Finding a Passion Across Disciplines: An interview with Paul Rogalus

To explore the possibilities of interdisciplinarity in my fields of study, creative writing, film, and art, I interviewed Professor Paul Rogalus, an English professor here at Plymouth State University. I chose to interview Professor Rogalus because of his enthusiasm for creative writing, which I have experienced firsthand, and his love of film. Both of these interests will be essential for my major.

Paul Rogalus, courtesy of Rebecca Rand

Paul Rogalus, courtesy of Rebecca Rand

It was about two in the afternoon on a Tuesday when I approached his office. I could already see movie posters on the walls outside of the office and through the open door. I walked in and shook his hand, introducing myself and telling him the purpose for this interview. The walls were covered in film posters, 360° around us. I’m surprised there weren’t any on the ceiling, too. I recognized most of them; among them were celebrated films like The Shining and Pulp Fiction.

We sat there for some time talking about open mic poetry nights at Burrito Me and favorite directors and what movies they made. Then, when we were ready, I started asking my questions.

My first round of questions led to stories about Rogalus’s undergraduate college education, what majors he explored and switched between. He began his college education majoring in Journalism at the University of Rhode Island. Being a student from Connecticut, he wouldn’t have gotten an in-state price tag on URI, except that the state school there didn’t have a journalism program. As long as he was majoring in Journalism at URI, he could get an in-state rate. This prompted him to major in Journalism and something else every time he switched his major. When he had first gone to college, he’d thought he would be a sports writer for a newspaper, then realized that was a career he wouldn’t enjoy. Later on in the conversation, Paul revealed that he had only ever taken one journalism class in college. Journalism didn’t seem to be the right fit, and Paul ended up exploring Sociology, Theater, and English as well. Paul settled on English in his senior year, influenced by the novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

ME: “Did you know what you were going to do with your degree when you graduated?”

PAUL: “No! No, in fact the day after I got my undergraduate degree, I hitchhiked across the country with a friend of mine. We left Connecticut, ended up in Montana, and it was partly because I didn’t really want to think about getting a job that was . . . what I was going to do for the rest of my life. . . . I spent . . . four months in Montana, came back to Connecticut and had a couple of really cruddy jobs. . . . And then I realized that I wanted to go back to school. So, I went back to graduate school. I went to Boston College, and even then I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do.”

Paul went on to tell me how while he was in Boston, he did some substitute teaching and realized that teaching was what he liked, though teaching in a city like that wasn’t for him. “Teaching middle school [and high school] in Boston . . . was scary. . . . I actually went from being a substitute teacher to getting a reading class because the reading teacher was poisoned by a couple of her students. They put photocopy fluid in her coffee, and when she got out of the hospital she didn’t want her job back. . . . One of my better students tried to sell me a handgun. He was in the eighth grade, and he had two other jobs, but that was one of them, he sold guns.” After that experience, Paul decided to go on to get his PhD so that he could teach college, where hopefully students wouldn’t try to sell him handguns or poison him with photocopier fluid. He learned some skills from his teaching job in Boston that he still uses in the courses he teaches at PSU. He also uses his teaching experiences and his experience at those “really cruddy jobs” in his writing.

When asked what his favorite thing to teach was, Paul replied, “Film. I teach quite a few different film classes. Right now, I’m teaching two classes [related to film]. . . . One of them is the Art of Film, which I developed myself. It’s a gen. ed. class. I love that. The other one is for English majors. It’s upper level; it’s Film Maker’s Vision. . . . It starts where the Art of Film . . . leaves off, so I love them both. The first film class I got to teach here . . . was Intro to Film.” Paul talked about how he loves the visual aspects of film, how directors use camera angles, shot distance, camera placement, etc. and how that differed from how the other professor teaching Intro to Film approached it. The other professor focused more on the historical aspect as well as the criticism of film. From this, Paul decided to take his approach and create a new course: The Art of Film. “I like the Art of Film because I get to meet students from just about every major. They all have some kind of an interest in film. Most of them have seen more movies than I have. . . . They end up getting kind of excited about that whole idea of directors using mise-en-scène composition and setting up shots. . . . That’s my favorite stuff to teach.”

On the subject of his work in English outside of his teaching career, Paul told me that he likes to write original creative pieces. “Screenplays, short screenplays, plays, short plays, and a lot of micro fiction and flash fiction. That’s where my interest is. So when I’m not teaching . . . that’s what I want to do. . . . About a year ago I published an article about cult movies getting turned into stage plays.”

ME: “Have you ever actually worked with directors, in [the] film [industry]?”

PAUL: “A little bit, but it didn’t work so well. There was a director that wanted to film a couple of my short films, and then – he was really hard to work with.  . . . Neither one of [the short films] ever got finished. I’ve written some short screenplays that have won contests at film festivals. The film festival was in Toronto. Part of what happens there is directors get to meet writers. There was interest in this film, but . . . a short film’s not going to make money, and so if a director gets an opportunity to work on a bigger film, they’re going to get money. My ten minute film kept getting put on the back burner. So . . . no? Even though I’ve won a few different film festival contests, I’ve actually done better with my plays. . . . I had a few plays that I . . . turned into screenplays. . . . At least the plays, a few of them have been done in New York. I guess there’s maybe a lot more competition with screenplays.”

At my mention of interdisciplinary work, Paul talked excitedly about all the things people can do with creative writing. “I love cross-discipline. . . . There’s performance poetry, and some of the stuff that even happens at the open mics, it’s – like at the last one, a guy played weird music while he read, and we’ve done things with two different people reading on two different sides of the room. . . . I love when you can mix medias. I’ve done stuff . . . with the dance program, I guess you can say that I choreographed [a poem]. . . . I had a plot, I had poetry that [was voiced over], I had music that went with it, so it was theater, it was dance, it came from a poem, and it had music. I like that, connecting the worlds. . . . I would like to get back and do some work with the dance program, because that’s so cool! Sometimes it’s theater with no words!”

When I asked him about changes in his field, Paul told me that different art forms like film and animation are starting to overlap with literature, creating things like graphic novels. To bring it all together, we need to learn the technology within other fields to integrate these different art forms. It’s exciting, but it’s a challenge for a changing world. Other long-running challenges Paul discussed are the drop in female directors and the money-making issue with film. In his higher-level class Filmmaker’s Vision, he teaches different directors and even addresses these issues. He’s always looking for new directors to explore.

ME: “What courses do you recommend your English students take outside of their own field of study?”

PAUL: “It’s an individual situation, it’s what you’re interested in. If I were an English major student, I’d definitely want to take some art classes. So much of [film] is just like painting.”

Usually when students sit in a professor’s office for a full hour, it isn’t for fun reasons; however, I enjoyed conversation with this very engaging professor. I learned a lot about the endless field of possibilities for creative writing and different ways of looking at film and its history. We share a passion for literary and visual texts, where people can make an impact in creative ways, whether political, social, or just for entertainment. I hope to take Paul’s stories and passion and make it into something more with a career of my own.

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