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revolution/reaction


production challenges, threats to theory

gillian leahy on teaching filmmaking & media

Gillian Leahy is a filmmaker whose credits include My Life Without Steve (1986) and Our Park (1998). She is Associate Professor and Program Director of the Media Arts and Production Program at UTS and a member of the advisory council of ASPERA.

WA Screen Academy (ECU) student WA Screen Academy (ECU) student
photo Mike Gray
HOW TO TEACH ANYTHING TO STUDENTS WHO ARE ALREADY MAKING MOBILE MOVIES AND DESIGNING WEBSITES USING YOUTUBE AND MYSPACE IS ONE AMONG THE MANY CHALLENGES FACING COURSES IN FILMMAKING AND MEDIA PRODUCTION. TEACHING FOR A FUTURE IN TV PRODUCTION AND CINEMA MAKING SEEMS LESS RELEVANT WHEN MANY OF YOUR STUDENTS ARE NOT PLUGGED INTO THOSE ‘OLD’ TRADITIONAL MODELS IN THE WAY THEIR LECTURERS WERE AND ARE. THIS IS CAUSING SOME COURSES TO FEEL THE NEED to UPDATE for THE NEW ONLINE WORLD.

RMIT has recently moved into this territory in its Bachelor of Communication (Media), mixing theory and practice in the same subjects and has theory teachers marking online essays that may include film clips and photos and other interactive media textual devices. The University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) Media Arts and Production undergraduate course is undergoing a similar revision with its new course beginning in 2009.

changing production models

Part of what is driving this is the belief that in the changed media world practitioners of the future are going to have to operate across many platforms in small flexible businesses and that the larger studio set-ups, both public and private, that allowed for media specialists are fast disappearing. The new media creator will need to know how to shoot and light and how to make a good website and a soundtrack, and think and create flexibly.

One of the immediate challenges here for universities is how to find suitably skilled cross-media practitioners who already have the much needed ‘industry’ experience to teach these new courses. It remains to be seen however if a specialist film and video education, such as the one offered by Griffith University’s new $5m state-subsidised Griffith Film School in Brisbane, will leave students any less equipped than new new-age cross-media education. It’s the ability to write and create interesting and good-looking content that is always the sought after skill.

the melbourne model

Related to these shifts is the influence of the so-called ‘Bologna’ model, here often called the Melbourne model, in reference to Melbourne University’s decision to offer only six generalist undergraduate degrees, leaving specialisation to postgraduate studies. This European approach expects students to undertake a first generalist degree of three to four years and then a further two years in specialist graduate studies. In Australia, the currently stretched budgets of the universities are making this almost an economic necessity, and putting specialist undergraduate degrees under threat. While no less expensive than science education, media production courses are generally funded by government on the ‘arts’ model’s much lower levels. A move to the Melbourne model shifts the economic burden even more heavily onto the students who will now have to add the cost of postgraduate study to their undergraduate fees debt. This is because specialised film and television courses may only exist as graduate courses.

Most universities will keep their media production courses but they may become more digital cross-media oriented than current specialised filmmaking courses, and hence will be cheaper, they hope.

That hope may be vain. New media technologies such as digital equipment and software, miniaturization and internet distribution have made it easier for students to get good results with less expertise and without using expensive film stock. And to get those results to an audience. Now is technologically the right time to introduce media courses that themselves are more convergent between types of media production and distribution. But clunky old film cameras go on working for 40 years, whereas digital equipment needs regular replacement and software upgrading every two to three years. Media Production courses always cost money and this is the cause of many other problems that face staff.
WA Screen Academy (ECU) student WA Screen Academy (ECU) student
photo Mike Gray
teacher exploitation

While there is immense variance between universities in terms of the conditions for media production teaching staff, it is my contention that they have often been some of the most exploited staff in their universities. Media Production began to be taught in universities in the 70s. Those hired to teach were usually people with already well established industry (rather than academic) careers such as directors and writers; creative technicians (editors, sound designers, cinematographers), or ‘techos’, people who knew how to set up facilities and how to work the gear. They often lacked higher degrees and were already lower in the promotion list and in the level of traditional Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) approved research outputs than their same-age media studies teaching peers.

