Ben Urish and Culturology

by

Jeffrey Harris

For a more scientific approach to the film community, I offer an option that I myself have never heard of before starting this project. You may become a culturologist. So what is a culturologist? According to Ben Urish, it is “a person who uses a scientific approach to the study of culture and cultural phenomena. They look for cultural explanations for human activities/creations, etc.”

I first meet Mr. Urish last year when he was a guest lecturer in my History of Silent Film class. Mr. Urish became involved in the entertainment side of culture because “I was curious as to why people paid so much attention to something they thought was ‘frivolous’. The fact that it was so prevalent and engaged in meant it wasn’t frivolous at all.” Hence began Mr. Urish’s study of culture that led him to Wichita State University, as well as a PhD. in American Culture Studies here at Bowling Green State University in 1994.

Now that we know what a culturologist is, we might ask, what can a culturologist do? Mr. Urish responds by saying, “teach and research in the social sciences and humanities. Do critical evaluative reviews and investigations of cultural events, trends, and artifacts.” Profiling culturology as well as his position is important because it allows people to do a wide variety of jobs pertaining to the arts.

For starters, Mr. Urish became a film programmer for the Wichita Film Society, which basically means that he “booked films and speakers, planned schedules, wrote film notes, made ads, created publicity schedules and brochures, mailed films back to bookers, created announcements, etc. Everything.” Even though the Wichita scene is not as mainstream to garnish any national publicity, Mr. Urish did gain the approval of film critic Roger Ebert, who said one of his programs “presented the most incredible schedule he had ever seen such an organization attempt.”

The next notch in Mr. Urish’s professional belt belongs to the State of Kansas Film Center, where he worked in the all-too-familiar fields of film developing, archiving, and preservation. He learned these at the film center, as well as educating himself. At the film center he worked with documentaries, locally made films, and several original commercials for Pizza Hut, (“the company was founded in Wichita in 1958,”) he explains.

Since first meeting Mr. Urish in a classroom setting, it is appropriate to explain that he is well established as an educator. He has taught classes ranging from subjects such as “[the] documentary film, [the] silent film, visual anthropology, American humor, American popular music, all sorts of cultural anthropology, [and] a variety of topics in American studies, American literature, American history, a variety of topics in mass media.” If teaching is a main goal of yours, with Mr. Urish as an example, one can see that studying film can be a springboard into a numerous and impressive variety of topics. Teaching is where Mr. Urish finds himself today as he works for the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University.

Yet Mr. Urish has not left filmmaking behind him, as he has directed two documentaries of his own. “One is a film about an immigrant Bohemian cemetery in western Kansas; the other is about the culture of New Ireland.” Even though his documentaries have not been released nationwide, “The one on New Ireland was designed to be a ‘study and archive’ film for scholars of New Ireland. It has been archived for the purpose by the Visual Anthropology section of the American Anthropological Association, and they had several screenings of it.” Today, he is working on a third documentary on American burlesque and striptease.

Even though his current occupation is as a teacher, Mr. Urish says that films will always be close to him in whatever he does. “Most of my teaching of other topics/subjects involves film in some capacity, from merely showing them to the other end of the spectrum. I mean, if I teach an anthropology class, I use film examples and we analyze them. Same for history, or literature, or whatever.”

For more information about culturology, Michigan State University, or Mr. Urish, you can visit his website at www.msu.edu/~urish.