"Directing and teaching are both essentially about reading people."
Written by Jennifer Tatum-Cotamagana, Nonfiction MFA
Photography by Jacob Boll
Susan Mroz approaches both her film projects and her classroom with three focuses in mind: teaching, therapy and art. “Directing is essentially about learning how to read people. Every actor is different. This is also true of teaching.” Every student that walks into her classroom teaches her something new, as a teacher and as a director. She says, “It [the classroom experience] always feels like the first time.”
Mroz’s father was a banker who taught part time and she fondly remembers helping him grade papers, and that he believed that teaching was “important and about giving back.” This inspired her to want to teach and was a driving inspiration behind pursuing an MFA in Film and Video at Columbia, and behind her decision to teach at Columbia after she earned her MFA. About the atmosphere at Columbia and about her students she says, “I think of them as a band of outsiders, and I mean that in a good way.” Students and faculty at Columbia “have a perspective and have their own voice.” She uses Carl Jung as an example, someone whom she studied for five years after she earned her MFA. About Jung, she says, “He doesn’t belong in a lot of typical schools. He’s a psychologist, but also very spiritual and artistic. He doesn’t belong in one specific place; he belongs a little bit to everything, which makes him different.” She believes that she and the students at Columbia embrace diverse backgrounds and collaborative disciplines, and because of that she says, “I’ve found a home here.”
As a child, Mroz says she always had a clear idea of what her life would be like at midlife and that she always saw herself in a job that combined teaching and art therapy, and her job as a Senior Lecturer in the Film and Video department has been just that. She says, “I only just recently realized that I’m doing just that.” Teaching has always been the ultimate goal for Mroz. “You don’t need an MFA to make films,” she says, “and teaching, for me, was never something to fall back on; it was always the main goal.”
Mroz, the 2011 Recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award, says that her teaching style is one in which she says, “I consciously structure the semester in a way that I wean [students] from me, so that when they go onto the next semester, they don’t feel like ‘Oh, I need her feedback to do what I do.’” She believes that they should be able to do it themselves after they leave her classroom. When a scene is scheduled for presentation, the show must go on. If an actor doesn’t show up, she doesn’t fix the problem for her students. “They should be able to do it [solve the situation] themselves.” Not solving problems for her students and letting them scramble and sweat a little when things go awry, is what she feels prepares them best for their careers outside of Columbia. She credits her high school journalism teacher for this style of teaching, as Sister Jerome would always treat them as journalists who already knew what they were doing. “It was respectful and inspiring. She made you feel like you could do it.”
She credits Former Dean of The School of Media Arts and her former professor, Doreen Bartoni, as the professor who taught her how to manage when things don’t go as planned in the classroom, as they so often do. “You could see her adjusting, very subtly. You know, sometimes you bomb and something isn’t working,” and Bartoni taught her how to answer the question of “Where do I need to go and what do I need to do to get there” in the classroom.
She says she feels a special bond with female student directors and enjoys “taking them under her wing.” Film and Video is a predominantly male business and Mroz strives to help her female students to develop their voices and their presence as directors. She asks them, “How do you get what you want [on set], without pushing people away? How do you strike that balance?” She feels successful when she sees her students asserting themselves and becoming comfortable in their roles as directors.
She also teaches her students that everything is worthwhile, “even if the only job you can get is sweeping floors. You can always learn something.” And she says to approach each task with gratitude. “Appreciate where you’re at.” For Mroz it’s about the difference between two words: have and get. Often she overhears students complaining about how much work they have to do on their film. "No," she says, "you get to work on your film, after all, what would you rather be doing?" She realizes this about herself too, as she commutes to work in the morning. "I realize that what I'm doing right now—a female, walking down the street by herself, wearing what she wants, on her way to a job she loves—how many people in the world right now get to do all that? Even walking down the street by myself would be impossible in certain places. I don't take anything for granted." She says, “I get all of this.”
Mroz is working on an upcoming project with Columbia’s feminist organization, F Word, on a project which aims to create a piece of work that allows survivors of rape and their family members and friends to express themselves. As a rape survivor, Mroz hopes to use her personal experience and her background in therapy, teaching and film to create a work of art that creates a space for this to happen.