Dean’s Date

We know we’re all media junkies, but what about Princeton’s fearless leaders? Does running a university keep them busy around-the-clock, or do they still have time to binge-watch the latest season of Breaking Bad?

The Buffer editors decided to find out and made a date with the Deans, inviting three university administrators to join us in a conversation about their film and television likes and dislikes: David Dobkin (Dean of the Faculty and Phillip Y. Goldman ’86 Professor of Computer Science), Valerie Smith (Dean of the College and the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature), and Tara Kinsey (Associate Dean at the Office of the Dean of the College and the Office of the Vice Presidentfor Campus Life). Their candid answers to our questions about their viewing habits may surprise you, as they did us!

Everyone loves talking about their favorite movies, so we began by asking all three deans what might top their list. Dean Kinsey, a sucker for any film with a killer soundtrack, puts Almost Famous in her Top 10, as well as other movies with memorable music like Once, Juno, Pretty In Pink, This Is Spinal Tap, Amélie and the Pixar short La Luna. Two meaningful films for Dean Smith are Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man and Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, each of which has profoundly shaped how she thinks about African American culture today. Dean Dobkin’s answer to this question was perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening. He is the rare type of guy who likes chick flicks and is proud of it: his three favorite movies are When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, and It’s A Wonderful Life. “It’s my opinion that movies should make you feel good,” he said. “Given the choice, I’ll only go to romantic comedies.”  

The Deans also have many films and shows they remember nostalgically from years past. Dean Kinsey has especially fond memories of growing up watching M*A*S*H* with her dad, while Yellow Submarine is the movie Dean Dobkin remembers most from his college years. (Why the Yellow Submarine? Because, he said, “it was the ‘60s.”) One of Dean Smith’s childhood favorites was The Patty Duke Show, a 1960s sitcom about identical teen cousins, and she also credits The Cosby Show as a historic moment in television. Before this show debuted in 1984, African Americans on television were either invisible or problematic. The Huxtables, loosely based on comedian Bill Cosby’s own family life, changed all that and made The Cosby Show one of the most watched on television.

Do the deans have any current guilty pleasures, we wondered—television shows they just can’t stop watching? As Dean Smith said of Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom, a recent viewing indulgence, “We might want to push back on the idea of ‘guilty pleasure.’ I don’t feel any guilt about it at all!” She also has a soft spot for British mystery series, and has been enjoying comparing the British and American versions of House of Cards and The Office. Dean Kinsey, meanwhile, just completed a five-hour Friday Night Lights marathon with her husband (this definitely made some of us feel less abashed that we spent our reading periods binge-watching Scandal). Although, as a former member of the Princeton women’s softball team, she is often wary of clichés when it comes to sports movies, she thinks that Friday Night Lights is the rare show that manages to avoid the standard pitfalls.

Another unexpected revelation of the evening: deans really like reality TV! Dean Kinsey explained her enthusiasm for the NBC singing competition The Voice by pointing out its departure from television’s obsession with how people look. Dean Dobkin is also a fan of reality TV, particularly when it is unpredictable. His favorites include the funky Storage Wars, which to him is all about economics, and A&E’s Bad Ink, a show about tattoo artists who seek out bad tattoos and turn them into works of art. Dean Dobkin is also an amateur artist with a fine eye for kitsch ( so we can understand, and heartily approve, his good taste in bad television.

None of this is to say that media, and film in particular, has no educational value for our deans. In fact, quite the opposite is true. For many years, according to Dean Dobkin, Princeton’s computer science department has offered courses in animation for which Pixar shorts are used as teaching tools. Dean Dobkin has also had a few students go on to work at Pixar, including one whose job was to model bubbles for Finding Nemo. Dean Smith, meanwhile, likes to consider the relationship between aesthetic practices and processes of historic and cultural change in her literature courses. As a result, she often incorporates films into her classes. She says that teaching To Sleep With Anger, one of her favorite films, was an experience that made her like it even more.

Less for educational purposes than perhaps good old-fashioned family bonding, Deans Dobkin and Kinsey also spend time around the television with their children. Dean Dobkin has watched When Harry Met Sally so many times with his kids that the whole family can quote nearly all the lines to each other, while Dean Kinsey sets aside Friday nights as “movie night” at her house. Current favorites in her household include Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. She also exposes her kids to the “Gustafer Yellowgold” series of minimally animated music videos, created by the singer-songwriter Morgan Taylor and often performed as live shows. Dean Kinsey enjoys the music’s crossover appeal for adults, which TIME Magazine describes as a style of “Kindie rock.”

But what about the Deans’ own TV habits: when their kids aren’t around, how do they decide what to watch, and how? “My TV habits are completely binge,” admits Dean Kinsey. Besides Friday Night Lights, her past binges include Downton Abbey, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Sex and the City. To decide what to watch next, she and her husband are also avid users of the AnyList app, which allows viewers to create organized lists that they can then share with family and friends. Other resources for Dean Kinsey are NPR reviews and lists of independent films from the Sundance festival. Dean Smith relies on word of mouth and movie reviews to make additions to her viewing queue, and also takes recommendations from her Netflix viewer’s profile. Dean Dobkin however prefers to avoid online platforms such as Netflix and Hulu in favor of old-school channel surfing.

As our conversation drew to a close, we couldn’t resist asking whether, as denizens of Nassau Hall, any pet peeves came to mind with regards to film and television. As it turns out, all three deans have a major problem with the representation of academics in film and television. Dean Kinsey feels academics are often the object of derision, and Dean Dobkin agreed: “You have either intense idealization or incredible incompetence.” Dean Smith mentioned shows like Numb3rs and Perception as possible exceptions, although noted that perhaps this is the case since, in both instances, the academic is using his talents to solve crimes in standard television fashion. Dean Dobkin cites the film A Beautiful Mind (set partly here at Princeton) as a more complex portrayal of academics, one that he hopes will be parceled out into future shows and movies.

So, what did we learn from our date with the Deans? It turns out the folks in Nassau Hall need a little down time too. And if anyone wants to write a pilot about a crime-solving university dean with a not-so-secret passion for reality TV, they’ll have plenty of real-life material on hand before they pitch it to HBO.

On behalf of the Buffer editorial board, we would like to say thank you to all three deans for their conversation.