The Black Mark
At times you dream you’re with someone. For example, your father. In seconds, he becomes your mother… and then, the news vendor on the corner. Yet you still feel as if you’re talking to the same person. You thought you were at home, but suddenly you realize you’re in a school. Or a hospital, or a prison. Dreams are like that. And at times the mind behaves as if it were in a dream.” – Chete Lera as Antonio, Open Your Eyes, 1997
This film is similar to Blade Runner (1982) and Source Code (2011) in its examination of unchangeable fate and disposable people. Psychologists struggle for years to prove findings using rigorous scientific methods and scatter charts, but the most backhanded insinuations in films like these often seem to provide a more accurate framing of the inner workings of the human mind. Woke up from a dream last August that I had built an armature of clay. It looked pretty good to me, until my teacher came to see it. The sneer on his face gave me fresh perspective. Suddenly I hated the thing I had made. I put it down and walked away. The teacher was one of my former instructors at Rochester Institute of Technology. His sneer is one I’ve seen too often, considering he’s younger than me and we both started R.I.T. the same year. We have another thing in common: to date, neither of us has earned our Master’s Degree.
Two years after graduating college in 2007, I was accepted into Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Film and Animation. It was a dream-come-true of sorts, a belated pat-on-the-head to a 20-years-younger me. For my Bachelor of Arts degree, I had not been able to major in film making because I was a transfer student, so I focused on writing and research, decoding the social meaning of the moving image rather than producing it. The only class that didn’t transfer from Columbia College was my Screenwriting class. Though I looked at other Master’s degree offerings, I was steered toward the MFA program because I had made several award-winning animated short films already that were in film festivals that year. Suddenly, I was among much younger students who had never edited 16 mm film on a Steenbeck with a razor blade, who didn’t know what a kodalith was. As the bulk of my core curriculum, I was expected to learn computer software. It seemed challenging, but I was enthusiastic. Two years into the program, the Acting Dean had to set me straight about what I was trying to accomplish because, for some reason, my academic advisor didn’t do that when I was first starting out.
Two dreams common to all students sneak into popular films. In one, you get caught naked in front of everyone, whether they can see you or not. In the other one, you just can’t get to class on time for the Final Exam. Maybe you wake up on the wrong side of town or in another state, or your alarm won’t go off at the right time, or you’re running through mud. These dreams have become cliché because for some reason, everyone has them. My dream was special: there was a doll in it whose face I don’t remember, and a teacher who judged it who in real life has no business judging puppets because his expertise is in Maya. In fact, he has no business judging me, but because I got an “F” in his class, I was suspended from school. I originally wrote about this dream last August 19th in a post entitled “School is No Fun” where I discussed feeling out of place in the MFA program as it was being taught due to my age, and my meeting with the Department Chair, who wanted me to feel the stigma of being a “bad student,” after which I had the odd premonition I would not succeed, no matter how hard I tried or how well I managed to do.
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Sometimes you just know a teacher doesn’t like you. Stephanie was tough, but the toughest part about getting through her class was that she doesn’t let you know what you’re doing wrong. I got to see her doing this to other students, both graduate and undergraduate, usually white females. If she doesn’t want you to make it, she just “doesn’t like your project.” She doesn’t have to give you a reason because she’s the Head of the Animation Department. I got the cold pricklies from Stephanie the very first time I sent her an email in 2009. It concerned scheduling my courses, and if I could select certain ones based on the time of day they were offered. Being a single parent, I had to take someone else’s needs into account so I thought it was a fair question, but I got no response. Maybe that was when the die was cast.
And, ultimately, I was strung along like a puppet, led to believe that there was a chance I could still make it through the program when I went in to meet with the Department Chair in May 2012. I was accepted back into the program on Academic Probation, which meant my grade point average could not fall below 3.0 for 3 consecutive quarters. The rule is, to get your MFA in Animation, you had to pass the 2Q to continue the program. Since, from my observations of other students struggling with her and from my own experience, I was pretty sure I would have a difficult time getting through Stephanie’s class, I tried to get a different faculty member to supervise my progress in that class. His name is Tom, he’s senior faculty and he teaches puppets and armatures, but he declined. “I only work with the thesis students,” he said.
