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Finding a focus: UB students and faculty not on same page in Media Study department

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Salvatore Natale will graduate in Spring 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in media study, but he doesn’t think his UB media classes have prepared him to get a job.

Natale is one of many students The Spectrum interviewed who feel underserved by UB’s Department of Media Study. Students complain the department is under-staffed and under-preparing students who want to work in media after graduation.

“We don’t leave the program with enough experience to have portfolios to show employers. I’ve been trying to film on my own,” Natale said. “The times that I can do that are during the winter or summer because I’m not in class. So over winter break I would try to rent gear but I got a hard ‘no’ from Media Study. But there aren’t students during that time who need it for classes. I’ve had to start buying my own equipment to film on my own.”

Natale and other DMS students said they leave UB with little experience in practical filmmaking and with inadequate portfolios to land entry-level jobs.

He insists there are too few professors teaching practical courses and too large an emphasis on theory.

The program has nine and a half tenured or tenure track professors for its 266 undergraduate students and 60 graduate students. The DMS website still lists Tony Conrad as a faculty member, although he died eight months ago. The program has three adjunct faculty members. In the spring, it will offer 13 unique practical filmmaking courses, including introductory courses and 14 theoretical classes.

Marc Böhlen, a full-time professor and the department chair, insists the balance works well and says part of the problem is that some students enter the program with “an expectation inflation.”

“They come to UB, a big research institution, and think that in four years you can get everything you need to know to be able to pull off the big heist,” Böhlen said. “I think that’s not only ambitious, but inappropriate.”

He added that “sometimes, particularly the undergraduate students in media study, think that with an undergraduate education you can immediately go and hire a film crew and start your production company. That’s a big leap.”

Charles Carter, a senior media study major, said student want to jump right into the field after their undergraduate career because they don’t want to or can’t afford graduate school.

Yale Fried transferred from UB to Emerson College because he felt he wouldn’t be taken seriously with a media study degree from UB.

“Overall, I was pretty disappointed with UB's program,” Fried said. “While UB is by no means a school of media, it still has a responsibility to its students to properly prepare them for what comes next, which I don't feel it does. The program felt unorganized and extremely outdated.”

Emerson College is ranked No. 3 for best U.S. schools to pursue a film degree. Emerson graduates earn an average starting salary of $40,000, according to USA Today.

There are 47 MFA graduates from DMS since 2012; Forty-two are working in their fields, three are pursuing PhDs at other schools and one is pursuing a PhD at UB. Two graduates are currently not working in their field, according to Böhlen.

Böhlen said with 19 current PhD students at UB, the department will expect more PhD graduates in the future. He said three students are currently enrolled in the New Media Design course and advanced certificate programs are in progress for coming years.

Students insist the problem is not in their expectations, but in the program’s offerings. They say they want more courses focused on actual filmmaking and fewer courses on theory and film history.

“Everything is so theory based. Any program you look at, there is theory and it is something that needs to be there,” Natale said. “But it’s so much theory that everyone is leaving the program not ready to get a job.”

In Film and Media History 1, students had to write about the moment when a sour candy hits their tongue and wrote a paper on the movie “Leviathan” four times for four different classes. Another student said the class watched a number of pornographic films from the ’60s to ’80s and one student walked out of the class. Others say they watched a remake of “The Wizard of Oz,” which was a compilation of magazine cutouts with pictures of Osama Bin Laden as Dorothy.

Carter agreed with Natale and said he would like to see more production classes added to the curriculum instead of theory-based classes.

Of the nine and a half current faculty, only one, Sarah Elder, teaches exclusively in the department’s film program. By contrast, 47 percent of current DMS students – or 125 students – are enrolled in the film program, Elder said.

“I'd like to see more progress in production and more knowledgeable teachers with experience in the field to teach these production classes so you really know what to expect post graduation," said a student who wishes to remain anonymous because he has another semester in the department.

This student said the theory classes are “pretty good” and cover material that is relatable to production.

“There is hardly any chance for students to participate on professional or semi-professional productions and while the classes allow each student to create independent projects, there is not much preparation for collaborative work or even basic production theory,” he said.

Elder, an international award-winning documentary filmmaker, believes the film department is in a period of growth and deserves to be bolstered.

“I would love to see us have more film classes,” Elder said. “Both historical and theoretical, interpretive and production. But then I’m prejudiced, I’m a filmmaker. Also, our undergrads really are demanding it. A lot of the humanities are losing undergrads but ours are growing. Our undergrads who are coming in who want to study film are growing. So it’s just not my bias. I see a wave of increasing undergrads so I would like to offer more to them.”

