April 22, 2011

SCA Family Stories: Chera Kee

Critical Studies Ph. D. talks to SCA

Chera Kee grew up in the suburbs of Oklahoma City and got her master’s degree from Harvard in East Asian Studies. In 2004, she joined the Critical Studies division at SCA. In 2006, she started her Ph. D. and was recently hired to be an assistant professor of film and new media at Wayne State University where she will be teaching film studies, including a class very similar to the popular 190 at SCA.

Chera recently got in touch with SCA Family Stories to talk about being part of Critical Studies Division, getting a job in the academic world and zombies.


Chera Kee at the Summer Palace in China

-First of all, congrats on your new job. Are you prepared to take the leap into being a professor? Thanks. I’m not sure if anyone is fully prepared for the leap into professorship, but I will say that I’m looking forward to creating my own classes and getting up in front of students to talk about films that I love. I’m also very excited to be teaching and working with students again. I’ve been on fellowship for the past year, so I haven’t been TA-ing, and I’ve missed it. Teaching has always been my favorite part of the graduate school experience.

-Were you always attracted to the academic world? No. I mean, I always liked research, but way back when I first started out as an undergraduate, I thought I would go into filmmaking or broadcasting. Then, I got hooked on Chinese language classes. I loved them so much I started taking Chinese literature and history classes and then suddenly, I found myself graduating with a degree in Asian Studies. I even got a Masters degree at Harvard in East Asian Studies.

The funny thing is, though, that my love of film still shone through—most of the time as an undergraduate or a graduate student, I was writing about Chinese-language film. That is what convinced me that I needed to come to USC and study in the Critical Studies program. I was writing almost exclusively about film and felt that I needed to understand film history and theory better if film was going to continue to be my focus. I had no idea that my interests would change so drastically once I got to USC.

Still, my background in Chinese language and culture has served me well at USC. Not only have I continued to write about Chinese-language film from time to time, but I was also a part of an exchange program we have at SCA that pairs USC students with students from Communications University of China to make short documentaries. That may be why I like Critical Studies so much. It allows me to combine my love of film and filmmaking with my love of research.

-Lots of prospective students visit the website to get more information about the various divisions at SCA. How would you describe the Critical Studies Division to someone on the outside? There are a lot of forces that impact the meanings generated by a media product. For instance, everything from how a particular nation’s film industry works and prevailing social attitudes about race and gender to a filmmaker’s choice in lighting or music can influence how audiences read a particular film. Most of us aren’t consciously aware of these influences when we watch a film or a video on Youtube, so what we do in Critical Studies is teach students to spot these influences by showing them various approaches to reading film, television and new media products. This involves learning the histories of these media as well as the theories that scholars have been putting forth about what certain images mean and how audiences interact with them.

-What surprised you the most about Critical Studies Division when you got into the thick of the program? Probably the most surprising thing was that this division isn’t just about art films or high culture products. In Critical Studies, we screen videos off of Youtube, we watch the same television shows I’m watching at home and we watch popular films. It is very liberating to discover that even popular texts can be treated seriously and in fact, this is one of the reasons that I gravitated towards a project on zombies. At first, I didn’t take them very seriously. I thought they were simply B-movie monsters, but the more research I did, the more I learned that zombies have been put to some very serious work in the United States over the past century.

-Let’s talk about zombies for a bit. Your dissertation was about zombies in popular US culture. When researching zombies, what was the most interesting fact or conclusion you came across? Throughout the long history of zombie characters in U.S. popular culture, almost all zombie texts are predicated, at least on the surface, on the idea that becoming a zombie is not a desirable option, but these same texts have also often made the pleasures of being a zombie visible. Although zombies, as they are imagined today, are decomposing corpses hungry for living human flesh, I am constantly surprised by how many zombie heros there are and how often people want to take up zombie identities, especially in events like Zombie Walks, where people take to the streets dressed as zombies.

-What, in your opinion, gives the zombie such a special place in American culture? In away, it’s a very American monster. Or, I guess I should say, it’s a very Americanized monster. The zombie, as we understand it in the United States, originated in Haiti and entered U.S. popular culture as a creature connected to Haitian Vodou, but almost immediately, it was taken up and Americanized. Plus, because the zombie did not enter U.S. popular culture the same way most other popular movie monsters of the 1930s did—there wasn’t a literature connected to it in the same way that there was for Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster, for instance—this gave filmmakers, writers and artists a lot of room for experimentation. Hence, the zombie can be just about anything you want it to be. Just go to a Zombie Walk—you’ll see zombie nurses, zombie nuns, zombie soldiers, and just about every other kind of zombie you could ever imagine.

-Do you have any advice for students looking to apply to Critical Studies? I think to be a

Chera Kee

Critical Studies student, you have to love watching media, but more than that, you have to love to talk about your ideas about media with other people. Critical Studies is all about formulating opinions about media and backing them up with research, so if that sounds like it might be a fun thing to do, Critical Studies might be the perfect fit.

-What experiences at SCA that have informed your approach as a scholar and an educator? I have enjoyed the many opportunities to get to know students in other divisions. I think that meeting people who approach film in a way completely different than I do as a scholar—filmmakers, animators, producers, actors, etc.—gives me an insight into my own work. I know, for instance, that my experiences making films at USC has made me very aware of the choices a filmmaker faces in putting together a film, and I try to remember those choices when I write about the films that I study.

-Finally, we are getting close to graduation; do you have any general advice for the class of 2011? Be open to where life takes you. You hardly ever end up where you thought you would (and that’s not a bad thing at all).