The Humanists: Catherine Jurca

Jurca came to Caltech in 1995, though her connection to the Institute goes back much farther (see below). A professor of English, Jurca specializes in 20th-century American novels and classical Hollywood films. Her most recent book, Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year (University of California Press, 2012), looks not just at the movies, but at the entire culture that sprang up around them: how the film industry operated to produce, distribute, and exhibit films and how consumers made them a part of their lives.

My connection to Caltech goes back more than 80 years. My maternal grandfather, an engineer, matriculated here one month before the stock market crash of 1929. My father graduated 30 years later and worked as an aerospace engineer until he retired. As a humanist, I am the family oddity. Nevertheless, Caltech was my dream job: a chance to return home, do my research with maximum resources and minimum interference, and teach bright, disciplined scientists and engineers other interesting, necessary ways of understanding and communicating about the world. My dad gave me pause, though, when he told me the story of a fellow student—one of the smartest in his year—who politely listened to an excellent English lecture on the first day of a freshman humanities course and afterward asked: “What do I need to do in this class to get a D?”

I wondered, would my students feel that way about American literature and film? Do they? No way. Caltech students are overwhelmingly engaged and often quite enthusiastic, both with the specific content of our courses and with the process of developing new tools for analyzing and appreciating the things we study.

My most rewarding classroom experience is a two-term course in classical Hollywood film. The black and white movies we watch, with seamless continuity editing and shamelessly happy endings, are scarcely recognizable as movies to my students. Through a combination of industry history and close analysis of individual films, I get them to consider how and why movies looked the way they did then—and how and why they have changed over time.

My teaching relates closely to my research. A recent project involves an extensive analysis of daily box-office records from the Stanley-Warner theater chain, a unique dataset that is allowing me to discover more about audience choices and how film distribution and exhibition responded to and shaped those choices in the mid-1930s. I would never have dreamed of using the word “dataset,” let alone embarking on a collaboration with an economist, if my Caltech colleagues had not given me the opportunity to learn about the methods and insights of social science history.

Certainly I bring an appreciation of the qualitative aspects of audience behavior to these box-office figures; numbers can’t tell us everything about phenomena. But Caltech has taught me that combining different approaches to knowledge enables a much richer picture of the human experience. In this case, it allows me to not only uncover what historical moviegoers did, but also to see, perhaps, why they made those particular choices.

-C. Jurca