On Thursday, April 27, students gathered in Judd Hall for a town hall-style meeting concerning the College of Film and the Moving Image. The classroom was packed with Film Studies majors, minors, prospective students, and non-majors who wanted to take part in the discussion about an open letter written and distributed by concerned film students. The letter, released on March 28, criticized certain teaching practices and the lack of diversity within the Film Department, making specific recommendations to remedy these issues and calling for an open dialogue between faculty and students.
Released on March 28, the letter criticized certain teaching practices and the lack of diversity within the University’s Film Department, making specific recommendations to fix these issues and calling for an open dialogue between faculty and students.
Thursday’s town hall was designed to give students a chance to openly voice their concerns in front of Film Studies professors without fear of being “shut down,” as several students reported feeling after one-on-one meetings with faculty. This concern, along with the lack of diverse faculty and student input within the Film Department’s academics, prompted the drafting of the open letter in the first place. However, only two faculty members were present at the town hall: Scott Higgins, the Department Chair, and Lisa Dombrowski, associate professor of Film Studies. Higgins had previously issued a response to the letter in a department-wide email on April 10.
Organizers Address the Open Letter
The town hall began with introductions and opening statements read by the organizers of the event, which included Wilson Lai ’19, Beatrix Herriott O’Gorman ’19, Benjamin Yap ’18, Isabella FitzGerald Harewood ’17, and Eli Sands ’18. Sands explained that a group of 15 film majors and minors began meeting the previous year to discuss issues of inequality within the wider film industry and the University’s Film Studies Department. Those meetings culminated in the open letter, a set of testimonies from past and current film students, and a list of 173 signatures expressing support for the letter. After the email response from Higgins, which Sands and the other organizers deemed to be inadequate in responding to their demands, the same group of film students organized the town hall.
“We are here to discuss, with both film students and faculty assembled, the future of the Film Department,” said Sands. “Students have concerns and are further concerned that their voices are not being heard by the faculty who provide our education… We wish to reach a common understanding of concepts such as diversity, inclusion, and how the Film Department can work to improve in these fields.”
Yap then reiterated the primary list of demands found in the open letter: the hiring of three tenure-track professors within the next five years, prioritizing women and people of color; offering more courses that feature underrepresented (POC, female, queer, and foreign) filmmakers; requesting a demographic report on the College of Film and the Moving Image from the Office of Institutional Research; reforming disciplinary procedures, such as blanket threats to drop students from the major; assigning students individual faculty advisors, rather than having all members of the film faculty act as advisors for all students; and finally, having faculty undergo “sensitivity training” in order to improve communication with students. Additionally, there was a proposal for the creation of a majors and minors student committee within the department—modeled after ones found in other departments such as American Studies—that would create a direct line of student feedback, representation, and communication in department operations.
Harewood addressed the April 10 email from Higgins, stating that, although University President Michael Roth had informed film student organizers that the email was meant to be a direct response to the open letter, it does not directly mention or respond to any of the letter’s demands. She also pointed out that aspects of the email were indicative of the problems within the department that the letter critiqued.
“[The email] is largely vague on the specifics of how film faculty hopes to increase equity and inclusion within the faculty, students, and curriculum,” said Harewood. “Using only a passing reference to our March 28 statement by the students, it neither acknowledges any of the seven suggestions nor explains what actions will be taken to meet those ends.”
She highlighted a passage in which Higgins references new hiring efforts by the department, yet gives no details as to what positions they’re looking to fill, or to what extent the department will “consult with students” during the process. Harewood also criticized a list of successful women and POC alumni of the Film Department that Higgins included in his email, calling it a form of tokenism.
“The success of a group of alumni does not prove that the department has succeeded in achieving diversity,” Harewood said. “We want to shift the incorporation of diversity within the department from supplementary actions, such as the Film Series and Awareness Series, and bring the focus of change within the classroom. What is deemed worthy of being taught, discussed, and engaged with in an academic setting of the Film Department is our concern.”
Finally, Lai briefly highlighted positive student feedback and examples of how discussions of race, gender, and other social issues were incorporated into the department’s more formal analysis of film aesthetics. He mentioned a recent discussion of gender after the film Aliens in Higgins’ Action & Adventure course, Professor Michael James Slowik’s frequent analysis of race and gender in his Westerns course, and a number of Professor Dombrowki’s classes that studied “the women’s picture” and foreign cinema.
The next half hour was dedicated to student discussion and feedback; the two professors in attendance were asked to listen and hold off on responding until the half-hour was up. Several students voiced concerns that they weren’t comfortable going to professors during office hours and ask for help, especially relating to mental health issues. If they voiced concerns, they were “shut down” and discouraged from missing class or getting extensions on assignments under any circumstances, including those relating to physical and mental well-being. This was especially troubling given that all core faculty in the Film Department are supposed to act as advisors to all film students.
One student, who wished to remain anonymous, described an interaction with Professor Jeanine Basinger, the founder and former chair of the Film Department, after the release of the student letter.
“When she brought up this letter, she brought up that the students who started this letter wouldn’t get jobs,” said the anonymous student. “I respect her a lot, but it sounded weirdly threatening to me. I don’t like how this letter has been construed as an attack on certain members of the faculty. They question why students can’t go talk to them, and the exact reason is because they shut down criticism with their prestige and their, ‘Oh, we have all these alums who love us, we have all these students who love us. If you don’t love us, that’s [your] problem.’”
Students also brought up issues of diversity within the student body itself, such as some senior film theses having entirely male crews. They believed this was due to many white male students coming into the department with a substantial amount of prior filmmaking experience, while female students and students of color were less likely to have those opportunities in high school. That notion of white male students having a “head start” also extended to general knowledge of film history and analysis.