Push came to shove. When I wound up in her class again this past Winter quarter, she began verbally abusing me in the classroom, and I went to him once more. At this point, he has been promoted to Department Head and, while I still couldn’t take the 2Q with a different instructor, he told me to send him my work in various stages of completion. “Just do the best you can and get it in the screenings, and you’ll be fine,” he lied. I believed him of course, because when you’re in school you have to trust your teachers in order to learn.
So I followed Tom’s instructions carefully, got my film finished and into the screenings and about a week later went online to check my grade. That bitch had given me a “C” which was just low enough that I was instantly suspended. Five days later, I was withdrawn immediately from my Spring quarter classes without a hearing on my grade. She had no decent explanation for giving me a “C” instead of a “B” for a grade, except that “she didn’t like” my work. There was no rubric for her grades, no written critique, nothing. Being little more than a bridge troll, how has this so-called teacher been earning her paycheck over these past 20 years?
But here’s where the doll comes in: when we finally had the hearing about my grade a month ago, I brought my Doll. He was an alien-looking guy named Adam, made out of self-hardening clay. Tom sat next to me. He was fascinated with the puppet I had made, took him in his hands and tried to manipulate the arm, breaking it off at the bicep. “Oh, sorry!” he said, obtusely. “I thought you had made an armature for it.” Adam is an old, brittle little puppet I made the first time I tried to go through Stephanie’s 2Q class in Fall 2010. Back then, I brought him in to show her with a bunch of other models I made at our first project meeting, and she didn’t want to see any of them. As I was walking through her office door, she told me she didn’t like my story concept and insisted it would never work. So she never saw the sad little dolls I made. I was sad then, too, and felt like my project would surely fail, which was one reason I withdrew from all my classes that quarter. The next time I brought Adam to one of Stephanie’s classes was more than 2 years later, because after being verbally abused by her in class, I felt like my doll wanted to come along for the purpose of being there for me its creator and to prove, among other things, that as much as bad teachers hate them, good ideas never die, and that all good animation is not done using computers, that people are not puppets, that many types of animation qualify as “fine art” and that you can’t and shouldn’t force everyone to study the same thing and insist that they become experts without proper training by real teachers.
The irony is, all my award-winning short animated films were either stop-motion or cut paper. My first year in the SoFA MFA program I never had the opportunity to take the classes I needed to make a stop-motion 2Q film with puppets and armatures. The dolls I made for my first 2Q project couldn’t move at all; they were statues, and I was never able to present them to my instructor (Stephanie) for feedback because she didn’t want to see them. I did not have advising in my project or in my course of study the entire time I went to Rochester Institute of Technology. Nonetheless, despite being advised by the Acting Dean that I should have spent my time and tuition money improving skills I already possessed when I entered the MFA program, he also told me not to contest the “F” I received in a Maya class I should not have been in because he said I would alienate my professors and no one would want to work with me. I don’t know what kind of teacher Tom would have been (like the film referenced at the top, where Cesar imagines he’s in a relationship with Sophia, but he’s only been with Nuria), and now I guess I’ll never get the chance to take his stop motion and armature building classes because I was suspended from the program after successfully completing and screening an AfterEffects project and getting a “C” for it.
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There is no winning in this program, and very little learning. You don’t have time to do truly excellent work on your own. The teachers either like you or they don’t. The other students will either help you through the program, or they won’t. The Master of Fine Arts program at Rochester Institute of Technology is nothing more than a ruse to take money from people in a certain age group because, from my experience, the teaching staff there has nothing to offer but a snub. And for those alumnis who have “achieved” a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Film and Animation, look at the wording on your document carefully: Congratulations, you have a degree from the School of Photography!