Rabble Rousers in the Academy

Two Saint Mary's professors merged a passion for Film Noir and a rapidly growing technology to expand the boundaries of academic research.

In a small office in Dante Hall, professors Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards convene in front of a laptop computer with a microphone. While Edwards fiddles with sound settings, Clute reviews his notes on The Set-Up, a gritty boxing film noir.

Their production doesn't appear very high-tech. They close the window to block out background noise from students talking between classes. They sit in old green chairs that don't squeak when they lean forward or back. One speaks for a few minutes into the mike, and then hands it to the other. There are no fancy soundboards or bulky headphones common to most recording studios.

Yet the two Saint Mary's faculty members are on the cutting edge of the latest technology craze—podcasting. For nearly a year, Clute and Edwards have done an ambitious twice-monthly series called "Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir," which they post on the Internet and which anyone from a film student in Dublin, Ireland, to a professor in Melbourne, Australia, can listen to on a computer or download onto digital audio devices like iPods or compact discs that can be popped into a CD player.

The podcasts allow Clute and Edwards to share their passion for film noir, a black-and-white style known for its cynical leading men and amoral femmes fatales in stories revolving around alienation, disenchantment, and the shady world of petty thieves and private eyes. The two review the films separately and gather points they want to make, and then come together, without a script, for an extended dialogue that will later be edited and shaped into half-hour broadcasts similar to a radio show.

"Out of the Past" is no breezy "Ebert & Roeper" show with thumbs-up or down. Instead, Clute and Edwards are likely to delve into the hard-boiled novels that were the source of films, to compare characters to tragic Greek figures, or to examine the films in the historical context of the anxiety, insecurities, and pessimism of World War II, the Cold War, and the McCarthy era.

Clute and Edwards have tackled such well-known films as Sunset Blvd. and The Big Sleep, along with less-remembered flicks like Rififi. They made the case in one episode in December that It's a Wonderful Life is very noirish in style and themes, despite its reputation as an uplifting holiday film.

And they've gone beyond the noir heyday of 1941-1958—a period book-ended by The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil—to delve into modern films done in film-noir style, including Batman Begins, Blade Runner, and Reservoir Dogs.

The professors' approach in the series "is an application of good seminar behavior" and interdisciplinary cooperation in the Saint Mary's tradition, says Clute, an assistant professor of French and Italian.

"We do close readings of great texts," Clute says. "In this case, the great books are great films."

A Radical Change

Richard Edwards

"We're doing something radically different than most podcasters in academia," adds Edwards, an assistant professor of communications at Saint Mary's. "We're not a movie review show. We are putting out scholarly articles on film. We are at the forefront of what is possible with podcasting in academia."

While film noir is an old style, podcasts are a hot new technology that major media outlets, academia, and unknown garage bands have seized upon to offer all sorts of broadcasts, from rap songs to interviews to detailed explanations of hard-to-grasp intellectual concepts. Edwards was intrigued by podcasting when he first heard about it last year and realized it was changing the way people share and receive information.

"You no longer need a lot of equipment or professional training to create a show on something about which you are passionate," he says.

Clute and Edwards are by no means the only SMC professors who've embraced podcasts. Many are now using the technology to supplement course work, give more detail on tough topics than they can offer during a class, or even to provide video feeds to students, an offshoot called vodcasting.

"There isn't any way that one can argue that technology cannot enhance a class," says David Bowen, a professor in SMC's graduate business program. "I was a skeptic about technology for years, but the technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is now."

The Faculty Center for the Advancement of Technology at Saint Mary's provides training and grants for faculty in new technologies, and purchased iPods for Clute and Edwards to aid their podcasting efforts. The two made a presentation to faculty about podcasts last fall.

"If there are faculty members at Saint Mary's who want to get involved in technology, including pretty cutting-edge stuff, they are able to do it," Bowen says. "It's a very important priority for the College, which is doing everything it can financially to support it."

Clute and Edwards learn as they go, trying to improve the technological aspects of their podcasts by getting better microphones and experimenting with the best place to report, and with learning how to edit and shape their discussions into cohesive 30-minute broadcasts.

