A Groundbreaking Pioneer of Media Education

Leading behind the camera and in the classroom

A Groundbreaking Pioneer of Media Education

As a high school teacher and UMass professor, Professor Emerita Liane Brandon was instrumental in developing the field of media education.

A Montage Portrait of Professor Emerita Liane Brandon

Professor Emerita Liane Brandon did not prepare for a career as an educator and filmmaker, let alone as a media education pioneer. Nonetheless, thanks to serendipity, creative choices, and some risk-taking, Brandon became a celebrated documentary filmmaker and served on the UMass Amherst College of Education faculty for thirty years.

As a young woman in the 1960s, Brandon split her time between skiing in the winter and working as a stunt woman in the summer. Looking for work in the spring, she took a job as a substitute teacher in the Boston public schools. At the time, the schools hired teachers without certification just to get someone in the classroom and she found herself teaching elementary students in Roxbury with no qualifications. 

“I was absolutely disturbed by what I saw in those classrooms,” Brandon recalls. “Basically the instructions to me were ‘we don’t really care what you do—just keep them quiet.’ And it was kind of shocking, just seeing the state of education.” 

In spite of the challenges, Brandon loved teaching and, in need of more preparation, earned a master’s degree at Boston University in the evenings. In the meantime, she began teaching middle, and then high, school in Quincy, Massachusetts. Teaching in the high school, she knew that boys who didn’t do well in school were likely to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. Already active in the anti-war movement, she was very invested in keeping these kids interested and in school.

I said to them one day, out of complete frustration, ‘What do you kids want to learn?’ And one of the smart alecks piped up, ‘Why don’t we make a movie?’

Brandon knew it was a bluff—this was the era before video, when making movies that could be distributed required 16 mm cameras and film. But Brandon called him on the bluff, even though she knew nothing about making films. She borrowed a camera from the football team, who didn’t need it in the off season, and learned how to operate it.

Liane Brandon teaching

Making films proved to be a great learning experience for the students. They had to write the scripts, determine a budget, and raise funds. “I thought—this is really comprehensive education,” Brandon says.

The students made an array of films, including one which was shown at the White House Conference on Children. Thanks to her work, the school started a media education program, the first in the state. 

Brandon was soon getting calls from other educators looking for advice on making films with students, and was invited to speak at conferences. “Inadvertently, I had become a sort of authority on media education for public schools.” 

At the same time, Brandon was becoming a filmmaker herself. She joined Bread and Roses, an early Women’s Liberation collective, one of the earliest in the country. The group decided to make films to better explain and spread the message of the women’s movement, and Brandon volunteered to take the lead.

Brandon’s films were groundbreaking and among the earliest and most frequently used consciousness-raising tools of the women’s movement. They included Sometimes I Wonder Who I Am (1970), Anything You Want To Be (1971), and Betty Tells Her Story (1972). Her films won national and international awards, were featured at film festivals and on HBO, TLC, and Cinemax, and were presented at the Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Barbican Centre in London, among others.

Brandon’s films were groundbreaking and among the earliest and most frequently used consciousness-raising tools of the women’s movement. They included Sometimes I Wonder Who I Am (1970), Anything You Want To Be (1971), and Betty Tells Her Story (1972). Her films won national and international awards, were featured at film festivals and on HBO, TLC, and Cinemax, and were presented at the Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Barbican Centre in London, among others.

Still from Anything You Want to Be

In conjunction with her early filmmaking, Brandon co-founded New Day Films, which is now nationally known for their distribution of films and videos addressing feminism and other social issues. She was also a founding member of FilmWomen of Boston and Boston Film/Video Foundation.

Just as Brandon had no plans to become a filmmaker or media education specialist, she also hadn’t planned to go into higher education. However, in 1973 she received a call from the UMass Amherst School of Education (as it was then known) asking if she’d be interested in interviewing for a position in media education. She knew the school was doing a lot of innovative work at the time and jumped at the opportunity. 

The early 1970s were a challenging time for women in academia. Brandon recalls that there were 80 full-time faculty in the school and only five were women. She was the only woman in the media education program and she faced significant sexist roadblock as she advanced in her career. In spite of this, Brandon became an influential educator and leader, and eventually chair of her program. She also became an adjunct professor in the Department of Communication, was on the faculty of the Interdepartmental Program in Film Studies, and served as advisor to WMUA, the student radio station.

“I loved teaching, I loved Amherst, and I loved the colleagues that weren’t offended by my being female,” Brandon asserts. She particularly enjoyed the opportunity to influence educators.

I thought I could have more of an impact on changing attitudes, not only about education, but about gender, if I was teaching future teachers.

In her courses, Brandon focused on media education fundamentals and filmmaking, but also on helping teachers and students become more critical viewers of media. Her courses were very popular, in part because there were few other filmmaking and media classes at the university and in part because she was a sought after instructor. In fact, the 1984 edition of the university guide, College Book listed her as the “best professor on campus.”

In 1993, with the enthusiastic support of Dean Bailey Jackson and Associate Dean Jay Carey, Brandon launched her most influential project, UMass Educational Television.

Liane Brandon and collaborators at Ed TV

Brandon knew her students were very interested in creating television shows, and there happened to be an empty TV studio in the basement of Furcolo Hall. “I thought, what if educators actually could learn enough about the medium to be able to create their own educational programs.”

Conveniently, one of Brandon’s graduate students, Scott Perry, had extensive experience in television production. He helped in the initial set up and when he finished his degree, she hired him as a staff member.

“Aside from teaching students and teachers how to create interesting educational television, not just academic television, we thought that we could be a bridge between town and gown,” Brandon says. “We thought that would be good for the SOE and for the university as a whole.”

With UMass Ed TV, the School of Education became the first education school in the country to produce original educational programming for cable/home audiences. The station offered a creative array of shows. They produced Who Knows, during which UMass faculty would answer questions sent in by viewers, such as “Why is there salt in the ocean?” or “How long do bears hibernate?” They offered a children’s cooking show, programming focused on interesting Pioneer Valley residents, and teachers in action in the classroom. One program, Goodnight, Amherst, in which Dean Jackson read bedtime stories, developed a cult following among college students. UMass Ed TV also took advantage of the great number of writers on campus to offer Fine Print, an author interview show.

All told, UMass Ed TV produced 12 original series totaling 50 half hour episodes and filmed more than 50 faculty members from 22 departments. It also enjoyed wide distribution: carried by Continental Cable, it was available in 40 towns across Western Massachusetts, Southern Vermont, and Connecticut, and Cinema Guild distributed Fine Print nationally. 

UMass Ed TV also became home to many students. During its ten years of existence, they provided jobs for 75 undergraduate interns and 14 graduate teaching assistants.

Professor Emerita Liane Brandon with Film Camera

Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, UMass Ed TV was shuttered in 2003, and Brandon retired in 2004. In the years since, Brandon has continued working behind the camera. When a friend asked her to take still photos during a taping of an Unsolved Mysteries segment, she once again borrowed a camera and learned how to use it. She has since developed a career shooting still photos for programs such as American Masters, Nova, and American Experience. She has also built a reputation as a fine art photographer: in 2014, UMass hosted an exhibition of her collection of photos of women power lifters. Most recently, Brandon has been working with Duke University Archives, as they add her historic films and papers as part of their New Day Films collection.

Brandon’s influence went well beyond UMass Amherst, as many of her students went on to careers in television and in media education. It’s been fifty years since Brandon first borrowed a camera from the football team and started teaching her students how to make films. Thanks in part to her creative teaching solution, media education is part of the curriculum in schools across the country and films and filmmaking are standard offerings across the education spectrum.