As Chris Goy ’09 was busy perusing Film Studies courses at the beginning of the semester, the Student Budgetary Committee member was struck by the relative fee amounts for different courses, which he had previously assumed were charged explicitly to finance 35-millimeter film. Particularly, Goy did not understand why Professor of American Studies Richard Slotkin’s course, “Westerns: Genre, Myth and History,” which meets twice per week for a total of six hours and forty minutes, cost the same—$60—as President Michael Roth’s course, “The Past on Film,” which meets once per week for three and a half hours and presumably requires less of the costly film.
“I wondered if Roth’s class that met half as much as Slotkin’s class and is roughly the same size, really cost the same,” Goy said. “When you have about 250 people paying $60, that comes out to $15,000. Where is this extra money going?”
Goy’s predicament highlights the expenses that a student interested in Film Studies must face, from taking a single introductory-level course through completing the major and possibly producing a thesis.
Goy went to Chair of Film Studies Jeanine Basinger’s office hours to inquire into course fees. Basinger, he said, acknowledged that the fees exceeded the costs of 35mm film.
“Professor Basinger kept explaining that it costs a lot of money to run a department,” Goy recalled. “But it costs a lot of money to run every department. Couldn’t any department make legitimate claims to that same argument if they argued that they needed the best of everything?”
Roth sees this aspect of course fees as an important question and something that he and the administration are looking into.
“Course fees are a part of every school that I’ve worked at,” Roth pointed out. “But if they are preventing some students from following their interests, that’s something we want to avoid. We don’t want financial concerns limiting our students’ passions.”
Basinger explained that the comparatively high cost of Roth’s class was, in fact, an error.
“It—for whatever reason—did not occur to us to think about [the course fee for Roth’s class],” she said. “We probably should have cut the course fees in half, but we didn’t know when we made the course listing how many times his course would meet. If Roth decides to teach another film class that meets once a week, we would probably reconsider the $60 fee.”
Basinger explained that the majority of the fees are put towards using 35mm film.
“I truly regret that the film department has $60 course fees at all, speaking as someone who started out as poor girl from South Dakota,” she explained. “The course fees reflect how much film costs to rent, ship, insure, the cost of the projectionist and the projector’s bulb fee, which is actually very expensive. We also have always been willing to help students with the fees if the need arises.”
Roth adds that, after teaching a class that has a course fee, he has considered the possibility that financial concerns may discourage students from taking classes or majoring in Art Studio or Film Studies.
“I have thought about them as a general question of whether or not these course fees could sway someone from taking these courses or enrolling in majors with course fees,” Roth said. “Financial aid does take into account these expenses, but some people are probably deterred.”
On whether or not course fees prevent any students from becoming Art Studio majors, Stephanie Calvert ’08, an Art Studio major, does not see the course fees nor the high cost of art supplies required for many art studio courses as a major deterrent and knows of no one who did not become an Art Studio major due to these costs. She cites as a more prominent factor the difficulty of getting into many courses due to a competitive interview process coupled with limited classes.
Meanwhile Film Studies major Elaine Lai ’08 wonders if more cannot be done to offset the course fees.
“When it comes to our tuition, none of us really know what we’re really paying for,” Lai said. “I just wonder how and if my tuition can be funneled into my course fees. I also don’t understand why there isn’t more financial support for film and art studio theses. One has to realize that we, except for a few students, pay almost entirely for the cost of our theses.”
Not all of the course fees, however, are immediately spent, Basinger indicated. She said that fees may be directed towards a “bottom line” rather than go toward a particular course’s financial need. At the same, though, Basinger assured that all fees go towards costs that are spent “within the classroom, for strictly academic purposes.”
Film Studies major Thaddeus Ruzicka ’08, who will be a graduate student in the Film Studies Department next year, said that he believes the “bottom line” argument is justified because it helps to improve the department, something that he argued benefits the University as a whole.
