They were heady days, the mid ’60s in Montreal. Expo
67 played host to more than 50 million people from around the world,
coinciding with the Canadian centennial. Television was sweeping the
nation with the first colour broadcasts. Local boy Pierre Trudeau
was about to ride a wave of mania across the land. And the University
of Toronto’s Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media
(1964), making media sexy, exciting and worthy of study.
At Loyola College, the Jesuits were ahead of the curve. They had already convinced one of their own to pursue an advanced degree in communications and bring the new discipline back to the college. The Rev. John (Jack) O’Brien, S.J., L BA 45, set off to the University of Southern California in 1959 and returned in 1964 armed with a doctorate, set to launch Loyola College’s Communication Arts program the next year.
O’Brien first had to convince the administration that the program would generate interest among students, a hard sell. But in the summer of 1964, O’Brien recalls, “Gerry MacGuigan, the head of the English department, approached me to see if I would teach an elective on media and society, a two-semester course. It didn’t appear in the calendar because we had missed the deadline. ‘If you have 10, consider it a success,’ he said. We ended up with 80,” O’Brien relates. “Suddenly, everyone on campus sat up.”
From its beginnings in 1965, Communication Arts, renamed Communication Studies in 1977 (and known familiarly as “comm studies”), was more than just a training ground for camera operators and documentarians. “The curriculum had three thrusts: arts, social sciences and the labs,” O’Brien explains. “Essentially, we bridged the gap between theory and practice to gain insight into the world we’re living in. There was a critical dimension to it, not just a creative one.
“We were bombarded with people,” O’Brien continues. “Applicants had to show strong academic potential and creativity; they went through an interview and presented a portfolio.” The stringent admission requirements remain to this day: about one in three BA applicants and about one in six graduate applicants are accepted.
Think and practice
Lorna Roth, outgoing chair of the department, explains
that the focus on both theory and practice has never wavered, aptly
summed up by the department’s tagline, “Think media. Practice
media.” “We take a humanities approach,” she says.
“Technology is used as a means to produce an idea that is thoughtful
and wise. We focus on the message, not just the medium.”
Through the years, bridging theory and practice has meant that Communication Studies has had to attract strong faculty from different fields. “Up until the late 1980s, fulltime faculty came from every discipline,” relates Dennis Murphy, L BA 67. Murphy, who has been a comm studies professor since the department’s early days, was also in its first graduating class. “We had people from physics, psychology, classics, literature and theatre,” he says. “And it has remained multidisciplinary, both in terms of the students and the faculty.”
As it has evolved over the years, Communication Studies has expanded its curriculum beyond traditional notions of mass media. Roth says, “We were the first to have a course on indigenous media. We were among the first to look at media and race, ethnicity and gender issues. And we study alternative and community-based media. So we’ve always been innovative in our curriculum, and the students have responded.”
The department also stands out due to its four distinct programs, including its graduate diploma. Established in 1975, it was the first such program in Canada and remains one of the few. The graduate diploma was designed for those with bachelor’s degrees in other disciplines, and it attracts people from around the world. The department’s MA in media studies program is, Roth feels, the best in Canada, in part due to its strong faculty. “There is a greater concentration of important scholars in our department than in any other in Canada,” she maintains. The joint PhD, offered in partnership with Université de Montréal and Université du Québec à Montréal, was also the first of its kind in the country.
While comm studies can now be considered mature, there are still endless new avenues to explore, to fill gaps in the curriculum or build on its strengths. A new course on the rhetoric of science has been very successful, Roth says. “That could be a new direction because rhetoric is not as well covered in Canada as it is in the States.” It helps that the new department chair is Maurice Charland, a leading rhetorical theorist.
For a department that’s been around for nearly 40 years, there’s been remarkable continuity of spirit. Murphy says, “It’s the students who make a name for the place, and they make the atmosphere. They give it life, and when they head out into their careers, they bring us recognition.”
This month, Communication Studies is moving to its newly renovated
facilities (formerly the Drummond Science Building) on the Loyola
Campus. In addition to offering more classroom, laboratory and research
space, the new building - like the students - will be “smart.”
Comm studies professor Martin Allor shepherded the building project
and enthuses about its high-end audiovisual equipment, network access,
production, video and editing facilities, and more. Allor also feels
the building “will make the department even more convivial than
ever.” And that’s saying something. “The department’s
always been a place to congregate,” Murphy adds. “From
the very beginning, students hung around, partly because of the nature
of the projects they were working on, but also because they were excited.
And the faculty too. They were very involved.” That spirit remains,
advancing on a principle that can be traced back to Father O’Brien’s
guiding hand. “I set up the department physically so that professors
couldn’t get in or out without going through where the students
were,” he explains today.
“We were trying to apply the theoretical concepts we were studying. Because with communications, you really need to live it.”
Rhonda Mullins, MA (media studies) 96, is a Montreal freelance writer.
Concordia’s Communication Studies program has produced
countless high achievers working in film, television, journalism and
other communication fields. Here is just a sampling of those alumni.
Francine Allaire, BA (comm. studies) 77, film and television producer
Francine Allaire’s filmmaking and distribution career has spanned more than 25 years, establishing her as an important figure in film and television in Canada and internationally. She has been a producer at Galafilm in Montreal since 2001.
