Kalisha Cornett (Ph.D. 2019) has carried a tradition from Miriam Hansen into her role as lecturer and academic advisor in Screen Cultures at Northwestern University: she arrives at each scheduled screening a few minutes early to greet the students, watch the film, and take notes. “In every screening,” Cornett remembers from CA’ing for Hansen, “there she was, scribbling away, watching intently, watching films she’d probably seen a dozen or more times. It made me understand that what I love about cinema, what I love about film studies, and what I love about teaching is embodied in this ritual. Doing this made me a cinephile, a better teacher, and a better scholar. There is something generative and extraordinary and wonderful about watching a film, and something almost inexpressible about watching a film again and again. It’s a joy and a privilege that I always try to convey to students.” Cornett conveyed this balance of joy and critical insight in her dissertation, “Out of the Blur of the Background: Landscape and Experience in the Road Film.”
Cornett strives for an equal balance and separation between her roles as both a faculty member and an advisor, which require different relationships to Northwestern as an institution. She says that this separation has helped to give her clarity in dealing with complex situations. “Advising involves a lot of emotional labor, a lot of interaction with staff who may not be aware of how classroom dynamics and academic demands work, and a lot of advocacy on behalf of students.” In that advocacy, she supports students first and foremost in her conversations with faculty, switching roles from speaking as a fellow colleague. But there is some overlap between her roles; through advising, she comes to understand a students’ perspective on college life, which helps her as a teacher to structure the overall trajectory of her courses. This dual perspective also informs her current work with colleagues to address issues of inclusion and equity on campus. “Most of my energy lately has been focused on using my subject position to make positive change,” she says. She is currently developing syllabi and organizing a discussion group around building an anti-racist classroom. And in her own recent media viewing, she has been “basking in a landscape where I can see all kinds of people who were previously marginalized being centered. It’s a great time to hear new voices and watch new talent; I can barely keep track.”
With teaching interests in film analysis, culture, history, and aesthetics, Cornett especially enjoys teaching survey courses: “I like the challenge of being responsible for presenting structures that situate various approaches to cinema.” At the heart of her pedagogy is the goal to get students to think intentionally. “I often assign reading that either articulates the risk of unproblematic, uncritical engagement, or that challenges an assumption about an artistic work in a way that warrants discussion. Our minds are often made up by biases and algorithms, and the best way to be vigilant about the insidious effects of these things is to ask questions and articulate complex answers. In a way, this is the same thing I do in advising appointments—I don’t let students come to easy conclusions.” When advisees discuss their courses primarily in terms of their grades, Cornett urges them to think about how they’re absorbing the material, completing assessments, and gaining skills for other aspects of their lives. Similarly, she encourages her students to actively consider how course material challenges their pre-existing assumptions and how they might apply and assign value to this new knowledge—whether in the case of an internship, a film by a postcolonial director, or a difficult personal situation. “I also prioritize accessibility: I want first generation students to have the same opportunities as other students, I want film theory to be understood so that students can use it to engage with issues and films and directors who have been overlooked. I want my students and my advisees to know what their own success might look like, and that it doesn’t have to look like anything we’ve seen before.”
Fittingly, Cornett advises media writing and production students who have a range of have aspirations toward everything from directing and editing to sketch writing and podcasting.
She advises the “Directing for the Screen” module (at Northwestern, a module is a program that is similar to a traditional year-long thesis project). To projects that are developed by students who are primarily interested in production, Cornett brings her acute awareness of spectatorship, an understanding of film aesthetics, and an affinity for genre to their projects. “Although I was initially nervous about my relative lack of technical understanding, my colleagues have been very appreciative of the depth that my involvement brings to helping the students do their best work. My time at UChicago really helped here. Advising CMS undergraduates on their thesis projects while I was a graduate student was one of the best and most helpful experiences I had in terms of developing an approach to advising students on how to go about a long, multi-faceted project.”
Cornett also serves as the advisor for the “Comedy Arts” module, where she delights at the challenge of mentoring projects that may not overlap with her own research interests. At first, she wondered how she might assist with topics that she didn’t study regularly, since that insight tends to form a basis for advising. But then she realized that “gaining an understanding of comedy, both the writing and performing aspects of it, was secondary to figuring out how to help students, which is always my primary goal. I am lucky to be among colleagues who know and love comedy, and who made themselves available to talk to me at length.” Moreover, in her early conversations with students, she keeps her questions centered on what matters to their projects, and why. “I always want to know how to keep students motivated, how to suggest next steps—I want to be sure I can keep them focused,” she reflects. Her primary goal in advising these modules is to ensure that students understand the range of skills that they gain as they complete their capstone projects. “The faculty who are advising the Comedy Module are working writers and artists and performers, so we have the advantage of giving students a practical education, a chance to talk to someone who understands the arts and entertainment industries, and the experience of completing a multi-faceted project over an academic year. It’s my job to make sure that students take advantage of not just each of these things, but the combination of these elements. Personally, I watch a lot more comedy now, and I really appreciate having a critical understanding of stand-up, of sketch comedy, and improv. Living in a city that has such a legendary reputation for comedy, it’s great to have that awareness!”