UW Department of Communication e-news
Spring 2009  |  Return to issue home

'Distinguished' Faculty Recognition Honors Gorbman, Laakso

By Beth Luce

Claudia Gorbman
If Hollywood gave an Oscar for Best Study of Music in Film, Claudia Gorbman, UW Tacoma professor of film studies, would walk away with a shiny statuette. And if there were a category for Best Supporting Role in the Study of Music in Film, she’d get that one, too.

Gorbman, one of UW Tacoma’s founding faculty, is arguably the most prominent scholar in her field and internationally acclaimed as the virtual founder of the study of film music.  In recognition of this, Gorbman was selected to receive the UW Tacoma 2008-09 Distinguished Research Award. She was chosen by a committee of faculty from a field of accomplished colleagues nominated for the award. Gorbman will each receive a $5,000 honorarium and will deliver a lecture on her subject, open to everyone, next fall.

“Without a doubt, her work has been the foundation for an entire discipline, but continues to be a guiding light almost a generation later,” writes Daniel Goldmark, associate professor of music at Case Western Reserve University, in support of Gorbman’s nomination for UW Tacoma’s 2009 Distinguished Researcher Award.

Gorbman’s 1987 book, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music, was the first to set the stage for academic research of music in film. It is still widely sought after by students and scholars in the field and, since it’s out of print two decades after publication, a used copy fetches a couple hundred dollars. As a baseline for other writers, Unheard Melodies is cited in countless books and articles.

“There is virtually no subsequent book on film sound theory that does not cite Dr. Gorbman’s work, and most use her ideas as a jumping-off point,” writes Elisabeth Weis, professor of film at Brooklyn College.

Gorbman is modestly proud of her stature. “It is most pleasing when scholars disagree, or set my work up as a straw man, or at least develop an elegant argument about a given idea that may have arisen from reading my work and taking it somewhere new,” she says. “This is, to me, what belonging to a community of scholars is all about.”

She is currently working on a second edition of Unheard Melodies, as well as a book on Agnes Varda, whom Gorbman describes as one of France’s great living filmmakers. And she is co-editing another work in progress, The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics.

Gorbman plays a supporting role as translator par excellence for a superstar of film sound studies, Michel Chion. A composer and prolific scholar in France, Chion has published dozens of books on film and sound. Because of Gorbman’s knowledge of film, music and French—a rare combination—she has translated four of his books, giving the English-speaking world access to his work.

On the special challenges of translating Chion, Gorbman explains: “He has invented all kinds of strange and delightful words as he advances original ideas about film sound. Many of his terms are almost comically cumbersome, such as ‘nondiscontinuity’ and ‘acousmatic sound.’ I enjoy playing with his language, which often refers to things only the French mind would get, until I hit on equivalents in English.”

Elisabeth Weis related an anecdote that proves the point. The storyline goes like this: Another, quite capable translator is hired to translate Chion’s most recent book, but loses much in the translation. Chion refuses to allow it to be published. Gorbman is recruited to fix it. She starts over and produces a masterpiece of collaboration with the author, much to the delight of everyone involved (possibly excepting the first translator). Cue music. Roll credits.

Janice Laakso, left, and Claudia Gorbman
Janice Laakso, left, and Claudia Gorbman

Chion himself praised Gorbman’s own scholarly work. He calls Unheard Melodies “one of the best works in existence on classical film music.” As for her other publications, he said, “For her, film is a living thing and not merely an academic object to study.”

Gorbman regularly receives invitations to give papers and speak at conferences and universities around the globe, and does so as frequently as her schedule allows. Recently she gave the keynote address at the international Screen conference in Glasgow. Since she joined UW Tacoma in 1990, she has given keynotes or lectures in Italy, Sweden, Poland, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Canada, England and Portugal, not to mention many American universities.

Janice Laakso
For five consecutive years, UW Tacoma students have earned distinction by winning a national social work contest testing their skills at influencing state policy. Guided by Janice Laakso, associate professor of social work, UW Tacoma students are armed with the fiery passion for social justice that she instills in them. She teaches her students to stand up for what matters.

Laakso was selected to receive the 2008-09 UW Tacoma Distinguished Teaching Award. She was chosen by a committee of faculty members from a field of accomplished colleagues. Laakso will receive a $5,000 honorarium and will deliver a lecture, open to everyone, in the fall.

In support of Laakso’s nomination for the award, one of her students, senior Rob Jones, wrote, “Dr. Laakso is one of the most effective teachers I’ve ever learned from because of the passion she has for her profession.” Her passion shows, not only as a teacher and mentor, he added, but “as a world-class social worker.”

Laakso brings 25 years of social work experience to the classroom, which she draws on for lesson examples. “When we’re discussing aspects of social work such as ethics or criminal justice, I can demonstrate my point with a story of something I’ve experienced,” she said. “It’s better if you have real-life experience.”

Although she has many years of teaching experience, Laakso strives to learn new techniques and develop innovative assignments to improve her teaching. .  “Teaching is important to me and I take it seriously,” she said. “I really care that students learn.”

Laakso engages with her students in active learning, which she defines as “facilitating students’ opportunities to apply what they learn in the classroom to the greater community and society.”

Jones applauds Laakso for her methods. “One part of this is Dr. Laakso’s enthusiastic call to all of her students to get excited about social work and to practice social justice for all,” Jones said. “She does not stop at merely teaching the material, but continues to impact as many lives as she can.”

Another student, praising the effect Laakso has on her students, wrote, “I have never voted in my life, but after this experience, I will not miss out on this privilege. I am a firm believer in change through advocacy.”

Laakso encourages the different worldviews that her students bring to class. “I strive to create an environment where students feel safe to share ideas, even when they may be unpopular or incongruent with my own,” she said. “But my purpose is to broaden their viewpoint.” She encourages them to “leave their comfort zone sufficiently to experience a learning edge,” and to think critically about social justice and ethics, and then decide where they stand on the issues.

Her students complain that she works them too hard, she notes, but after they graduate and look back, they realize how much they learned in her class, and they put that knowledge to good use.

Recently she met a former student from the University of Texas (a native Texan, Laakso speaks with a charming drawl), at a national conference. She did not remember him, but he remembered her. He related a story that she told in one of her classes a decade or more ago that had a huge impact on him. That was the moment he decided to become a social worker.

Another student, this time from UW Tacoma, emailed Laakso to tell her how much she had learned about advocacy in her class — although, at the time, she didn’t think she needed it. That student now incorporates legislative advocacy into her work.

“I try to make what I teach as pertinent as possible to the jobs they’ll have when they graduate,” Laakso said. “They learn a lot, and that’s what students want.”

She’s passionate about all of the courses she teaches, Laakso said, but history is her favorite. She loves it when students begin her history of social work class feeling skeptical that there is anything important to know, but by the end of the quarter, they’re hooked.

“She has changed how I perceive many social justice issues, and I know I will be a much better social worker for it one day,” Jones said.

* Photo by Jill Carnell Danseco

Spring 2009  |  Return to issue home