A Class on the Classics: UNCG’s Professors Emeriti Take You to the Movies

Posted on September 29, 2023

Two UNCG professors emeriti in suits stand outside next to a staircase pillar.

Two retired professors have crafted a class at UNC Greensboro that has movie fans from the community coming back year after year.

“They can sign up for just one session,” says Dr. Keith Cushman, “Though typically, people sign up for all three. And many people have been signing up for many years.”

“We have old friends whom we have made as a result,” says Dr. Ron Cassell.

Their Emeritus Society series “The Profs Do the Movies” has been going strong since its premiere at UNCG in 2004.

A Second Act 

Cassell retired as an associate professor of History in 2003 but desired to keep teaching. He regularly offered six-week Emeritus courses, mainly centered on military history. Kathleen Forbes, then director of the Emeritus Society, saw his success and asked if he’d like to do another course.

He turned to Cushman, who was a professor of English. They came up with the idea of a program devoted to classic films.

“He and I had taught history and literature seminars in the Honors program,” says Cassell. “We enjoyed teaching together, and both of us used movies as part of our teaching.”

The Emeritus Society is a lifelong learning opportunity run by UNCG’s affiliate SERVE, Inc. for the community. Lecture topics this fall include the music of the Beatles, a tour of France, and a local history of beer-making.

“We know from years of research that lifelong learning is very beneficial, since cognitive and social relationships are both keys to healthy aging,” says Dr. Elise Eifert, director of the Emeritus Society, who is also the graduate coordinator for the gerontology program within the School of Health and Human Sciences.

Eifert says this program benefits everyone involved. “Faculty get an opportunity to talk about and teach subjects that they’re passionate about, that they have spent careers researching or teaching. It helps them transition from full-time work to retirement. And the students get access to these world-renowned faculty and researchers in a very accessible way without a huge commitment.”

A Perfect Team 

Cassell and Cushman pick each year’s theme to revolve around a famous actor, genre, or an important historical period. They watch and discuss three films related to that theme.

A set of four DVDs.

The fascinating behind-the-scenes information has kept participants engaged for years. Cushman provides background on the books that inspired cinematic classics. One of his favorite movies, John Ford’s Stagecoach, starring the young John Wayne, can be traced back to a short story by Guy de Maupassant.

“He’s a late 19th century French writer,” says Cushman. “It’s interesting to see what that story was about – people traveling in France in a coach around 1880 – and how that was translated into a Western set in the United States.”

Cassell draws on his knowledge of history when he talks about the events that informed filmmakers’ artistic decisions. During World War II, for example, movies were considered part of the war effort, Cassell explains, to boost morale on the home front.

“The government was always worried, even in the wake of Pearl Harbor, about the political reliability of the population and their willingness to serve in the military, to risk injury and death, and the willingness of their families to put up with that demand throughout the war,” he says.

One of their most successful themes was “Pictures at a Revolution,” featuring three Best Picture nominees of 1967 – In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, and Bonnie and Clyde. They focused on the three films because of their cultural and technical significance.

“We learn about these movies backwards and forwards,” says Cushman. “It’s just so enjoyable, to learn more about movies we’ve always enjoyed.”

“The Profs Do the Movies” returns in Winter 2024 with the theme “Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense.” It will center around three Alfred Hitchcock movies: The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, and Vertigo.

What’s on the Horizon? 

A complete list of all upcoming Emeritus Society classes can be found here. The cost per class varies depending on the number of sessions, with a free course offered by Dean Omar Ali. The majority are held locally with one conducted online. Anyone interested in attending can register here

Examples coming up this semester include: 

Once Upon All Time: Combining history, science, philosophy, and anthropology, this three-part course will trace the origins and development of the universe/us as understood by multiple traditions before continuing our exploration of life on Earth and the making of our modern world. Presented by Lloyd International Honors College Dean Omar H. Ali. Free with limited seating on UNCG’s campus. 

Why Retell a Story: This three-week class concentrates on Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver, which just won the National Book Award. The title is a twist on Dickens’ David Copperfield, and Kingsolver uses the old story about a poor boy to tell a new one about a poor boy, full of the kind of tragedy and drama and comedy that’s in all of Dickens. Presented by Professor Emerita of Rhetoric and Composition Hephziba Roskelly. 

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications

blooming trees framing statue

Become a lifelong learner.


Share This