Features

A Finer Education

Assessing Canada’s first Documentary Master of Fine Arts programme at Ryerson

Installation at Trinity Square Video Remember Their Names, Janis Cole (2009) / courtesy of Janis Cole

When I received a mass email in early 2007 announcing Ryerson University’s brand new MFA in Documentary Media I gave it a glance and promptly tossed it in the trash. I wasn’t looking to replace my teaching position at Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) nor did I wish to pick up any extra courses. But as I continued working my mind kept slipping back to the email and I opened it again, this time with an interest in applying as a student.

OCAD was a diploma-granting college twenty years ago when I was hired to teach screen-writing in the Integrated Media programme. In 2002 it gained university status. Throughout OCAD’s renovations, construction, new building acquisitions, name change, curriculum changes, first degree programmes and initial graduate studies offerings I continue to be in awe of its rich history. OCAD was the first school in Canada dedicated exclusively to the education of professional artists in fine and commercial art. It is now one of the three largest art and design universities in North America, offering a potent combination of pedagogy and leading studio practice.

Like myself, many faculty working at OCAD simultaneously carry on major arts careers. It’s what makes the institution unique and gives it an invigorating atmosphere for teaching and learning. Some faculty members are renowned in their fields, yet came up through a time when academic credentials were sacrificed to get an earlier start on one’s practice. My documentary career spans thirty-five years and my body of award winning feature length docs includes P4W and Hookers on Davie, which have both recently been declared heritage classics. But despite my success and the equivalency of more than a dozen MFAs, it’s still only that—equivalency.

Since OCAD’s change to a university, the requirement of having an MFA to be a teacher has become increasingly important. I’d started looking into a Master of Fine Arts programme but hadn’t found anything that sparked my interest until news of the Documentary Media programme arrived. When I enthusiastically shared my interest in applying with my closest academic friends, they didn’t think it was necessary to invest the time (two years) and money ($16,000) to get my degree given the breadth of my experience, but they didn’t hesitate to offer their full support when I decided to pursue an MFA at Ryerson.

The Documentary Media information session was packed to standing room only and I saw many faces in my age range speckled throughout the room, meaning the programme had caught the attention of career professionals like myself.

“What appealed to me most about the Ryerson MFA programme was its combination of focused study—documentary media from a Canadian perspective—with an interdisciplinary quality working across diverse media: analog and digital photography, film and video, along with various permutations of new media.”Erin Clark

I left the information meeting prepared to invest my graduate dollars at Ryerson University. Established a mere sixty-one years ago as the Ryerson Institute of Technology, Ryerson became a Polytechnical Institute in 1963, and in 2002 was renamed Ryerson University after gaining degree granting status in 1993. Like OCAD, Ryerson is young in the university sector and works hard to excel at the delivery of its undergrad and graduate programmes.

Don Snyder is the genial, steadfast Chair of Image Arts at Ryerson where the Documentary Media programme is delivered. When I met with him to discuss the formation of the programme he told me it grew from an eagerness at Ryerson to establish new graduate programmes. Documentary Media is Ryerson’s first MFA, and thus a groundbreaker for the institution.

In early 2003 Snyder gathered with a group of faculty including Alex Anderson, Edward Slopek and Bob Burley to discuss the relevance of delivering a documentary MFA. Slopek offered to research similar offerings in English language countries, the pacific rim and France. He discovered that while Britain and the USA had cross platform documentary programmes there was nothing similar being offered in Canada, giving Ryerson the opportunity to offer a fresh and unique programme.

They consulted with programme advisors made up of industry professionals and academics who suggested they consider an interdisciplinary practice based programme that was conceived to grow with new media technologies. Snyder took their advice.

What makes Ryerson’s documentary programme stand out as different from MFAs offered by other universities in documentary film production is its cross-disciplinary study of photography, film/video and new media technologies, blending all the popular formats with cutting edge emerging technologies.

“What appealed to me most about the Ryerson MFA programme was its combination of focused study—documentary media from a Canadian perspective—with an interdisciplinary quality working across diverse media: analog and digital photography, film and video, along with various permutations of new media.”Erin Clark

Ryerson’s Documentary Media MFA fits within the rigor of a Masters programme focused on the scholarly, theoretical, historical and cultural study of documentary but it gives equal weight to studio practice. The programme is fulltime, with three semesters of study a year for two years. Be prepared to quit your day job!