Böhlen thinks the department does a good job of balancing students’ practical needs with academic rigor.

“I think we’re kind of clear on where we want to go and where we want to help people get to; be critical and informed, super savvy media makers for the future,” Böhlen said.

He also said he “want[s] people to have viable potentials to make a not only decent living but a good living.”

Funding is an additional burden – and some students feel the DMS department does not have adequate resources to serve their needs.

The media study department gets an annual $24,781 “other than personal service” allowance from the Dean’s office, according to Tooba Khilji, the assistant to the chair of the department.

The allowance funds department expenses outside of paying faculty members. It covers the graduate show, the student show, printing and office maintenance.

“Our copier just broke down so we have to pay that, office supplies, grad recruiting, water and shipping of recruiting materials,” Böhlen said.

The main budgetary source for DMS comes from lab fees. DMS students pay $125 to be enrolled in each production class. This allows them to check out and use the department’s 48 video cameras, 26 microphones, audio recorders and other equipment.

The department makes $70,000 to $80,000 a yearfrom these fees, according to Carl Lee, the Technical and Facilities supervisor.

The lab fees support the maintenance of the equipment and the purchase of new equipment, Lee said. He makes the purchases at his discretion with input from Böhlen and faculty who teach the classes.

DMS students can check out equipment twice a week and can keep the equipment for two days. Some students insist the equipment is not adequate to their needs, but most agree, the problems lie more in the impractical assignments professors give.

Carter said there is equipment, but students have to rent it out quickly for an assignment.

“The lack of equipment isn’t a problem,” said Naeem Rigaud, a senior media study major. “Most classes are based on theory and writing papers, the production classes aren’t practical enough for us to get more of a hands-on feel for the equipment.”

Rigaud said he feels most people in his classes feel the curriculum isn’t “practical.” Fried said the classes he took at UB weren’t challenging and were “easy A’s.”

Many of the lower level production classes, like Basic Video and Basic Documentary, are taught by graduate students and students say the quality of the courses is unreliable.

Natale, though, thinks the graduate students have a better understanding of the skills the students need than some of the professors.

“I’ve learned more from a grad student teaching in this program than most of the professors,” he said. “Those grad students tended to come from film schools where they had hands-on time, or they worked in the industry for a while before they came here to get their master’s degree.”

Many DMS classes are mixed sessions, which means undergraduate and graduate students are in class together. These mixed class structures can create awkward situations because a student’s professor in one class may be a classmate in another.

“When you mix undergrads and grads is that a problem?” Böhlen said. “Well yeah, it’s a big problem for the instructors. Why do we do that? Mostly for the numbers. The university gives us guidelines, every course has to have so many students otherwise they’re not going to run it because they want to make money obviously. And in some instances the only way we can get enough people for a particular course is by mixing. So this is not because there is a particular benefit to it, but because the numbers dictate it.”

James Carriero, a media study 2016 graduate, speaks fondly of his time as a DMS student, but doesn’t think the program prepared him to get a job.

“My chief complaint is that they don’t help you find work after. No one shows you how to take this post university,” Carriero said. “There are good professors, but I never learned how to find a budget for a project or create a reel or a portfolio page.”

Carreiro is currently waiting tables and taking on freelance jobs in media production but said he had “no idea” what he should be getting paid when he got his first job.

“They give you the tools, but don’t teach you how to use them in the real world,” he said. “There’s no clear track to the department. It’s too diverse.”

He called a degree in media “ambiguous” and said he wished he had left UB with a more impressive portfolio.

“It’s weird because it’s the kind of thing where you applied to a place where you needed a degree it’s just another check mark. Employers will say, ‘OK, you have degree now show me your portfolio.’ That’s basically all it is,” Carriero said. “It’s not just the degree, it’s what you’ve applied it to.”

Böhlen defends the department’s versatility and breadth as a strength.

“We like to think of media production in the largest possible context,” he said. “So we’re not only talking about cameras and tripods and lights, but rather what this whole thing is for and to see that the media that you’re being familiar with here today might not even be here tomorrow.”

For Natale, whose main focus is on cameras, tripods and lights, and who has big dreams of making films, his UB degree remains a disappointment. He has tried to teach himself what his professors didn’t and believes with luck and hard work on his own, he can pull off that “big heist.”

“Hating it is not going to change anything with it,” Natale said. “And I’m trying to accept it for what it is, but I’m really unhappy with what it is.”

*Editor's note: The previous version said Böhlen was unable to get statistics on UB DMS graduates’ employment status.

David Tunis-Garcia is the assistant arts editor and can be reached at david.garcia@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @davidUBspectrum.


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