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About the Author:
Dana Polan is Professor of Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University
The Pedagogy of Photoplay Composition at Columbia University
Where is the quiet and study essential to the study of art to be had? In the dark silence of motion-picture theaters. FRANCES TAYLOR PATTERSON, instructor for Photoplay Composition, Columbia University, Scenario and Screen (1928)
Among the handful of letters between Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), and Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler in the university's archives, the very last one, from 1945, is particularly amusing. Hays and Butler maintained over the years a correspondence that was simultaneously professional and somewhat personal: for example, in 1920, Butler asked if he might receive tickets for himself and his family to the Republican National Convention (of which Hays was chairman), and Hays wrote back with his willingness to oblige. The correspondence also offers an ongoing glimpse of the busy life of the university president in a period when institutions of higher learning increasingly were being run as veritable big-business bureaucracies (and lamented as such by such cultural commentators as Thorstein Veblen). The modern university had evolvedinto a massive operation in which responsibilities for individual programs and projects were ever more frequently delegated to subunits, such as individual departments, in the institutional hierarchy. Presidents did not have time to keep track of everything: they were just too busy fund-raising and serving as symbolic beacons for the university. Throughout the years, Butler would take an interest, both academic and personal, in the movies, but he did not always have time to commit himself to film culture in extended fashion.
The November 10, 1945, letter is revealing in its image of a busy college president for whom running the university has become an all-consuming responsibility. The letter came from R. B. Parker, Butler's personal secretary, and was written to Will Hays to thank him for sending the president a copy of Raymond Moley's official history of the Hays Office. President Butler, Parker recounted, was very grateful to have the volume. He would, Parker promised, "have it read to him at the very first opportunity" (my emphasis). The image here is of the university president as overly occupied and preoccupied administrator-not so unlike our typical image of the classic Hollywood producer on several phones at once-who can get by only through what we now term multitasking. Butler might from time to time take an interest in the movies and the business behind them, but he too had a business to run, and the movies could demand only so much attention from him.
Delegation of responsibility and benign indifference to local decision making at the departmental level became necessary to the workings of the modern university as it entered the twentieth century. With the increasing fragmentation of divisions and the increasing diversity of functions any one campus performed, there was no way the administration could keep track of every component, and there was a concomitant need to let individual units proceed in relative autonomy from direct supervision. Units could generally do as they wished as long as they did not stray too far from basic assumptions about what the university mission was or open themselves up to scandal. At the same time, university administrators in the twentieth century increasingly began to ignore the academic projects on campus in large part because their administrative energy had turned elsewhere-to public relations, to fund-raising, to the cultural image of the university in the world at large.
University presidents, for instance, ceased to be academic figures primarily-the titular leaders of their faculty-and instead turned into figureheads who lobbied for the university with nonacademic publics (e.g., trustees, donors, parents, journalists, and legislators). Tellingly, one of historian Laurence Veysey's own descriptions of this new outward-oriented activity of college leaders uses a metaphor from film: "For their part, university administrators (whose deeper sympathies more frequently lay with the marching feet [i.e., the publicly attractive activities of campus athletics and parades]) took pride in the accomplishments of their faculties, even if they did so in the manner of the neighborhood theater owner who never watches the films he books but keenly knows the drawing power of the actors." In like fashion, in 1932, the secretary of Columbia, Frank D. Fackenthal, used a film metaphor when he wrote on President Butler's behalf to turn down an invitation to a screening from Adolph Zukor (for Paramount's movie The Man I Killed): as Fackenthal explained, "He [President Butler] is sort of a motion picture himself these days and does not seem certain that he can stop long enough to drop into the Criterion."
