Next semester, 400 students will be spending their Tuesday mornings with President Michael Roth. This spring, the president will teach a Film Studies course entitled “The Past on Film,” which will explore cinematic representations of how human beings interact with the past. The course, which will be cross-listed with both the History and Philosophy departments, was developed during Roth’s tenure as president of the California College of the Arts (CCA), where he created and taught the course throughout his presidency.
“I came up with the idea for the course when I realized that some of the great films (like some of the great novels) develop important positions on key philosophical questions,” Roth told The Argus in an email. “My own focus has been on how people make sense of the past, and so I developed a course on how some of the great films explore how we integrate, divorce from, repress or acknowledge the past.”
The last time a University president taught a course was in 1993. Then-President William Chace taught a course in the English Department on James Joyce, according to Assistant University Archivist Valerie Gillispie.
Roth taught “The Past on Film” for more than a dozen years at CCA and learned how to balance his numerous responsibilities as president with the rigors of teaching.
“It keeps me connected in a vital way to student concerns, and to my intellectual interests,” Roth wrote. “It just means I’ll have to get up earlier to get everything done.” History Department Chair William Johnston praised Roth’s decision to add teaching to his already busy schedule.
“Pedagogically [having previously taught the course] is very wise,” Johnston said. “It’s a very strong thing for the University to have a president who is so interested.”
Film Studies Chair Jeanine Basinger said she’s excited to add the course to the Film Studies listings, praising Roth’s choices in movies for the class.
“I was interested in his [film] choices,” Basinger said. “They are extremely eclectic, quality films. He has a wonderful list. It’s a connoisseur’s list.”
“I chose almost all ’classic’ films “ movies that most critics and film historians recognize as canonical,” Roth said. “These are some of the masterworks of cinema, and so they repay close attention.”
Films listed on the WesMaps course description include “Night and Fog,” “Citizen Kane,” “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” and “Out of the Past.”
Philosophy Department Chair Stephen Angle said that while Roth was a student at Wesleyan he won the Wise Prize, a yearly award given by the Philosophy Department to the student who writes the best essay in philosophy.
“Several department members have used films in their classes, but this will be the most intensive exploration of philosophy through film that we have sponsored yet,” Angle said.
Rose Agger ’10, a double major in film studies and neuroscience and behavior, is considering taking Roth’s course.
“I kind of want to hear more about the films we will be watching,” Agger said. “That will be a key factor. It’s exciting and interesting that the president is going to be teaching a class. People will be very curious.”
The 400 person class size, however, was a shock for Agger.
“Wow, Jesus,” Agger said. “He probably knows that a lot of people will be interested in taking it. That’s crazy for Wesleyan.”
Robert Broadfoot ’10, a prospective film studies major, is also considering taking the class but wonders how intimate class discussions can be in a group of 400 students.
Roth hopes that students will get a lot out of the class, which will pair the films with philosophical texts, including Kant and Hegel, as well as contemporary feminist film theory.
The course requires a $60.00 fee, standard for all classes in the Film Studies Department. Basinger assures that will be money well spent.
“Are they going to get $60.00 out of Michael Roth? My money is betting that they get a lot more,” Basinger said. “I’m sorry I’m not taking it, but I’m sure he’s not…I’d be asking questions.”