College Corner: Interview with Robert Rehak, Professor of English Literature

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Professor Bob Rehak, originally hired as a visiting professor last fall, just accepted a tenure-track position as a Professor of English Literature at Swarthmore. The Daily Gazette caught up with him at the Kohlberg Coffee Bar.

DG: We’re somewhat confused–are you involved in Film and Media Studies, or English Literature?

BR: Well, I’ll actually start by correcting you as I was corrected, because there is no Film and Media Studies department. It is a program within the English department, There’s no real reason for it to be in the English department, but thats just the way it happened. In other words, Film and Media is done in a lot of different places in a lot of different homes, but here it is in the English department, and that means it is a pretty small set up. There is Professor White, Professor Sunka Simon, and there is me, and–I wouldn’t say we are the core, but we are the most centrally identified with film and media. The actual program is made up of professors from all different departments. We’ve got people from Sociology and Anthropology, Women’s Studies, Japanese, and other departments, and they all come together to teach our courses.

DG: What do you see your role at Swarthmore and within the English department as being, particularly now that you will be at Swarthmore for the long haul?

BR: Let me be clear, probably of all the people involved in the program I’m one of the more exclusively Film and Media Studies faculty. While some professors will teach their subjects, and then teach the overlap with film and media, I only do film and media. Who knows–in years to come, I might branch out, because I do have some other interests that I’ve talked about with other faculty here, but for now I’m a film and media guy.

DG: Within Film and Media Studies, what do you see as your speciality?

BR: Well, the way that I am kind of profiled professionally, what I put on my CV or introduce myself to a committee, is specializing in new media. My early training way in studying video games, that is what brought me to graduate school. Since then, I’ve gotten interested in the connected fields like animation, television, and special effects. All of those things fall into certain similar areas of overlap. You talk about digital stuff and animation, it leads to special effects.

BR: I reject being called cutting-edge, though. You can always spot someone who is not cutting-edge because they call themselves cutting-edge. It’s not a great label. But in terms of film and media, I’m more into contemporary work.

DG: From your vantage point, how do you see Swarthmore students and faculty interacting with this new media?

BR: That is on my mind right now. I’m teaching a class called Television and New Media, and the course was really conceived because there is a big hole in the department. There is no television courses. But I didn’t just want to do a history of television, starting with the fifties. Instead, I wanted to start with what is happening now–YouTube, and MySpace, and other current ways in which digital and television medias are kind of talking to each other, and diverging, and broadcasting and narrowcasting each other. And I’ve found that the students are really excited and receptive about it.

BR: The short answer is that I think people are enthusiastic. The longer answer is that Swarthmore is an unusual student population. I have learned that you don’t all have the same kind of pop culture investment that I had. I kind of grew up on a diet of junk which I now study professionally: comic books, and video games. And I think at Swarthmore most students are coming from a slightly more cultured place. They might not have wallowed in horror movies the way I did when i was a kid. I think that Swarthmore has students who are not really embracing their pop-culture love.

BR: Coming from the other side, I think students are tremendously invested in everything we do online, from web-design to pod-casting to MySpace and social networking sites. Everyone in the class is in Facebook, a third in MySpace.

DG: So how does this change your approach to class?

BR: Coming from English Literature, the goal of an undergraduate education is to shed light on where students are in their daily activities. I tend to walk into my classes assuming the students are already users of and viewers of media. My goal is to provide historical background and critical frameworks for understanding. To deepen what they are already doing. I think of it as training at a critical distance, and crafting the ability to articulate arguments to themselves and to each other.

DG: Have you had much experience with the use of these technologies on campus at all?

BR: Sure. This class was designed so that a large amount of it would be student created. So I’ve been having students record podcasts, they are about four-per-week. At first I wanted to keep it private, because I didn’t want people to feel intimidated. Now I think it is the opposite. Now that the students are generating all this great, insightful stuff, they want it to get out there. I’m trying to find out how to put up an RSS feed, and just expanding access, but I’m not sure about Blackboard. When I teach the course again in the Spring, I’m going to aim to have a bit more robust use of these tools. But to return to your question. I didn’t want it to be a top-down lecture, and I try to come in armed with student’s pod-casts and blogs. And I try to encourage them to bring the conversation online. It isn’t working like any class I’ve taught before, and I think that is a good sign.

DG: Do you use these technologies on your own outside of class?

BR: Not as much as I probably should. I’ve wanted to become a blogger, and yet I’ve not quite taken that leap. I’m just getting around to setting up a faculty profile on Swarthmore’s server. I came in in 1998, 1999, and I swear back then it was so weird the idea of doing things through email! In those eight-nine years, its completely changed how we teach. I find myself, even though I thought I was hip, I’m catching up. And part of that is in purporting to be a new media scholar and realizing there are a number of tools I’m not availing myself of. When I have to research, I go to the library! Still, I’m increasingly staying at home and using the internet for my research. And I hate to admit it, but I’m using Wikipedia a lot. I am at war with myself. In the academy, we are trained to kind of beat Wikipedia out of students. But the problem is, while there is truth to that–if I got a paper that was exclusively Wikimedia linked, I would reject it–but at the same time, for starting a project, for narrowing it down, or for generating ideas, I can think of nothing better then to go online and play around with Google.

BR: I have the feeling that the world is moving faster now than I can keep up with, and I love it. I feel like, as a media scholar you can kind of surf that wave.

DG: If you were going to make a prediction, where would you say the industry is going?

BR: The one thing I’ve learned is not to make predictions, because you are always wrong five years from now. It makes me very edgy in my work when I am writing, because you never want to say “in five years from now, video games will be at point x.” I would say that I think we are headed … well. New media are coming along, and they always seem to move faster, to offer more options, to speak to people more individually than the media before them did. I can safely make a prediction that more of that is going to happen. At the same time, the old form survives. Movies and television are migrating to the video iPod screen, but that doesn’t really change the fact that Friends or Heroes will keep coming out. It just comes to us through new channels.

2) Bar-David, Sato explore cello-piano repertoire

by Micaela Baranello
Chief Copy Editor

On Thursday night, cellist Ohad Bar-David and pianist Keiko Sato played a substantial and varied recital in Lang Concert Hall. The program included sonatas for cello and piano by Brahms and Shostakovich, Schumann’s “Five Pieces the the Folk Style,” op. 102, and short pieces by Granados and Cassado.

The Schumann pieces were appealingly tuneful and sometimes showed the odd metric divisions of their folk inspiration. Though perhaps sometimes lacking in the compact emotional precision of Schumann’s best small-scale works, they were winningly performed here. Their reliance on the different registers of the cello ideally suited Bar-David’s tone, deep and rich in its lower notes and silvery in the higher registers.

Brahm’s Sonata in e minor, op. 38 is an unusual piece in that it doesn’t really have a slow movement. Bar-David and Sato played the turbulent music with the intensity and commitment it demanded.

After intermission came Shostakovich’s Sonata in d minor, op. 40. Bar-David described the piece as severe, but compared to most of the composer’s work, it seemed surprisingly peaceful and at times almost happy (with the definite exception of a tense episode in the first movement). Its last movement was the concert’s fastest and most athletic piece, and gave Sato a star moment. For most of the concert she seemed somewhat in Bar-David’s shadow both in dynamics and dramatic focus.

The concert closed with two short and light Spanish pieces, which Bar-David and Sato played with a verve and spontaneity exceeding that of most of the more serious works.

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