Newest Robinson Professor Wants Students to Have ‘A Broader Vision’

Posted: October 23, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Carma Hinton
Filmmaker Carma Hinton, who says, “You have to put as much energy and enthusiasm in your teaching as you do in your creative work and in your scholarship,” wants to encourage all students to “have a broader vision” of what their lives can be.

At many universities, the most distinguished professors teach only graduate students. But at George Mason, thanks to the vision and generosity of the late Clarence J. Robinson, undergraduates have the opportunity to learn from faculty members who are recruited to George Mason from senior positions at prestigious institutions, including Princeton, Harvard and Yale.

The mission of these educators, the Clarence J. Robinson Professors, is to enrich the academic experiences of undergraduate students while continuing their scholarly pursuits on broad and fundamental intellectual issues.

The first cohort of Robinson Professors arrived after the university started receiving income in 1984 through an historic bequest from Robinson. A leading businessman and civic leader in Northern Virginia, Robinson was prominent among a group of Northern Virginia citizens who sought to establish an institution of higher education in the region.

From 1964 to 1970, he chaired the advisory committee appointed by the governor to oversee the development of George Mason College as a branch campus of the University of Virginia. Later, in preparing his will, Robinson advanced his belief that if his bequest were spent on people rather than bricks and mortar, the effect would be much more profound for the young college.

Currently, there are 12 Robinson Professors. Collectively, the Robinson Professors have received numerous distinguished awards, including Guggenheim fellowships, the Pulitzer Prize and George Foster Peabody Awards. They have published countless academic articles as well as books, plays, films and documentaries.

This is the sixth in a series of profiles of the Robinson Professors. Paul D’Andrea, Shaul Bakhash, Roger Wilkins, Harold Morowitz and James Trefil were previously profiled.

Carma Hinton

By Laura S. Jeffrey

Carma Hinton makes award-winning documentaries, but her own life story is compelling drama.

Carma Hinton
Carma Hinton
Photos by Evan Cantwell

New to Mason and the Robinson Professors, Hinton says she joined the Mason faculty because she believed the university would offer her “the support and resources to be who I am: a person who is a scholar and an artist and a documentary filmmaker, a person who can straddle these fields and be encouraged to do so.” At any other university, Hinton says, “I would have to try to fit into one department.”

Hinton is accustomed to not fitting neatly into any one category. “I have to negotiate my identity constantly,” she says. “I have to cross borders constantly. And that’s very tiring and exhausting, and very exciting.”

This sense of crossing borders also stems from the fact that Hinton was born to expatriate Americans and spent the first two decades of her life in China. She immersed herself in the language and culture – indeed, she refused to learn English – but often felt under suspicion and scrutiny, particularly when the politically extreme period known as the Cultural Revolution began in China.

Worried about becoming a liability to her friends and tired of feeling unaccepted by Chinese society, Hinton moved to the United States at the age of 21. She learned to speak English, enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, and fell in love with the man who became her husband and professional collaborator.

Hinton went on to earn a PhD from Harvard. She taught at Swarthmore College, Wellesley College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She established a nonprofit educational film and media company in the Boston area and made more than a dozen documentaries. They include “Morning Sun,” a film about the Cultural Revolution that received the American Historical Association’s John E. O’Connor Film Award, among other accolades; and “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a film about the 1989 democracy movement in China that received several honors, including the George Foster Peabody Award. Both documentaries were shown at film festivals and on public television stations around the world.

While many universities made overtures to her, George Mason was the lucky institution that landed her. Hinton joined the Mason faculty this fall as the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Visual Culture and Chinese Studies. She has a joint appointment with the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“I never, ever thought I could uproot myself from the Boston area – until the Robinson Professorship opportunity came up,” Hinton says. “I had never heard of such a program in another place. And when I visited the campus … just the idea of being around these great people, the other Robinson professors – that people from these different fields are sharing something and looking to this great teaching experience and looking to enrich and enhance the overall curriculum and the intellectual life of the university – I thought that was very attractive.”

Hinton continues to cross borders – literally. She spends part of each week in Northern Virginia and part of each week in the Boston area, where her husband and son, who is in eighth grade, still live. (The couple also has a daughter who is a sophomore at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts.)

Hinton says eventually, her family and film company will relocate to Virginia. Meantime, she is brainstorming on future film projects that perhaps will involve Mason students, and hopes to arrange joint projects and exhibitions with young Chinese documentary filmmakers.

For now, however, she is putting the majority of her energy into teaching. This semester Hinton is teaching a course on contemporary Chinese film (ARTH 399). Next semester she will teach a special topics course on documentaries as well as a course on the arts of China.

“I don’t believe that if you have knowledge, you automatically would be a good teacher,” she says. “You have to work at it. You have to know your students. You have to put as much energy and enthusiasm in your teaching as you do in your creative work and in your scholarship.”

Though she has not been here long, Hinton already gives Mason students high marks. “I am impressed with the diversity, not only in terms of their cultural backgrounds but also in the different stages of life that they are going through,” she says. “Some are full-time students, but some work. Those students bring a lot of insight into the classroom, which helps with interactions. I like that mixture; I think it’s very exciting.”

Hinton wants to encourage all students to “have a broader vision” of what their lives can be. When she first started teaching, she often asked students about their goals, and “they would come up with all kinds of things – ‘I may like to backpack in the Himalayas for a time before I figure out who I am.’”

Now she asks students what their goals are and they say, “investment banker,” or “doctor.” “They’ve already decided what they want to do. We all need practical goals, but what is a life without constant intellectual and artistic stimulations?”

“We all need new horizons, new fields to be open to and be wide-eyed and surprised and curious about,” Hinton says. “Now, that is a real life, no matter what you do. That is what I would like to instill in students.”

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