“There’s a lot of responses [from students] like, ‘Oh, you haven’t seen this movie? Wow, I guess you don’t understand the canon,’” said Yael Horowitz ’17, invoking murmurs of recognition and laughter throughout the room. “There definitely is sometimes a really negative, competitive atmosphere within the department.”
She went on to express that the “culture of fear” perpetuated by the department–dropping students from a class for missing one session, competitive resources for theses, etc.–helped to foster a toxic, competitive climate amongst film students. Additionally, as Sofi Taylor ’17 pointed out, the majority of films shown in department classes have male directors, cinematographers, and other crew members.
“I don’t think I saw a single female director on a credit sheet until my junior year,” she said.
Another repeated concern was that, when problematic aspects of films shown in class were brought up, professors would briefly address those aspects and then dismiss any further discussion of them. The focus of the curriculum, they argued, should solely be on film aesthetics and artistic choices made by the director (camera movement, set design, etc.) and how those relate to the emotions felt by the audience.
“You can merge teaching film analysis with teaching the actual content of the film,” said Laura Brown ’17. “And I think the best classes a lot of us have had here have done that or tried to do that. It’s kind of this false separation between the two things, the content and the form. It serves no one to say that we won’t discuss the content because we’re discussing the form.”
Robyn Valentine ’19 also added a point about classes outside the major that include film analysis.
“If you take a film course outside of the department, looking at film from a diversity perspective, or a social justice perspective, or from a politics perspective, that class doesn’t count towards the major,” said Valentine. “It shouldn’t be hard for these courses to be cross-listed because one of the ideas of Wesleyan is that you’re going to get this liberal arts, cross-cultural education.”
Hazem Fahmy ’17 added that, as a film minor, he was able to count these more culturally-oriented classes toward his credits. He believed that, if not for the professors of those classes putting the movies they studied in a cultural and historical context, he wouldn’t have been able to fully understand the directorial, stylistic choices made within the films.
“[Taking those classes was] a much better experience than watching a really awful Western or a really misogynistic film and being like, ‘Well, here’s the camera movement,’ and not really having the time to deal with the context of that, and why the director felt that scene needed to be in there,” he said.
The Two Film Professors in Attendance Respond
After the half hour was up, Higgins addressed the room and explained new initiatives the department was already taking to improve diversity. He announced that he is in the process of hiring two “minority candidates” to teach film production courses beginning next fall. Additionally, he is in talks with several female filmmakers to take over thesis advising in the spring for Associate Professor of Film Studies Steve Collins, who will be on sabbatical. The department will be offering a “Race, Class, & Gender in Hollywood,” course in the fall, which was last offered in 2015. Finally, Higgins stated that he has worked with the American Film Institute in creating a summer program for Film Department alumni, which would include a “Directing for Women” workshop and a networking process for minorities.
“I’m not here to tell you what you want to hear, and I’m not here to debate you, either,” Higgins said. “This is a chance for me to listen.”
When asked why the majority of faculty did not respond to either the open letter or the invitation to the town hall, Higgins stated that they did not know who to respond to, as the letter was sent to them from an anonymous Gmail account.
Higgins added that not one student came to meet with him face-to-face to discuss the letter. Several students responded by saying that, as had been discussed previously, many film students are afraid to talk to film faculty about these issues face-to-face and individually, for fear of retaliation in the form of dropping them from classes or denying thesis proposals. Thus, the letter was sent anonymously and accompanied by a long list of signatures expressing support.
“I know three people who didn’t come today because they didn’t want to be seen by professors in the department,” said one student.
Professor Dombrowski then spoke up, thanking Professor Higgins for discussing the department’s diversity initiatives, but also stating that it was the first time she was hearing about them.
“Those were all new to me since none of those have been discussed in a faculty meeting,” she said. “So if these things are going on, I hope that they will be discussed in full with all of the members of the department.”
She also suggested that these initiatives should be discussed with a majors/minors student committee.
“Certainly, programming that we do in the department—films, workshops, etc.—that programming is for students,” Dombrowski said. “It seems appropriate to ask the students what kind of programming they think would serve their needs.”
More students directed questions at Higgins regarding the criteria for cross-listed courses, i.e. determining which courses outside of the department could count towards the major or minor. However, the majority of students who spoke continued to express and reiterate their general frustrations with the department’s curriculum and disciplinary procedures, and Higgins avoided directly addressing complaints of the “threatening” nature of the College’s faculty.
“That’s something I’ll have to think about,” he said, after multiple students criticized these policies.
When the meeting adjourned, concerned students were given the opportunity to directly engage with the Film Department Chair and offer suggestions for how the University’s Film Studies program could be improved. Yet Professor Higgins still avoided any upfront response to the seven demands that appeared in the original student letter, nor did he offer up an explanation for the department’s disciplinary procedures. Many students found these procedures not only frightening but also contradictory: a department that focuses on film analysis rather than production, they said, shouldn’t have to model itself after cutthroat Hollywood business practices.
“I’ve heard it compared to the industry, like, you can’t be late to sets so you can’t be late to class,” said Claire Edelman ’17. “Modeling the department on the industry is not a helpful way of modeling the department. I think a better way is that, if we are creating a department that will go off to create the ‘Wesleyan Mafia’ in Hollywood, we can make an industry that reflects more of what we want it to be. So instead of taking our cues from what is already a system that we don’t agree with, I think [we should] instead make a system that will change what we’re studying in the first place is what is most important.”