News: Jay Telotte, Indefatigable Scholar of American Film, Retires After 41 Years at Georgia Tech

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Posted January 5, 2021

Don’t ask Jay Telotte which class he has taught over the years was his favorite. After all, in 41 years, he’s taught a lot of them.

“They keep changing,” says Telotte of his favorites. “And they change because you get interested in something new or your students demonstrate an interest in something new and they compel your interest.”

For Telotte, the flexibility to follow his passions, and those of his students, was what set Georgia Tech and the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts apart from any other job he could have had.

Now, after four decades, 16 books, approximately 160 academic articles, decades of service to his school and students, and a methodically built reputation as a top-notch scholar of film, Telotte is retiring from his post as professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication (LMC).

But he is hardly retiring from scholarship.

“My wife has a list of tasks for me. But I can’t see myself doing anything other than what I’ve always done,” Telotte said. “I have a contract for another anthology, and I have a number of articles that are promised for different journals or collections. I have a new book manuscript I’m trying to move along.”

Richard Utz, LMC’s chair, said Telotte has been an invaluable presence over the decades.

“It is difficult to overestimate Dr. Telotte’s service to his field, to Georgia Tech, and to LMC,” Utz said. “He is an extraordinarily prolific scholar who has dedicated his career to the pursuit of knowledge and betterment of the many, many students who have passed through his classrooms.”

Promoting Film Studies

Telotte earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida in 1976. After brief stints at the University of New Orleans and Berry College, he arrived at Georgia Tech, and what was then the Department of English, in 1979.

“It was an Institute that was on the move, that was interested in adding programs, and especially emphasizing research,” Telotte said.

He had already developed a reputation as a prolific researcher in the first years of his career, and he was also working in film studies, an area the department wanted to begin emphasizing.

“This gave me a great opportunity,” he said. “I could come in here and essentially help build a film program from the ground up.”

And that he did. With the help of other faculty members and a supportive leadership team, Telotte developed the first film class in 1980 and soon after a certificate program in drama and film, among other offerings.

In subsequent years, he taught introductory film courses and classes devoted to science fiction film and television, global cinema, film and technology, animation, and more. He often experimented with different ways of presenting and focusing the material, as in his film and technology courses. One year, he taught it as a period course, focusing on the Machine Age, from the 1890s to the 1940s, when most film technologies were introduced. Then he transformed the class into a deep dive on how different studios, such as Warner Bros. and Disney, innovated technology in their filmmaking.

The courses were always popular and well-reviewed.

“His work was instrumental at turning our film emphasis in the LMC major and our film minor into one of the most widely sought specializations among our students,” Utz said.

Robots, Animation, and Film

Telotte’s research output is staggering.

In addition to many journal articles and some 46 book chapters, Telotte has averaged publishing a book about every two and a half years, and his work has been translated into various languages—Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Chinese.

His first volume examined the films of Val Lewton, who produced low-budget horror movies in the 1940s. His second— Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir — is now in its fifth printing.

His first book focusing on science fiction film came in 1995: Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film. It focused on the history of robots in film and what robots in science fiction can tell us about ourselves.

He also has written about the Walt Disney Company’s role in developing film technologies and the role of early animation in science fiction. His most recent book, Movies, Modernism, and the Science Fiction Pulps, examines the interplay between early science fiction pulp magazines and film.

He is currently working on The Oxford Handbook of New Science Fiction Cinemas, planned for publication in 2021.

Colleague Michael Nitsche marveled at Telotte’s contributions.

“Starting with his analysis of the work of legendary golden age film creator Val Lewton and the more genre-focused Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir, the research output never slows down, not does it play it safe and settle into established categories,” Nitsche said.

“His consistency of research output on the highest level and his dedicated service on every level of our Institute is something to aspire to.”

Dedicated Service

Telotte’s contributions were not only in the classroom or between the covers of his myriad books and journal articles, however.

“He cares deeply about students,” said Carol Senf, another longtime LMC colleague. “He has mentored undergraduates and Brittain Fellows to help establish their career trajectories.”

He served as director of undergraduate studies in the department for nine years, followed by a three-year period as interim chair, in addition to serving on the President’s Executive Board, the Faculty Senate, the Ivan Allen College Promotion and Tenure Committee, numerous search committees, and other duties.

“There is barely any service or committee that he has not served on as part of his work at Georgia Tech,” Nitsche said.

Outside of the Institute, he is the co-editor of Post Script, a film and humanities journal, and serves on the editorial boards of Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, Literature/Film Quarterly, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, and Science Fiction Film and Television.

Senf, who worked closely with Telotte as a scholar and during their days in administration, said Telotte’s institutional memory will be sorely missed.

“If I had a question, I always could run down the hall or pop next door to ask him a question,” Senf said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do once he retires because his memory is better than mine!”

Telotte’s longtime colleague Professor Robert Wood, who came to Georgia Tech five years before Telotte, said, “having Jay as my friend and colleague for his entire career at Georgia Tech has been one of the great pleasures of my time here.”

Telotte said he has thoroughly enjoyed his time at Georgia Tech and said it had been an ideal place to do his work.

“I am very thankful to have had a host of good colleagues, a dependable support staff, and always bright — and challenging — students, in other words,” he said, “so many of the elements that, almost routinely, make Georgia Tech such an influential institution.”

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Michael Pearson