Films vs. Articles/Books

Why don’t films count come tenure time?

I always tell people that one of the benefits of being an anthropologist (as opposed to, say, a sociologist or literary critic) is that making films can be considered constitutive (in part) of my identity as an academician. There is a long history of anthropologists recording visual images and even making movies as part of their scholarly research. Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, two of the discipline’s most public figures from the 20th century, both took film and visuality seriously, leaving behind an archive of interesting attempts to think through the methodological and epistemological implications of filmic and photographic representation.

When I applied to graduate programs in anthropology, I (very naively) told selection committees that I wanted to become an ethnographic filmmaker. I knew that such endeavors were considered more than just extra-curricular hobbies in anthropological circles.

As an undergraduate, we studied films like Nanook of the North and The Mad Masters (i) to take a glimpse at other parts of the world, (ii) to learn about the history of the field, and (ii) to think through the “politics and poetics” (as we always used to say) of cross-cultural analysis. So, I believed that it wasn’t such a stretch to claim that my interest in the academy pivoted on my investment in cinema and its seemingly magical powers of mimesis.

As a graduate student, I spent most of my time getting familiar with social theory and the challenges of ethnographic fieldwork, but I began to start producing films (again) even before I defended my Ph.D. By that point, however, I had realized that anthropology didn’t necessarily value filmmaking in the ways that my undergraduate self had imagined, which meant that I mostly hid my film projects from faculty and grad students (for fear that they might interpret such exploits as indicating a lack of intellectual seriousness).

By the time I was ready for the job market, I was able to come out of the closet as an ethnographic filmmaker, marketing myself as a visual anthropologist and benefiting from the growing interest in that anthropological domain.

When I was hired for my first tenure-track job, which included a chance to teach undergraduates how to make nonfiction films, senior colleagues in my department made a point of saying that they would try to ensure that my filmmaking would count during the tenure process. I was fortunate enough to have had a multi-year postdoc that allowed me to finish my first book just as I accepted that tenure-track post, so even if the films didn’t really count very much (maybe given the weight of something like an essay in an edited volume, maybe even less), I was still on track to write myself into tenure. But at least my colleagues made a point of thematizing the issue and pushing for a conversation with our provost and dean about including films in my tenure file. They even sent some films out to my reviewers. And that was better than what other ethnographic filmmakers experienced. Usually, they were effectively told, “you can make films again after you get tenure. End of discussion.”

But why can’t films count the way journal articles and books count? Is it the fact that films often demand more collaboration with other filmmakers? Would it matter if the filmmaking scholar could prove that he or she worked alone? Or if they just listed their co-filmmakers the way we list the multiple authors of a journal article?

Indeed, to make a film often entails as much work as writing a journal article. Or even a book. Actually, when you add up the slow-burn of post-production, even full-length book manuscripts might not always take as much time and energy.

So, why don’t we value films the way we value other modes of representing scholarly research? Would it matter if the film was not made for a popular audience? What, if anything, would make film respectable enough to call (or at least distribute) scholarship?

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