Arts & Culture

New Ph.D. film program launched

4 min read

A variety of disparate disciplines will enhance the study and making of motion pictures

The study of moving images has always been viewed through a wide lens at Harvard.

Since the beginning, film studies at the University has sought to incorporate a broad range of disciplines in order to appreciate and understand the visual experience. The rich fields of philosophy, psychology, and the fine arts were all mined early on to examine the medium.

Harvard widened its scope recently with the announcement of a new doctoral program in film studies in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES). The program, its creators said, will build on the University’s eclectic approach to the subject.

“We are just much more expansive in our understanding of what film entails and much more embracing in the disciplinary tie-ins that are activated here,” said Eric Rentschler, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, who helped develop the new program. The new degree will incorporate, he said, areas like anthropology, literature, and the history of science into its curriculum. “We have to think of film as part of something much larger, being mindful of its place in a larger constellation.”

The new Ph.D. program will begin in the fall of 2009 and will accept two to three students a year.

The doctorate had a methodical evolution that involved the creation of a program at the undergraduate level and a special graduate secondary field before the establishment of the comprehensive Ph.D.

The recent history of film studies at Harvard dates back to the 1990s, with film courses offered by VES and taught by visiting and regular faculty. The VES explores the history and theory of film as a medium of modern art and culture. The Harvard Film Archive, established in 1979, supplements VES classroom discussion and screenings with its international and independent film series, which often feature noted speakers, including actors, directors, and filmmakers.

Over the years, an increasing number of Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) departments incorporated film courses into their curriculum; 1999 saw the creation of a seminar in the Humanities Center devoted to film history and theory.

In 2000, a new Film Studies Committee included faculty from both VES and a range of FAS departments. The group explored ways to shape the wealth of film knowledge across various departments into a more cohesive program.

In 2002, the Humanities Center and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) sponsored a graduate workshop in film studies for Ph.D. candidates.

The fall of the following year the committee finalized a new undergraduate film studies concentration drawing from VES courses, as well as language and literature and film classes at FAS.

Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology and senior adviser in the social sciences, then-dean of GSAS, suggested phasing in a degree program by creating a secondary field in film and visual studies for Ph.D. candidates from other areas of FAS. That program began in September 2006. At the helm was David Rodowick, professor of visual and environmental studies and acting chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. It was an instant success.

“Within about six months of doing it, we had something like 37 students from 11 different departments,” said Rodowick, who chaired the Film Studies Committee.

The broad interest is important, he noted, since it “shows how significant film studies has become in the humanities disciplines.”

The multidisciplinary structure of the new Ph.D. program builds on the influence that various departments have brought to the undergraduate and graduate film study, said Rodowick.

“Looking at the moving image in relation to culture and contemporary art” is central to the program, he said, “along with exploring the strong relationship to Romance languages and anthropology.”

Committee member Diana Sorensen, James F. Rothenberg Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of comparative literature and dean for the arts and humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, praised her colleagues in the film and visual studies program for their “determination and insight.”

The new doctoral program, she said, is a measure of how central film is in understanding not only aesthetics, but also the social, economic, and political contexts that frame the creation of any art.