Meet Max van Dongen, a two-time alumnus of Ball State University and current Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Media. He graduated with his bachelor’s in 2020 after studying telecommunications and minoring in both political science and film and screenwriting, and in 2023 he earned his master’s in media.

As an undergraduate, he was heavily involved and always looking for ways to become more affiliated with Ball State outside of the classroom, including his membership in the sketch comedy club Cardinal Film Fights.  

He was also recognized for his excellence in his studies as a master’s student. His creative project thesis, titled “White Elephant,” was awarded the Ball State University Foundation Outstanding Creative Project Award for 2023-2024. 

Today, he continues to be recognized for his passion and dedication to his craft and has been nominated for an Excellence in Teaching Award.  

Max sat down with CCIM Outreach Office Student worker and Senior Communication Studies major Maggey Parker to discuss his experiences as both a student and faculty member at Ball State as well as his love for teaching and media.  

Where are you from and why did you initially choose Ball State?  

I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana, and Ball State was pretty much the only option for me. I had, obviously, danced around the idea of going to any other university. Still, Ball State was really my number one because of the production that they had here in terms of media, and I had heard such good things about it.  

What sparked your love for media, film and production?  

I have to be really grateful because I was so fortunate growing up in what my parents would allow me to watch. I had a lot of room to watch whatever I wanted as a kid, but it was always in a mature setting; it wasn’t just, “Oh, go watch this and enjoy it.”   

There was always an explanation as to how the story was crafted or why the film was more important to watch as opposed to others. I was always introduced to film in a very mature way, and I think that really helped me gain an appreciation for the art behind it, the craft. That’s why I think I take it really seriously in classrooms or try to instill that passion in my students for them to copy.   

I don’t know if it was watching all these creators make their own content and going, “I really want to do that,” but I almost wanted to mimic them. We all have that one artist we were introduced to that we want to be when we’re older — be like them, be the next Christopher Nolan, be the next Martin Scorsese — but I always grew up watching films like Robert De Niro and Wes Anderson and wanting to replicate that kind of style. So, their creativity inspired me to want to do stuff on my own, whether through film, YouTubers, or any emerging media that was coming out at the time.  

How did that passion continue to grow and lead you to Ball State and the Department of Media?   

When I was in middle school and high school, I was always creative. I was always creating YouTube videos or just side projects. If there was a presentation to do in class, I would always ask my teacher if I could do a video instead of a PowerPoint presentation.   

I was fortunate enough to always have been given that creative leeway to do whatever I wanted in elementary school and high school. I’m very fortunate to have that. I think that really inspired me to continue on with it because I always had supportive teachers who approved of what I would do and allowed me to do that. Hearing I could maybe further that in terms of a skill set at Ball State was a no-brainer for me.    

The landscape of media and video is changing a lot, what do you think about all the new social media platforms that feature snippet videos?  

It excites me. One class I’m teaching right now is Media 301 and we are studying the idea of short form video and how we can maintain a viewer’s attention past two seconds and then scrolling past and what can make somebody go down the rabbit hole of watching further and further, maintaining that attention.  

So that actually excites me. To me, films like the Blair Witch Project made on a shoestring budget with just a grand idea in mind — that excites me because it’s closer in line to where the students are at right now. They don’t have access to all of these high-end studios past our facilities here, but they have all these grand ideas in their student projects, and you can see it.  

The potential is right there, so for the Emerging Media and Culture class, I would love for (students) to see if they can explore and alter the attention span in a short-form video, make a story out of themselves. Can they make another Blair Witch project? Can they make another Paranormal Activity? Cloverfield? You name it. With primary and secondary projects, I see that as a challenge as opposed to just, “Oh well, attention spans are dying, you might as well just make short form videos and give up on film.” No, let’s be challenged by that. Let’s see what we can do there.  

Max teaching in class.

What was one of your favorite parts of working on class projects, either as an undergraduate or graduate?  

When I was a senior or junior — I can’t remember — but it was advanced video production, and we were allowed to make any short film we wanted. And I was so lucky to be in a group of everybody who was so involved, wanting to make this happen and accomplish this.  

I even still watch it from time to time because it makes me laugh. I was so fortunate, based on this one idea I had, this script I wrote, how dedicated everybody involved was, and it just makes me so grateful. That was the most exciting project I ever worked on because everybody was so engaged and wanted to make it the best possible, and that’s when it got really exciting for me.  

You took a gap year between earning your bachelor’s and pursuing your master’s, why?  

I always intended to go back to grad school. I thought I would go straight to grad school right after my undergraduate, but it just didn’t feel right at the time to go during COVID.   

I’m very collaborative regarding wanting to work on video projects. I like to be in person, and it didn’t seem fitting to go at a time when everybody was distanced from one another and remote. And I’m so thankful for that year gap. It was the best decision. 

When did you start teaching?

