Q&A: Patricia Zimmermann discusses her global contributions

Patricia Zimmermann, professor of screen studies and co-director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, was recently appointed by the American Film Showcase, a project of the U.S. State Department, to be a film envoy for documentary and new media.

Zimmermann has been an envoy since 2011, and this is her seventh time being reappointed.

The program consists of about 70 film experts who serve as envoys, spreading the art and knowledge of film, and Zimmermann is one of only two who are film scholars who also write and teach about film. She is also the only envoy who works for a four-year undergraduate institution. Zimmermann travels the globe showing documentary and new media, including work from FLEFF.

Staff writer Matt Ristaino spoke with Zimmermann about her role, experiences and biggest takeaways from being a film envoy.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Matt Ristaino: What does a film envoy actually do?

Patricia Zimmermann: In my program, we are bringing independent American films and new media to the world, and these films offer a view of American society and culture as seen by those who are working outside of major media systems. It’s an independent vision of what American life is. There are three different types of envoys: There are envoys that are documentary film directors, and they would show their films; there are envoys who are people in various aspects of the independent film world, such as distributors; and then there’s me. I’m a scholar and a writer, so my role is a little different. What I do, when I go to other countries, is I will give lectures on some of my recent books, I will give lectures on documentary and new media and I will run workshops with filmmakers, where I’m the moderator. They’ll often send me to a film festival where I’ll run a carefully produced Q&A with the filmmaker to showcase how their conceptual thinking works, and their challenges making the film. And then I’ll often be sent to universities to give lectures to students about documentary and new media. I create and catalyze dialogue about contemporary problems, conflicts and challenges around issues so that there’s a space for people to come together and speak, and where there’s a possibility to exchange ideas about life and culture in the host country and the United States, all through the lens of documentary and new media.

MR: Where in the world have you worked as an envoy?

PZ: I have worked on three continents. I have worked in Guangzhou, China; I’ve worked in Guinea in West Africa, which is, by the way, one of the poorest and least developed countries on the globe; and I’ve worked most recently in Ukraine.

MR: Can you describe what you did as an envoy while in those countries?

PZ: As an envoy, my major role is to provide and craft opportunities for dialog between American independent filmmakers and documentary scholars, like me, and people in these countries by using independent film and independent new media art as a catalyst for dialogue. The works that I bring and discuss in my lectures are works that explore conflicts and problems confronting American life. I show works on human rights issues and environmental issues. The idea is to show that American independent media is about debate. Contrary to what many people think, we don’t follow a state department line. We are there to represent ourselves. We do not represent the U.S. State Department. We represent our films, and in my case our research, and show how conflict, debate and struggle is confronted in the United States through these forms. If I had to give a theme for my work when I’ve been in these different countries, it is to spread an understanding that independent media is a catalyst for dialogue about issues that matter and are often difficult to talk about.

MR: What are some of the takeaways that you’ve gotten from your work in all these different places that you can bring back to Ithaca College and use to inform your teaching and interactions with students?

PZ: One thing I have learned in my 7 years as an envoy is the importance of humility. Part of this humility is understanding that the world is a very big place, and much more complicated than what is represented by The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Economist. Before I go to any country, I usually know six to eight months in advance, and the reason for so much advance notice is I spend six to seven months reading as much as I can about that country. For example, before I went to Ukraine, I read 20 to 25 books about Ukraine, plus I read in-country websites. That’s the kind of preparation that’s required, because we’re not just traveling. We’re working there. You have to understand what are the problems, what are the histories, what is happening in these countries. It’s very critical to understand what one does not understand, and to be humble about it and to never assume what you think you know is in any way a good place to start. I always start from the opposite direction, that there’s a lot to learn, and I need to be a question-asker. What I think I bring back to Ithaca as a result of this is, first, the absolute necessity and urgency for every class I teach to be international in focus and to decenter American and Eurocentrism. Number two, I’m very insistent in my classes and with my students to be careful about language; what we call something. The example I would give you is, in my field, we no longer use the term “foreign film” because it creates an “us” and a “them”. We use the term “international cinema.” We must be cognizant that the language we use has political impacts that we may not be aware of. I’ve spent a lot of my career working in different parts of the globe where I have to be very aware of what I say as a white American. The third takeaway is that what I’ve seen is people around the world who are living in incredible environments of political upheaval and transition, oppression and censorship, and what I’m now convinced of is that technology does not matter. What matters is having clarity that democratic communication can be made no matter what technology you have. I’m in places where people are dealing with revolutions and struggles for democracy, and the last thing I hear about is technology. What everyone talks about is ideas and arguments and how to analyze, and I’ve seen works produced in all of these countries that astonish me and humble me. Ideas, politics, struggle, concepts and analysis produce media. One young man I met in Guinea said to me, “In Guinea, we do not make films to change the world the way American communications students talk. We make documentaries to remake the world we want to live in here.” Very powerful. … The objective is to expand the public sphere to recover stories that are suppressed, repressed or made invisible, to widen a space for dialogue in hopes that there will be a recovery of a civil society that might lead to more democracy. I never hear questions about technology or festivals. It’s always about what can journalism and documentary and new media art do to combat repression, oppression and suppression of ideas.

