By Ramona Sav Nolan
February 11, 2011
Richard Wolff is a Professor of Speech, Media Studies, and Dramatic Arts at Dowling College. The following interview will give its readers an insight into Dr. Wolff’s interests and life experiences.
Favorite quote: “It ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” ––Rocky Balboa
1. What was your original major in college?
I double-majored in Media Production Arts and Theology. I think there is something that those disciplines have in common—they’re both concerned with things that connect people: the media and God. I think I’m drawn to both subjects for that reason…I look to make connections.
2. Why did you choose to become a professor?
I really like sharing what I’ve learned with others and, even more than that, sharing the passion I have for what I’ve learned. I hope I do both in the classroom and in my writing. I also like being part of an academic institution, a place where people share ideas.
3. What should students look forward to when signing up for one of your classes?
I try to make my classes interactive, challenging, energetic, and fun. I also try to stress how students can apply what they learn in my classes to their career and personal life.
4. What is the most rewarding part about your profession?
Seeing students go on after my classes and become a success in their profession. It’s richly rewarding to have students stay in touch and share what they’re doing and how they’re applying what they learned in my classes.
5. Do you have any suggestions to improve Dowling College?
One suggestion I have is to increase opportunities for student-faculty interaction. The cafeteria is a good start, but it’s got a rather loud and chaotic atmosphere. A lounge, perhaps, where students and faculty could meet and interact between classes would be nice. Advising is one place where this interaction happens, and I enjoy that time with students. A lounge, however, would be more informal and allow for more easy-going conversation and interaction.
6. Do you have any advice for students about to be graduated?
Be patient, hard as that may be. If you put in your time into school, you’ve learned the skills you need for success; and you’ll achieve what you’d like in your professional and personal life.
7. Do you have any advice for freshman students?
I know many students think of college as a passage, a means to an end. It’s fine for college to serve this purpose, but it’s not just preparatory. It’s also a valuable experience in and of itself. This is your chance to explore ideas and new experiences. Students sometimes think school is valuable only to prepare them for “the real world.” In many ways, this is the real world. It’s a place where you’re valued for who you are and your willingness to grow; it’s about considering what is good and right and beautiful and true. Yes, think of your college experience as preparing you for something; but see it also as a worthy experience in and of itself––a place to stop and contemplate the world and your role in it.
8. What are you most proud of?
My book, published this past year: The Church on TV: Portrayals of Priests, Pastors and Nuns on American Television Series. That took a large chunk of my life to research and write. I started studying the topic back in graduate school. It involved a lot of travel and research. I have a new respect for television researchers. In order to be comprehensive, you have to see every episode of every program that meets your research criteria. My book included more than 25 programs, many of which had several seasons. These included programs such as The Flying Nun, Going My Way, M*A*S*H, The Father Dowling Mysteries, Amen, and 7th Heaven. To see every episode, many of which are not available on DVD, I had to travel to the Library of Congress, the UCA Film and Television Archives, the Paley Center for Media in New York, and even beg or scheme to receive copies of otherwise unavailable programs from producers. I screened thousands of episodes and then had to thematize them all into categories for analysis. It was a daunting task, but I’m happy to say the research is as exhaustive as possible. It’s also the only work of its kind; many researchers have looked at depictions of religious figures in cinema, but no one has yet looked at fictional representations of religious leaders on TV. I’m proud of that.
9. What are you least proud of?
I guess if I have one regret in life, it would be that I waited so long to pursue what I’ve always known I wanted to do, and that’s boxing. I’d be very interested to know how far I could have taken it if I had started earlier, when I was young. In some ways, I should give myself a break. I tried learning here and there under various trainers throughout my life, but none of them inspired me like my current boxing coach. He’s an extremely good trainer who motivates me, challenges me, gives me great advice, and gives me confidence; he knows how hard I work at training and lets me know when my efforts pay off. He started when he was young, so boxing is in his blood; I regret not having starting earlier to give boxing more of a chance to become a part of who I am. I’m not proud of my procrastination, but I am proud of my accomplishments as a boxer now.
10. Do you have any guilty pleasure(s) or hobbies?
My hobby is boxing. I love it. Always have. Love the moves. Love the discipline it takes to be good. Love the feeling of power and humility it gives you. There’s a mutual respect that occurs between fighters, which is priceless; even when you’re just sparring, there’s a connection (there’s that word again): a state of being fully tuned in to another, a state of being fully tuned with another, and that’s rather spiritual. You’re appreciating the other’s strengths while trying to exploit their weaknesses, or turn what they think are their strengths into an opportunity to attack. You’re trying to outwit them; it’s a thinking man’s game that involves the whole person. And for those three minutes between bells, you’re totally focused, and you rely on nothing but yourself: your conditioning, strength, training, skill, and smarts.
As for guilty pleasures, I have a “soft spot” for strawberry frosted Pop-Tarts. For a guy who prides himself on staying fit and eating healthfully, I love my Pop-Tarts. At least I eat the low-fat version. I do my best writing fueled by all that sugar, so I eat a pair before heading to my computer every writing day.
