Fresh Faculty - Pooja Rangan
Issue   |   Wed, 12/09/2015 - 02:02

Assistant Professor of English in Film and Media Studies Pooja Rangan earned her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College and her master’s and doctorate degrees at Brown University. Her specialties include documentaries and critical theory.

Q: What did you do before coming to Amherst?
A: I came to Amherst after living in New York for four years — from 2011 to 2015, I was an assistant professor in the culture and media department at the New School’s Eugene Lang College. Before that I went to graduate school to study media and cultural theory at Brown University. My first stop in the U.S. after I left India — I grew up in Mumbai — was Ohio. I went to Oberlin College. So I’ve always lived in the snow.

Q: What is your primary academic interest?
A: My primary interest, documentary, is really a way for me to think about broader social issues that have to do with our relationship to media and the ways in which we represent each other. Documentary defines itself as a genre that is fundamentally altruistic — a good documentary, it is felt, does not call attention to itself but to the social issues it represents. I start by paying attention to documentary itself and by taking its form very seriously. I think if we read this form as a symptom we can learn a lot more about the social condition from which it emerges. So in most of my classes, documentary is the vehicle, but the topic is reality and the fictions we tell ourselves to maintain it. I think we can learn something about the world if we shift our attention from one to the other.

Q: How did you decide to start pursuing this interest?
A: I went to graduate school in a department that was very invested in Marxist, psychoanalytic and poststructuralist theory. One of the things that these three approaches teach you is to be suspicious of forms that claim to represent the world transparently. So it makes sense that I came to be interested in documentary, which always asserts that it is speaking the truth, and that we should believe what it is saying.

Q: What kind of research are you currently working on?
A: Another reason I came to Amherst is that I was trained in a research environment, and I like that Amherst is a school that supports faculty research to the same degree as a research university. At the moment I am finishing a book called “Immediations.” The book is about the ways in which documentary imagines itself as a humanitarian genre that gives a voice to the voiceless. Documentary likes to think that it is working on behalf of society’s others. I ask a perverse question: What if it is society’s others who give documentary its reason for being? What if disenfranchised subjects, like children, refugees, animals and the disabled, inspire its language of urgency and immediacy? I’m interested in finding out how we can discover a new and more progressive language for documentary if we don’t look for the humanity of these subjects, but instead pay attention to the ways in which they are critiquing our ideas about humanity.

Q: What classes are you teaching this semester and next semester?
A: Right now I am teaching two classes: The Documentary Impulse and The Confession. The Documentary Impulse asks how the desire to represent “reality” has inspired radically diverse ways of speaking to, telling stories about and relating to the other. We just watched two recent films that aim to jerk us out of everything we expect about documentary (e.g. interviews, voice-over, talking heads). In one film, “Manakamana,” the camera remains in the same position for nearly two hours inside a cable-car in Nepal, and the other, “Leviathan,” was shot on a commercial fishing vessel using dozens of Go Pro cameras that roll around the deck and in the water. Both are gripping, even though they could not be more different. In The Confession, which is my senior seminar, we have been analyzing the connection between the religious practice of confession and contemporary media practices from autobiography to pornography, trial films, melodrama and reality TV. My students are working on incredible research projects. To give you a taste, the topics include sexting and pleasure, torture in video games and confessing one’s privilege in activist contexts. I am on leave in the spring, but when I return in fall 2016, I’ll be adapting The Confession as a first-year eminar. My other class will be called Having a Voice and will focus on theories of voice and documentary.

Q: What do you hope to contribute to Amherst during your time here?
A: I find it auspicious that I arrived at Amherst in the same semester as Amherst Uprising. I see my arrival here as part of a changing tide that wants to reinvent Amherst in the image of its complex student body. This is a task that requires complexity in the ways in which we see and analyze the world. When my partner, Professor Josh Guilford, who is a visiting assistant professor in film and media studies and English, and I interviewed for our jobs here, we recognized that the film and media studies major was designed by Professor Amelie Hastie and others with this richness and complexity in mind. The major is not just about film, but about how we understand the world and relate to each other through mediation, through representations, and through images and voices. It merges theory and practice, principles and action. To me, this is the place to intervene and contribute to a changing campus, by raising consciousness from the curriculum outward.

Q: Do you have any hobbies outside of academics?
A: Unsurprisingly, I love to watch movies. The line for me between academics and hobbies is not a clear one, and I don’t try to police it. The film and media studies and English faculty often go to movies together and talk about them afterward over a drink. Having said that, there are things I do to decompress. I do a lot of yoga. I’m a good cook and enjoy cooking elaborate meals. I also love to garden — my house and office are filled with plants.

Q: Do you have any advice for students interested in studying in your field?
A: Watch movies. Write about them. Make movies. You will understand one better by doing the other — this is the thinking behind the major. One of the best pieces of advice I can give when it comes both to reading and watching is this: suspend your judgment and give in to what the essay, book or film is asking you to do. It may teach you to think and feel in new ways. The film and media studies faculty are constantly bringing unusual films and speakers to campus. This year, Professor Hastie is running a series called “Localities,” featuring films and scholarship that deal with place. And Professor Guilford has initiated a film series called “X: Unknown Quantity,” which features experimental approaches to film. Go to as many of these screenings as you can.