Degree Programs

Film and Visual Studies

In the past quarter century, the study of film has undergone dramatic changes and expansions. Current historical and theoretical research addresses the social, aesthetic, and economic importance of cinema for the twentieth century. And at the beginning of a new century, television, video, and the digital arts, as well as new forms of performance, design, and contemporary art, are transforming and enriching cinematic expressive possibility. The global reach of the film/media industries challenge us to comprehend how the screen arts inflect our understanding of culture and society, and how cultural knowledge and experience abide in moving images. The impact of new imaging technologies on science is equally important, offering exciting new modalities for the study of image making in the post-millennial era.

Since the 1990s, advanced research in film studies has assumed a broader investment in visual culture at large. The founding vision of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard—which already in the 1950s recognized the interrelatedness of film, video, mixed media, design, architecture, performance, and installation art in the visual and performing arts—has thus proved to be prescient. Recent years have also witnessed a compelling institutional and intellectual convergence between the history and philosophy of art and the cultural study of space on one hand, and film history and theory on the other. This convergence is motivated by an idea of visual culture with three inextricably bound research emphases: one object-based (visual media and their interrelationships), one institutional (the emergence of visual studies as an international and cross-disciplinary mode of research), and one theoretical (the philosophical interrogation of the social nature of vision and visuality, especially in its cinematic forms).

The first emphasis recognizes commonalities between visual media—painting, sculpture, photography, cinema, and video—and the critical theories that elaborate them. It concerns itself primarily with spatial media deployed in two- and three-dimensional environments—painting, photography, architecture—as well as time-based spatial arts such as cinema, electronic and digital media (including video, television and the varieties of new media), and installation art. In this focus on the arts of vision, vision is an active, complex process that rarely takes place in the absence of other perceptual information. Spatial media, along with their histories and theories, cannot be considered independently of literature and the performing arts.

Contemporary manifestations of visual culture are also increasingly defined by the interdependence of media. For example, the moving image today is not only projected on cinema screens; it is also deployed in cinema multiplexes, on home television, portable computers and other types of personal displays as well as in public spaces such as airports or on building facades, and worked into installation art and live performance. In each instance, conditions of perception, interpretation, and evaluation shift as the image cycles through different social contexts and technologies of presentation. The study of film and visual culture is thus motivated by a renewed concern with images and their seminal role in the representation and formulation of knowledge in past and contemporary societies. Art history and aesthetics likewise draw inspiration from the renewed currency of the visual in the present era while recognizing both the power and complexity of cinematic and electronic imaging. At the same time, film studies, art history, the history of science, and architectural theory have initiated a sophisticated dialogue concerning what the “visual” means and how it functions in contemporary society.

From its first appearance on the Harvard campus, film studies has been conceived as the multidisciplinary foundation for a broader study of visual experience. From Paul Sachs’s incorporation of film into the academic and curatorial focus of the fine arts to Rudolf Arnheim’s consideration of the medium in his investigations of visual thinking, and from Hugo Münsterberg’s forays into the psychological reception of moving images to Stanley Cavell’s groundbreaking philosophical reflections on the medium, Harvard has maintained a long tradition of engaging cinema through the cultural, visual, spatial, and philosophical questions it raises. This tradition is a source of strength and impetus for the department and its resources. It continues today in the various film courses offered through departments of language that investigate cultural and historical aspects of the medium to courses in Visual and Environmental Studies that focus on film’s relationship to spatiality and architecture.

In recognition of film’s centrality to contemporary visual culture, the graduate program in Film and Visual Studies seeks to transcend an approach solely fixated on the workings of a single medium and its history. Interdisciplinary in its impetus, the program draws on course offerings both in Visual and Environmental Studies and in other departments of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Broadly influenced by the unique cultural context of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and the Harvard Film Archive, the graduate program fosters an awareness of the interactions between the making of and thinking about film and video; between studio art, performance, and visual culture; and between different arts and pursuits whose objects are audio-visual entities.

The PhD Program in Film and Visual Studies takes advantage of the resources offered by Harvard’s Film Study Center (FSC). Established in 1957, the FSC provides production equipment, post-production facilities, technical support, and funding for non-fiction works that interpret the world through images and sounds. Among the many important films to have been produced through the Film Study Center are John Marshall’s The Hunters (1956), Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1985), Susan Meiselas, Alfred Guzzetti, and Richard Rogers’ Pictures from a Revolution (1991), Irene Lusztig’s Reconstruction (2001), Robb Moss’s The Same River Twice (2002), Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves (2003) and Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Verena Paravels's Leviathan (2012). Students in the Film and Visual Studies Program are eligible to apply to the FSC for fellowships, awarded annually to graduate students and faculty in support of original film, video, and photographic projects.