11. Who is your favorite musician or artist?
I like contemporary classical, deep house, and organ music. I listen to Steve Reich, Blaze, Olivier Messiaen, Sigor Ros, Ned Rorem, Our Lady Peace, and Lisa Shaw.
12. What is your favorite book?
James Joyce’s Dubliners. I appreciate its insight into character, variety of tone, range of subject matter, and linguistic nuance. Is that a scholarly enough answer? Ha!
13. What is your favorite movie or television show?
Uh oh…now you’ve done it: asked a film and TV professor about favorites. Ha! I love Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; I go into something of a trance the moment it starts and remain in open-mouthed astonishment through the end. The film is thrilling, tender, and terrifying. There are portions that leave me breathless. One particular scene––where Kim Novak passes by Jimmy Stewart in a restaurant and they each do a half turn in opposite directions––is just perfect; the cutting transforms the momentum of one head turn into the other’s, establishing a deep romantic connection between the two, and it’s just brilliant.
14. What is the most romantic gesture you have ever done?
Sent a dozen roses after a first date, with a note that quoted a line from the lyrics to a song to which we had danced that night.
15. What are your thoughts about the afterlife?
I believe it exists, but I also believe we have no way of knowing what it will be.
16. How long have you been teaching at Dowling?
15 years. I teach classes in media studies, film, Alfred Hitchcock, video production, and speech. I also teach a First Year Experience seminar called Reporters’ Stories and a senior seminar called A Cultural History of Boxing.
17. What decision do you most regret? (asked by Dr. Rosenstreich)
I’m driven by progress…moving forward. I sometimes let it overtake me to the point that I don’t stop and accept limitations when I should. A year ago, I saw signs my body was having difficulty handling all the training––cardio, plyometric, weight, and boxing––that I was throwing at it. Stubbornly, I kept going. I developed injuries from which I’ve been recovering ever since. I regret not listening to my body sooner and trusting the signs that I should momentarily put my pursuit of progress aside, take a break, rest, and let myself heal. I’ve learned my lesson; even dedication should have limits, and rest is just as important as growth.
18. Where would you next like to visit? (Dr. Wilkens)
For me, it’s a question of where and when. I’ve been to all of the Scandinavian countries: Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. And I’ve been to Canada. But, I’d like to be in one of those places when the Northern Lights are active. To see the aurora borealis would be spectacular: colored lights that stretch out and fill the sky, reaching out like ghostly fingers overhead. But they don’t always shine; the trick is to be lucky enough to be in the right place when they’re active.
19. What, and where, was your most memorable meal? (Dr. Gidding)
A fifteen-course tasting menu meal with wine pairings at the Scandinavian-American restaurant Aquavit in Manhattan. To be all dressed up with my date and have all the waiters’ attention in a beautiful space with a two-story waterfall beside us, and to focus on nothing but the tastes of the amazingly prepared food and wine, was very memorable. It was an evening of enjoyment, culinary exploration, and romance.
20. If you were not an educator, what do you think you would be doing for a living instead? (Dr. McDonnell)
Realistically, I’d be a pastor. That’s what I first set out to be. There came a turning point once when I had to decide if I wanted to be a professor or continue towards ordination. I think I made the right choice, but I could have been just as happy as a pastor. In my fantasies, I might be a professional boxer. I love everything about the sport: its form, the training, the challenge, and the personal discipline it takes to be good.
21. What is your favorite city? (Dr. Lamia)
Stockholm, Sweden. It’s just beautiful. It’s a city made up of many little islands; and, being a Long Islander, I’m naturally drawn to water. There, it’s all around. And the Swedes, being drawn to nature, have plenty of natural beauty around their city, including their own “Central Park” on the island of Djurgarden. The climate is just right…at least in the summertime. It’s also got a good mix of old and modern, traditional and progressive. And there’s nothing like a good authentic Swedish smorgasbord, with herring, aquavit and beer, cold and hot fish, and real Swedish meatballs made of elk and reindeer! Mmmmm!
22. What is your current research project or creative work about? (Dr. Perring)
I’m working on a book about the history of boxing movies. It looks at the classics from Rocky and Raging Bull to foreign films, TV shows, B-movies, and documentaries. In part, it will examine how issues of race, gender, class, etc. are reflected in boxing films. So far, I’m learning a lot and enjoying the project.
23. If you could transport yourself now to any year in history, what year would it be? (Prof. Parisi)
I’ve always felt I was born a decade or so too late. To be born in the 50s, come of age in the 60s, be involved in journalism or media studies in the 70s during the great awakening in investigative journalism, partake in the burgeoning social scene of the late 70s, enjoy the digital revolution in my later years, and maybe even expect to retire before social security goes bankrupt… that would have been something!
24. Who is the person in history you’d most like to meet and why? (Prof. Wolff)
Benjamin Franklin. He was so many things: a statesman, a scientist, a writer, a businessman. And he did all of those things well. It would be interesting to meet someone who was so inventive, witty, thoughtful, diplomatic, and successful…and by all accounts, romantic; the guy was courting women into his old age.
25. What is your feeling about answering all these questions? (Prof. Tholl)
It’s been fun. Thanks for asking!