The Professor Is In: Q&A with Allen Oren

Dyson Professor Allen Oren talks about his Emmy nod, his years in the Holy Land, what it takes to get an “A” in his class, and much more in this month’s The Professor Is In. >>Read More

He’s an award-winning director and producer, a globetrotting journalist, and an accomplished writer, but in his spare time, Allen Oren, Dyson associate professor of Media and Communication Arts, calls the Pleasantville Campus home base. During his professional career, Oren has worked as a freelance writer and columnist in Israel, as the Entertainment Editor for USA Today, and as a producer and reporter for the MSG Network. It was during his time at MSG that he researched, wrote, and produced the Emmy Award-winning  documentary on the history of Madison Square Garden, The World’s Most Famous Arena And How It Got That Way. Over the years, Oren has been nominated for several Emmy Awards including two 2012 nominations in the categories of Religion and Research for his documentary 18 Voices Sing Kol Nidre, which tells the story of Judaism’s most sacred prayer.

What was your favorite class as a student? Least favorite?
I loved a two-year core course called “Contemporary Civilization.” It was basically a quick tour of world history, intellectual history, and artistic history; I liked it so much I created my own more intensive version when I graduated.

I took a year off between undergrad and grad school and read (and listened and looked) my way through history. The idea was to fill some of the holes I still had in my education and also to put what I had learned into a firmer context. So I proceeded chronologically—creation of the universe, ancient history, medieval history, and so on—starting each era with an overall history of that period, then biographies of the key personalities of that period, then a sample of their key works. Each morning I made my way to a library like others made their way to work, and one year, 400 books, and assorted artworks later, I re-joined the present day.

Least favorite class? I got a solid C in statistics.

What one thing or person made you passionate about your current career?
I guess it was in the genes. Both my mother and father were good writers and speakers and, as important for me as a journalist, they both asked well and listened well. So, by second grade I was editing a mimeographed penny weekly at school, with Mom, of course, as assistant editor.

And my uncle was a professional journalist who moved to Israel. So I, after journalism grad school, decided to take a two-week trip to the Holy Land… which led to a two-month language lab there… which stretched to four years as a magazine writer there, where I found, among other things, my journalistic voice.

What quality do you most value in your students?
Originality, creativity. I went into features rather than news because it allows subjects and style that are more creative. I went into broadcast after print because it offers more tools to be creative—not just words, but pictures, sound, voice, music, graphics, special effects.

I always tell students I don’t give extra credit work, but the truth is when I grade a student’s article or broadcast or speech, I subconsciously give bonus credit for originality. I sometimes give the same grade to an original that falters as to a predictable that succeeds.

What’s your advice to students to make the most out of their time in college?
See the course catalogue as a giant buffet, a smorgasbord, an all-you-can-eat. It’s your opportunity to try things as you will never be able to again. Sure, specialize in a major that may lead to work. But then diversify, become better-rounded. A great college art course helped me see better, a great college music course helped me hear better, a great philosophy course helped me wonder better. I probably broke the record for most departments sampled in a college career, but it’s a record I’m proud of and that served me well later.

If you had to do it all over again and took another path, what profession would you like to attempt? What profession would you not like to do?
As a journalist, I was fortunate to touch on a lot of the professions I would have enjoyed. For example, I’ve been an arts critic and editor for many years, and can see myself enjoying being a filmmaker, a photographer, a musician, an architect.

I was a psych major in college (though I really majored in the campus newspaper) and almost switched to psych as a career at one point. It’s no coincidence that much of my journalistic work was profiles of people. I’ve long said that a good journalist and a good therapist are very similar: Both get to know their subjects intimately and sensitively, but the journalist is paid to make it public, the therapist is paid to keep it private.

A job that’s not for me? I once did a magazine piece on a guy who stood in a glass booth against the tile wall inside the Lincoln Tunnel, looking for car emergencies. He was a nice guy who passed his eight-hour shift making Rorschach patterns from the tiles across the way. I stood with him, but very restlessly. I called the piece, “Looking for a Breakdown.”

What is your favorite book/TV show?
The book I’m in the middle of is Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, about the essence of creativity. It’s really a fascinating book and a tragedy that it became mired in ethical scandal. I kept reading anyway because, though quotes were admittedly altered, my guess is the book is generally well reported and the underlying themes are very compelling.

My favorite TV show varies, though the network doesn’t. The show always stands in a long line of HBO series, from The Sopranos to Curb Your Enthusiasm to The Wire to Deadwood to Treme to the current The Newsroom. Actually, The Newsroom is only half good, but that half is very good. The show is a very adult, sophisticated take on the important issues of current journalism, but a very juvenile, simplistic take on romance and relationships. A schizophrenic series, sums up this critic.

What would you do if you had an extra hour every day?
I’d bank the hours. That way I’d have an extra day every 24 days, an extra 15 days every year, and, over an 80-year lifetime, I could add 1,200 days. For those extra three years, I’d be very thankful.

What is your favorite journey/experience?
My most recent favorite was the journey of producing and directing an independent documentary, 18 Voices Sing Kol Nidre. It was the story of Judaism’s most sacred prayer, the Kol Nidre chant that starts Yom Kippur, as told by 18 people who were touched by it.

I had always done my broadcast pieces as an employee of stations or networks, but this topic was so esoteric I knew it wouldn’t attract interest as just a concept. So my wife and I financed the production ourselves in the hope that a finished product would find support.

It did. The 40-minute piece was picked up by WNET-Channel 13 in New York, then a national PBS distributor, then a documentary distributor. The last two falls it has aired in 75 PBS markets across the US, including nearly all the largest. And this High Holiday season “18 Voices,” which was nominated for two Emmys, will air again.

What is your favorite saying/words to live by?
I guess it’s more of a visual. Those who’ve seen my desk at Pace know that on one corner is an item I pieced together myself. On each of the scales of an old scale of justice I placed a cardboard box with a hand-written label. One says, “As it is.” The other says, “As it should be.” I change which scale is higher or lower depending on how I’m feeling about the world. But the point—the saying you asked for—is that life is always a struggle between the real and the ideal.

If you could have any five people, living or dead, imagined or real, as guests at a dinner party, who would you choose?
Well, since the question mixes actual and imagined, I’d choose five fascinating personalities in history—there are more than enough to choose from—and imagine they had lived five years longer. I’d then ask that the topic of their dinner conversation be how they had lived their final five years, and why that way.

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