In my first year as a graduate assistant, we were just transitioning back from classes to being more in-person instead of remote. We were at an awkward stage of what to do with the graduate assistants at the time. So, in my second year of grad school, we offered this new course, Media 115, and had three graduate assistants. It was the perfect opportunity to actually have us used in that class to help out on Friday labs.    

I was nervous about doing that because I had never taught before. But when I was an undergraduate, I had TAs in classes that I took in the gateway. I always thought, “I would love to do that; I would love to do that myself and see what it would be like.”   

I got the opportunity to do that in my second year of grad school. I don’t know what clicked for me, but I enjoyed being in that classroom with all the students and seeing what they would come up with during those Friday labs. I would genuinely get excited. I would wake up early on Fridays and go, “All right, it’s presentation day. I cannot wait to see what they come up with.”   

And I still stay up till midnight or 1 a.m. when they’re submitting those assignments at the last second, just watching them flow in. I get so excited to see what they come up with.   

I got excited, and I don’t know if my mentor, Dr. Betsy Pike, took note of that, but she always heavily vouched for me to potentially teach here, and that’s how it worked out. And I haven’t looked back since.  

Is there anything you wish you knew as a student that you’ve learned from being a faculty member?  

I wish I had been more intentional about the limited time you have in college. You may come in as a freshman and think, “Oh, I’ve got four years ahead of me; I can just spend all this time doing whatever,” but it goes by quickly. And I think that’s why, as an assistant lecturer, I try to push them to understand that. Try hard as a freshman; get into that rhythm now, so by the time you’re seniors, you’ll be unstoppable instead of discovering that passion and talent later on in your collegiate career.    

What do you want others at Ball State to know about you as an assistant lecturer and as a person?   

You would be surprised that if you put so much passion into your project or what you do in the classroom, how much it genuinely motivates the instructor professor to get more active. It excites us so much more when these projects are different, and we try something unique and cool. When so much excitement is involved, I always feed off of their energy. So, if they are really into it, I start to get into it, trying to get them as excited as possible about something, like a project they are working on.    

Max teaching in class.

This year, you were nominated for the Excellence in Teaching Award. What does that nomination mean to you as an educator?  

I really don’t know what to say or think about the nomination. I don’t typically teach with receiving an award or nomination in mind. I truly focus on the student outcomes and projects from the courses I oversee.  

The nominations are propelled by the undergraduate students, so, to me, it comes across as good feedback from them. I am truly honored and grateful, but I am more grateful to share the classroom with them. They have been able to create some truly wonderful work! It does mean a lot, but seeing students take pride in what they do means more. 

Do you have any advice for current Ball State students?  

Try, and don’t be afraid to try something different. I know there are so many people who inspire you when it comes to whatever craft you want to pursue. But don’t be afraid to put yourself on the screen. That’s usually the most endearing way to engage with an artist. You get to see who they are on screen. It’s very vulnerable, and I think sometimes students can be afraid to be vulnerable, and that’s okay. I’d much rather watch something that is vulnerable and feels like a person made it as opposed to artificial intelligence, which feels soulless.  

Don’t be afraid to be an M. Night Shyamalan; take a swing at things. Try something different. Be unique. That’s so important. I think it can be intimidating as a freshman to show yourself who you can be, but that’s the time to do it. Because then you’ll show yourself to the class, this is who I am as an artist. And then you’ll grow to be that person that you’ve now presented yourself as, as opposed to finding that out senior year.    

Do you have any goals or hopes for your time as an assistant lecturer at Ball State?     

My goal is always to get the student to be as successful as possible. I would love to have something set up to get these students and their projects into film festivals more easily. Sometimes, students get busy. If they leave a class in the fall time – the spring is when the festival opens, or the deadline is closed, they forget about that class prior. And it’s not their fault — they get busy; I get that. But I would love to streamline getting these students into film festivals so they can get their name out there, be set up from the bat, even if they’re a first- or second-year student, just kind of get them prepared and also give them a little bit of confidence.    

What will the next five to ten years look like for you? 

I never imagined I’d be here. After my master’s program or even a year or two before that, it just happened. You find a home in a way that you wouldn’t have imagined.  

So five to 10 years down the line, I don’t know what I’ll be doing, but if I were to pass along a message with that, (it would be) if it’s not exactly what you want it to be or it pans out to be, you can still find happiness in that.  

I never thought I’d do this after grad school, but I’m so happy doing it. If in five to 10 years I’m doing this, you know, can’t go wrong, I’ll be so happy. But, hopefully, I stay somewhere creative where I can constantly feel like I can create and be inspired.   

Max teaching in class.

Is there anything else that you would like to add or talk about?    

I’m just really grateful for this opportunity. I never knew this would happen, but I’m glad everything seems to be working out. I love doing it. I love the students. If you could hang a video project on the fridge, I’d do it. I love to share their work, and I’m very proud of all of them.