professor spotlight

Life and the Liberal Arts

BSC Professor and Alumnus Reflects on Life and Learning

What does a liberal arts education mean to you? It is a question that all students at Birmingham-Southern have asked themselves. Beyond platitudes about the value of critical thinking and the importance of interdisciplinary studies, all of us have concerns about an increasingly uncertain future.       

 A professor of psychology and graduate of the college, Dr. Chandler embodies the liberal arts, practicing meditation, reading presidential biographies and beat poetry, studying the connection between nutrition and neuroscience, and playing basketball. He is well known for his passionate and encouraging style of teaching that pushes students to think deeper in the classroom and place what they learn in a broader context. But to him, the liberal arts go far beyond the bounds of the classroom.

“I was raised in the liberal arts, though, I didn’t recognize it until much later in my life,” Chandler said. “My mom is a librarian and Catholic theologian. My dad is a journalist and professor. I grew up steeped in the idea that ideas have their own merit, that embracing the pursuit of knowledge is, really and truly, its own reward.”

As it did for many of us, going to BSC came as a surprise to Dr. Chandler. “As rejection letters started coming in, I got a personal recruiting letter from BSC, inviting me to take part in a scholarship competition,” Chandler said. “I spent a full day on campus, and I fell in love. Everyone was warm, welcoming, community-centered, and service-oriented.”

His time at Birmingham-Southern gave him the opportunity to reflect on the liberal arts ideologies with which his parents had already raised him. “I explored passions in natural and social sciences, philosophy, literature, art, and math,” Chandler said. “I spent time as a neophyte monk in a Buddhist monastery during E-Term, published research with professors, and committed myself to a life of service.”

By the time that Chandler began looking into graduate school, he was greatly influenced by his time and education at BSC. Chandler said that he chose to go to the University of Alabama instead of his other options, Emory and George Washington.

“Even in grad school I couldn’t break from the liberal arts way; I got a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a doctorate in social psychology, and specializations in gerontology and statistics,” Chandler said. “And after all my grad training, I am now a sleep specialist.”

After graduate school, Chandler set out on a new path that would take him to the US Navy. “I was fortunate to work with the Department of Defense’s preeminent sleep expert, Dr. Lynn Caldwell,” Chandler said. “Again, I ended up in the company of a liberal arts mentor. Lynn is, of course, an accomplished scientist, but she also studies the confluence of Western medicine with traditional Chinese medicine as a hobby and is an equestrian.”

Perhaps it was only fitting that Birmingham-Southern College would come back into Dr. Chandler’s life, but it did so in an interesting way.

“An ad came up for a job at BSC. I applied and did not get it. Tonya and I settled on staying in Dayton for a good long time. Just when we started to look for houses, the BSC job came open again,” Chandler said. “I faced a tough decision: do I indulge my pride and refuse to apply, or do I embrace the opportunity to serve my alma mater and the community that raised me? I chose the latter, and I have never regretted that decision.”

So What?

Visiting MFS Instructor Robert Corna Speaks about the Meaning of Movies

If you walk down the coffee-stained steps on the first floor of Berte Humanities Center, pass hackneyed beige sofas, and take a left by solitary vending machines, you may wind up near Humanities 127, the office of one of two visiting Media and Film Studies instructors, Robert Corna.

Corna moved to Birmingham from LA after BSC’s search for a production teacher for the 2016-17 school year. When BSC offered Corna the job, they also told him he had to be there in three weeks.

“I packed up my U-Haul, drove cross-country, and got [to Birmingam] the day before I started working,” Corna says.

He teaches Production II, Screenwriting, and a special class topic on Spielberg during the 2017 spring term.

Corna received his MFA from the School of Cinematic Arts at University of Southern California. Before USC, he received his BA from The College of Wooster in 1994--a small, private liberal arts college similar to BSC.

“After my undergraduate degree in film, I started as an intern in New York and worked my way up,” Corna says.

While his 17-year experience in the film industry includes working on feature films such as Gangs of New York as the Production Assistant and both The Avengers and Fast and Furious 8 as the Location Manager, some of Corna’s most rewarding projects have been documentaries.

A Smile for Bow, released in 2014 and directed by Corna, follows a Thai teenager with Fetal Alcoholic Syndrome (FAS) and HIV as she journeys to the United States for restorative treatment.

“Camp Dreamcatcher and I got together and found a place in America for her to have a surgery,” Corna says. “It changed her life. It meant so much to do a movie like that.”

Corna finds meaning not only edifying but also essential for making successful films. Thankfully, in a field revolving around storytelling, it is not difficult to make something, even out of nothing.

“My dad was a storyteller. He was great at exaggerating stories--that's what films are,” Corna says. “[Films can] take a true story and totally make it their own.”

One time his father took him to watch Alien, thinking it was like Star Wars. It didn’t take him long to realize his mistake.

“One of the scariest things in movies to this day is when that alien jumped out of the guy’s stomach and raced across the table,” Corna says. “We saw it just after eating pizza! I was freaking out.”

While he teaches the skills essential to filmmaking, such as communication, three-point lighting and goal setting, Corna wants his students to remember that sometimes the best films are ones like Alien that take a simple idea and convert it into a meaningful story.

In his office filled with posters from his documentaries, it is clear to see that Corna has taken his own advice.

“I’m here for a year,” says Corna. “I want my students to work hard, to be the best, [and] to change the world. That’s what movie making is all about.”