Shared Governance Task Force Unable to Adjust Power of President

After the Ithaca College Shared Governance Task Force released an updated shared governance proposal on March 22 based on feedback from the campus community, criticisms remain about the power the Ithaca College Board of Trustees and the President’s Council still have in the draft — a consistent concern since the beginning of the process.

The proposal made small clarifications from the original but made no significant changes to the shared governance structure itself, attracting the criticism of faculty. The drafts proposed the creation of the College Governance Council, made up of faculty, staff, students, the provost and the vice president of finance and administration. The original draft required any proposal made by the Faculty Council, Staff Council, Administrative Council, or Student Governance Council to be approved by the CGC. In the new draft, only proposals that would affect multiple constituency groups would have to go through the CGC. However, neither the original proposal nor the updated draft states that proposals from the President’s Council or the board of trustees would have to be approved by the CGC. This was and still is the main source of criticism of the proposal, especially among faculty.

Jason Freitag, associate professor in the Department of History and Faculty Council member, said he was frustrated that this draft did not address concerns that the President’s Council was not involved enough in the shared governance process.

“The draft leaves the president and the president’s council off in a kind of space on their own,” Freitag said. “So they get to approve or deny things that come up from below, but [the draft] made no attempt to bring them into the loop of sharing what they were thinking of, so therefore, it didn’t actually change anything about the nature of governance on campus.”

Claire Gleitman, professor in the Department of English, said she had similar concerns.

“As far as I can tell, it does not place the highest level of administrative decision-making in conversation with other constituencies,” Gleitman said. “It doesn’t put those other constituencies at the table where ultimate decisions are made.”

Junior Michele Hau, member of the Shared Governance Task Force, said the concern that the President’s Council and the board of trustees would still be making top-down decisions even with the creation of the CGC has been discussed by the task force. However, she said that because the president and the board of trustees have to make substantial decisions that have the power to affect the long-term health of the college, the task force felt it would not be wise to require these sometimes confidential or sensitive decisions to be discussed publicly among other constituent groups.

She said that while the President’s Council and the board of trustees are not required to submit their proposals through the CGC, it would still be in their best interest to do so, especially with projects that will affect many people on campus, to see how it would be received.

Hau said the task force also does not have the legal power to take away decision-making power from the President’s Council or the board of trustees. The Ithaca College Policy Manual states that the president’s duties, without limitation, include institutional, faculty, educational leadership and decision-making.

David Prunty, executive director of auxiliary services and task force member, echoed Hau and said the task force was limited in what they could change regarding the President’s Council due to this policy.

“I believe our interpretation is that we can’t lessen the power of the trustees or the administration, who the trustees delegate that power to,” Prunty said.

Freitag said he does not think the power of the President’s Council would be affected in order for them to be more involved in shared governance, like submitting its proposals through the CGC.

“To say that those groups need reach out to the stakeholders affected does nothing to change the ultimate power they have to make a decision, but it involves them in an earlier process of policy-making and sharing with the campus,” he said.

Prunty said the updated draft was based on feedback from the entire campus. He said the critique that the President’s Council needed to be more involved in the CGC proposal process was not expressed by everyone, despite many faculty expressing this concern as reported by The Ithacan.

“There was a lot of feedback,” Prunty said. “Just because there’s certain people saying certain things doesn’t mean that’s coming from the entire campus. That feedback came from certain corners and certain groups and did not come at all from other areas.”

Members of the Faculty Council have been among the most vocal critics of the proposal, and on April 4, the councilvoted in favor of tabling the shared governance proposal until Shirley Collado, the incoming ninth president of Ithaca College, comes into office on July 1.

Gleitman said she wholeheartedly agrees with the Faculty Council’s resolution.

“It seems appropriate to delay making major changes to our governance structure until the new president is in place and can play a key role in conversations about how to move forward,” Gleitman said.

