The Professional Language of the Future

In today’s New York Times, an Elizabeth Van Ness article asks whether cinema studies is “the new MBA.” Reading the headline, I worried that it was yet another article that would misrepresent cinema studies to a wider audience, but the article’s discussion of students who have used film studies degrees to pursue careers outside the film industry actually conveys a lot of what I find valuable about the possibilities for teaching film studies. More importantly, the article emphasizes the need for teaching cinematic (or visual) literacy, especially when cinematic images are endowed with so much power.

Specifically, Van Ness notes the ways in which a degree in film studies can prepare students for a number of other careers in fields ranging from public policy to law school and beyond. I’d imagine that anyone who teaches in film studies (or literary studies, for that matter) wouldn’t be surprised by this news, but given the tendency to characterize these majors as impractical (or too theoretical), an article that identifies the skills a film studies student can develop is worth noting.

I do want to work through Van Ness’s discussion of visual literacy, however, because it does reach an interesting limit in terms of discussing the power of visual images. Van Ness follows Rick Herbst’s observation about the role of media images in preserving the status quo–and the need to promote marginalized voices–by noting that

At a time when street gangs warn informers with DVD productions about the fate of “snitches” and both terrorists and their adversaries routinely communicate in elaborately staged videos, it is not altogether surprising that film school – promoted as a shot at an entertainment industry job – is beginning to attract those who believe that cinema isn’t so much a profession as the professional language of the future.

While the “Stop Snitching” DVD and the Al Qaeda videos do have tremendous power, Van Ness more or less redirects Herbst’s comments, ignoring his discussion of the power relations associated with film and media images.

She reintroduces these examples later, identifying “Stop Snitching,” and the execution videos as a “complex sort of post-literacy in which cinematic visuals and filmic narrative have become commonplace.” I’ve never been comfortable with the term “post-literacy,” simply because it implies that something has been lost in the transition to an emphasis on visual literacy, rather than seeing visual literacy skills as building onto or complementing other forms of literacy. Other than that (minor) gripe, I thought it represented the best aspects of our profession rather well.

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