PROF TALK: Katie Russell, Professor, Chair of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema (Part I)

PROF TALK is an ongoing series in which MA Film Studies students at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema interview Mel Hop professors about their research interests, practices, and what brought them to their discipline in the first place. You can find all Prof Talk interviews here.

Today, we bring you Part I of MA student Julie Brousseau’s interview with Katie Russell, PhD, Professor of Film Studies, and  current Chair of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, conducted last semester, on September 27, 2017. 

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Julie: How long have you been a Professor of Film Studies at Concordia?

Katie: About twenty-seven years.

J: What are your main interests in Film Studies?

K: That’s a very difficult question [pauses] I have many interests. Over the course of twenty-seven years, my interests have been in constant flux. I’m always learning things. You know, I teach experimental films, I teach documentary films, I teach Hollywood films, I teach theory and methods, I like all of those! I like to mix them up, to have a balance. So, I can’t say that there is any particular thing I like.

J: So, Film Studies in general?

K: Yeah [laughs].

J: What are some of the courses you teach at Concordia?

K: I’ve been teaching quite a number of times a course called Archiveology, which has become the title of my [latest] book. I taught it in seminars starting in 2008, when the PhD [in Film and Moving Images Studies] program began. In this case, I worked out my ideas in the classroom with the students. I also used a very similar process with students from the MFA program for a previous book, called Experimental Ethnography. So, these are two courses that I have taught repeatedly, always making changes as I learn and as the field evolves. It’s mostly a learning process.

I taught Hollywood courses like Film Melodrama, Hollywood in the ’50s [pauses] I did teach the Western once, which is a course I’d like to go back to one day. There’s so much to say and do about that genre! I’m also teaching a course [this] term called Cinema and the City, which again is something I’ve taught quite a few times before. It’s a course that lets you touch on different types of film practices and do interdisciplinary readings, so you can go in many directions. I like to teach that subject because, as when I teach Walter Benjamin, everybody finds a different access point. In that sense, it’s very open.

I also taught Methods for a decade. I’m happy that I have colleagues now that can teach Methods, although I still enjoy doing it. It’s a fun course to teach, for similar kinds of reasons: it’s open; you can do many different things in the course of one semester, as opposed to a more focused course; and you can work in a metacritical way. My courses are all a little interdisciplinary and open to different approaches, but they all do feature a lot of good movies.

J: Why did you decide to pursue your career in Film Studies?

K: Well, that was a long time ago. To be perfectly honest, in the 1980s, when I was in graduate school, I was fairly confident that I would get a job [laughs]. I mean, I really enjoyed it obviously. I learned about Film Studies at the University of Toronto, but it was not a full-fledged program and I ended up getting a degree in Philosophy. I was so interested in Film Studies that I wanted to do it as a Graduate student, but there were no PhD programs. There was also no Master’s program [in Film Studies] in Canada, so I had to go to New York. But I knew enough about how Universities worked that I was quite confident that there would be job opportunities for me, because I would be one of the first people who had a PhD in Film Studies. Sure enough, I had my choice of jobs [laughs]. That was then, you know.

I enjoyed Film Studies because I found philosophy to be too disconnected from everyday life. But I found Film Studies itself, the way that it was taught at the University of Toronto at that time, was a little too narrowly focused on great directors, genres and stuff like that. I didn’t think that was really interesting, so I didn’t actually end up with a degree in Film Studies, but I took several [film] theory courses. Then, I started writing film theory in my philosophy classes and that made the philosophy way more interesting [laughs] even if I didn’t get very good grades because I was in conflicts with my professors at that time. They wanted me to do philosophy, but I wanted to do film theory. Then I realized I can go to graduate school and work with Annette Michelson, who I thought could be my mentor, but that’s another story [laughs]. You know, these were names I recognized. I read texts by these people, and here they were teaching! It’s the same reason now why people choose certain graduate schools.

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Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll discuss film production as well as favourite courses and research projects.