However, Marieme Foote, president of the Student Governance Council and member of the Shared Governance Task Force, said she disagrees with the Faculty Council’s decision.

“We didn’t want the president super involved in this process,” she said. “We wanted it to come from the bottom up, from the constituencies on campus.”

She said the task force would be very open to receiving feedback from Collado once she begins her term but that they do not want her to be an integral piece of the process.

Prunty said the current proposal is only the second draft and that the final proposal will be submitted to the board of trustees at its meeting in May. He said the task force is currently getting a second round of feedback from the campus community and would not rule out more changes to the proposal.

Sophomore FYRE program could be created at Ithaca College

The Office of Residential Life is considering creating a sophomore residential program similar to the First-Year Residential Experience, the residential community program that is mandatory for all incoming freshmen.

The office hosted focus groups Feb. 20 and 21 to collect student feedback on current sophomore housing and ideas for what students would like to see in an FYRE-type program for sophomores.

Jacqueline Winslow, assistant director of residential education in Residential Life, said this program is just in the brainstorming stage right now and that nothing is established.

“It’s just so new,” Winslow said. “We don’t know what direction it’s going to go in. We have a long ways to go to sort out the details.”

The idea of a sophomore residential experience was a part of IC 20/20, the collegewide strategic vision approved in 2011, out of which came the FYRE and the ICC in 2013. Winslow said that up until now, the FYRE was Residential Life’s top priority, but this past semester has seen the most brainstorming and attention given to the sophomore program.

If a sophomore program does get created, it will not be until the 2018–19 school year at the earliest, Winslow said. This is because of the budget cycle. Residential Life would have to put in a request for money this coming October to create the program, and those funds would not go into effect until the following year.

Winslow said that right now, there are two different ideas about how the program would look. The first would be similar to the current FYRE. There would be a couple of buildings set aside for a sophomore residential experience, which students could opt into, and specific resources would be dedicated to those communities.

The second would be an expansion of the current residential learning community program. There are currently 10 residential learning communities that students can apply to join — such as the Organic Gardening & Cooking Community and the Interfaith Residential Learning Community — and Winslow said they could expand the program by three or four more options. She said some of the possible additions that students have shown interest in are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer allies, African diaspora and women in leadership communities.

Some of the students who spoke at a focus group last week said they would be interested in a sophomore residential experience if it were offered.

“It gives people the opportunity to expand their social networks with people who are in similar situations,” sophomore Danielle Tull said.

Sophomore Christopher DiNapoli also said he would be in favor of creating a sophomore residential program as long as it is not as limiting as the FYRE. He said the FYRE did not allow students as much interaction with upperclassmen as he would have liked and that he enjoys the freedom and independence of living in sophomore housing.

Winslow said whatever the form the new sophomore program takes, it would not be mandatory, leaving the option for students to live under the same system that is in place now — simply residing in Terraces, Emerson Hall and limited apartments.

IC Professors Reflect on Mental Health Statements on Syllabi

Though Ithaca College does not have a college-wide policy on the matter, many faculty members provide statements on their syllabi about mental health and resources for students seeking help as demand for psychological services is increasing nationwide.

Other schools around the country have policies in place recommending professors address mental health on the syllabus. In January, Northwestern University’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution recommending professors put statements on their syllabi. Ohio State University approved a similar resolution in November. SUNY Geneseo also encourages professors to make these statements, and it even provides a statement for professors to use.

While many faculty members at the college believe this is a good suggestion, some said they are worried that making these types of statements is not enough.

There have been more students seeking help for mental health concerns recently. Last semester, the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at Ithaca College saw a 15 percent increase in the number of students seeking counseling services, compared to in Fall 2015. The average level of counseling center usage by students nationwide increased by 30 percent from 2010 to 2015 while average enrollment grew by only 5 percent, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2015 annual report.

Most of the schools at the college already encourage their faculties to make statements about mental health in their syllabi, but none of them make it a requirement, according to the deans of each school.

Linda Petrosino, provost and vice president for educational affairs, said that while Ithaca College does not have a policy about professors putting such statements on their syllabi, faculty are free to insert whatever statements on their syllabi that they believe will be useful for their students.

James Rada, associate professor of journalism, said he has been making sure students know about mental health resources available to them for years.

“I’ve always had them in there, for over 20 years,” Rada said. “I always think any time you put info out there, the more you know, and the better off you are.”

Deborah Harper, director of CAPS at the college, said the center puts out a statement about mental health and available resources on Intercom every year, which professors can use. Harper said CAPS has been sending out these statements since 2009. Although CAPS does not keep track of how many professors actually use that statement, Harper said the Intercom post always has a large number of page views.

