Film-making class at Rice University

I took a film-making class while I worked at Rice University. I did not really “take” it, though, I more audited it. But I did a lot of work for it, until I quit with a month left. Here’s why.

First, Rice has some pretty cool creative classes. There’s a class where every student is supposed to write 100 pages for their own fiction book. The class is taught by a cocky (I met him) millionaire author. There’s super high demand for the class. He teaches it every spring semester, and takes about 12 students each time. Cocky or no, I would have really liked to take a class like that.

Second, there’s a class where you make comics. You go to class twice a week, for 3 hours each time! And you draw and learn how to make comics. The professor is kind of stern, though. But seems very committed, and showed us his impressive collection of pens and ink.

And the class I actually took was the film-making class. It was taught by Tish, an American, and Brian, a British guy who kept saying weird racist things all semester long that everyone just ignored. The class is nice because you get access to all this sophisticated camera and sound and lighting equipment — you get to “play” with it. I didn’t actually end up using any of it when I was making my own film, though — it’s all so bulky and heavy. You can’t walk around with that stuff when really, cell phone footage is good enough! But it was still fun to experiment with it.

We got to talk about movie techniques, and we got to learn and practicing using Adobe Premiere.

I didn’t really want to make a fiction film; I wanted to make a sort of documentary film of research in the Earth Sciences department. It was part of my job description to let the public know what sort of research went on. I was able to apply the skills learned in the film class directly to my work. I found a graduate student who was doing some cool experiments, spent a few days recording him; even recorded his advisor. His advisor was female, so I thought it was nice to show a woman professor in a science field. I even recorded the cool thing where you show someone walking into a building, going through the door from the back, and then also recording them from the other side of the door as they walk in. I felt so fancy! I had tons of footage, and I put it all together.

Then coronavirus happened and we all went home. We had the class on Zoom once a week, and on one of these Zoom classes, we all got to watch each other’s films (all the different groups), all the edits people had made since the last time we’d seen each other’s work.

Well, it got to be my turn, and for the next 30 minutes, I felt almost like I was at a firing squad execution (my own). First, Brian and Tish took turns eviscerating my film in front of all the other 12 or 13 students in class … and then, as if that wasn’t enough, each student then had to critique my work. And they, in line with the two professors, finished the work, as if I wasn’t already wounded enough — in case I wasn’t yet dead. I had to sit through each and everyone. Thirty minutes later, when they’d finally run out of bullets, I managed to say, “thanks for the feedback.” And then I waited until they’d pressed play on the next movie. Stealthily, while everyone was distracted by the movie screen, I closed Zoom first, and then flipped my laptop shut with shaking hands. And just never dialed back into that class.

Come to think of it, I never again got any emails from that class, so I must have been removed from the mailing list right away.

I think, by the way, that quitting on the spot like that was the best choice. You don’t always have to stick with things. Seeing as I was dead, I probably wasn’t going to get any more benefit from that class. And the hit to my sense of self was too deep, so that wounded needed to be tended to, rather than demanding myself to continue learning film-making. I have also already “not quit” challenging things often enough, so I didn’t need to prove to myself that I can stick with things if they’re important.

So that’s my story of the Rice film-making class.


The most gentle job rejection I ever got

I had applied for a post-doc — the only one I ever applied to — at the University of Pennsylvania, in their center where they study the science of science communication. Yeah, that probably sounds really boring. But I thought it might be kind of cool!

Any case, I got such a nice rejection note from them. They made it sound like: if only some of their pesky current postdocs who kept hanging around would move on, why then, you, my dear, would be our first next choice!

Because the program is moving into a second year of work on a multi-wave panel on communication about vaccination, and we did not know until recently which of our current postdoctoral fellows would be carrying over for the coming year, the process of matching the aptitudes of our applicants with our changing needs has been complicated by the fluidity of our situation.

Although the fit between our needs and your aptitudes and interests was not sufficiently exact to offer you a postdoctoral appointment, we are grateful for the opportunity to read your work and look forward to applauding your future successes in the field.



Exploitative western scientists in foreign countries

I am still trying to get the last chapter of my PhD published, two years after graduating, and I have no idea if this is an average or super-long delay.

I like the paper, though, at least the form it’s finally taking. It’s about the marshes in southern Iraq. Back in 2003, these marshes were in the news a lot connected to the invasion of Iraq by the US. There’s a lot of ethnic cleansing-related destruction of these marshes, and when the Iraqi government fell in 2003, they were able to be studied again in full force.

At least some foreign scientists went to Iraq. I don’t know the backstory, but a professor named Curtis Richardson at Duke University was one of them. Duke University is right here in North Carolina. I followed their studies of the marshes as far back as 2006, I think, which was when they were publishing all their papers, and I always thought — oh, wow, North Carolina got in on the act all the way in Iraq.

And when I became a PhD student, with a focus on water resources and wetlands in Iraq, I ended up reading these research papers written by Richardson. One of them was published in Science, which along with Nature, is the most prestigious science journal out there (they also have the most original name!)

But I really think there is something icky and wrong about this whole process. For example, Curtis Richardson had co-authors on these papers — in particular, someone named Najah Hussain, a researcher in Iraq. I don’t understand why Najah Hussain was not the lead author on these papers — why was it Richardson? Like, did the lead name have to be a western scientist, otherwise Science and all the other journals wouldn’t have bothered? Or maybe the name didn’t have to be a western name, but the scientist had to be at a western institution, like Duke University, and not at the University of Basra in Iraq (where Najah Hussain worked).

Between me and you, there’s nothing all that much new in the papers that Richardson took lead authorship for. They pretty much just summarized the history of the marshes, and then looked at how the marshes had recovered after the war (which really is just a matter of looking at satellite images). I can go back and check the careful notes I took about these papers, but there was really nothing groundbreaking in them. But still, Richardson got to swoop in and take the lead authorship for them.

Well, that’s great, he got tons of citations and prestige from his work. But, is this not entirely one of those smoke and mirrors exercise? What did Richardson really do? Now, 17 years later, it’s still the scientists in Iraq who are focused on this issue, while Richardson has moved on to other prestigious works. Did he really help them in anyway? And if he did help, then that’s that — he helped. So why was he the lead author? (Not to mention all the media interviews and conference speeches he probably got to give about it, too).

It’s not all that different from Trump and his billions, that do or don’t exist, and the whole applause for success based on really on nothing at all. Is there any real good that a lot of these western scientists do when they go to foreign countries, and if there is, is the praise and prestige they get in proportion to what they actually do? I’m sure that sometimes it is — but I think way more often, these scientists are puffed up for very little at all.

Which just goes to show scientists, for all they often try to pretend to be loftier and above the illogical impulses of the lower-class, non-scientist masses, are just the same as everyone else.