Snyder makes no apologies for the schedule and feels that offering the best features and depth of a three-year programme in two, under the recommendation of the Ontario Council of Universities, is something Ryerson can be proud of achieving.

Programme Director Blake Fitzpatrick confirms that the programme is intense and different than many MFAs in that it’s not as open, but rather more highly structured. The focus to engage students with the discourse on documentary including the humanities and social sciences is their aim. They bring in students with no production background and fast track their technical engagement. The curriculum is designed to provide a forum for students to make work, and to see that documentary has its history and traditions. They want to engage students with cultural considerations and questions of documentary affecting the larger sphere.

Also different from other MFA programmes is the number of students. Most MFA programmes have anywhere up to a dozen students. Our first cohort had more than thirty, and classes felt large. snyder confirms that the number in our year is typical of all three cohorts so far, with roughly one third of applicants being accepted annually. He credits high student numbers to the programme’s overwhelming popularity combined with a flood of strong applicants, but believes their goal of twenty to twenty-five students annually will be met in the coming years.

What the numbers mean for the students is that there are limitations on resources like space, faculty consultation, TA positions and scholarships. There is a well-stocked grad lab but no individual studio space for developing thesis projects and keeping oversize supplies. There is a diverse faculty of twenty in the programme but with thirty or more students, and upwards of sixty now with the overlapping cohorts, it puts a strain on the teachers to meet their commitments. Ed Slopek is an outstanding professor—and by far the most popular—given that he supervised the larger half of my cohort. I admire his dedication but see the need for more advisors of his ilk if Ryerson wishes to strengthen the reach of thesis advising. The shortage of TA positions, which provide graduate students with income and teaching experience is something that quickly needs to be addressed.

“The greatest disappointment I experienced during the two years of my Documentary Media MFA was the lack of TA opportunities. As someone undertaking a third and terminal degree, I want to develop a pedagogical component to my artistic career, and this is more difficult to do without establishing some teaching experience during the course of one’s graduate degree.”Erin Clark

Thankfully there is a trade off in the resource shortages due to the increased student diversity through the programme’s larger numbers. My cohort had a healthy blend of industry professionals and students getting a second or third advanced degree. Students engaged with each other in the development of their work and I found a tight group interested in creating work together. I equate my time at Ryerson as being similar to jail time, where two years feels as intense as half a dozen on the outside. Hence, I’ve emerged with lasting friendships and creative relationships.

Be prepared to give up your “other” life to focus on schoolwork.
Over two years at Ryerson, I worked on numerous projects including this selection:

  • Made an archive project on Canada’s first female dangerous offender
  • Created a photo book on homelessness
  • Presented an interactive two-channel video installation (group project)
  • Made a short doc film (with Ernie Kestler)
  • Made a short experimental doc film (with Elaine Brodie)
  • Created an original soundscape
  • Composed an original song (group project)
  • Created a solo three-channel video installation and mounted it for five weeks at Trinity Square Video for my thesis
  • Wrote three papers on aspects of documentary production
  • Published an article on documentary writing in POV
  • Delivered a research paper on homelessness at the University of Calgary
  • Presented a research paper on missing women at the University of Windsor
  • Wrote a major thesis paper on missing and murdered women from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver (currently in the second round of review for publication in a scholarly Canadian journal)

As a student body, my cohort provided feedback, sometimes in writing, to assist the administration with changes to improve the programme. Thesis research now begins earlier in the programme. One core production course has been cut to open more room for thesis development and the electives are more diverse with intentions to reach across the university to find a range of people interested in documentary issues. As Fitzpatrick points out, the initial cohort of any programme will be trying things out for the first time, and in our year there was equal enthusiasm from both sides to grow the programme together.

The strengths of Ryerson’s programme far outweigh the few shortcomings that are continually being improved upon and include encouragement for personal engagement with concepts and ideas and focusing on one’s creative productions.

The Documentary Media programme will undoubtedly continue to strengthen as more students pass through and influence Fitzpatrick and others set on delivering the highest quality of documentary inquiry and studio practice. I am told that my cohort set the template for MFA delivery at Ryerson University, something we can all take pride in. I have already met with several academic friends to encourage them to apply, and I’m happy to meet with anyone who would like to discuss the programme.

Janis Cole holds an MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University. She is a professor at OCAD University, and her award-winning documentaries include Calling the Shots, about the working lives of women filmmakers.

View all articles by Janis Cole »