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Jeffrey Chown: NIU auteur

March 29, 2011
Jeffrey Chown

Jeffrey Chown

Jeffrey Chown is a cast of characters: mentor, charismatic teacher, scholarly film critic, NIU ambassador, documentary filmmaker and tireless colleague.

He also stars in the role of Genuinely Nice Guy.

A professor in the Department of Communication, Chown helped develop and champion its Media Studies program, which prepares students for TV, film and video-production work. During his career, he has taught more than 11,000 NIU students — including many who now work as university professors or in the film industry.

“My success, and the worldwide success of films I’ve worked on, are genuinely a result of his inspiration,” says alumnus Robert Katz, a film producer whose credits include “Crash,” winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Picture.

In addition to preparing students for work in Hollywood, Chown has brought some of its brightest stars to DeKalb, arranging for visits by Katz and “Forrest Gump” director Robert Zemeckis, as well as an 80-minute classroom conference call with filmmaker Michael Moore.

Chown first arrived at NIU in 1982. Several years later he authored the book, “Hollywood Auteur: Francis Coppola,” a critical survey of Coppola’s films still used in college coursework today.

Chown is a worldwide authority on Irish films as well. And in 1991, inspired by a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Ireland, he founded NIU’s Media and Culture program at Dublin City University. “It’s one of the major joys of my career,” Chown says. “Placing students with Irish families keeps the costs low, enabling many students to travel abroad for the first time.”

Now one of NIU’s oldest and most successful study abroad programs — with more than 400 alumni — it has been replicated by other top universities and also helped establish the university’s reputation across the pond.

“In Professor Chown, (NIU) has one of its finest international ambassadors, all the more impressive because of (his) genuine modesty and courtesy,” says Luke Gibbons, a professor of Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland.

Peter C. Rollins, emeritus regents professor at Oklahoma State University, says Chown’s scholarly work is world-class. But Rollins is most impressed with Chown’s filmmaking.

“Unlike 99 percent of his international peers, he is not only a film scholar but a filmmaker,” Rollins says.

By collaborating with his students to produce Ken Burns-style documentaries, Chown provides them with work experiences that complement classroom learning. “Dr. Chown embodied the concept of ‘engaged learning’ long before the term gained currency on campus,” says NIU Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Christopher McCord.

Chown’s documentaries have won awards, praise and large audiences, beginning with “Barbed Wire Pioneers.” Its 1998 debut at DeKalb’s Egyptian Theatre drew 1,600 people.

His other films include “John Peter Altgeld: The Eagle Remembered,” “DeKalb Stories” and “Lincoln and the Black Hawk War,” which appeared on Chicago’s PBS Channel 11.

More recently, Chown has been praised for his scholarly examinations of war documentaries. Again, his work incorporates students, who interviewed NIU veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to produce a new film, “Degrees of Reality.” 

All the hard work has brought accolades, including NIU’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award and Presidential Teaching Professorship, and the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award from the Illinois Humanities Council.

Yet Chown is just as prolific in behind-the-scenes service.

He has directed nearly 40 theses, contributed to nearly 200 graduate committees and served on countless administrative groups, including the Faculty Senate and Strategic Planning Task Force. He also served as acting communication department chair, director of its graduate studies and University Honors director.