Teaching film and media studies, including production, at liberal arts colleges offers unique opportunities and unique challenges that differ from other types of institutions. Small class sizes and a focus on advising and mentorship afford a level of intellectual and creative engagement impossible at larger institutions. Limited physical resources and a smaller faculty body in the subject area restrict the scope and scale of course offerings and limit the types of student projects created in classroom settings. Many media studies programs in the liberal arts, including my own at Lewis & Clark College, have grown out of communication sciences programs housed in the social sciences, and remain focused on a wider and less specialized curriculum spanning rhetorical criticism, interpersonal communication, and socialization, along with media studies and production. Professors teaching media studies in this context are, in a very real sense, “one (wo)man bands,” who are responsible for film and media theory, history, and production. Here, I’d like to offer a few strategies for how to build that band into an orchestra of support for students interested in exploring media studies and production.
The orchestra begins to form via the recognition that collaboration, engagement, and involvement are necessary and inherently valuable. Scott Carlson’s recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “A Caring Professor May Be Key in How a Graduate Thrives” reviews the Gallop-Purdue Index Report suggesting that College graduates “had double the chances of being engaged in their work and were three times as likely to be thriving in their well-being if they connected with a professor on the campus who stimulated them, cared about them, and encouraged their hopes and dreams…Graduates who had done a long-term project that took a semester or more, who had held an internship, or who were extremely involved in extracurricular activities or organizations had twice the odds of being engaged at work and an edge in thriving in well-being.” The research suggests that liberal arts colleges do a particularly good job in this regard; engagement between faculty and students defines the small college tradition while offering a viable avenue to value creativity and institutional differentiation in a competitive academic marketplace. So, if we all (presumably) care about our students and encourage their hopes and dreams, what are the best practices to turn that sentiment into a collaboration that will result in thriving alumni with strong ties to their alma mater?
First, a collaborative model of curriculum support and development is necessary to foster an atmosphere supporting students and faculty alike. While we may appear to be going it alone, we must recognize that media support services staff at our institutions play crucial roles in technology maintenance, training, and development, and can be key collaborators in training students and faculty in software and hardware use. Technology workshops offered by support services staff in conjunction with my own classes create a complementary atmosphere that aid student learning. Staff initiated workshops and “showcases” featuring faculty who are innovating with technology in the classroom stimulate creative integration of technology into course and assignment design. Technology upgrades should be executed after consultation with supporting staff. Technology grants, institutional grants, dean’s office and departmental budgets should be tapped into in order to maximize monetary outlays for new cameras, sound, and lighting equipment. Learning these new technologies alongside staff allows faculty-staff bonding and camaraderie that translates directly to the classroom.
Furthermore, collaborative course offerings allow students to build links between conceptual and practical skill sets while connecting experiences from courses across the social sciences and humanities. Revisions to a media studies curriculum growing out of social science traditions should strive for efficiency by building links between theory and practice into each course and across the division. In so doing, inter-departmental collaboration complements intra-departmental curriculum design and embraces the diversity of perspectives coming from the social sciences. Courses in media studies can be linked to courses in political science, sociology, anthropology and economics through shared course projects, collaborative teaching, and team research. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with my colleague, sociologist Robert Goldman, on a course designed to innovate new techniques to put big ideas into short media forms. His expertise in advertising and critical theory complements my experience in short film production, movie trailer production, and film theory. In this liberal arts context, students’ work in the arts serves to broaden their interests and sharpen their aesthetic skill sets, while their work in the social sciences connects patterns of human behavior and socio-cultural structures to film texts. In each stage of coursework, a co-curricular and extra-curricular offering can complement the work being done in the classroom and afford students the opportunity to master techniques and concepts in more depth than in a single classroom.
Once a collaborative and coherent curriculum is established, extra-curricular and co-curricular offerings should work to engage students with professors. One strategy to involve students in research and creative work is to incentivize students with internship, practicum, or independent study credit. Students participating in these offerings should be able to apply credits toward graduation in the department, rather than solely as general elective credit. Another is to apply for internal and external grants to pay students for their time and effort. In so doing, students re-conceptualize the nature of their work as pre-professionals, often engaging more seriously than otherwise would be the case. Demonstrating that student labor is valuable, and should be compensated, is crucial to building an enduring relationship over long-term projects. With each creative and research project I undertake I involve my students in key collaborative positions. For instance, for the past year and a half I have been directing a feature documentary about the mobile food movement. Over the course of pre-production and production, I have worked with nearly two-dozen students. Rather than conceptualizing such student labor as a burden requiring additional management efforts, I view their contribution as key collaborators who have demonstrated their competencies first in my documentary class, then in their own creative work outside the classroom in film clubs and internships, and finally each day on location. I view each day shooting as an opportunity to present a module to my students on documentary technique, ethics, engagement, and executing a vision. They have been trained in sound recording and camerawork in the classroom, and are able to provide key contributions in those areas. Each day begins with a production meeting that identifies goals for the day, reminds the students of key framing and sound considerations, and links that day’s shoot to the broader project goals. Each day then concludes with a summary of the accomplishments and challenges of the day while reflecting on the broader issues of documentary style, form, and ethics. Students have ascended to roles as widely differentiated as project manager, sound technician, and social media manager.
Student experiences, therefore, are enriched by mentorship, engagement, and reflection. I embrace every opportunity to involve my students in all aspects of my work both within and outside of my home institution. For example, I am currently writing this entry at the Cannes Film Festival, where I serve as a mentor for students interning with businesses buying and selling media content. Through the American Pavilion, students from around the world gain access to the festival via these internships. Five of my own students are currently interning with companies ranging from Lionsgate to Archstone Distribution to Lakeshore Entertainment. Their involvement enriches their Media Studies experience in the liberal arts, and is contextualized via mentor meetings with me. I link their internships together and spend time asking them to reflect on the differences between distributors and production companies, and the structure of their companies, the division of labor therein, and how their business experience is integrated into their experience with media coursework. The students go to screenings in the evenings and are exposed to global cinema on an amazing scale. I encourage them to broaden their horizons by going to screenings from filmmakers they haven’t heard of, from nations around the world they may not have access to when they return to Portland. They blog about their experiences, write reviews of the films, and share their stories with our home institution. This reflective exercise serves to both afford the students the opportunity to process their experiences in detail and in real time while also promoting the department’s co-curricular dynamism to the broader institution.
Whether curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular, student-faculty collaboration builds bonds, enriches student experiences, and strengthens the links for alumni to the institution. This process, though, must begin with faculty collaboration within and between departments and faculty-staff collaboration in technology acquisition, training, and maintenance. The liberal arts environment should foster an atmosphere where collaboration is not only possible, but becomes crucial to long-term success for students and faculty alike. Building an infrastructure for media studies and production means embracing students as collaborators, working with them over long periods of time as they work towards graduation, not as an end unto itself, but as a step in a lifelong chain back to the College. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes an orchestra to teach Media Studies in the liberal arts.
Blow, Charles M. “In College, Nurturing Matters.” The New York Times, May 7, 2014, accessed May 15, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/08/opinion/blow-in-college-nurturing-matters.html?_r=0
Carlson, Scott. “A Caring Professor May Be Key in How a Graduate Thrives.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2014 , accessed May 15, 2014. http://chronicle.com/article/A-Caring-Professor-May-Be-Key/146409/
Bryan Sebok is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies at Lewis & Clark College, where he teaches courses that integrate film and media studies with production. A working filmmaker, he has produced a narrative feature, Dance With the One, and is currently directing a feature documentary on the mobile food movement. He has also published articles in Velvet Light Trap, MediaScape and Spectator.