Board of Trustees Professor, Undergraduate Program Director, Department of Communication
What year did you start working at NIU?
Where is your hometown? and where do you live now?
I am from Chicago. I have lived in DeKalb since coming to NIU.
Where did you attend college and what degree(s) have you earned?
B.S. from Loyola in chemistry. I have an M.A. in communication from NIU, and I earned my Ph.D. from Northwestern University (Evanston) in radio, TV and film.
In which department(s) do you teach?
Department of Communication
Were you a first-generation college student?
I was not. My mother studied chemistry in college but did not finish. My father was a physician and surgeon.
What do you like about working at NIU?
I truly enjoy my students. I find them to be eager to learn and ready to work in the pursuit of academic success. Many of them are first-generation college students and they are willing to explore advanced learning with enthusiasm. NIU students have big dreams but they are willing to pursue them despite all odds. I respect this.
What advice would you give to students currently attending NIU?
Stay open and stay strong. This semester may seem more challenging, but my students have shown me that they grow by facing challenges. They can be creative and resourceful, and while students may feel especially tested at this time, they will be stronger and smarter for mastering new skills in different ways. The digital world that they have helped to shape needs their skills, and, whether learning face to face or remotely, they will be learning more than what is spelled out in a course syllabus.
Surprisingly, I found that teaching remotely this semester has actually allowed me to get to know my students more personally. Though there were some struggles, my students were not deterred. I appreciate their determination and work ethic. They accomplished work this semester none of us could have or would have anticipated. I am proud of all they achieved.
Tell us about a research or engaged learning project you have led.
I have worked with a research rookie, Emily Fried, for two years now. Emily's first project as a freshman at NIU was to explore the video messaging used by women candidates in the 2018 elections. She did a thematic analysis and won second place in the exhibit category as a Research Rookie at Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day in 2019. Because of her passion for performance in speech and debate, Emily is drawn to writing for TV. Her second year's project involved an analysis of women in late-night TV and the lack of late-night host opportunities for women.
What do you hope students take away from your class?
I teach media production and studies, and we wrap ourselves in the power of visual storytelling. I want them to understand what makes a strong story come alive on the screen. When they are in one of my production classes and learning how to make videos, they need to learn the skills and techniques of well-produced work. In my documentary class, we focus on the power of strong documentary storytelling: characters, theme, visual interest, etc. In my film festival class, students analyze short films for our festival and focus on the entertainment value and messaging of short films. In each case, we are focused on the power of stories, so that we can make them and fully appreciate their value in our highly visual culture.
What is your favorite campus event?
I am partial to Reality Bytes! My students have been producing this film festival for 20 years now. It is a wonderful experience for them and an excellent opportunity for the campus and community to watch student-produced films from around the world. All the films screened are made by student filmmakers and selected by students from my film festival class. It is truly their chance to contribute to film culture.
What is your favorite memory of NIU?
My favorite memory of NIU was the investiture of our first woman president. I was so proud to see that not only did we finally break the glass ceiling, but we did so with the best possible candidate for NIU. I attended Dr. Freeman's investiture with pride and enthusiasm.
Who has influenced your professional path?
I would have to say that Diane Nilan, who produced my first feature film, was perhaps the most influential person for me professionally. I actually was introduced to Diane by Tom Parisi of NIU. Diane is an activist for homeless people, particularly children. She arrived at my door with shoeboxes of recorded interviews of homeless children describing their lives. I had students edit them into a series of educational modules for teacher training, and I then constructed our first film, "My Own Four Walls," which won an award from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
I was concerned that people would not take these stories seriously, as children rarely understood how or why they became homeless. The following year, I devoted my sabbatical to traveling across the south with Nilan to interview women who were experiencing homelessness. During this research, I spent a week living in a shelter in Louisiana where I recorded many interviews. This project ended in the feature-length documentary "On the Edge: Family Homelessness in America." This film screened at many festivals and won numerous awards, including the King Family Foundation Award from BEA.
Nilan is a wonderful activist and relentless promoter. Beyond public screenings, this film has been seen by nearly 300,000 people just on YouTube. Without Diane Nilan, I doubt I would have taken this path for my research and artistry. Because of my experience with her, my documentary teaching focuses on social justice issues.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? Are you currently doing it? If not, what changed your path?
Based on my family background, this will come as no surprise, but when I was growing up, I wanted to be a biologist or doctor. After college, I realized that my temperament and talents were not suited for either profession. I worked in a cancer research lab, a chemistry lab and then taught school. That was my turning point. I knew that what I really wanted to do was teach at a college or university. When I returned to school for my Ph.D., I realized that visual storytelling, especially documentary filmmaking, was really my passion.
Are you a member of or hold a position within a professional organization? If so, what organization? What is the purpose of that organization and how does being part of this organization benefit you in your role at NIU?
I am currently president of the University Film and Video Association, which is primarily focused on film and media in higher education. The association has been in existence for 70-plus years. We have nearly 600 members who are primarily educators of all ranks involved in higher education. My involvement has had a significant impact on developing and strengthening my pedagogy in film and media studies. Before assuming the role as president, I helped finalize the revisions in the tenure and promotion guidelines used in colleges and universities to assess faculty advancement. I am frequently asked to review tenure and promotion applications. This position strengthens NIU's reputation in the area of film, television, and media production and studies.
What community organizations are you involved in?
I am a member of the League of Women Voters in DeKalb.
What do you do to relax or recharge?
I enjoy walking and gardening. I try to do both each day. I also enjoy travel, though this has been curtailed significantly at this time.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about your NIU Huskie story?
I am proud to be a Huskie. I have spoken about my students and teaching, but I also chair the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. This allows me to work with many interesting, creative and energetic women from all positions at NIU. The commission allows us to be involved in making NIU a better place for all women at NIU.