Back in school at old school in a new way

This is going to be fun. I am for the third time enrolled at Wesleyan University… Continuing an old tradition of “leave job… return to college  (preferably Wesleyan)…”

When I quit my daily newspaper job at The Hartford Courant, my goal was to take a year off, finish my courses for a master’s degree in anthropology, and spend a summer in Ireland researching my M.A. thesis. The one year spun into three after my advisor left on sabbatical and never returned. My new advisor, ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin, directed me into a couple of new courses and even made me his teaching assistant for a course on Ethnicity and Popular Culture, my introduction to Wesleyan’s cinema resources. He was enormously patient, and it was a struggle to keep the master’s thesis to 280 pages, even after one of the “informants” asked to be removed from it completely.

The resultant editing and rewriting were part of the inspiration for learning everything I could about “word processing” at the university computer lab, and buying my first computer. That led to my taking computer courses during the summer after graduation, editing a newsletter for Wesleyan microcomputer users, and landing a job writing (in English, not computer code) for a software company — which paid me to take more software-and-writing courses on the side.

When the founder sold the company and technical writing started feeling “old,” I added up the courses I’d taken already and headed back to Wesleyan to complete a second master’s — a “Master of Arts in Liberal Studies” — by writing a thesis about hypertext. (With the help of cognitive science prof Marc Sebrechts, I kept that “liberal studies final essay” to 135 pages, but it was 1988 and hypertext hadn’t been made the organizing principle of the World Wide Web. After the Web happened, I headed to UNC Chapel Hill to — eventually — write a much longer doctoral dissertation, very slowly.)

Now that I’ve taken my retirement from full-time teaching at Radford University, I can’t face a September without some involvement in higher education… so I am enrolled in a Wesleyan University online course:

The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color with Scott Higgins

“This Film History course explores how fundamental changes in film technology affected popular Hollywood storytelling. We will consider the transition to sound, and the introduction of color.”

I hope to use what I learn the next time I teach a course about the portrayal of journalists in film and popular culture, possibly offering it as a more-online class myself. Professor Higgins’ course sounds fascinating, and I suspect I’ll learn plenty about film — and about online teaching in the process. Here’s how he describes it in the syllabus:

Each change in technology brought new opportunities and challenges, but the filmmaker’s basic task remained the emotional engagement of the viewer through visual means.

We will survey major directors and genres from the studio era and point forward to contemporary American cinema. Our aim is to illuminate popular cinema as the intersection of business, technology, and art. Through film history, we will learn about the craft of filmmaking and how tools shape art.

The course is a “MOOC” — a Massively Open Online Course — hosted by  Coursera, whose motto is “Take the world’s best courses, online, for free.” (See another Wesleyan professor’s reflections on teaching her first MOOC.) Since my first UNC course as a teaching assistant in 1995, I have produced Web pages for every course I’ve taught. I’ve used blogs, wikis, online forums, “course management systems” and podcasts, but I’ve never taught or taken a fully-online course, massive or otherwise.

Lectures will be online videos. We students will be on our own for film viewings — and I’m already tracking down the 10 films at local libraries and online suppliers. ( helped me quickly find several of the films at the Radford University and Virginia Tech libraries, and order others through Radford by InterLibrary Loan. I’m also buying a few, or at least renting them online.) Among other things, I’ll be interested to hear the professor’s view of the copyright (and ethical) issues involved in the posting of classic films on YouTube, which I started exploring because of my interest in hard-to-find newspaper films.

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.

Posted in 2013, Education, hypertext, jpop, media studies, MOOCs, movies, Radford, Stepno, wesleyan

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