It was all good just a week ago, if one were to ask the students and faculty of Wesleyan’s Film Department. In 2013, the University’s auspicious Film Studies program graduated to “College” status. The College of Film and Moving Image was formed by President Michael Roth, Professor of Film Studies and Curator of the Cinema Archives Jeanine Basinger, and Chair of the College Scott Higgins with the intention of combining all film-related programs to manage increased interest in the major. The program also received a boost that fall after hiring New York Times’ Chief Film Critic A.O. Scott as a visiting professor.
Film Students Formally Declare Their Complaints
However, in the past few weeks, all has not been right in the world of Film Studies at Wesleyan. On March 28, students studying in the College of Film released a letter criticizing the direction of the Department. The letter included three chief goals: Diversifying tenure-track faculty and the student body by opening up upper level classes to non-majors, globalizing the curriculum, and creating a more inclusive and welcoming learning environment by discarding disciplinary practices that threaten to drop students from the major. All of these changes would be addressed as part of the Presidential Equity Task Force.
The letter also included seven specific recommendations.
“First, hire 3 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,” the letter reads. “In the hiring process, open up candidate lunches and talks to all majors and minors in order to include student input. Second, offer more courses with more underrepresented (POC, female, queer, & foreign) filmmakers. Third, request the Office of Institutional Research to produce a demographic report on the Wesleyan College of Film and the Moving Image. Fourth, reform disciplinary procedures, including zero-tolerance policies and blanket threats to drop people from the major or remove student theses. Fifth, open major courses to minors and non-majors. Sixth, assign students individual advisors to facilitate student-faculty relationships, again based on hiring a sufficient number of professors to accommodate growing student needs. Seventh, undergo sensitivity training to strengthen communication with students.”
This letter, which was addressed to department faculty, President Roth, Provost Joyce Jacobsen, and Dean of Art and Humanities Ellen Nerenberg, has sparked a discussion between the College’s faculty, staff, and students over the state of the Wesleyan Film Department.
“We recognize many professors, such as Jeanine Basinger, Scott Higgins, and Lisa Dombrowski are tackling issues of diversity through lectures or discussions with students outside of class,” the letter read. “Other efforts may certainly be unknown to the students. We want to open discussion between students and faculty to address and combat issues of diversity.”
The letter included both signatures from students and testimonies to support the students claims, and quoted Professor Scott’s New York Times article “Hollywood, Separate and Unequal.” One statement referenced social inequality in Hollywood more broadly, and argued that similar issues manifest themselves within the College of Film itself. In 2013 and 2014, only 1.9% of the top-100 grossing films, and 14% of television shows, were directed by women, and 16.67% of screenwriters identify as minorities.
“Currently, we do not have equivalent statistics on the demographic makeup of the students and faculty of the College, specifically regarding the number of POC, women, people with disabilities, and low-income students,” the letter reads. “The lack of statistics, despite numerous voiced concerns about diversity within the department, suggests that these issues are not being adequately addressed and considered at the moment. Of course, the problem of diversity at Wesleyan is not restricted to our department––recently, several other departments on campus have dealt with or are dealing with similar issues, including African American Studies and STEM. We hope that the Film Department can learn and draw solutions from these situations.”
The Department Answers Back
Department chair Scott Higgins responded to this letter with one of his own, in which he addressed the student complaints highlighted in the letter. Higgins also acknowledging the Film Department’s commitment to diversity and accomplishments more broadly. He cited the plethora of University alumni who have helped promote diversity and break boundaries in the film industry.
“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,” Higgins wrote in the letter. “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…diversity among our own faculty and student body has always been a priority and will remain so.”
Higgins also spent time addressing the harsh anecdotes that students directed towards particular classes and the structure of the major. He emphasized that professors welcome this kind of feedback from majors.
“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,” Higgins wrote. “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.”
Additionally, in an email to The Argus, Higgins reaffirmed the seriousness with which the Film Department regards issues of diversity and gender parity.
“I am working with the administration on growing our faculty and will consult with students as we formulate our plans,” Higgins wrote. “At the same time, I’m proud to say that the diversity of our student body is on a strongly positive trajectory. In my conversations with students, I’ve found that we largely have the same goals and concerns. I’m very much listening to what they have to say.”
President Roth Continues the Conversation
President Michael Roth, who hopes he can be a “go-between” in these conversations, told The Argus that film majors and the department’s faculty share a mutual interest in improving intellectual and racial diversity.
“I looked at some numbers recently and there’s been some positive change toward better gender balance in the department, in the last five years I’d say, but there’s a ways to go in terms of information per se increasing racial diversity,” said Roth. “I know that my colleagues in the department are committed to see that improvement as well. I don’t really think there’s a difference in opinion about wanting more a diverse student body and recruiting more diverse faculty going forward. I think the department has tried to do that in the recent past.”
Roth also believes that the department plays an instrumental role in diversifying the greater film industry.
“[The] Film [Department] does an extraordinarily good job of helping these graduates move into what they’d like to do for careers after they graduate, and especially for people from underrepresented populations, it’s an enormous help,” Roth said. “So I think this is an important opportunity for the Film Department: to actually as it becomes more diverse, it can really have a role up in diversifying this notoriously white-dominated industry. I think there’s a real commitment for senior people from the department to do that.”
Wesleyan is no stranger to internal debates over academic diversity. In the 1970s, when Roth was a student at the University, female students and professors clashed with entrenched faculty over the underrepresented role of women in the curriculum of courses in the humanities and social sciences.
“In history I remember male professors telling female graduate students that they would do history relevant to them, but there were no sources,” Roth said. “So the women historians famously brought the sources to the attention of everyone and changed the nature of the profession and of research. So I think that English literature and other literature departments made a great effort to make the departments be less egocentric, or less focused on a few dominant white male characters and instead focused on a culture or class. I think these things have been successful, especially when young scholars lead the charge.”
In their letter to the College’s faculty, students also criticized the department’s emphasis on students taking one of two classes – Martin Scorsese (FILM 381) or Visual Storytelling (FILM 324) – as indicative of the department’s “prioritization of Hollywood over other cinemas” because majors cannot count certain classes as electives before they take one of these courses. Film students suggested abolishing this practice, and hiring additional tenure-track faculty to teach course classes in international cinema, with a particular focus on the Global South.
President Roth pushed back against the suggestion that the Film Department should alter the core of its curriculum.
“In film, they believe you can’t make opposition film unless you’re being taught what you’re opposed to,” Roth said. ““If you look at the film courses that count as the minor, it’s much more diverse. So there are lots of courses. They just don’t advertise that. So part of it is communication if you think about it. The College of Film sponsored this great film series that was about issues of diversity and mass incarceration, and violence against groups.”
That being said, President Roth believes that these types of conversations can have a positive impact on improving any department at the University.
“But I think these faculty, even when they bristle at being criticized for what they’ve chosen to teach, based on their knowledge in the field, they still hear it,” Roth said. “They take their responsibility to present material seriously. So I think there could be changes happening.”
While the Film Department has clearly heard its students cries for reform, and responded in turn, it is unclear what departmental changes the students’ letter will produce.
“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,” Higgins wrote in the letter. “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…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.”