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By Anna Sarkissian
For the first time in its 21-year history, the Kovács Award for most original essay in film and media studies has been awarded to a scholar at a Canadian university.
Concordia University Research Chair in Communication Studies Charles Acland got word that his essay, “Curtain, Carts, and the Mobile Screen” won the coveted prize in early February.
Each year, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies recognizes work that significantly advances scholarship in film and media studies. Acland’s essay was published in the fiftieth anniversary issue of Screen, the leading international journal of academic film and television studies.
“The award not only gives you validation for the work that you put in, but also means a high degree of recognition for the research done at Concordia,” Acland said. “It’s a big deal and shows how much we are building our research reputation.”
He will travel to Los Angeles to receive the award at the annual SCMS conference on March 18.
“Curtain, Carts, and the Mobile Screen” traces the prehistory of wired classrooms. Acland uses post-war United States as the backdrop and examines how a set of ideas about audio-visual technology changed how people understood classroom spaces.
“As portrayed in an advertisement for Victor film projectors, the single student conversing directly with the teacher was an ancient approach to education,” he wrote. “In contrast, ‘the way in modern pedagogy’ was the motion picture, the ‘modern teacher’ that could bring ancient times to life for enthralled children.”
Another company advertised that their new contraption could “picture in a minute what you’d say in an hour.”
“If you look at this period, you can see a media system comes into existence,” Acland said. “It wasn’t just about showing films in the classroom, it was about creating a total multimedia environment, and with it a new class of media experts.”
Since coming to Concordia in 1999, he has steadily built his profile as a leading media and cultural studies scholar.
His book Screen Traffic won the Gertrude Robinson Prize for best book by a Canadian scholar in 2004 and was listed as one of the most influential film and media books of the last decade by the peer-reviewed journal Screening the Past.
Two years later, he collaborated with film studies professor Haidee Wasson to organize a SSHRC-funded workshop called Useful Cinema: Expanding Film Contexts with scholars from around the world. They have expanded that project into a forthcoming book about the functional uses of cinema.
In 2007, he published Residual Media, an edited collection from the University of Minnesota Press, in which he brought together prominent international voices on media, technology, and history.
He continues to be involved in several cross-Faculty research initiatives, including the Screen Culture Research Group and the Advanced Research Team on History and Epistemology of Moving Image Studies, better known as ARTHEMIS (see related story).
“I find that I take on more and more because I care passionately about the work that I do,” Acland said. “When you’re immersed in a research program, you start to become concerned about the gaps, the things that are missing. You work as hard as you can to try to respond to those.”
On Feb. 12, he brought graduate students, faculty and staff together for a day-long symposium on screen technology, media space and mobile media called Screen World, presented with ARTHEMIS, the Department of Communication Studies, Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) and Mediamixx from McGill.
Though the conference is now over, Acland doesn’t sit still for long. He has several projects in the pipeline: his SSHRC-funded monograph, Swift Viewing in a Cluttered Age, the first scholarly accounting of the “subliminal messages” panic of the late 1950s, will be released by Duke University Press next year.
Currently, Acland is launching a new study of mainstream film and its relationship to technological change, The Blockbuster Economy, from which he has already published research on Avatar and digital 3D cinema.
“As research chair, I see my job as energizing a research scene as best as I can. I try to spread resources around and be the catalyst for as many projects as possible,” he said.