“We have a large number of faculty allies,” Harper said. “They know that we have students in distress, and they call and consult us.”

Harper also said many professors refer students seeking assistance to CAPS and that some professors will even walk students over to the CAPS offices themselves.

Sophomore Emma Nigrosh said she appreciates seeing a statement about mental health on the syllabus.

“I think it’s really helpful for students to see mental health statements on the syllabus because mental health and mental illness go hand in hand with education,” Nigrosh said. “College is extremely stressful, and to see a professor go out of their way to put mental health statements on syllabi is really comforting.”

Nigrosh also said it should be required for professors to include mental health statements because doing so not only helps students who are struggling with mental health issues, but it also helps bridge the gap between professors and students and makes professors seem more accessible.

However, for some, putting a statement about mental health on the syllabus is not enough. Katherine Cohen-Filipic, assistant professor of sociology who specializes in mental health, said she fears the syllabus is not the most effective place to communicate about the issue because many students often ignore most of what is on the syllabus.

“I’m not sure how good a job it does on its own,” Cohen-Filipic said. “The conversation shouldn’t stop on just the syllabus. A brief statement about it on the first day of class would be better.”

Sophomore Alaina Richey said she would also like to see professors do more for their students than just include a simple statement on the syllabus.

“I do think it’s good for students to see the mental health statements on the syllabus; however, I don’t think it is upheld by faculty,” Richey said. “In my experience, some professors aren’t very understanding when it comes to mental health.”

She also said that she would like to see professors be more open to helping students seek help with mental health issues and to not be skeptical of students if they come to them with mental health concerns.

Cohen-Filipic said she believes making a mental health statement on the syllabus mandatory would lead some professors to think that it would be enough to put resources on the syllabus and not mention it in class at all.

“People are often looking for quick solutions to big problems,” Cohen-Filipic said.

Harper also said she was uneasy about making such a statement mandatory, saying that it would be too hard to enforce and that she does not really view it as necessary.

“I would like to see a campus community that’s caring and informed about how to help,” Harper said. “It’s great that we have faculty who are willing to help.”

Rada said helping students get the assistance they need is a priority.

“A lot of students aren’t aware of resources available to them — that’s the big one,” Rada said. “Once you bring up that there’s resources available, that’s important.”

Eagle Scout Project Brings Stories to the Rail Trail

If you’ve been down to the rail trail near Cross Street recently, you might have noticed some new sign posts on both sides of the trail. These posts are part of an Eagle Scout project organized by Jamie Ogilvie of Troop 73 which displays picture books for passersby to enjoy.

Jamie, a senior at Holliston High School, said that when he approached the Rail Trail Committee about doing his Eagle Scout project to benefit the trail, committee member Robert Wideneck already had several project ideas, but the story walk was the most intriguing to him.

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“I always liked reading a lot as a kid,” said Jamie. “I realized that it was more of an engineering problem, and, since I want to be an engineer, I leapt at it.”

The project was completed in multiple phases. The first phase, which involved the instillation of the sign posts, took about two weekends and was finished in mid-November. Jamie said that this part of the process was made much easier by Mr. Wideneck and the rest of the committee because they had already set down the foundation for the installation.

The second phase, which was the preparation and installation of the display cases and story book itself, took a little longer. This was because Jamie and those from the scout troop that helped him had to figure out a way to mount the book’s pages and keep them safe. Eventually, the entire project was completed on December 30th, just in time for the New Year’s Eve walk.

“We had a small army here, and a lot of very confused bikers who were trying to dodge all of our equipment,” said Jamie about the installation process.

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The story walk’s location, at the intersection of the trail and Cross St., is nice because the trail is very well lit during the day, so it is very easy to see the stories, Jamie said. Although the trail was lit during the New Year’s Eve walk, Jamie said that they do not have any plans to install permanent lights on the displays.

Right now, the story walk features the children’s book The Mitten by Jan Brett. The story is an old Ukrainian folktale about a little boy who loses his new mitten in the snow, only for the woodland animals to find it. Jamie said that he picked The Mitten because he was looking for a book with a winter theme, and it was one of his favorite stories growing up.

Jamie also said that the stories on display will rotate, and they are planning on showing about four stories a year. The Friends of the Library group will provide and pay for the books themselves, while the Holliston Lions Club will most likely be the ones who maintain the trail and change the books in the displays.

The Friends of the Library will soon have a link on their website to donate to maintaining the story walk, according to Jamie. You can also join their mailing list for more information.