Dean’s Notes: Peggy Rajski – The Stories We Tell

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Peggy Rajski, left, directs a scene from her award-winning film “Trevor.”

Dean’s Notes is a periodic feature of LMU This Week where the university’s academic leaders share their perspectives with the community. The deans of LMU’s seven schools and colleges will provide updates on priorities, policies, events, challenges, and areas of interest.

Peggy Rajski, dean of LMU School of Film and Television, writes:
In the midst of the uncertain times we find ourselves in as a result of COVID-19, I believe, more than ever, in the power of media to help inform, influence, lead and inspire. At the School of Film and Television, we want our students to use that power wisely: to tell stories with grace, passion and compassion on screens big and small.

LMU’s School of Film and Television is founded on the belief that film and television media are the world’s most powerful and inspiring ambassadors for positive social change. We are dedicated to training visual storytellers to unite the joy of creative expression with the power of entertainment to deepen an audience’s understanding of the world and their connection to each other.

I’ve been fortunate to see that play out in my own life with a short film I directed called “Trevor.” After winning an Academy Award in the mid-90s, the film’s prominence brought a great deal of attention to a pressing but largely underreported crisis that continues on to this day in this country: the high rate of suicide among queer and questioning youth. “Trevor” eventually led me to found the country’s first and only 24/7 suicide prevention hotline for glbtq+ youth and, two decades later, The Trevor Project continues its lifesaving crisis intervention work on multiple media platforms. In ways I’d never anticipated when I began making the film, “Trevor” demonstrated the adage: If you want to change the world, change the stories you tell.

At SFTV, we want our graduates to have impact with their work at every level of the industry with stories that span the genre spectrum – comedy, drama, documentary, sci-fi, fantasy … and on and on.

To do that, we help our students develop their creativity, craft and confidence by leaning into the inherently collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of visual storytelling. To be effective, they also need to understand how the business side of the entertainment industry works – and all the myriad career opportunities that exist within it.

That’s why one of my priorities as dean has been to support the development of the creative producing side of the program. Every student who comes here and makes a film, whether they know it or not, is a producer. They own the films they make as well as the intellectual property of the scripts they write. As such, they need to learn about the legal, financial and ethical best practices related to their chosen field. That knowledge helps them be more effective at moving their projects out into the wider world.

That is why it’s so exciting to see the multiple interdisciplinary collaborations our faculty are developing within our school and with other colleges to enhance students’ knowledge about – and opportunities for – success within the constantly evolving and ever expanding media and entertainment landscape.

When I arrived at LMU as the newly appointed dean of the School of Film and Television two years ago, I discovered that spirit of collaboration profoundly woven into the fabric of our entire academic community. It is the heart and soul of our university, and an essential pillar of the President and Provost’s vision moving forward.  Through their support, great ideas can be put into action and great works created by students, inside and outside the classroom.

Before even officially starting, I had the pleasure of meeting with fellow incoming dean of LMU College of Business Administration, Dayle Smith, to talk about win-win opportunities for our student around content creation given the wide range of complementary expertise amongst our faculty regarding development of story material and its financing, production, marketing and distribution. That beautiful bit of synergy led to an opportunity for our schools to co-hire a professor with creative producing expertise to join our ranks starting in fall 2020, meeting a strong desire conveyed by students in both the graduate and undergraduate programs for more support in this area of studies, and a demonstration of faculty’s shared commitment to building collective faculty expertise.

As a top-ten ranked film school, we are committed to having an agile curriculum that keeps pace with a rapidly changing media landscape. In that spirit, our animation faculty are in collaboration with colleagues in the LMU Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering to develop a program of study for students who want to take a deeper dive into the worlds of Immersive  Gaming and Interactive media … aka IGI.  (Yes, we found the acronym amusing and oh so fitting for LMU.)

It’s also been an absolute pleasure to have SFTV join dean Robbin Crabtree and dean Bryant Keith Alexander along with faculty from LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts and the College of Communication and Fine Arts to explore possibilities for an interdisciplinary initiative focusing on how we, as an institution, can help clarify, shape and influence the responsible use of media in pursuit of a just society. Given the strong expertise our shared faculty carry in media studies, filmmaking, journalism and communication studies, we think there is a critical role LMU can play in building on the spirit and principles embodied within the Jesuit tradition: truth, integrity and discernment regarding the creation, distribution and scholarly analysis of media and the influence it exerts in how we receive and perceive information about each other.

With the challenges we find ourselves now facing in a time of upheaval, there is an opportunity to experience – more than ever – how deeply connected we are to each other all across the world.

My wish and hope are that we build on this awareness as we move through and beyond these times, and carry the spirit of empathy and compassion with us always through the stories we tell.