What It’s Like To Be James Franco’s Professor
His English professor at Yale reveals that the actor rarely missed a discussion, even when filming in Detroit.
Photograph by John M. Heller/Getty Images.
When I read that an NYU professor was allegedly fired for giving James Franco a “D,” I was shocked for several reasons. First, that any college could be so stupid as to fire a professor for not giving a good grade seems ridiculous, so much so that I imagine there will be an enormous burden of proof on the part of the accuser even if it is true. Second, I was shocked that James got a “D” for not attending class. I doubt that assertion shocked anyone else, since James is often written about as though he were coasting through the system, playing off the college “cred” he gets by enrolling in as many programs as possible. But I’ve been James’ professor, and it struck me as highly uncharacteristic for him to just “blow off class,” as several articles are suggesting.
When I was assigned to be James Franco’s adviser in the English department at Yale, I was not exactly sure what to think. I was not on the admissions committee that had enrolled him, and to be perfectly honest, I’d never read anything he’d written. (I had, of course, seen a few James Franco films, but who hasn’t?) I am also fairly new at Yale, and so was not sure what sort of “advice” I could offer beyond, I guess, “study hard, and good luck.” When he came to my office, he was already deep into classes on Romanticism, Walt Whitman, and modern American literature. He had also just received an Oscar nomination. James’ personal assistant had called the day before to ask if I could meet in the afternoon, rather than the morning, since he had been invited onto the Colbert Report that day. I was flexible, and happy to accommodate, but remember feeling a little stunned at having to speak with one of my students in such a Hollywood manner—his people calling my people.
In any case, he looked exhausted, but was respectful, interested, and eager to find out more about how he could pursue his interests in both film and literature during his time at Yale. Directed reading is a fairly common practice in graduate school that allows small groups of students with more specific interests to pair up with a professor and read through a list of texts, more or less like a seminar, but with less lecture and more discussion. Over the next few months we agreed on the topic of film language and drew up a list of important texts on film history and theory all dealing with the question of film as a kind of language or grammar. Another graduate student, Matt Rager, also expressed interest in joining us, and so, last August we began meeting once a week to discuss our readings. [Read James Franco’s film language reading list.]
The catch was that this was also the semester that James was going to be in Detroit filming for the new Disney blockbuster Oz, the Great and Powerful, which meant he wasn’t going to be able to meet with Matt and me in New Haven. However, I didn’t feel comfortable carrying on a Ph.D-earning conversation over the phone each week, and so I told him he’d have to agree to take the time away from whatever he was doing (which just happened to be shooting a multimillion dollar film) and at least have a video conference call for several hours each week. Otherwise, it just wasn’t going to work. I would have expected as much from any other graduate student. He was more than happy to do so, and over the course of our reading I imagine he enraged more than one Disney executive in adhering faithfully to our scheduled “meetings.”
John Williams is an assistant professor of English at Yale University. He has published recently in Critical Inquiry, Modernism/modernity, and American Literature.