By Amy Skjerseth / CMS PhD Candidate
As the first official Ph.D. graduate of CMS, Allison Whitney recalls the excitement of a university film culture that involved the broader Chicago community. “One of the things that was so crucial to my education,” Whitney remembers, “was the presence of the Film Studies Center and Doc Films. It’s fruitful for those who want to study film and media not only to have the opportunity to see things under ideal circumstances, but also to be part of public conversations about it. At Texas Tech, I’m always thinking of ways to replicate some of the benefits of that experience.” So, when an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema opened in Lubbock a few years ago, she and a group of university faculty began to host conversations at screenings and run film series. Whitney co-organizes a series called “Sexism/Cinema” that launches discussions about campus climate. “Traditionally in October, I’ll host or co-host a horror film. There’s a kind of rich potential in that genre to talk about gender topics and approach it from an intersectional perspective.” Horror also has been popular during quarantine: Whitney has noticed a proliferation of short horror films that people have been making at home. She may use COVID-themed films this fall to explain how media reflect particular moments in history. “I’ll tell students, here’s an example that relates to you—so please also take seriously what I say about the Night of the Living Dead,” she says, laughing.
This fall, she is teaching an undergraduate course on media studies built around Star Wars. While the first half teaches students how to read films through editing, fight choreography, etc., the second half focuses on transmedia adaptations from comic books to William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher. Whitney had planned to use the 1996 Star Wars board game and accompanying VHS for an in-person class, but this semester she will put students in groups to stage a chosen film scene on Zoom. She’ll show examples from quarantined professional actors, like The Princess Bride shot on cell phones, to encourage students to have fun and use props lying around the house like tinfoil costumes. Each group will discuss how their play interprets a filmic scene as an adaptation, whether they transform its meaning or try to deliver lines like the actors. “This assignment is an opportunity to think about how we communicate now,” she remarks. “The pandemic has forced an acceleration of something that was already happening but is a central part of our lives. Nearly every Texas Tech student will take at least one class on Zoom this semester. We’ll use the technology at hand to reflect on it.”
This isn’t the first time Whitney has asked students to use their devices for assignments. “My full-time teaching career started at the same time as the smart phone,” she says, “so I find it really interesting to use students’ familiarity with that technology. I get them to think about the fact that they’re carrying around a media production studio all the time, and the implications of that.” In science fiction courses, her students have created the sound design for “One Minute of Metropolis” (see her article, “Cultivating Sonic Literacy in the Humanities Classroom”), and for scenes from The Conversation in her senior seminar on film and technology. For the latter, students have used ‘40s mystery radio plays and gone outside to record traffic noises. After students display their work, Whitney asks them “to think about the assumptions built into the hardware and software: what kind of aesthetic principles does it default to and what was difficult to make it do.” She also encourages them to explore online archives of sound effects and found material. Similarly, in a new senior-level class on exhibition studies she taught last fall, students studied the Texas Tech archives for remnants of campus film history. “When students realized how much has been lost, we talked about how difficult research is and the practical and ideological factors that underlie what gets preserved and what you can do with that material—what kind of story it tells. For students who come out of school systems with lots of standardized testing and find the ambiguities of university-level discourse really disorienting, there’s a value to doing something new, departing from the formal conventions of writing they’ve done.” For such innovative course design, Whitney was awarded the 2019 President’s Excellence in Teaching Professorship at Texas Tech and the 2020 Distinguished Pedagogy Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
Whitney also locates her own research in the community, collecting interviews from west Texans as part of her oral history project, Texas Film Cultures. “I got into oral history in my first or second year at Texas Tech, when I asked students to interview someone older than them—whether two or fifty years—about their first experience of watching movies in their home. I wanted to get anecdotes about different technologies to make them tangible and demonstrate their historical connections.” The stories were more rewarding than Whitney imagined, from a TV technician who installed equipment around the earth’s magnetic fields to a grandmother whose rural home became a social hub when she bought a VCR. “We got to connect this technology to all these other things about domestic spaces. It got the students excited, and I’ve been working on oral histories on my own and in the classroom ever since.” She relishes the potential for community engagement and taking the stories of the community seriously, as well as for innovative scholarship. “I have plans to publish traditional scholarship with that material, but I see a lot of potential to do digital humanities work there.”
As a former interim director of the Humanities Center at Texas Tech, Whitney has been a driving force in the university’s focus on “engaged scholarship”: the integration between faculty members’ research, teaching, and community relationships. Besides her archival and oral history assignments, she also has taught graduate students how to connect their academic work to local initiatives. “Humanities academics have the capacity to read a lot of complicated stuff and synthesize and apply it. The kind of lateral thinking you do to make a connection between a photograph in an archive and an interview you did years ago is not a common skill. Using these skills outside of traditional academic structures can really take you places.” Whitney creates spaces for students to hone their capabilities and apply them in ways that may not involve traditional academic paths, but very often connect to the community. It’s no wonder that Whitney says a big part of her life at Texas Tech has been community outreach. Whether in projects that make personal technology tangible or collect oral histories, for Whitney there are “many ways that we can really engage with our students in knowledge creation.”