It is no doubt risky to read too much into a few letters in a (perhaps incomplete) archival file. However, the anecdote of President Butler engaged in other activities while one of his minions reads him a film book can serve as a fitting allegory for one destiny of early cinema pedagogy in the Ivy League context. Early in the twentieth century Columbia flirted with film, but it was not central to the university's overall mission-such that there might still be one singular mission in an age of increasing academic compartmentalization-and the specific activity of film pedagogy seems to have found its way into the curriculum less because it mattered to anyone high up than because, quite the contrary, it did not make a splash and passed quietly under the radar. Starting in the fall of 1915, Columbia would begin offering a pedagogy in Photoplay Composition in its adult-education extension program and then in its home-study (i.e., correspondence school) program, and this course would continue to be offered for several decades. From a single item in the curriculum, the course would expand into multiple sections and multiple levels (from beginners to advanced). It would come close to spawning a spin-off production course at the beginning of the 1920s, and would almost be absorbed at the end of the 1920s into a broader, more ambitious attempt at Columbia to create a full degree-granting program in cinema. Through all this, however, film teaching just moved along-not much fanfare, but also not much outcry. One searches in vain for administrative notice-positive or negative-of this first pedagogy of film. From our vantage point within the established discipline of today's film studies, we would like perhaps to look back and imagine that things were more exciting and more heroic, and that the "birth" of the field was an event of high drama. When writing the history of a discipline, it is easy to get so caught up in the local efforts that marked the trajectory of the field that one imagines that everyone in the university setting (and even perhaps persons beyond the ivy walls) must have felt a sense of momentousness and followed the story with close attention. But the modern university had become such a massive and fragmented space that it would be hard for any new pedagogy to do more than quietly find its own little corner.
Offered in the nether region of extension programs, noncredit lecture series, and professional divisions removed from the mainstream humanistic mission of institutions of higher learning, the first film courses slipped stealthily into the academic context and, in some cases, endured most likely by exploiting the benign neglect that frequently resulted from bureaucratic ignorance.
That the researcher does not find documents concerning the history of a discipline does not always mean they have disappeared; it can also mean they never existed to begin with. That is, what we might take to be an interesting or even exciting history that everyone must have been commenting on at the time can turn out to be part of an initiative so local or minor it was absorbed into the running of university affairs "as usual," and thereby merited no special attention or extended commentary. Silence and a lack of documents represent the other face of benign ignorance.
Take, for instance, a series of letters in the Wills Hays folder at Columbia that went back and forth in late 1926 between President Butler and several figures in the film industry (not just Hays alone): Butler wrote to Hays admitting that he (Butler) did "not know anything about the motion picture industry" but had been wondering if his book Building the American Nation might form the potential basis for a motion picture; Carl Laemmle at Universal wrote to invite Butler to a screening of an adaptation of Jules Verne's Michael Strogoff (Butler declined); and in yet another letter Laemmle asked him to be one of the judges for a high school photoplay contest in honor of Victor Hugo (Butler accepted). The correspondence is sparse, but nonetheless it has several intriguing aspects. First, we might wonder why letters to or from Carl Laemmle ended up in a file supposedly devoted to Will Hays. Of course, it could be an after-the-fact accident of filing: someone in Butler's office may have simply put all letters relating to the film business together. At the same time, it is worth noting that Hays, as we will see in more detail, seems to have been an important behind-the-scenes figure in a number of enterprises around film in higher education, and it might well be the case that Hays actually instigated the various attempts by Laemmle to forge contacts with Butler and his university.
There is yet another intriguing aspect to the letters from 1926. One learns from other documents at Columbia and from Will Hays's own papers that concurrent with the bits of tentative contact evident in these letters between Hays, Laemmle, and Butler, there had already been fairly advanced discussions between industry officials and Columbia administrators and faculty regarding the development of a degree program in film study at the university. Butler did not directly take part in the discussions about the program, but he knew of them and gave them his imprimatur and close attention. Later I will discuss details of this project, which was given its greatest elaboration in 1927. For now I only want to register the fact that none of Butler's correspondence with industr y figures like Laemmle alluded to the curricular project in film in any way. Hays and Butler talked about the idea of a Hollywood adaptation of the college president's book without any mention of the initiative (in which they were both involved) to bring film study to Columbia. Likewise, Hays made no mention of the project in his letters to Laemmle. Perhaps some of the discussion of the program occurred outside of letters (e.g., there may have been unrecorded telephone conversations). Perhaps the film activities that Butler was being asked to involve himself in, such as the Victor Hugo contest, were ways of establishing social contacts and opening channels of communication so that the curricular idea could then be examined. But it is again interesting to see the extent to which these bureaucrats could so compartmentalize their concerns that their letters on one topic seem to engage in a sort of deliberate ignoring of their own activities in other, complementary areas.
In this respect, it is additionally striking to note that the 1926 discussions between film industry officials and the Columbia administration regarding the creation of a degree program in film gave minimal recognition to the fact that for about ten years Columbia had already been offering film courses-namely, the series of classes starting in 1915 on photoplay composition that had been offered through the university's active extension program. The instructor who taught the photoplay course, Frances Taylor Patterson, was not mentioned in any documents about the new film curriculum proposed in 1927; neither was the man who had taught it before her, Victor Freeburg. Patterson served on no committees geared toward implementation of that curriculum, and she appears not to have been consulted for her views on a film major. As we will see later, Freeburg's and Patterson's courses were vaguely alluded to by planners of the new program but merely as existing offerings that could easily be absorbed into the proposed curriculum. There was little sense that Patterson's own views on the topic of course development in film mattered in any way. Her photoplay composition pedagogy, at best, was something taken for granted and, at worst, something ignored.
Nonetheless, the photoplay composition courses that began at Columbia in the mid-1910s represent, as far as we can tell, the first academic offerings on film in the United States, and for that reason they matter to the historian. One reason for their marginalization in the university's consciousness is that they were offered through various branches of Columbia's extension program, and to a degree, the lack of attention paid them reflects the low intellectual status granted by higher education to extension study overall. To be sure, universities saw advantages to be gained from their extension programs, but these were not always imagined by administrators and regular faculty as intellectual benefits. From the late nineteenth century on, a number of elite institutions of higher learning had begun programs in adult or extension education, and their reasons were not always scholarly: adult education made for good public relations, it fit in with the ameliorative spirit of the Progressive age, and with efficient organization, it could be a new source of revenue for the institutions. Indeed, Columbia seems to have been driven by a number of these factors, especially as its "rival to the south," New York University, seemed to be getting all the glory of extension education. Additionally, as we will see later, extension programs also functioned in some cases as laboratories where courses could be tried out in a low-risk environment before being proposed as for-credit offerings to the regular body of matriculating students.
Few extension programs offered their courses for credit. At Columbia specifically, no extension courses were allowed to fulfill regular curricular requirements. (However, one newspaper story reported that a student in the photoplay course, who was a regular matriculating Columbia undergraduate, was able to petition successfully to have the course count toward his major.) Even though some of the extension courses were taught by regular Columbia teaching staff who simply offered noncredit adult-education versions of the same courses that matriculating Columbia students took from them for credit, the administration insisted that extension courses not be considered a regular part of the university's curriculum. Fundamentally, early American adult education instituted a division between the regular university curriculum, considered to represent the real core of the university's educational offering, and another track of courses imagined as serving very different needs. To the various constituencies involved in both kinds of curriculum-not only students but also teachers, administrators, and the general public-the courses on either side of the divide were imagined to entail a range of pedagogical advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, President Butler seems to have wanted to assign extension courses a lesser status, not really a part of genuine university education and not really for the elite college student. As he put it bluntly in 1926, "It is almost as important to keep certain young men and young women from going to college as to induce others to do so." On the other hand, in a 1923 report, James Egbert, the head of Columbia's extension program, boldly pictured his division as so fully meeting the requirements of a rigorous commitment that it often surpassed many degree-granting programs in terms of seriousness of education. These, he argued, rested on their laurels and were often little more than socializing clubs for degree-seeking students more interested in useful contacts and the prestige of a diploma than in real learning. In Egbert's words, "The opinion exists in the minds of many that colleges throughout the country are being regarded by students and by people in general as athletic and social clubs primarily and not as educational institutions. The students in University Extension attend for the purpose of obtaining an education, and are not drawn aside from this goal by the allurement of athletic sports or social engagements."
Excerpted from Scenes of Instruction by Dana B. Polan Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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