Bad Theory?

I just read a thinly veilled hatchet-job of the UCSB Film School that appeared in the LA Times this summer, called Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology.

I tend to be very practical in my approach to theory, especially contemporary and post-modern theory. Some of it is intrinsically interesting. That is, it creates an interesting world in the same way as any good fiction does–and like good fiction, some of it helps us to understand the world around us.

I also sympathize with those who claim that the language is sometimes unnecessarily turgid. Some of this comes of both style of the French authors (as many are) and the act of translation. As many have suggested, the language of physics or chemistry is no less turgid, but there is an underlying assumption that society is something we all do, and therefore should be simple. Of course, just the opposite is true: social interaction and the practices of culture are significantly more complex than the world of chemistry or physics, and understood far less. This provides at least some excuse for what is sometimes maddening prose, but as is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Enter David Weddle for the Times, film school graduate of two decades ago, infuriated that his daughter is getting a C in film theory. After all, he’s paying more than $73,000 for her education. (Why is this relevant? If he were paying $20,000 would the content of the coursework matter less? It’s not made explicit, but we can guess: $73K better show a good ROI–and we don’t mean a better understanding of the world.)

He quotes a question from her exam, which he cannot make heads nor tails of, nor can, one presumes, the average reader. I could make guesses at an interesting answer, without any real film theory background, but then I’m not the average undergraduate film major.

Of course, had he included a question from her Chinese language final or her geology final most of the readers would not be able to answer that as well. His assumption is that since he was a film major in the 1970s, he should be familiar with any theoretical question asked in 2003, or, presumable 2028. After all, the study of film couldn’t have changed in 25 years, could it?

I reacted badly to this because I see a danger. I’ve already run into parents who are hot under the collar when their students get bad grades. In most cases, I am legally bound from discussing the issue with them, but when I am able, and I tell them that their golden children didn’t bother to show up for class for weeks at a time, and that the average grade on the exam was a mid-B, and that their kid got among the lowest 10% of grades, this sometimes dulls their attack.

But Weddle takes this a step further, extrapolating from a study guide, to a class, to a school, to a field, and then publishing his outrage in a national newspaper. I can imagine that the same could be done for any one of a number of courses in our own department, despite the fact that we are as close to the positivist, social scientific tradition as you can possibly get.

Inherent in the article is that school should be for training, not for thinking. I am very much in favor of giving students the power to shape their own programs. I also know from experience that the majority of them want a practical education that will translate directly into job skills. They are incredulous when told that employers actually do want people who can think, solve problems, learn and communicate, and that learning the nuts and bolts of a particular software system or management style is only of limited use. I suspect that no one on a movie lot will ever ask them for a structural interpretation of a scene while they are setting up the lighting, but that doesn’t mean that having the longer perspective will not help their careers and their work.

For a lot less than $73,000, Weddle could give his daughter a practical introduction to film. The basic skills could be learned at the local community college, and the details as an apprentice to skilled technicians and artists. Why did he wait until after his daughter was getting Cs to visit classes and decide that the school was not of merit? If the neo-Marxists are ruining his daughter’s life, shouldn’t she withdraw? No one is forcing theory upon her.

On one hand, I think schools should be held up for criticism and be forced to justify their curricula–we need a “Consumer Rreports” of education at all levels. The best measure of this, something that the author does only very anecdotally, is asking graduates five and ten and fifteen years down the road whether their education was worthwhile to them. But as an effort to explain his daughter’s lack of engagement in the material, I think he fails miserably. His first reaction, wondering what his daughter could do to improve her work in the class, was proabably the better one.

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  1. Posted 9/14/2003 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    yes, i remember reading this when it came out. I find the most disturbing assumption to be the monetization of the whole process and the assumption that money plays a part somewhere in the relationship between teacher and student. I’ve heard many students say ‘I pay for this class, the teacher should ….’ never to me, and more when i was an undergrad, but they never really see that it is not the direct relation they think it is. oh i suppose i could rant on this all day….., but i’ll just make another cup of tea and see if anyone else picks up on it.

  2. April
    Posted 12/27/2003 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    You’re right, this was a hatchet-job by a wanna-be intellectual who is raging over his own inability to understand his daughter’s course material. Maybe Alexis could have explained it to him if she’d actually attended class and done the work outlined in her syllabus. I guess Daddy has erroneously taught her that $73,000 guarantees her academic success and that taking on challenging material which might actually force her to crack a dictionary is for “Jewish, Liberal, Homosexual Pornographers,” to borrow from Woody Allen. Maybe UCSB should invite Weddle to lecture on “Fascism and Anti-Intellectualism, from the perspective of a Reactionary Hack,” or some other subject with which he’s an expert. Maybe that would soothe the wounded ego of this angry dad who hasn’t come to grips with the fact that his little princess is a mediocre student.

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