Wednesday, April 15, 2015

To my students and film students everywhere

All I can say is wow. In my wildest fantasies I never anticipated the response the previous blog posting ("Youth, Beauty, Idealism, Hopes, Dreams") would receive. Within 48 hours of going up, it received something like a thousand views—thanks, in part, to being linked to by a number of high-profile sites devoted to the college application and admissions process—and I received hundreds of emailed expressions of support, with still more continuing to come in as I write this a few days later.
Even more gratifying to me is the fact that almost everyone who wrote me is a young person. Many of the other blog pages have generated hundreds of comments and responses from high-level university professors and administrators, but the emails I received in response to this particular page were almost entirely from students, former students, and prospective students who have applied to, been accepted by, or received degrees in film (including a significant number who have been accepted at, contemplated applying to, currently attend, or have graduated from the Boston University Department of Film and Television).
To a person, without a single exception, my correspondents thanked me for the posting and expressed gratitude for the blog. A few students (God bless ‘em) told me that their graduate or undergraduate experiences at other film schools were different from the one I described at BU but the majority, sadly enough, told me that what I described at BU tallied with depressing educational experiences they themselves had or were still having.
A number of film production students referenced the blog page titled “Pretend Filmmakers” and another group of film studies/film theory/film analysis students referenced the page titled Real and Pretend Thinking,” and confimred that they indeed had teachers and courses similar to the ones I describe on those pages.
Many of the film theory, criticism, and analysis students or former students focused on the appalling unreality of academic jargon. Many of the emails included stories—a few comical, but most of them sad—about how the film study courses they had taken involved little more than mastering a series of arcane terms and references. They described how the pleasures, excitements, and discoveries of the actual viewing experience not only were lost in the translation, but more or less off-bounds and forbidden as subjects for discussion. The more arcane jargon you knew and used, the more “scholarly” the teacher judged you to be. They told me that even before they read the blog page on “Real and Pretend Thinking” they knew there was something profoundly wrong with that notion of education, but that what I had posted confirmed their worst suspicions. They were being cheated and misled.
Several former Boston University Film Studies/Film Theory students referred to another page linked to from the previous posting—“Pedagogical Betrayals of Trust: Assessing Film Course Offerings”—and thanked me for pointing out the intellectual fraudulence of Boston University’s advertising that they had a graduate-level program in Film Studies and admitting graduate students to study in it, while concealing the fact that students wouldn’t have any actual graduate-level classroom experiences, but only be thrown into pre-existing undergraduate courses, where Ph.D. and Master’s degree Film Studies/Film Theory students sat next to Freshmen and Sophomore non-film majors, listening to the same lectures and discussions, writing the same papers, taking the same courses in the same room at the same time as the lowest-level undergraduate non-major.
Other current or former students (many also from Boston University but a few from other schools) commented on the fact that much of film course class-time consisted of doing nothing but sitting in the dark watching a movie, with the instructor sometimes not even present in the classroom. They agreed with the point I made that they were paying far too much money to have the majority of their class time involve watching a film they could have seen on their own outside class.
Many of the people who wrote said it didn’t occur to them how they were being cheated of their tuition dollars and denied a real education until I pointed it out. I can understand that. It’s human nature to accept situations as we encounter them and assume that there are good reasons for the ways things are done. Beyond that, students are young, trusting, and inherently generous in their opinions of their teachers. They assume that what they are being taught is being done in the best possible way and that this is the way film courses and film instruction have to be.
I blushed to hear a few students call me “the only faculty member in America with the courage to tell the truth” (or words to that effect) about the institution he worked for. I don’t deserve the honorific or the praise, but I will plead guilty to believing that creating a first-class educational experience is more important than shilling for a multi-million dollar corporation to rake in tuition dollars for programs that gravely need to be re-examined and re-thought.
It is a sad fact, at least in my own department and program, that raising the kinds of questions I have raised about the meaning and value of the educational experience is not only not allowed, but is administratively retaliated against and punished. Deep, searching questions are simply not allowed to be asked. They threaten too many administrative interests and fiefdoms. I don’t know if it is only at Boston University or equally the case everywhere, but there is something almost tribal in the impulse to circle the wagons, retailiate against, or ostracize anyone who suggests things are not being done in the best possible way. (See “How (Not) to Conduct a Meeting” and “Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats—Being Banned In Boston” for accounts of the verbal abuse, ceremonies of public shaming, pay cuts, and lowered evaluations I have endured from administrators simply for pointing out problems.)
 As I note elsewhere on the blog (see the end of “A Summary—Ten Years at Boston University”), I kept my questions strictly “confidential” and “inside the system” for more than eight years, and only went public with the first blog posting on this site two years ago, after I couldn’t get a single Boston University administrator even to discuss the issues I was raising, let alone investigate or address them—issues not only involving problems with teaching, course offerings, and the education of students, but significant ethical violations and acts of professional misconduct on the part of several mid- and low-level administrators in the College of Communication, most egregiously the Director of Film Studies. The only response to my memos, reports, and personal meetings, for ten years at this point, was hundreds of acts of retaliation and punishment—against me, for mentioning the problem! For almost that entire period of time, I have been treated as persona non grata by Boston University administrators—effectively expunged, banned, and prevented from doing anything but teaching my courses—abused, sworn at, called a liar, told I was mentally ill, subjected to pay cuts, threatened with having a public posting made against me on the official Boston University web site to destroy my professional reputation, told the university would take legal actions against me deliberately intended to bankrupt me, and subjected to all of the other abuses, insults, and outrages documented on page after page of this blog—if I didn’t (as both the Boston University Provost and two different Deans explicitly demanded of me) stop reporting the problems, ethical abuses, violations of procedure, and acts of professional misconduct I had witnessed.
I’ll admit I sometimes feel like a character in a Beckett novel. I’m Malone or Molloy. I go on, I go on. The Boston University administration has if anything increased the punishments since I began these blog postings, but I vow never to stop speaking out until the university administration faces and deals with these problems. I am making these postings so that the next faculty member who has a mind of his own and dares to speak out will not be treated this way and for my students and all Boston University students. They deserve moral, principled, honorable faculty members. They deserve faculty who can speak out on behalf of the students’ educational interests, and not just on behalf of the almighty tuition dollar. —Ray Carney