Objectives of the PhD Program

1. To provide strong and rigorous training in film and visual studies with a blend of theoretical, analytical, and historical perspectives while drawing on the unique interdisciplinary strengths of the FAS course offerings, the Harvard Film Archives’ vast holdings of films and documents, and the rich resources of Harvard museums, galleries, and libraries.

2. To cultivate forms of awareness that are particularly attentive to the place of moving images within larger histories and their connections to both traditional and emerging arts, disciplines, and fields of endeavor.

3. To foster advanced research skills in the history and theory of moving images that build on and augment the increasing concern with visuality and the visual arts in a broad range of Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments and schools of graduate study including, among others, African and African-American Studies, Anthropology, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, English and American Literature and Language, Germanic Languages and Literatures, History, History of Art and Architecture, History of Science, Literature and Comparative Literature, Philosophy, Romance Languages and Literatures, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Sociology.

4. To develop an advanced research program of study that also profits from the creative context of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and its ongoing dialogues between artists, critics, curators, historians, and theorists of the arts and of film, video, and performance.

The Curriculum

The PhD in Film and Visual Studies is a research degree that emphasizes the theory and history of moving images in relation to the visual arts. The Program does not admit candidates for a terminal AM degree. Students may apply for a master’s degree after advancing to PhD candidacy by satisfactorily completing their coursework and exams as indicated below. The expected timetable for completion of the degree is five to six years.

Residence and academic standing. Two years of enrollment for full-time study are a minimum requirement, with a minimum of at least 14 courses completed with honor grades (no grade lower than B-).

Courses. A minimum of 14 courses must be completed no later than the end of the second year. Normal progression would include eight courses in the first year and six courses in the second in order to provide time for preparation for the general examination as well as flexibility to pursue course work in neighboring fields of study.

  • Of these 14 courses, two are required: VES 270, the Proseminar in Film and Visual Studies: History; and VES 271, Proseminar in Film and Visual Studies: Theory. The Proseminars are normally taken in the first year of study.
  • At least seven of the 14 courses must be at the 200 (graduate) level.
  • In addition, at least seven of the courses must be chosen from a list of courses approved for credit by the Film and Visual Studies Committee.
  • The remaining courses (including courses in other departments, or transferred from other schools) may be either at the 200 or 100 level.
  • One of the non-200 level courses may be taken as an independent study with a professor, but not before the second term of residence. Other independent studies courses will be permitted in exceptional circumstances, and with the concurrence of the professor that the work is essential to the student’s program and not offered elsewhere in the existing curriculum.
Language Requirements. A reading knowledge of two languages is required. Normally, French or German should be one of these two languages. Other languages may be acceptable if deemed relevant and appropriate to the student’s program of study. Proficiency may be certified either by a grade of B- or better on a proficiency exam administered by the relevant language department or by successful completion (B- or better) of a second-year or higher course taught in a foreign language. (Note: Elementary language courses do not count for course credit.)

(Non-Terminal) Master of Arts (AM). Students must complete at least eight half-courses in Film and Visual Studies, maintaining a minimum GPA of 3.5 (B+) in all classes.

  • Two of these eight courses must be the Proseminars in Film and Visual Studies.
  • Students are also required to have as many 200-level courses as 100-level courses.
  • No more than one reading course is allowed for credit.
  • Students must have fulfilled at least one language requirement.

Advancement to Candidacy

Advancement to candidacy for a PhD in Film and Visual Studies consists of three components: a qualifying paper, a written general examination, and an oral examination. The examinations are designed to test the student’s mastery of their scholarly fields and their ability to proceed to writing a dissertation. These will normally take place together in March during the second term of the third year of study, and will be supervised by an Examination Committee normally consisting of three faculty members of the Standing Committee for the Program in Film and Visual Studies. The timing of the general exam is meant to encourage students to take the exam as a cohort. Individually scheduled exams will be discouraged.

