Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies is an idea laboratory, a place where projects take shape as people from different disciplines talk them out – sometimes in rocking chairs on the porch of the art-deco house that serves as its Durham headquarters. That’s an environment that Wesley C. Hogan, the incoming director, is looking forward to.
Hogan’s tenure begins July 1, and it follows a decade spent teaching in the history department at Virginia State University. To illustrate the differences between her old job and the new one, Hogan remembered the time she and a colleague asked to move seven trash cans from Virginia State’s history department offices. It was a process that involved 19 signatures.
“I’m looking forward to not being subject to quite the same level of regulation,” she said with a laugh. “There are options for creativity and flow when it’s not a state institution, and part of what excites me about the Duke gig is you can be a little bit more nimble.”
Hogan’s ties to the Triangle include postgraduate degrees from Duke, and the University of North Carolina Press publishing her award-winning 2007 book, “Many Minds, One Heart.” She’ll be the third director since the center started in 1989, succeeding Tom Rankin, who held the job since 1998 and is remaining on the faculty at Duke.
Endowed by the Lyndhurst Foundation to create documentaries about “the American experience,” the Center for Documentary Studies has been involved in many acclaimed projects over the past two decades. Notable works include “Literacy Through Photography” and 2009’s “The Jazz Loft,” as well as helping to start the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (initially known as DoubleTake, named after a magazine the center published in the 1990s).
About 300 undergraduate Duke students per semester take courses at the center, which has about two dozen staffers. Another 300 people take classes in its continuing-education program, which serves the surrounding community. It doesn’t offer a degree, but certificates in documentary studies and documentary arts.
“Wesley is a brilliant intellectual with an exhilarating vision of what can be accomplished in academic units in connection to the community,” said center board chairman William Chafe, a civil-rights historian and former dean of faculty at Duke. “She engages with those around her, creates new ideas and reaches out to people who otherwise would not have an affiliation with a university. That fulfills the center’s mission to be a bridge to the diverse communities around us.”
At Virginia State, a historically black college, Hogan has done major documentary projects about civil rights and social justice. She still has two projects in progress, including a spinoff from “Many Minds, One Heart” (a book about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major player in the ’60s era of civil rights). But Hogan’s own projects will be on the back burner for the next year while she settles into the new job.
“What’s intellectually stimulating about this is the multiple approaches,” Hogan said. “The CDS has a much broader range and vision about documentaries than a university history department, and the social-justice piece of it is important. So is education, training young people in visual literacy.
“This is a turbulent, crossroads time for both documentary work and education. Look what happened to the music industry when compact discs transitioned to (digital) MP3s. That’s also happened in journalism, and education will be the next big place for it to happen.”
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