November 28, 2011 Panel Discussion: “Public Humanities, Documentary FIlmmaking and the Academe”

Panel Discussion:
“Public Humanities, Documentary Filmmaking and the Academe”
Prof Matthew Jacobson (chair of American Studies)
Lauren Tilton (American Studies, Grad ’16),
Joshua Sperling (Film Studies & Comparative Literature, Grad ’15)
Prof Charles Musser (American Studies & Film Studies)

I organized and chaired this panel, so what I am providing here is a version of my introduction and then my own comments.



 The subject of this panel–– “Public Humanities, Documentary Filmmaking and the Academe”–– is a fraught subject and perhaps a particularly fraught one at Yale.  In part, this is because this nexus has a long history at Yale, going back––at least––to the 1920s when Yale University Press produced a whole series of historical films, The Chronicles of America Photoplays, which were based on a highly successful 50-volume history of the United States, the Chronicles of America, published between 1918 and 1921.   Only 15 of the anticipated 33 films were produced.  Although costing more than $1 million, their reception was at best mixed.

This evening we are not here today to reflect on the long history between the mid 1920s and the mid-aughties.  Rather we are here to talk briefly about some trends in what we are now calling the Digital Humanities and Digital Filmmaking as it functions in Academia.

I am going to let people introduce themselves but I thought I might briefly outline what might—or might not happen.

Matthew Jacobson, chair of the American Studies Program, has been the pioneering force behind the MA in the American Studies Program at Yale.  He is going to talk about Public Humanities in general, and the MA program here at Yale in particular.  Matt has been teaching AMST 903a/HIST 746a, Introduction to Public Humanities this fall and has devoted at least two weeks to the documentary work of two of our colleagues—Zareena Grewal and Kate Dudley.  Indeed Zareena would be here this evening if she was not still returning from Thanksgiving break.

Lauren Tilton is in the American Studies Ph.D. Program and is also undertaking the MA in Public Humanities. She received a big NEH grant for a FSA/Farm Security Administration photo project she began last year in the Introductory Public Humanities course, which was then taught by Laura Wexler.  This project, entitled Photogrammar (, is designed to offer a new grammar for how we read photography. Using the FSA-OWI collection, Photogrammar aims to show how to offer extensive photography archives as a searchable, visual and participatory online tool. Obviously this is a very ambitious undertaking.  However, the grant meant that this project could not be pursued for school credit and so she is currently making a documentary video in Documentary Film Workshop, which is closely related to—but distinct from– this undertaking.

In the Digital era, digital documentary and digital humanities inevitably takes on new forms.  The mechanics and costs of filmmaking have been transformed.  The relationship between theory and practice, between critical studies and creative undertakings can be and should be reimagined.  Josh Sperling is a Ph.D. student in Film Studies and Comparative Literature.  Both he and Zelda Roland, a Ph.D. student in Film Studies and History of Art, took Documentary Film Workshop last year in conjunction with the joint degree program. Josh’s documentary took as its starting point Loie Fuller, whose serpentine dances were among the most popular subjects of cinema in its first years.

Finally let me introduce myself, who has had a long career working in various aspects of the Public Humanities—particularly in documentary filmmaking but also working in different capacities for museums.  I think it fair to say that my filmmaking and my academic scholarship have been closely related, often to good effect though not without encountering significant skepticism.  In any case, for the last several years I have been teaching Documentary Film Workshop in which a number of graduate students from across the university have been making films related to their scholarship.  For this reason, thought it would be interesting and useful to bring this group of panelists together for a discussion of Public Humanities, Documentary Filmmaking and the Academe.”

My Own Comments

My thanks to my fellow panelists for their thoughts and comments.  I have moved back and forth between filmmaking and academic scholarship my whole adult life now though I also have been a programmer and curator.  There had been a hiatus in my filmmaking for almost 25 years in there but the convergence of circumstance has changed that now and I don’t think it will change again anytime soon.  When I was an undergraduate, my teachers here at Yale were filmmaker-scholars.  This includes Standish Lawder, who was an important experimental filmmaker and taught Film Studies in History of Art; Jay Leyda, who taught film in several departments and had worked on several important documentaries while his film A Bronx Morning (1930) is on the National Registry at the Library of Congress; and Michael Roemer who still teaches both critical studies and creative courses in cinema.  So filmmaking and critical studies tended to go hand in hand.  When I left Yale and ended up working for two years on Hearts and Minds, a documentary about the Vietnam War, I think the public humanities aspect of documentary became clearer to me.  From the point of view of today’s panel, a key moment for me was my work on early cinema and the making of my one-hour documentary Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter.  The idea for the film had come out of a graduate class I was taking with Jay Leyda at NYU.  (He’d moved there from Yale and I followed him to a degree.)  I had give up on funding the film but when my essay for his class, entitled “The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter,” won the SCS Student Award for Scholarly Writing, interest in the project mushroomed and I received some funding from the New York State Council on the Arts.  The resulting documentary, not easily done, ended up premiering at the New York Film Festival and took me around the world to a number of festivals.  It received its worst review from the New York Times, but Carrie Rickey of the Village Voice considered it one of that year’s best documentaries.  So what about this formative moment? Certainly it opened up many opportunities in the academe.

