When I tell people that I teach about film and write film criticism for a living, it precipitates the same conversation every time. They inevitably ask me: what does that mean? I then tell them I teach and write about how different films are made, how people use them, as well as how film can be used as evidence in debates about race, sex, or other matters pertaining to cultural politics. The person’s eyes then gloss over and, almost without fail, they say: “what is any college student ever going to do with that?” And then my eyes gloss over as well.

Film criticism seems to be in a state of flux as a result of a few different phenomena, not least changes to the medium itself. Technological changes have made “film criticism” something of an archaic term insofar as film criticism no longer has anything to do with the object “film” at all. But that body of criticism is also in a state of flux because of increased interest in television and online media as sites of inquiry. For me, “film criticism” is more “media criticism” in that it suggests modes of inquiry and habits of mind, which are nothing if not promiscuous in their objects of analysis. What I will refer to hereafter as “media criticism” is also in a state of flux because of the high cost of higher education in the contemporary moment, in which income disparities coalesce with new emphases on profitability and new pressures on university curricula.

While the college classroom has long been an ideological battleground, the systematic defunding of education in state legislatures and the rise in economic anxieties following the recession of 2008 have further heated simmering conflicts about what education is, means, and does. In this context, people often wonder why students should learn about media at all. Recently, I was scrolling through the comment thread of an article about these very questions. One person posted: “How many media critics do we really need?” In that comment, the tension between different understandings of media criticism and the function of higher education come into sharp focus. When there’s an assumption that colleges and universities should provide job training above and beyond—or maybe even instead of—anything else, media criticism can seem beside the point, unless it is taught in some pre-professional capacity.

Until recently, I used to bemoan this understanding of media criticism and higher education. I wanted to educate citizens! Why can’t media criticism offer students a route to developing critical thinking and writing skills? Why can’t media criticism offer college students a deeper, more nuanced understanding of contemporary issues? From the very beginning of my academic career, those have been my aspirations as a teacher and scholar. I want media criticism to be transformative for students, to create new ways of thinking and being for them. As wide-eyed and hopeful as this goal may be, I see now it is also painfully naive.

A recent conversation I had with a student changed my feelings on these issues considerably. He was a relatively mediocre student—often engaged and curious but always disorganized and distracted. His comments in class were thoughtful but his written work was often underdeveloped and completed in a hurry. He had enrolled in a class I taught on race and media, and then he sought me out as an informal advisor. We are both interested in issues of social justice and often had a lot to discuss. On the occasions when we met, he complained about being overextended: he had a double major, belonged to several clubs, and was heavily involved in student government. In our conversations, he made it clear he saw these activities as preparation for a career. He ultimately wanted to work in nonprofits, and thought being involved on campus would signal his ideological commitments and professional acumen to future employers. During our meetings, I offered him advice on how to prioritize, and urged him to think hard about the costs and benefits of everything he was doing. When he graduated, he came to me to share that he had accepted a job in the financial sector. I was happy for him, but given our relationship, I felt compelled to ask him what happened to his interest in nonprofit work. He told me: “I grew up in a tiny apartment. My mom worked two jobs and was always exhausted. My brother makes $8 an hour and can’t move out. That’s not me.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than my stomach sank and blood rushed to my face. Who was I to steer him in a different direction, particularly one that would more likely create the very kind of financial precarity he hoped to avoid?

I have grown to think of media criticism in the college curriculum as being both object and agent. While movies, television programs, and online content can be topics of analysis unto themselves, it seems that teaching students the methods of media criticism can simultaneously offer them skills and habits of mind that are fungible and applicable in any number of different pursuits. Historically, I have pushed students away from being too linear in their thinking about the utility of their coursework. Not every assignment or lesson will have a direct relationship with “what they will do with it after college.” But interactions like the one above have given me a new perspective on student anxieties and the relationship between what they do in the classroom and what they can do with it after.

I have taken to devoting the last session or two of every course to walking students through the process of writing cover letters. In these lessons, I urge them to think about the kinds of jobs that interest them, as well as the skills required of people who fill those positions. We work together on how to articulate classwork so that it becomes more legible to potential employers. In essence, we discuss how the work of media criticism can be useful to them after they leave the classroom, and we talk about how they can talk about it themselves. The purist in me wants media criticism to be useful for them in and of itself. The realist in me has come to appreciate that students’ material needs cannot get lost in the shuffle as I try to transform them.

Author biography:

Hollis Griffin is an Assistant Professor at Denison University, where he teaches classes in media studies and criticism. His book, Feeling Normal: Sexuality & Media Criticism in the Digital Age is forthcoming from Indiana University Press.