hierarchies of timeliness and popularity” [5] – social media, mobile media, interactive media, VR and so on. It’s a problem, not only because it sidelines old media such as television, radio and print but also because it often replaces courses in media history, comparative analysis, media ethnography, global diversity of media and transnational approaches, media consumption and audiences and the relationship between media and the state. The problem, Turner argues, is that we are not providing current students with “a strong conceptual frame” for understanding media power. [6]

His proposed solution to this crisis is interesting. In a word – his word – he advocates for an “ecumenical” approach. [7] Turner is emphatic that media studies should be dealing with all media, so called new and old, just as our societies do, and in ways that show how the interface between them is structured and used. This ecumenical model is not, however, simply about inclusiveness of all media. His use of the term ecumenical also points toward a necessary (re)commitment to unity and tradition – a renewal of faith in the undisciplined discipline of media studies’ original purpose of analysing media power. His proposed model would necessarily break with the current trend that he describes as a “platform-specific approach”. [8] Instead, students would begin by focusing on the large-scale, cross-cutting, cross-platform issues that structure what happens right across the media continuum, followed by specialisation in a specific medium in upper level and postgraduate courses.

But here’s the rub for us in film studies. When Turner says that media studies should encompass all media he does not include film. And when he speaks of a continuum of media from old to new, there is no indication of where he locates cinema. There are only two references to film as a medium in Re-Inventing the Media, and no reference to cinema or film studies. Put simply, film is a total blindspot in his analysis of the reinvented media. This makes for an extremely frustrating read. For example, Turner writes of the need for more nuanced global perspectives of media, but fails to acknowledge the long history and ongoing practice of film studies scholarship on non-Western cinemas. When he calls for greater understanding of the reconfiguration of the relations between the media and the state in the current era, he makes no mention of the body of work on critical transnationalism in contemporary film studies which analyses this important reconfiguration; nor does he mention the many film studies programs that teach units on the transforming nature of national cinemas that address issues of trade, co-productions, international television presales, and so on, while also teaching students how to closely analyse film form and style.

The problem as I see it (and to carry on with Turner’s religious metaphor) is that media studies is a different faith to that of film studies. It is polytheistic in nature, and cannot reconcile with the monotheism of film studies. The glaring absence of film in Turner’s so called all-encompassing approach to media might be read positively as an acknowledgement of the disciplinary boundary between media and film studies. But it is also a failure to recognise the complexity, depth and relevance of film studies approaches to the contemporary media landscape – a failure that is all too often reflected in university media programs and by research funding bodies.

Just as Turner has found it necessary to restate the academic purpose of media studies in order to differentiate it from the vocational purposes of the increasingly dominant new media studies, I want to suggest that those of us who work in film studies departments need to constantly restate to both our students and our colleagues in other disciplines the value of the humanistic tradition. I am sympathetic with Turner’s view that students are leaving universities without a coherent understanding of structural forms of media power, and I encourage my students to seek such understanding in the adjacent discipline of media studies. But I am just as concerned that a media student would leave university without exposure to the humanistic tradition of increasing their self-understanding and furthering their critical enquiry into culture and society through analysis of a human art such as cinema; or that a colleague in a related area does not understand that study of cinema as an art and collective aesthetic experience also provides great insight into media power.

What I take from Turner, then, is that the future of both film and media studies relies on intellectual openness to new and old media objects that find their way into our disciplinary orbits – without, in the words of Michael Stipe of REM, “losing [our] religion”.

[1] Graeme Turner, Re-Inventing the Media (London: Routledge 2015).
[2] Ibid., book description on back cover.
[3] Ibid., p. 136.
[4] Ibid., p. 131.
[5] Ibid., p. 129.
[6] Ibid., P. 129.
[7] Ibid., p. 132.
[8] Ibid., p. 133.

About the Author

Therese Davis

About the Author

Therese Davis

Dr Therese Davis is an Associate Professor in Film and Screen Studies in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University. She is the author of The Face on the Screen: Death Recognition and Spectatorship (Intellect, 2004) and co-author with Felicity Collins of Australian Cinema After Mabo (CUP, 2004).View all posts by Therese Davis →