What’s Going On in the Film Department?

“There has long been an inequality of opportunity within the film industry, and we know diversifying the film industry begins within our education at Wesleyan.”

On March 28, students from the University’s College of Film and the Moving Image released a letter, along with a list of signatures and testimonies, expressing dissatisfaction with aspects of Wesleyan’s Film Studies department. The letter called for systematic changes to the ways in which the department operates, including hiring three tenure-track professors (prioritizing women and POC), offering more diverse courses within the department, and reforming disciplinary procedures so that they are less reliant on “blanket threats” to drop students from the major or drop their theses.

The letter, which has been in the works since February, was a collaboration between a group of current film students – both majors and minors – as well as prospective film students. Before it was put into wide circulation on March 28, the letter was shared amongst students and alumni of the Film Studies department, along with a call for signatures and personal testimonies to present to the CFILM faculty. (From email circulation and tabling in Usdan, the letter received 175 signatures and eight accompanying testimonies.)

Read the full letter and testimonies after the jump:

The primary demand of the letter is the hiring of three tenure-track professors within the next 5 years, “heavily prioritizing women, people of color, but particularly women of color, to minimize the dependence on visiting professors.” In addition to the benefits of hiring more full-time faculty, having a more diverse range of professors and teaching styles would naturally lead to a wider range of course offerings and areas of study, as well as more faculty support for female students, queer/trans students, and students of color.

It’s worth noting that Wesleyan as a whole does offer cinema-centered courses with a focus on international film. But very few of these classes are cross-listed with CFILM because they do not match the department’s method of teaching film, which puts the study of aesthetics at the forefront of the curriculum. Specifically, the major puts the focus on film aesthetics born in early European silent cinema, and later developed and refined within the Hollywood studio era. This has long been a point of contention amongst film majors, because while CFILM’s unique methodology in teaching film is part of why the department has become so renowned, it also leaves little room for studying movies that weren’t made within the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. The letter argues that “[t]he Department’s emphasis on Hollywood should not mean the dismissal of non-Hollywood films…Many famous Hollywood directors have been inspired by cinema outside of Hollywood, so why can’t we?”

In addition to calling for a more diverse faculty and course offerings, the letter asks the department “to reconsider its zero-tolerance policies – such as those in which students can be dismissed from a course or from the major for being late or absent from one class.” As evidenced by the alumni testimonies, this isn’t a particularly new concern:

Students gave the department until April 7th to respond to the letter. On April 10, Department Chair Scott Higgins sent out an email to CFILM students that, on the whole, acted as a defense of the college’s method of teaching and operating:

Dear Students of the College of Film and the Moving Image,

As we enter the final stretch of the semester, with its looming deadlines and daily impossibilities, I am writing you to reflect on why being a major or minor in the College of Film really matters; why it is worth all the effort. This year, the regular struggle to complete projects, study for tests, and prepare for life beyond campus is compounded by America’s political climate. It has been a dispiriting year in the wider political world, but I am grateful for our University’s culture of inquiry, argument, and resistance. Wesleyan’s commitment to civil discussion and social engagement has never felt more vital or necessary.  I’m sure that many of you feel the same way.  In this regard, it seems to me that C-Film is particularly important. Understanding how moving images work, exploring the potentials of visual storytelling, and crafting meaningful forms allows us to rethink and reshape film, television, videogames, and popular new media. The serious study of film history can challenge our complacency with familiar art by revealing the medium’s depth and range. It helps equip us with the means to ask new questions, tell new stories, and foment change. This term many of us have joined together to view and discuss films that directly engage with issues like mass incarceration, racism, gun violence, and police militarization, in the C-Film Awareness series. We’ve also been studying aesthetics, narration, genre, and history with the aim of opening up the medium and deepening our command of film art. These are complementary paths. Wesleyan’s film program is unique among its peers in that our curriculum is built on the study of form. Our success and international recognition is founded on an approach in which students discover their voices through the rigorous exploration of aesthetics.

This curricular foundation has helped a remarkably diverse group of alumni find fulfilling and often transformative careers. An all-too partial list of our distinguished graduates includes many women and men who are breaking barriers, such as Majora Carter, Sadia Shepard, Miguel Arteta, Gerald Richards, Liz Garcia, Kira Orange-Jones, Eric Byler, Diego Gutierrez, Faythallegra Coleman, Jenni He, Jason DeBose, Masa Tsuyuki, Siyou Tan, Shannon-Sun Higginson, Jonas Carpignano, Tony Ducret, Naomi Ekperigin, Ting Liu, Mike Merker, Dema Paxton Fofang, Maegan Houang, Kirsten Yamaguchi, Kenneth Tan, Gabriel Urbina, Tara Vajra,  Jieho Lee, Andrew Dominguez, and Pat Nugent [sincere apologies to the many that I’m failing to mention]. Our students go on to work in countless fields (medicine, community organizing, education, journalism), but many make their lives in film and television, an industry that deeply needs the diversity they bring. Members of the C-Film community can be proud of this legacy, as we continue to work toward parity and equality in and beyond Hollywood. We have our own challenges here on campus. Our student body is moving toward gender parity, but we are mindful of the need for diversity. A recent call from a group of students to make more progress toward equity and inclusion in C-Film reminds me that these are important issues on which we can work together. For example, diversity among our own faculty and student body has always been a priority and will remain so. I am in conversation with the Administration about this as we plan for new hires. The program will consult with students as we formulate these plans. As we race toward this semester’s end, we are also working toward positive change.