  1. First, I went from being NYU’s most problematic graduate student to being its top graduate student.  The transformation took about 5 minutes—the amount of time necessary to fully digetst the fact that Before the Nickelodeon would be one of the featured films at the New York Film Festival.
  2.  As a graduate student I ended up with three book contracts—one for my dissertation Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company,  another for The Emergence of Cinema, which had funding attached, and a third for a book on Lyman H. Howe and the history of traveling exhibition with Princeton—also with some funding from the Pennsylvania Humanities CouncilThe upside for this was obvious.  The downside was that by the time the books were written and published I was out of filmmaking and deeply enmeshed in scholarship.
  3. Vis a vis the question of Public Humanities, many more people have seen the film Before the Nickelodeon than ever read the book.  It was a way of communicating key ideas in a powerful, direct visual way.  I have to say, however, that some of those basic ideas are still not widely understood or accepted, but it isn’t from lack of trying.  Anyway, the film was and is the public humanities face of my academic scholarship even as it enabled me to publish a more ambitious book than might have otherwise been possible. I might add the book references the film—an appendix listing all the complete films in Before the Nickelodeon (there are 18) and also the sources for the quotations in the film.
  4. Importantly, doing research for my documentary ended up benefiting my scholarship and the dissertation/book.  That is, in looking for visual material, I found photographs, political cartoons and so forth that I could use not just for that book but for some of the others.  In a few instances, this material was absolutely crucial.  So I am suggesting there is a feedback loop here in which documentary and academic scholarship are mutually beneficial.
  5. Making documentaries has given me a much stronger and intimate understanding of cultural production in general and film in particular.  One looks at work differently and with greater humility.  One learns about process: For instance, as a filmmaker and as someone working for other filmmakers, we always looked at everything that had been made on our subject.  Likewise, one learns that little appears in these films by chance though there is certainly a way in which filmmakers lose perspective on their work.  One reason why Carrie Rickey loved Before the Nickelodeon was because it shows American cinema was all about sex and violence from the beginning.  She is right and I now say this about the film, but I did not see it until she said it.


     Now I’d like to jump ahead roughly 10 years when I found myself at Yale as a first-year assistant professor. One of the things I did was supervise senior projects in documentary and this included an historical stiudy of a Black community in Detroit that had been obliterated by urban renewal and other socio-cultural factors.  Later efforts included one on the building of Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges at Yale.  Documentary Film Workshop became an official course in the late 1990s, which I taught as an overload.  Fortunately the university enabled me to hand it over to D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.  They were succeeded by Academy-nominated director Laura Poitras who taught it before the budgetary crisis forced me to take up the course once again.  In order to do so, I had to take up filmmaking again since so much had changed.

So there are two inter-related considerations, here.  First, a personal one in terms of my own work.  Second, my teaching.  Although I have considered a number of different subjects for documentaries, the one that took off was part of an established public humanities pattern—the documentary on Errol Morris, which I will be showing this evening.  First, although I had known Errol Morris since about 1990, when I wrote a long article on The Thin Blue Line.  I became much closer to him when I taught a course entitled “Errol Morris and Contemporary Documentary.”  We discussed the syllabus together.  My class also went up to Cambridge and saw a cut of Standard Operating Procedure.  We met with Errol afterwards.  This relationship is what made the documentary that I am showing tonight possible.  It also gave me a reason for making the documentary: in our classroom session, Errol was adamant that Standard Operating Procedure was his best work.  Errol Morris was being demonized by the press and by many of my fellow scholars.  I felt that this was unfair—something that had happened so many times to filmmakers in the past—Orson Welles, Buster Keaton, and so on.  So I wanted to challenge that conclusion through my portrait of Morris.  My point here is simply that my scholarship and teaching established a framework for the film.  The film has also led to more traditional academic papers on Morris as well—presentations which have again made use of what I learned, and could have only learned, through the filmmaking process.  And although it is not on the top of my list at the moment, I can see the possibility of publishing a small book on Morris and having the DVD inserted into the back cover.

In terms of Documentary Film Workshop.  Returning to this course meant thinking about it in a new way.  There were all sorts of reason why this needed to be the case.  I was no longer teaching it as an overload, I was a tenured professor, Film Studies had a graduate program and American Studies had a new MA in the Public Humanities.  So the course, while still a place for seniors in both Film Studies and American Studies to make documentaries as senior projects, also has a graduate constituency—and it has been roughly 50/50 this year and last.  Undergraduates are also often making documentaries that have a public humanities aspect.  Presca Ahn, a senior English major, made a documentary about Yale College going co-ed.  Entitled, The Arrival: Women at Yale College, it can be seen on the Broad Recognition website.   Without exception, graduate students are making work that is tied to their education in the Humanities and elsewhere.  Valarie Kaur, a third year law student, produced a documentary on ICE and the ordeals of Illegal Immigrants entitled Alienation, which is a prominent effort of the Yale Visual Law Review. Another student Jonathan K. Smith, who was getting a Master’s in the School of Public Health, made a documentary about TB and HIV in the Gold Mines of South Africa.  Entitled They Go to Die, it won a major award in the field of public health, the Tuberculosis Survival Prize with an awards ceremony in Lille, France.[1]  And if you Google “They Go to Die”—it will pop up at the top of the webpage.

The era of digital media has changed so many things: one thing it has done in particular—I am convinced—is to make it much more possible for students and faculty to pursue both documentary filmmaking and their scholarship in creative ways.  In this respect, public outreach—the reaching of broader publics is more feasible even has it has become more necessary.



[1] Recent graduate’s film project garners global health award, Yale News, 3 November 2011,

One comment on “November 28, 2011 Panel Discussion: “Public Humanities, Documentary FIlmmaking and the Academe”

  1. Hi Everyone. I posted eailrer on another thread, but I’m not sure how widely it was seen. I worked for ten years as a professional documentary filmmaker before returning to graduate school for a PhD in History. I mostly worked in 16mm film format, although I have worked over the years in the various video and digital formats. I’d love to network with like minds to try to get historians making films. If there is a chance to do this formally at THATCamp great! Either way please feel free to contact me: michael.vanwagenen at ahead of time.Some of my work is listed at IMDB (click the link on my name above) or you can visit my faculty page here: and see an old CV that is out of date but more comprehensive.

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