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But let me end on two lighter notes:
More than half of the students or prospective students who wrote me in response to the "Youth, Beauty, Idealism, Hopes, Dreams" page, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, to my embarrassment and surprise, asked me to send them copies of one or more of my course syllabi. Yikes and double yikes! I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I mentioned that I occasionally send course syllabi to applicants to the BU program when they ask me to. Though I am flattered by the requests, I have to plead that I simply don’t have the time to fulfill the hundreds of requests I have unintentionally brought down on my own head. Not only is my time in short supply as I struggle to finish my gargantuan Bresson book, and is my computer ancient (it might as well be steam-powered); but—don’t laugh—I still use an old-fashioned dialup modem for my internet connection. I have no wireless, no cable connection, no cell phone, no portable devices (or i-anything), no streaming or download-access capability, and no speedy internet access of any sort! To the hundreds of students, former students, and prospective students who wrote and asked for copies of my course syllabi, the best I can do is suggest that you work through the long list of films on the previous blog page, one by one. They are all worth a long look. Sorry to be such a Charlie Chaplin baggy-pants man!  
Finally, I wanted to thank the film theory student who wrote and described a screamingly funny “Film Theory Card Game” he invented where every card has a name adapted from his film theory classes—with lowly “metaphor” being a Deuce, “symbol” being a Three, “gender” being a Four, “ideology” a Five, right on up to "suture," “parametric,” “diegetic,” “sjuzhet,” “Freud,” “Lacan,” “Derrida,” and “deconstruction” as face card Royalty, and that tired, old chestnut “Killing the filmmaker” being one of the Aces. Bravo, bravissimo! The terminological idiocies and jargon of the sixties, seventies, and eighties live on in the yellowed, wrinkled grad school notes of your teachers! I laughed out loud when I read your description of the imaginary game you and your friends play. Thanks for the chuckle, and keep holding onto your sense of humor as the intellectual garbage piles up in front of your eyes, trying to block your view of the screen.