Virginia Kuhn

Virginia Kuhn

Interview: How to be Literate in Media with Virginia Kuhn

Virginia Kuhn is an associate professor  in the School of Cinematic Arts at University of Southern California. It’s the place to be if you’re interested in filmmaking.

Below is a summary of our interview:


“My strength is the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.” – Alfred Tennyson

Her Journey

Virginia’s undergraduate degree was in art history. But she was always torn between technology and the arts. When she graduated in the 80’s she was mostly interested in the careers that are not available to women.  She  thought art, land and gems were key. So, she managed jewelry; she got a real estate license and throughout this she had two daughters. She was a reluctant mother, but then she felt that was the best thing that ever happened to her and she couldn’t sustain the working life.  When her daughters were about 8 and 10, she just quit her job and enrolled in graduate school. She wound up doing her Masters and Doctorate in New Media and Digital Rhetoric. She wrote one of the first digital dissertations while she was at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Virginia found out University of Southern California had the longest running New Media program in the country which started in 1998. The notion was that students today have to write with the language of images. So the director there made a job for Virginia, and started her job at USC on August 5, 2005. It was an amazing path for her.

Low Point

When her marriage ended and Virginia became a single mother of two girls; her mother had died a way. She was taking the preliminary exams which you prepare for in a year and she needed to read 100 books and justify why they give you expertise in certain fields. Virginia did her exams over a weekend; in 48 hours, she wrote 45 pages that cited those 100 books. She thought the work that she was doing so desperately needed to be done.

Aha Moment

The way a fish takes to a water is the way she took to her graduate school work. Listening to Laura Ettinger’s podcast and her talking about teaching is the way Virginia feels about her classroom.  Her students are incredible. Her students have integrity. Many of them are first generation college students.

Virginia’s work now 

Her area of focus is on the media saturation today. We are always inundated with images and yet we need to be literate. We need to be able to decode these images and one of the ways we do that is by being able to write with images. The long term impact of images on our notions of identity are unknown, but Virginia wants every human to be literate with media. Her division isn’t really creating the next set of filmmakers, but many of her students end up being the media makers for entertainment. Virginia believes that part of being deeply digital means being discriminating about what goes in our eyes. Science suggests that we are impacted with pictures and it seeps into our consciousness. Staring up at the blue sky is a good way to get away from media.

What’s exciting Virginia now

She is going to take a sabbatical in order to do work on a project called Large Scale Video Analytics. Virginia is attempting to put massive video archives but no way to index them and understand their impact. Human reading is too time intensive and machine reading hasn’t progressed. So her team is applying several algorithms for computer vision and pairing it with human source tagging in order to do research. But it’s both challenging and exciting.

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Lightning Round

Book Virginia Recommends

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Helpful Habit:

The “media blackout” but she likes keeping the Little Zen companion book next to her bed.

Helpful Person:

Her two daughters, Katie and Carly, who have actually been mentoring Virginia.

Internet Resource

The Internet Archive, which is a database of thousand of films in the public domain. There’s millions of books and soundtracks.


What’s Your Purpose

To be a marshal for those who don’t have what she has, that’s the social responsibility.

Where to follow Virginia

Parting Words

Don’t allow yourself to be pigeon-holed. Use the power of righteous indignation rather than righteousness.

One More Thing

If you enjoy this interview, please take some time to rate and review us on iTunes or Stitcher.

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Jackie Abrams

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