Another reason to value our shared participation in C-Film is that we are teaching more students and offering more opportunities to engage with cinema than at any point in the program’s long history. While our core curriculum emphasizes the medium as an art form, film studies at Wesleyan has always been interdisciplinary and eclectic. The Film Major includes cross-listed courses taught in Anthropology, Romance Languages, Philosophy, Studio Arts, Center for Jewish Studies, and the College of Integrative Sciences. The Film Minor brings together additional courses in the College of East Asian Studies, English, Government, and Russian. We are continually expanding our offerings within and outside the department. This year, we have added a course on Global Auteurs and supplemented our classes with workshops in new-media storytelling, videogame aesthetics and design, and television writing and directing. The Film Workshop provides first-year students with the tools and advice to make films on their own. Visits by filmmakers and artists, both alumni and not, extend learning even further. Our student-run Film Series (the oldest in the United States) provides an extensive slate of classic, contemporary, independent, and global films, screened four nights a week in our state-of-the-art cinema. We are always seeking ways to balance the depth of our curriculum with the breadth of our visual culture. Together, students, staff, and faculty have made C-Film an inclusive center for exploring, debating, and making moving images.

Of course, classes, events, and screenings, are only meaningful because we are in a community devoted to teaching and learning. Teaching is my most important job at Wesleyan, and I know my colleagues feel the same way. I firmly believe that learning is never a matter of affirming what we think we already know; it requires empathy, curiosity, and sometimes willingness to reach outside of comfortable assumptions. Learning is neither easy nor impersonal, and Film has never been an anonymous major or minor. We thrive on and demand direct and open interaction between students and faculty. Though it means long office hours, continuous appointments, and crowded calendars for all of us, we work hard to meet one another face to face, person-to-person. Personal interaction helps us remain sensitive to differing needs and talents, while striving for fairness. There’s no question that our work can be stressful, but it helps to remember that our high expectations are founded on compassion, honesty and communication. We are proud of our standards and of the excellent work that our students produce.

In this spirit, I wish you all peace of mind and creative clarity as we head toward May. For seniors, I realize that finishing the semester entails some trepidation about what lies beyond. To help smooth the transition to the “real” world, I am happy to invite our senior majors and minors to the Life After Wesleyan Seminar series that I’ve arranged. From May 15 – May 23rd, we are offering workshops, lectures, and discussions about getting started after graduation presented by successful alumni from the entertainment industry. Think of it as a guide for surviving your personal post-college crisis. The main part of this program is a three-day seminar designed and taught by Wes Alum Jane Goldenring, former creative director at Disney, Senior Vice-President of Production for Touchstone Pictures, and currently president of Goldenring Productions. We will also host a panel of successful young women who are making their way in the industry, including Katie Walsh, Abby Horton, Naomi Ekperigin, and Milla Bell-Hart. Other programs will focus on the world of post-production, the business of media, and staying creative with new media. Keep an eye out for the full schedule.

C-Film, like life, is ever a work in progress, and I am always happy to hear your ideas for making our program stronger and more effective. I know it can be difficult to stay positive at this time of year and at this time in our country’s history, still I think that, as always, there is value in learning to tell powerful stories through the medium of cinema. These past few months have driven me back to the work of Rudolf Arnheim, one of the great early scholars of film form. Having fled Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, he reflected on the importance of studying film aesthetics during a time of tumult. Against the background of Fascist bombast and intentional confusion, Arnheim wrote: “When the eyes and ears are prevented from perceiving meaningful order, they can only react to the brutal signals of immediate satisfaction.” Arnheim argued that the careful and detailed exploration of form can help a culture find its way through the chaotic and oppressive welter of sight and sound. Our cultural moment of intolerance and noise has returned some urgency to this effort. I realize that all academics think they are changing the world, but I also believe that teaching and learning about cinema as a medium matters. In the end, this is why it is worth the effort.

Very Best,

Scott H.

Only time will tell if students decide to issue a counter-response or pursue further action with their demands.