Masked students swiftly make their way across campus, side stepping to avoid coming into contact with one another. In classrooms, tape on the floors mark out where chairs are placed and sanitizing stations are positioned in corners. Professors are blocked by imaginary lines they cannot cross and wear masks that limit their facial expressions. These are the realities of teaching in a pandemic. Combine them with a cross-country move, and professor Renée Pastel is taking on a daunting task.
Pastel, who is teaching film theory and criticism this semester, faces the typical challenges of a new job in a different city, which are also exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the beginning of 2020, as Pastel was approaching the completion of her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, she was offered a job in the communication department at Boston College.
“Before the world fell apart,” she said.
Pastel grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., before she moved to Newton, Mass., where she attended Newton South High School. From day one, Pastel was curious about all things artistic. She was always an actress, she said, beginning her career at age 4 and a half as Tiny Tim in a production of A Christmas Carol. As she grew up, Pastel continued to act and started to direct high school productions as well.
“My parents took an approach where they introduced me to everything and let me decide what I was interested in,” Pastel said. “And I was interested, initially, in all of the arts.”
Pastel stayed close to Newton during her undergraduate years. When she began her studies at Harvard University, Pastel, like many other new students, had no idea what she wanted her major to be. Throughout her college application process, she had expressed a unique set of interests—humanities and neuroscience and neurobiology, having studied the latter two at Newton South.
“I just tried a bunch of different classes,” Pastel said.
In her first semester at Harvard, Pastel took a history of film course, focused on the silent film period. The course piqued Pastel’s interest in film, and she credited it for her love of theatre. Continuing her studies, Pastel came to realize how deeply her newfound adoration for film was also connected to neuroscience.
“I was interested, from the beginning, in how and why people gather together for theatre and cinema, to sit in a darkened room with strangers and experience strong emotions … to put it like an alien would,” Pastel said.
Pastel graduated from Harvard with a major in film studies, a minor in neuroscience, and a citation in French, a program at Harvard that consists of four courses that go beyond the first-year level of difficulty.
After graduating from Harvard, Pastel went on to receive her master’s and doctorate from UC Berkeley, where she taught film courses and wrote her dissertation on images as a medium and how they played into the perception of the War on Terror. The War on Terror was a campaign launched under the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks. With it, Bush called on other world leaders to join the United States in its response, saying that “The United States of America will use all our resources to conquer this enemy.” She studied the way in which different images were reaching different audiences in the country, and how they affected people’s opinions of the War on Terror.
“The main interest of my dissertation was [media] circulation, and how audiences are shaped and formed by the images that they tune into,” Pastel said. “Up until 2013, there was a false sense of unified national identity being portrayed through narrative figures of soldiers and veterans.”
Pastel said that different images of these soldiers and veterans reaching different audiences laid the groundwork for the fractured political landscape that exists in the United States today. The fracturing was happening before people even realized it.
After spending some time on the West Coast, Pastel found herself saying goodbye to the Bay Area. In the summer of 2020, she packed her bags and headed back to a familiar place—Newton. She cited a number of reasons for her decision to join BC’s communication department.
“The job posting was specifically looking for someone who could teach film theory and criticism, which was the cornerstone of my undergraduate understanding of film,” she said. “A theory gives systematic organization to the world. It’s that step back, thinking about things from one step away. Film theory, for me, is really a set of lenses from which to think about film.”
Beyond that, Pastel noted an appreciation for BC’s values and ideals.
“The Jesuit mission of Boston College, and the interest in forming students as whole people, who go into the world wanting to have a positive effect, is really wonderful,” she said.
Pastel moved into her new apartment on Sept. 1, the same day she started teaching classes. Juggling a new milestone in her career and a moving process at the same time was difficult, she recalled. Mentioning her blank apartment walls, Pastel acknowledged that interior decoration has taken a backseat to the pandemic this semester.
“I didn’t bring a lot of furniture from California, so I am teaching the class and simultaneously trying to get my home together.” Pastel said. “The pandemic has just slowed everything down.”
Pastel is teaching two Tuesday/Thursday sections of Film Theory and Criticism this semester, one at 9 a.m. and one at noon, both of which are hybrid. Due to social distancing rules at BC, she can only meet with half of the class at a time. Instead of requiring the other half of the class to Zoom in on the day they are not in person, Pastel has set up modules on Canvas for students to follow.
“I’m really glad and grateful that I’m teaching a hybrid course, and that I get to see students, even if we’re all wearing masks,” she said. “It makes this feel a little less free-floating.”
Despite the strange circumstances and unique class format, Pastel has only one complaint about her ongoing adjustment to Boston College.
“It’s much sweatier to teach in a mask than I would’ve expected,” she said.
Emily West, a friend and former colleague of Pastel at UC Berkeley, noted Pastel’s tremendous work ethic, describing her dedicated nature.
“When California went into quarantine this spring, Renée was finishing research and writing her dissertation, and teaching online courses, and planning her transcontinental move, all at the same time,” West said. “Rather than just parking herself in front of the television, Renée worked harder and longer hours.”
West noted the drive with which Pastel finished her dissertation, as well as the level of classroom engagement that she maintained, even online. She underlined the innovative teaching practices that Pastel brought to Zoom classrooms in the spring, which she now offers to Boston College students. Each week, Pastel posts a new module for her BC students that has miniature pre-recorded lectures, readings, and a screening that exemplifies the theories her students read about that week.
“She’s just so incredibly devoted to what she does,” West said.
Pastel said that she’s thankful for her supportive colleagues and the kindness of her students. She knows that now is not the time to judge herself or those around her too much, and she acknowledged the difficulty of run a university during a pandemic.
“I’m just taking things as they come. … I came here with no expectations because this is so unprecedented,” she said.
Just four weeks in, Pastel is already looking forward to teaching future courses and getting to know students better at Boston College. She’s eager to bring more film theory to BC and bridge the gap between the film studies program and communication department, she explained, highlighting her interest in media studies.
Overall, Pastel drove home her enthusiasm for being at BC right now.
“It really seems like students are working really hard, and are really invested,” she said. “And that’s just more fun to teach, when people are interested and engaged, and are willing to engage with you.”
Photos courtesy of Renée Pastel