Allaire was awarded the 2004 Producer of the Year Award from Women in Film and Television. Her recent work includes The Blue Butterfly (2004), whose lead character was based on the Montreal Insectarium’s Georges Brossard, and she is currently working on The Louise Arbour Story, co-producing Tripping Wire for CTV, and completing a feature film called Steel Toes. Other recent accomplishments include a CTV espionage movie, Agent of Influence (2002), which won Best Script at the 16th Rencontres internationales de Télévision de Reims in France and a Certificate of Merit at the Chicago International Television Festival. And she produced episodes of the docu-soap series École de danse, nominated for three Gémeaux awards, including Best Documentary Series and Best Director.
Allaire remembers Concordia fondly. “I was given the space to think freely, without boundaries, and that helped me succeed,” she says.
Don Carmody, L BA (comm. arts) 72, film producer
Veteran film producer Don Carmody has been involved
in some 75 film projects. In 2002 he co-produced the musical Chicago,
which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, three Golden
Globe Awards, including Best Musical or Comedy, and the Producers’
Guild of America Golden Laurel Award for Best Picture.
Carmody had early success shortly after graduating from Loyola, as vicepresident of production for Canada’s Cinepix (now Lions Gate Films), where he co-produced David Cronenberg’s early shockers, They Came From Within (1975) and Rabid (1977), as well as the popular comedy Meatballs (1979). He started Don Carmody Productions in Toronto in 1980, and produced the smash hits Porky’s (1982) and Porky’s II (1983). The long list of films that Carmody has subsequently been associated with in different producing capacities includes some on the other end of the prestige scale, including Chicago, Good Will Hunting (1997) and The Pledge (2000). His upcoming project is the comedy thriller Lucky Number Slevin with Bruce Willis.
“Aside from teaching me not to trip over the cables,” Carmody says today, “the Communication Arts course allowed me to meet and make a number of interesting, long-lasting relationships, many of which I have maintained during my 30 years of producing feature films.”
Tally Abecassis, BA (comm. studies) 86, documentary filmmaker, author
The quintessential cross-media thinker, documentary
filmmaker Tally Abecassis has also made forays into radio and publishing.
Her first documentary, Warshaw on the Main (2000), a slice-of-life
account of a group of colourful cashiers working at the landmark Montreal
supermarket, has appeared on Canadian television as well as in several
festivals. Her second film, Lifelike (2005), a documentary
about the weird world of taxidermy, recently premiered at the Hot
Docs documentary festival. It will air on CBC Newsworld and ArTV in
the fall. Her next project, Think Big, about small shopkeepers,
is currently in post-production.
In addition to her film work, Abecassis, who’s based in Montreal, recently published Barbershops, a look at the disappearing world of old-style barbershops, and has produced several radio documentaries.
“The Concordia communications program taught me how to think critically and analyze media,” she says. “It’s also where I first got excited about documentary in all its forms.”
Peter M. Lenkov, comm. studies 86, television and film writer and producer
For Peter Lenkov, the seeds of pursuing a career in screenwriting were planted while he was studying in the Communication Studies program in the mid 1980s. “I had a writing teacher, Tilly Gecsei, who was very encouraging,” he says. “She always pushed us to do something different, to get out there and experience life so that we could write from experience. At the end of the year we wrote a screenplay, and it was a revelation to me that there was someone who would guide you through this process. It encouraged me to come out to L.A.”
Since then, Lenkov’s credits as a TV writer and producer include the hit show and Golden Globe Award winner 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland, currently heading into its fifth season on Fox TV, the CBS drama The District and the Canadian action adventure series La Femme Nikita. Lenkov’s film-writing credits include the sci fi-action film Demolition Man (1993), and he produced the Pauly Shore comedies Son in Law (1993) and Jury Duty (1995), and the 2004 action film Pursued.
Steve Pariso, BA (comm. studies) 05, technologist and communicator
Despite just completing his degree this June, Steve Pariso has been on the front lines of technology for many years. The American-born Pariso began programming computers at age 11 and by 19 was working as a designer and assistant to Lou Dorfsman, a legendary graphic designer at CBS Television. He was a member of the Netscape team in California that introduced the world to “http://” and was later involved in developing shopping and web search software for AOL, CompuServe, Netscape and others, and has worked with such technology giants as Viacom, BellSouth and Time Warner.
When Pariso began looking for a communication studies program “that would complement my background,” he says, he evaluated 15 schools in the U.S., Canada and England. “In the end, I selected Canada’s very first communication studies program, at Concordia.” Despite living and working in California, Pariso commuted across the continent to finish his degree, and he’s become a champion of the program. “Concordia’s Communication Studies program teaches the importance of breaking down stereotypes, the value of truth, and how truth is created,” he says. “It teaches people how to understand, generate and counter powerful and persuasive arguments. Most importantly, it lights a path that leads us toward greater human freedom and knowledge. With these important lessons, Concordia’s Communication Studies program is creating future leaders.”
If you have any comments about this article, contact Howard Bokser, (514) 848-2424 ext. 3826, Howard.Bokser@concordia.ca