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Film studies in danger of extinction

The Film Studies program at Mills is in danger of disappearing from the curriculum due to uncertainty about the program’s future once Program Head Ken Burke retires. Burke, who has been at Mills since 1987, said he will retire in May 2013, and, as he is the only faculty member permanently situated within the Film Studies program, the future of that program has been the focal point of a faculty-wide conversation.

DVD’s and VHS’s line shelves in the F.W. Olin Library. The future of the Film Studies department at Mills remains unclear in the wake of Department Head Ken Burke’s plans to retire. (Bridget Stagnitto)

“Based on advice from colleagues and supervisors last spring, it seemed clear to me that, once I left Mills, there would no longer be sufficient courses to properly support the current Film Studies program because there were no plans to replace my type of classes,” Burke said. “Although Intermedia Arts faculty do plan to request a different type of film studies teacher to enhance their program with history and theory of experimental film and video.”

The debate over the future direction of the Film Studies program is being facilitated by the Education Policy Subcommittee, a branch of the Faculty Executive Committee ­— a group of professors from various departments who steer policy on how to make Mills a better learning environment. Professor Fred Lawson, Chair of the subcommittee and Head of the Government Department, thinks that it’s a good idea to step back and fundamentally reconsider what to do about Film Studies.

“Our subcommittee will begin taking proposals in January 2013, so it’s a little premature to consider it this year,” Lawson said. “However, something does need to be done; some other department might integrate film into their curriculum, and I know Intermedia Arts may have an idea. The History Department is also interested in a more documentary-based slant. But whatever we do next, it should be started from scratch and not just merely replacing someone, even in the face of requests for exactly what has been done before.”

Another delegate to the subcommittee, Professor Stephen Ratcliffe, who represents the Letters Division, expressed concern about the program disappearing once
Burke leaves.

“When we heard that Ken had consulted with various groups about retiring and that he had assumed there was no support to keep Film Studies going because no one immediately stepped in to take over, we were surprised that Film Studies would just disappear,” said Ratcliffe, who noted the fundamental importance of such a program to a liberal arts curriculum, especially at a college located in the Bay Area.

“We have the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, various local film festivals, the film exhibitions at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts…. Film is very happening in the Bay.”

The Campanil requested an interview with Anna Murch, Head of the Intermedia Committee, and Samara Halperin, a member of the committee, to represent the views of the Intermedia Arts department, but they could not be reached in time for publication.

One voice notably absent from this discussion is that of Burke himself. Lawson said that Burke has “admirably taken himself out of the debate and tried to get (the subcommittee) to think about the future by starting this conversation.”

Burke did temporarily break his silence to make known both his plans to retire and the somewhat precarious status of his program, a status which could affect students interested in minoring in Film Studies.

“If there is now more active interest in retaining our Film Studies minor, I’d be delighted to see that, but such a decision is up to Mills faculty and college officers; it would be improper for me to be involved in such discussions, except to provide needed information,” Burke said. “I really don’t know, nor can say much else about this at present, except that I’ve had many marvelous years here with magnificent Mills students. And I’m not gone yet, so come take a class with me in the next three semesters, if you’d like.”

Burke and ‘teaching assistants’ Annie & Inky. (Courtesy of Ken Burke)

The Film Studies program will not be in danger of termination until Spring 2013, according to Burke, so it is still open to students — provided that they can complete the minor requirements before Burke’s departure.

Students’ opinions on the direction that Film Studies should take are just as varied as the debate among faculty members.

Senior Kate Humphrey, an Art History and Intermedia Arts major, would like to see the Film Studies program broaden its scope.

“Though I have vested interests in both Art History — as an Art History major — and Intermedia Arts — as an independent study student of a Video Production class — Professor Ken Burke has worked tirelessly to maintain entertaining and informative Film Studies classes filled with technical information — in the vein of Intermedia Arts — as well as plenty of art historical background,” Humphrey said.  “Film Studies has enriched my other areas of study greatly and should remain an available minor for all Mills students. It should be taught in the same detail and with the same respect currently demonstrated by Professor Burke but with a greater number of classes and publicity than it has had in the past.”

Fellow senior Blaire Knight-Graves has worked closely with Burke in creating a major known as Art of Narrative Film. She said she understands the importance of experimental film studies, but she appreciates having a traditionalist, such as Burke, to lay the foundation of Film Studies.

“I liken it to chemistry: You wouldn’t hand an experimental chemist a bunch of chemicals he doesn’t understand, and you can’t make a new drug until you understand what all goes into it. The same goes with making and studying film. It’s great that experimental methods are an option, but I think it’s really great to have a narrative person on campus,” Knight-Graves said.

Lawson acknowledged how great a task the subcommittee faces.

“I hope, and the educational policy subcommittee hopes, that whatever conversation we have about the future of film and visual arts studies at Mills does not disintegrate into a turf war among departments,” he said.