So far, the time-consuming project has been an extracurricular activity, but in spring 2007, the two will co-teach an interdisciplinary course offered through the Communications and Modern Languages departments, called "From Film Noir to the Nouvelle Vague: Hard-Boiled Representations in American and French Film and Literature." Many "Out of the Past" podcasts will be assigned to students.

They've reached a wide audience of students and professors interested in film noir, getting feedback from places as far-flung as New York, Kentucky, Ireland, Australia, and Israel. By spring, their podcasts had been downloaded about 30,000 times, and the number was rapidly growing as more people find the site.

Among the feedback they're received is this e-mail from Gary Hoctor: "I am about to start a master's in film studies here in Dublin, Ireland, and your insights are a great way of preparing for the year. I find it most insightful when you cite certain scenes and pieces of dialogue which demonstrate your points of view. Also, the ‘conflict' between the two of you brings the finer points out."


Expanding Boundaries

Shannon Clute

"It essentially allows us to expand the boundaries of the classroom," Clute says. "People can feel like they're eavesdropping on an intellectual conversation."

Their insights come from careful scrutiny not just of the film itself, but also of the source material for the film, whether it be a book or poem or other inspiration, and from looking at the films within the genre of film noir itself. Clute, who has a doctorate in romance studies and who majored in French literature, often analyzes the literary work that inspired the film, such as a detective novel like The Big Sleep or a poem like "The Set-Up." Edwards, who has a doctorate in critical studies from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, may be more likely to examine film techniques and styles.

The two came together after Edwards saw Clute moderate a panel with two actors from he movie Napoleon Dynamite at the Rheem Theater in Moraga last spring.

"I had this weird vibe that we would mesh," Edwards recalls. "We're very different, but we're complementary."

Their interdisciplinary approach and their viewing of film noirs as classic works like the books in the Collegiate Seminar speak to the liberal arts emphasis at Saint Mary's, the professors say.

"I don't think other colleges and universities would allow it," Clute said of the unique partnership the two have forged.

Richard Edwards:
I think Robert Wise ingested this poem and out of it came this jabbing, brutal vision bathed in darkness, edited with a swift command of the medium that matched the poem’s line breaks in the editing room... He took the poem’s brutality, the poem’s clipped length, and translated that into a visual style that firmly places us within the world of (boxer) Stoker Thompson...

Shannon Clute:
If indeed Robert Wise had ingested this story, what he coughed up was a very different story indeed. This is the story of Stoker Thompson, a white fighter, a fighter who’s down on his luck... That is not in fact the theme of the 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March ... Clearly it’s a poem about how an African American can never get a break in this society, that the deck is stacked against them. What we have in the film is a very different story. He’s a down-and-out fighter, but he’s a white fighter...

- From Episode 18

A Scholarly Pursuit

Clute and Edwards are also promoting podcasting as being more than just a new technology that can enhance learning. They believe their academic scrutiny of the subject matter and the peer reviews they are collecting through posted comments and e-mails about the shows elevate the series to the level of scholarship that is contributing to new understanding in the field and publication and could be considered for promotion to professorships.

"In each episode we have at least one important insight into the film that hasn't been made before," Clute says. "We want to move the perception from self-publishing to a peer-validated published work."

Clute says the series has already received recognition: it was the only academic use of podcasting singled out in the 2006 Horizon Report, which describes emerging technology that will impact higher education.

Bowen, who chaired the rank and tenure committee for three years before handing over the reins in 2005-06, said podcasts could be a facet of scholarly work, but it's unclear whether they would meet the criteria required by the faculty handbook for things such as peer review and the competitive process usually required before articles are published in journals.

"The rank and tenure committee is less concerned with the medium than it is with the content," Bowen says. "Does it advance knowledge, does it represent new research?"

Clute and Edwards believe that they will be able to demonstrate that the podcasts will meet the criteria in the faculty handbook for promotion, putting Saint Mary's at the forefront of bringing together pedagogy and technology.

"If academia is open to alternative media, we have no doubt that podcasting will soon be recognized," Edwards says. "We are trying to be rabble rousers in the academy."

Clute and Edwards' podcasts can be found online at http://outofthepast.libsyn.com.