Screen Cultures: multimedia, interdisciplinary, global

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of English Matters, the English Department's twice-yearly newsmagazine. You can find the full issue here

In Spring 2023, Mason’s Film and Media Studies program was rebranded Screen Cultures, but more than a simple renaming, this shift recognized and celebrated the breadth and complexity of the program’s missions and its goals. Dozens of students are pursuing Screen Cultures either as a concentration within the English Department, which houses the program, or as an interdisciplinary minor in partnership with various departments, including Communications and Modern and Classical Languages—a broadening initiative with its eye on the future.   

“The old name couldn’t speak as directly to the expansive approaches our courses take to thinking about culture and media,” explained Jessica Scarlata (left), professor of English and Director of Screen Cultures, citing the program’s focus on “the global geography of visual culture” as well as the variety of media and screens that are explored as part of the curriculum: “games, experimental video and installation art, activist media and documentary practices, but also things like TikTok.”

“Our classes are not just about semiotic analysis of film and television as texts,” added Hatim El-Hibri, another English professor leading the Screen Cultures program. “They also include the broader array of cultural contexts, media industry formations, and social situations in which people encounter such texts.”

Within the English Department, courses have what Scarlata called “the flexibility to be organized around thematic and theoretical questions, such as: ‘What and where is Global TV?’; ‘What is the relationship between cities and screen-based audio-visual culture?”; and ‘Why is it that contemporary politics around the world are so melodramatic?’” Scarlata just finished up a Fall 2023 course in “World Cinema and the Promise of Realism,” and El-Hibri’s spring 2024 courses include both “Global TV” and “Middle East Media and Screen Cultures,” the latter of which examines in part “the cultural and political contexts that have given shape to a range of historical and contemporary voices.” A third English Department professor, Kevin Flanagan, will be teaching both “Introduction to Film” and “Cult Films.”

But the interdisciplinary nature of the program further emphasizes how “media studies, cinema studies, or visual culture studies are quite intellectually omnivorous endeavors,” as El-Hibri explained it, “synthesizing and benefitting from the broad sweep of the humanities and humanistic social sciences.”

Scarlata and El-Hibri both emphasized Screen Cultures’ “transnational approach,” as with El-Hibri’s course on Middle East Media and Scarlata’s Screening the Global City in Fall 2024. Through the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, students have also had the chance to study, for example, “Contemporary Chinese Film,” “French and Francophone Cinema,” and “Topics in (Post) Soviet Film,” but it’s worth emphasizing that the overall curriculum resists the idea of global media as being distinct from U.S. media or somehow “other.”

“One thing we are very proud of in the Screen Cultures curriculum broadly, and in our English courses in particular, is that we begin by decentering US media,” Scarlata said. “In treating ‘the global’ as our starting point, we see ourselves as being in dialog with Mason students and their diversity of experience.” 

El-Hibri (right) echoed these ideas. “Rather than artificially putting ‘the US’ into one column and ‘rest of the world’ into another column, our courses give students analytical perspectives to see how the world itself is actually much more transnational and uneven.”

Additionally, while Communications courses like “Media Theory and Mass Communication” and “Public Policy” explore the theoretical questions that Scarlata mentioned, classes like “Multi-Camera Studio Production,” “Videography,” and “Digital Post-Production” also help students gain experience on the other side of the screen, underscoring what El-Hibri and Scarlata explained as “the interconnection between thinking carefully about something and doing or making something.”

“Many of the most important film theorists historically also were filmmakers,” Scarlata elaborated. “Critical and theoretical insight can form the basis of a meaningful creative practice just as much as it can inform a new way of thinking about the world.”

Screens generally, and for all age groups, seem ubiquitous these days, so offering students “new ways of thinking about the world” might also mean a new way of thinking about their relationships with those screens and their understanding of the media they engage with.

“Every generation has a sense of familiarity with the media and popular culture of their time,” El-Hibri said. “Our courses take that familiarity as a useful starting point, as it meets people where they are. One of the things that our courses do is to then take those familiar shows and genres or screens and make them unfamiliar again.”

Seeing the familiar anew with fresh eyes, gaining those larger perspectives, giving students, as Scarlata said, “the space to reflect on their place in the world and consider what else the world might be”—students in the program have built on these foundations with success beyond Mason as well.

“We are very proud that our students have gone on to successful careers ranging from Amazon executives to fashion photographers, as journalists, educators, filmmakers, writers, and game designers, in both the public sector and the nonprofit world, and at graduate school in many disciplines,” El-Hibri said. 

“The program offers people a lot of advantages,” Scarlata said, “and our alumni have found it useful in a variety of fields.”

For more information on Screen Cultures, visit https://screencultures.gmu.edu/.