Allow Yourself to Be Surprised: A Professor Spotlight of Dr. John Smith
Below is an interview with Clemson professor Dr. John Smith, a film professor who has also served as the interim director of the World Cinema program. In the interview, Dr. Smith provides some background on his path to academia as well as the inherent connection between his passion, film studies, and his academic background, English.
1. Can you give some background on your education and teaching at Clemson?
I was an English major; I graduated from Furman. I have an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Boston University. I came to Clemson in 1999 as a lecturer, and among the courses I taught was Introduction to Film. In 2009, I left Clemson to be a full-time student again: I went to Emory University for an M.A. in Film Studies. After that, I seriously considered going on for a Ph.D. in the Moving Image Studies program at Georgia State University, but this would have meant a move to Atlanta, which my wife and I weren’t keen on doing. (We live in Greenville.) I split the week between Atlanta and Greenville when I went to Emory, and that was a challenge. I returned to Clemson in 2017 —I was so excited to be back! I teach Introduction to Film, Film Theory, and Film Genres.
2. Why is film studies a passion of yours?
Growing up, often when I missed school because I was sick, I’d watch “old movies” on TV —often with my mom, sometimes with my grandparents. These were such meaningful experiences for me. I first saw I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang as a child — I’m still haunted by Paul Muni’s line at the end, “I steal,” as the screen fades to black, and we hear him running off. I also remember Dark Victory, and Bette Davis in the garden at the end, that moment when she realizes she’s about to die. I’m really interested in Classical Hollywood — and melodrama — and I’d say it started with these childhood screenings. Personally, I didn’t take a film class until BU, but those movies stayed with me when I became a huge Dickens fan as an English major — and later, when I wrote my dissertation on him. I admire Linda Williams’s work on melodrama; she says we go to the movies to be moved, that our emotional response to a movie is part of how we engage (or fail to engage) with moral issues, and injustices, in our society. I think melodrama in Dickens works in similar ways, and that’s partly what fascinated me about his novels. So, all of this is to say that my passion for film studies is connected to what I loved when I studied English.
3. How does film, and the entire department here, work in conjunction with the English department? Even from a philosophical standpoint, how do film and English go together?
While there are faculty from departments across the university affiliated with the program, World Cinema is housed in English — and enjoys support and encouragement from the department. The program exists because of our own Aga Skrodzka, who led the development of World Cinema seven years ago and has remained an influence ever since. A number of faculty who teach classes in film studies — including me — are members of the English Department. There’s a lot of overlap, I think, between English and film studies. Here’s an example, using the famous melodrama, Now, Voyager, which I’ve used in my Film Genres course. There, we have talked about how an original illustration in a Dickens novel works as a tableau, a frozen picture where you focus on a character’s gesture, how characters are positioned in the picture, etc. When we think about this 1942 melodrama Now, Voyager, and how a shot functions as a tableau, we’re in this sort of shared space between English and film studies, where the nineteenth-century novel and Classical Hollywood, for example, enter the discussion. When we talk about tableaus in the movie and the editing patterns they’re part of, or close-ups and soft focus, Bette Davis and star power, things like this — that’s film studies.
4. Can you speak on your time as interim director of the World Cinema program? Any notable events, moments, etc. that are worth mentioning?
One really cool thing about being interim director has been the opportunity it’s afforded me to meet colleagues across campus I may not have had the chance to meet otherwise — from numerous academic departments, Advising Services, Public Relations. It’s been exciting to see wide interest in the program. My sense is that a lot of people recognize that the growth of the World Cinema program is good for Clemson.
5. Any notes of advice for an English major?
I love the story Walker Percy tells in “The Loss of the Creature” about the law student who stops to study ants on the sidewalk during his daily walks to school. He’s surprised by his fascination with the ants — he discovers a passion — which leads him to change his professional pursuits. I can’t remember if I first read this essay as an English major; it might have been my first year of graduate school. What excited me at the time was the idea of where a degree in English might take me, even if I couldn’t yet see some of the possibilities. So, remembering the story of the student, I would offer this advice: Allow yourself to be surprised.
Written By: Will Gordon