“Jeanine is personally involved in fundraising for the department, and does an incredible job of it,” Ruzicka said. “But, some of the money in course fees goes to the archives and getting equipment for theses. This helps the [Film Studies] Department become better, and as the department is one of the best at Wesleyan, it only increases the value of a degree.”
One Film Studies major who preferred to remain anonymous, however, said that not all of the films screened in film classes are rented, shipped and insured, since the Film Studies Department in fact already owns them.
“I think in Westerns, they only showed four or five prints,” the student stated. “Most of the films are shown on laser disc or DVD that the school owns, but I’d imagine there are rights that they still have to pay for. I can’t imagine that it is nearly as expensive as showing for film. You certainly don’t need a professional projectionist to pop in a DVD.”
Ruzicka points out that Film Studies and Art Studio classes generally do not require books, a fact that he argues makes classes with course fees more affordable than classes where the cost of books adds up to hundreds of dollars. He also sees the expense of getting 35mm film as necessary to film classes as it provides a truer film experience.
“Seeing films through film is an ideal experience,” Ruzicka said. “It’s in the colors, the resolutions of the film. The tones are clearer, something the pixels of DVD just don’t provide. I was also the projectionist for Professor [Lisa] Dombrowski’s intro course and I was impressed with how many films were shown on 35mm.”
Ultimately, Basinger pointed out that the department is not alone when it comes to course fees.
“There are course fees in all the arts,” she said. “Students have often risen up about this issue to have something to bitch about. I wish there were not course fees, but it’s something the University just will not address.”
There are generally no course fees for courses in the Theater, Dance, Art History and Music Departments, aside from private lessons for non-music majors. However, Art Studio courses have material fees and Film Studies courses typically have course fees.
Lai added that, aside from the cost of printing and binding, few other majors pay as large amounts of money for their thesis as Film Studies and Art Studio, including theater majors who also have production costs, but receive a budget from their department.
“It’s frustrating that students can’t ask for help from the SBC [Student Budget Committee],” Lai adds. “The Thorndike Fund also really only pays for printing and binding costs. Where are the institutional resources that help supplement our costs at such a well-endowed university?”
The Thorndike Fund is an endowment within the University that thesis students are encouraged to apply to in order to help ease the financial cost of a thesis.
Calvert does not believe the personal cost of an Art Studio thesis has prevented any major from pursuing a thesis.
“I think if a student wants to do an Art Studio thesis, then its important enough to them to pay for it,” Calvert stated. “I did spend in the hundreds on brushes and aluminum paint, but the cost of a thesis depends specifically on one’s project. We’re encouraged to apply for some financial compensation from the Thorndike Fund, but that only covers a fraction of the cost. Yet when you look at how much film majors spend on film, it’s absurd. They go into the thousands. It makes an Art Studio thesis look like nothing.”
On the high cost of film theses, Ruzicka pointed out that the Film Studies department has instituted policies to help limit spending after some students spent lavishly on their projects. To help create an economically equal playing field for production theses, the department limits all films to twelve minutes in length and cannot be filmed more than fifty miles from campus. Yet Ruzicka said that this does not prevent some students from spending tens of thousands of dollars on their film projects.
Lai, meanwhile, remains skeptical of any effort of the administration, as she sees privilege as heavily entrenched.
“I don’t understand the state of higher education in this country,” Lai stated. “It creates a standard of living that’s unnatural as high costs have become assumed. This doesn’t relate or create a reasonable path for most of this country, just for a small fortunate part of it. Wesleyan celebrates diversity, but not in this attitude, nor our outreach, classroom resources or support network. This assumption of privilege has permeated all levels of the institution, making diversity essentially tokenized.”
Overall, Goy sees these course fees as a microcosm of a larger problem at Wesleyan.
“It seems to me that everything is planned for the highest economic denominator at this school,” Goy said. “No one ever has enough points since food is so expensive, so everyone has to reload them, costing hundreds of dollars. You take a history class and you get slapped with enormous book costs. We really have to ask ourselves if we are a university that operates with the assumption that everyone can pay constantly. I know plenty of people that don’t feel that they’re at ’Diversity University’ economically.”