MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #27
Few enterprises mellow the spirit like promotion to tenure, even at some rinky-dink, two-year community college lost in the boonies, never mind at a world class institution of higher learning like UCLA. Likewise, few enterprises provide more occasions for migraines. Read on, but keep a bottle of aspirin handy.
NO LEARNING ALLOWED
The University of California is a research institution.
Faculty’s second obligation is to teach. First is what traditional disciplines call “research.” (In The Arts it’s called “creative activity.”) From time to time I’m asked, “Does the University tolerate faculty, in addition to their professorships, engaging in off-campus careers?”
They don’t merely tolerate it; they require it.
It is on the basis not of teaching but writing that screenwriting instructors are (or are not) promoted to tenure.
Few experiences mellow the spirit like promotion to tenure rank, even at a rinky-dink lost little two-year community college in the boonies, never mind at a world renowned institution of higher learning such as UCLA.
Over the decades, the culture regarding tenure has changed. It used to be enough to win the support of instructors’ colleagues in their own departments. External committees generally rubber-stamped a department’s will. That dynamic ended, however, years ago. Achieving tenure these days, even for a candidate well supported by his chairman and dean and departmental colleagues, can be something of a battle, especially in film schools.
Film is fun. Film schools such as UCLA’s represent the glamour corner of higher learning. Unlike departments such as, say, Scandinavian Languages and Cultures, students beat down doors seeking admission to our programs. Film faculty enjoy opportunities to earn off-campus income in quantities professors in, for example, Medieval Iconography, do not.
Is it any wonder that our across-campus colleagues regard us occasionally with jealousy, and try to squelch our pursuit of academia’s Holy Grail, the institution of tenure? Many civilians do not understand that an instructor on the tenure track who fails to win it within a specified time does not merely continue teaching without tenure but is forever banished from the institution.
More than a quarter century ago, when I came under consideration for tenure, the central exhibit in my dossier consisted of approximately seventy-five pages representing my then in-progress earliest book on screenwriting plus, far more important, a contract for its publication from a major New York trade (not text) house. Research institutions like UCLA explicitly and expressly exclude textbooks from consideration for promotion to tenure. Texts are viewed as part of the teaching component. Who benefits from a text other than (mere) students? Only original theoretical and creative work can be submitted to the committees, provosts, and chancellors who have the ultimate authority to grant tenure.
In my own case I argued that my book was indeed not a text but, instead, precisely what the university required: original, theoretical research.
Mischief-makers on the tenure council didn’t see it that way. They saw the book very much as a text, that is, a humble teaching tool. It appeared to have been designed, they said, to support students actually learning screenwriting, which is to say, it looked a whole lot like vocational training.
I composed for my detractors a defense of the book. I told them that I respected their concerns. I pointed out, however, that in a discipline such as screenwriting it is impossible to address theoretical and creative considerations without also integrating certain practical applications.
I reassured them soberly that while writing it I had never intended anyone should learn anything from the book.
They bought it.
Here I am, decades later, wallowing in the rich, creamy enterprise that is the last, best prize of Western Civilization: tenure.
The problem at research institutions is not that they rank teaching too low, or research too high, but that they separate them at all. It’s reminiscent of screenwriters prioritizing, for example, story and character. Like teaching and writing, story and character share the same relationship as, say, hearts and lungs. You need both. Being a better writer makes you a better teacher; being a better teacher makes you a better writer.
To get caught up in the parts is to miss out on the whole. It is to Balkanize the human spirit.
Too many research institutions regard students as burdens. What a great university we would have, they sometimes seem to think, if we could only get rid of the students. The only thing students want, wretched slackers that they are, is to learn, learn, learn.
At UCLA’s film school we consider students our greatest asset. We are totally dependent upon them to make and sustain our reputation. If you teach in the arts, you might as well work with the best artists. That’s what we have right here in Westwood.
Film Courage Interview: Richard Walter Recommends Writers Pursue Excitement in Art & Boredom in Life
In a recent video interview with Film Courage, a website and radio show focused on empowering independent filmmakers, Richard Walter shared his insights on why artists should pursue excitement in their art, but boredom in their life.
Watch the video on the FilmCourage YouTube channel.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars: