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September 18, 2014
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Back at NYU


It’s an odd thing to stand in front of a group of students and not know what to say. It’s a feeling that I have not experienced since I was a student myself and had never experienced from the perspective of a teacher. Until last week.

I always thought that I would like teaching and I knew I wanted to try it someday. The opportunity presented itself last month when the new chair of the film program at NYU contacted me and asked if I was interested in doing six weeks about the post-production process. I accepted. They gave me back my same NYU ID number: zsp200 is back in circulation.

I am now teaching two sections each week. One class has 13 students and one has 17 students. Each class is an hour and 15 minutes long and they both cover the same stuff. After one week, I became convinced that one class loves me and one class hates me.

The mistakes started in the fancy copy room on the 11th floor of 721 Broadway when, early in the morning, I mixed up which section I was teaching that day and only made 15 copies of the handouts I was going to give them. (I thought 15 was two extra but actually it was two few.)

I arrived in the classroom and tested the DVD player. I was to show a 45-minute version of “The Cutting Edge,” a documentary about film editing. Yes, I had thought about how there’s a romantic comedy about ice skating called “The Cutting Edge.” Yes, I planned to make that joke. I was that kind of prepared.

NYU had given me a six-week syllabus and some examples throughout to show the class. Also, one of my favorite professors from back in the day was teaching the other two sections and he had been super helpful giving me tips and pointers. My “teaching kit” also included a short book that I was going to assign, “In the Blink of an Eye,” by Walter Murch. It’s an editor’s classic and thankfully I know it well.

I hadn’t thought about what I was going to do before the class actually started and this occurred to me as the first student arrived. She looked younger than I expected.

“Morning,” I said.

“Morning,” she answered and sat down. I wondered about making conversation but had no idea what to say. What do most teachers do? I couldn’t remember, and I silently decided to show up later for the next class. The second student arrived and then a third. They trickled in quickly leading up to 9:30.

I waited five minutes and took attendance. This was another thing I was dreading after a lifetime of teachers butchering my name. I told them that before I butchered all of theirs—one at a time.

I started talking and passing out the handouts. More and more students kept coming in and I, for some reason, kept stopping and asking who they were. One really broke my train of thought and I completely forgot what I was talking about.

It became very clear that I was driving the bus. Without my voice, there was only silence. And then, suddenly, there were 17 of them sitting there looking at me and I didn’t have enough handouts.

My brain whirled in this silence that was probably just five seconds, but felt like an eternity. Should I stop the class and send someone to go make copies? I wondered because I remember teachers doing that sometimes.

“If a few of you don’t mind sharing, that’d be great,” I said, pointing back up to the board where I had written my email address. “E-mail me and I’ll send you an electronic version.”

It was the truth and it seemed to satisfy them. I continued talking about the roles of an editor. What I was saying felt a little boring and I couldn’t really tell if I had their attention. Some of them were definitely with me. But I was a bit nervous and my jokes—yes, I made the one about “The Cutting Edge”—didn’t feel natural.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I started the movie and sat in the back of the room watching it over their shoulders. Afterward, I reminded them to buy the book and told them I’d see them next week. I left quickly, a bit shell-shocked. The whole thing had been a blur and I could really only remember the bad parts.

While before I had been dreading the second class because I thought I would sound canned or rehearsed if I was doing the same things again, now I was so thankful that there was a second class; I knew I could do better.

Two days later, I felt like a different person. I was ready for the awkward pre-class silence by bringing a crossword puzzle. I shouted out questions as the students entered. “Three letters—Richard Gere title role.” No one knew but they all played along. One of them looked up the answer on his iPhone. “Dr. T,” he told me.

After class many of them milled about asking me questions. I raced back to my edit room. All of this talking about editing had given me an idea structurally in the documentary I was cutting. Two birds with one stone.