Qualifying paper. The qualifying paper is required of all students, including students who have completed a master’s thesis elsewhere. It is ordinarily developed from an existing seminar paper, research paper, or portion of a master’s thesis. It is about 5,000 to 10,000 words, including notes. The paper should demonstrate the student’s independence of thinking, ability to use primary source materials, and proficiency in writing and presentation. Following close consultation with their field advisors, students will submit to the DGS the proposed topic of the paper and a timetable for its completion at the beginning of their third term of residence. The paper should be submitted two weeks before the general examination. A student may request that a master’s thesis written for another institution be substituted in lieu of a qualifying paper; this request must be approved by the DGS and two members of the Film Studies Committee.

General examination. The written examination is designed to test students’ mastery of their scholarly fields as well as general knowledge of the history and aesthetics of moving images in relation to the visual and performing arts. The examination consists of three parts, one relating to history, one to theory and aesthetics, and one to a special topics field.

Dissertation prospectus. After the successful completion of the general examinations, students are expected to constitute a dissertation committee and choose a topic for the dissertation.

The dissertation committee should consist of the thesis director and two additional readers. (This committee will typically correspond to the general exam committee.) The student will convey the proposed membership of the dissertation committee to the Director of Graduate Studies by April 15th of the third year of study. The Director of Graduate Studies will confirm the committee's membership and pass on this information to the graduate coordinator. S/he will in turn provide formal confirmation of all pertinent deadlines to members of the dissertation committee and the student.

After constituting the dissertation committee, students should confer with their advisors as they choose a thesis topic. Once they have done so, they should write a formal dissertation proposal. The expectations for the shape and substance of the prospectus will be determined by the advisor in conference with the student; the length of the prospectus will typically be about 3,000 words and include a working bibliography. In order to sustain satisfactory progress toward the degree, students will be expected to have their prospectus approved within five months after completion of the general examination. Doctoral candidates in Film and Visual Studies will normally submit their dissertation prospectus by September 30th of their fourth year of study.

The Thesis. After the prospectus has been approved, candidates will work closely with their thesis director and readers. The doctoral thesis is expected to be a substantial work of scholarship or criticism. The program will accept theses on a great variety of topics involving a broad range of approaches to film and related visual media. It sets no specific page limits, preferring to give students and directors as much freedom as possible.

Teaching. Students begin teaching in their third year. Ordinarily they teach discussion sections in courses in Film Studies and in Visual and Environmental Studies. It may also be possible to serve as Teaching Fellows for studio courses. Preparation for a teaching career is a required part of each student’s training, and teaching fellows benefit from the supervision and guidance of department members. Teaching fellows are also encouraged to avail themselves of the facilities at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

Requirements for Admission

The following is a set of general guidelines for the application for admission.

  • The Writing Sample: The writing sample is one of the most important materials in the application. Candidates should submit only one 15–20 page paper, in 12-point type, double-spaced, and with normal margins. The writing sample must be an example of critical writing (rather than creative writing) on a subject directly related to film, performance and/or visual studies. Applicants should not send longer papers with instructions to read an excerpt or excerpts, but should edit the sample so that they submit only up to 20 pages.
  • Grades: While the overall GPA is important, it is more important to have an average of no lower than A- in courses related to film and visual studies or related fields. In addition, if a candidate has not majored in film studies or a related field, it is important to have sufficient background to enter the graduate program— a matter perhaps best determined by speaking with one’s undergraduate advisor.
  • Letters of Recommendation: It is important to have three strong letters of recommendation from professors who are familiar with the candidate’s academic work. An applicant who has been out of school for several years should try to reestablish contact with former professors. Additional letters from employers may also be included.
  • GREs: High scores in the Verbal (700) are positive additions to the application but are by no means the most important aspect of one’s candidacy. (The Quantitative and Analytical scores carry less weight than the Verbal score.) Applicants should make timely plans to take these examinations in order to ensure arrival of scores by the December application deadline. Scores received after January may be too late to be considered.
  • Statement of Purpose: The Statement of Purpose should give the admissions committee a clear sense of the student’s individual interests and strengths. Applicants need not indicate what their field of specialization will be, but it is helpful to know something about a candidate’s aspirations, and how Film and Visual Studies at Harvard might help in furthering them.
  • Languages: Strong foreign language background helps to strengthen the application, and students who lack it should be aware that they will need to repair these gaps during their first two years of graduate study.

Members of the Standing Committee on Film and Visual Studies