Testament to this is the small number of staff who, starting out as filmmakers, have now reached Associate Professor status in the sector. Whole films they may have directed account for only half the DEST points for a refereed article. Added to this, one hears of staff hired who, apart from their teaching load, are expected to maintain facilities and run gear and software workshops out of class, making it nigh impossible for them to find the time to do the research also demanded of them.

rqf hopes & fears

But now a new way of counting research has been introduced by the Federal Government: the Research Quality Framework (RQF). In many ways this may be a boon to media production academics because it counts ‘impact’ as well as ‘quality’ as a way of measuring the worth of research and because, for the first time, creative practice-based researchers are able to sit at the same table with historians and scientists as equals. No longer will it be only the multiple-paper publisher who looks like a good researcher.

While in the long term the RQF is a good thing—and academics in our field are horrified by Labor’s plans to scuttle the impact measure—in the short term it is feared creative arts academics may not fare well. This could be because they may not have been under pressure to produce research or, perhaps, many of them have been far too busy running under-funded media courses to do so.

The strongest RQF critics in media production teaching fear that because their areas will not be seen to attract research funding those same areas will be wound down or will end up in the feared other product of this RQF system: ‘teaching only’ universities which will lack the inspiration and good students that a research culture brings.

Some feel Screen Production academics should be able to claim their students’ creative outputs as their own ‘produced’ work, which of course, as their supervisors, in some way it usually is. But understandably the RQF will not allow staff to claim supervisees’ work unless it is part of a submission on teaching research. At the June 2007 Australian Screen Production Education and Research Association (ASPERA) Conference the RQF provoked a lot of debate. It is to be hoped that universities will help their creative practitioner academics get up to speed where needed and that the academics themselves will be given time to pursue creative research, and also get more canny about publishing their work.

production +/- theory

Lastly media production courses are facing the challenge of how they integrate theory with production. Here I make a distinction between ‘meta-theory’ (such as screen studies, history, politics, media theory) and ‘theory of practice’, such as the concept of depth of field and its use in image production, the Hollywood continuity style and the 180-degree rule, how to write a synopsis and a treatment and so forth. There are concerns that in this age of market driven education, it is what most students see as career producing that is in demand. Meta-theory areas are not necessarily seen as useful for getting work although research has shown that employers value analytical thinking and broad knowledge.

It is not clear that media production courses are divesting themselves of the humanities or of teaching meta-theory. While Queensland University of Technology (QUT) closed its Humanities Faculty recently, Professor Stuart Cunningham has hotly defended the humanities strength of the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT (Letter to the Editor, Cunningham, The Australian, May 30). With John Hartley, he points out that not all universities can excel at everything and the approach of many modern universities has been to embed theory with practice as part of an ‘applied’ package. It might nevertheless be interesting to conduct research to find out if, in the current education climate, there has been a reduction in humanities theory, including screen theory, being taught in media production courses.

Gillian Leahy is a filmmaker whose credits include My Life Without Steve (1986) and Our Park (1998). She is Associate Professor and Program Director of the Media Arts and Production Program at UTS and a member of the advisory council of ASPERA.

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 28

© Gillian Leahy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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reader feedback


Balancing Acts & Bit pArts!

The teaching of practical, skill based areas such as Visual Art, film or even aspects of Design within the current manifestation of university structures rests extremely precariously. While many students in communication areas seek to gain (high paid) work upon graduation their experience, in industries notorious for erratic work patterns, anti-social hours and lifestyles with no clear 'career path' available, defies the somewhat falsified models of research, produce, present they are drilled in within each university school, depArtment, faculty or bike shed they may operate out of. The notion of 'practice led research' being espounded by many universities as 'the new way forward' is as disputable as the practical models it seeks to bury. While we may encourage consistency and earnest approaches in our students, their work has taken a distinctly bland, dry and often unintelligible appearance as they produce their sterilised ethically PC work with a yard of wiki referencing, the mandatory philosophical supporting quotes (from theory no older than five years old) and a craft aesthetic more akin to a wannabe than any rebel shout. The art school is dead, long live the art school!

This entry was posted by jeremy blank on 21st June 2009 21:13


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