Teaching Philosophy

Having lunch and discussing pedagogy with a colleague recently, I was struck by his passionate argument for the (revolutionary, he seemed to think) integration of research and creative work into the act of teaching, as if all of Higher Education had recently decided they had nothing to do with one another.  I suppose it never occurred to me that any professor could ever perceive of the two as being separate.  When I’m writing as an academic, I’m processing previously written texts on a subject, as well as related works – reorganizing, reinventing, and adding to them.  But I am also thinking about the classroom – what I have learned from students and their responses to the materials I have presented, and what I have gained from the act of teaching itself.  In my creative activities, I am primarily producing works in response to what I experience in the world around me, of which such a large part is my life as an educator.  I am a teacher and a media producer – these two identities frame how I process the world around me and how I use and build on any knowledge and experience I have gained.

Education goes far beyond the processing and understanding of information.  Understanding something is step one – it is in how the student takes that knowledge and moves forward with it that I am most interested.  For example, in a screenwriting course I taught, I began by covering the Syd Field text and the basics of the age-old three-act narrative structure.  One has to know the rules in order to break the rules, so once they’d mastered that material, the students began to brainstorm ways in which to create interesting narratives outside the Syd Field conventions.  The result of this exercise was a solid demonstration of the boundless possibilities of narrative construction, and a chance to step back and understand the traditional three-act structure’s place in that spectrum of creative freedom.  Students must be empowered to experiment, to take creative risks – once they have mastered the skills they need to create, and the protocols used in the professional market they’ll enter upon graduation, they must be encouraged to do something new, to take chances in the pursuit of intellectual and creative growth.

I believe Aristotle was right when he wrote that teaching is the highest form of understanding.  And understanding begins with immersion and preparation.  As is necessary in teaching any form of media production, I do very thorough and current research before developing a course outline.  I subscribe to most of the top technical journals, as well as content-oriented media journals.  I also monitor the scholarly writing in my field, and I keep an eye on the studies that pertain to my own work as a scholar and a media producer, including writing in media theory, film and television studies, computer science, new media, technology, visual design, cultural studies, and theatre arts.

I’m an extremely (compulsively, some might say) well-organized person and a very careful planner, and I encourage that approach in my classes.  I try to construct my courses to assist students in handling their workloads in an efficient manner.  This might include having them work in small groups, or breaking large assignments into smaller fragments.  For many of the students in my introductory production courses, this is the first exposure they have had to digital cameras and nonlinear editing.  The complicated technical aspects of production can be frustratingly daunting to newcomers, and the students greatly benefit from breaking into small groups for initial projects, where they can lean on each other and learn together.  I don’t like to see students rushing their work, for that never allows for sufficient reflection on or engagement with the material, and rarely gives me an accurate idea of a student’s abilities. Planning in production courses is absolutely crucial. I’ve found a direct correlation between the amount of pre-production work that students do and the quality of their films. Usually, the thicker the production book, the better the film. My students learn to make their film on paper before they ever set foot on the set.

Every course has a rhythm.  Parts of any course (especially a media production course, which usually involves instruction in technology and the workshopping of ideas and works-in-progress) will move faster or slower than other parts, but one should be able to see the rhythm of a course to some degree even in the construction of the syllabus.  There should be a constant moving forward – an always measurable progression.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to pace a class correctly, and always be prepared to make adjustments – students shouldn’t be straining to keep up, nor should they ever get too far ahead.

On the other hand, the old adage that the worse the writer the greater the attachment to the writing, applies to teaching as well.  The least stimulating classes I can remember taking in college were the ones in which the professor held on to his/her syllabus with an iron fist.  The exchange of ideas in a classroom is a living thing, a moving entity, and to some degree an instructor needs to let a class go where it needs to go, so long as it is ultimately progressing toward the goals of the course.  The best teachers are good listeners.  Teaching is not just about imparting knowledge, it’s about facilitating well-rounded experiences for students in which they learn from each other and from their own active participation in discussions, assignments, and the direction of the course.

Likewise, students should be encouraged to “think outside” their assignments.  They shouldn’t be judged by their ability to move beyond their assignments, but neither should they be led to believe that the assignments are the be-all and end-all of a course’s subject.  I hope that the assignments I conceive act to some degree as inspiration, or building blocks, for work the students will do down the road.

As a teacher in even media production classes, I’m strongly in favor of writing exercises like creative journals and reasoned, analytical responses to texts and work.  In the act of committing ideas to paper, even in something as short as an informal one-page essay, students are required to develop and organize their thoughts, which necessitates a significant level of wrestling with the material.  But whether it is orally or in writing, students should always be responding to everything that is happening in a class – my comments, the comments and work of their classmates, the technologies, the written and audiovisual texts, and the processes of creating, presenting and discussing work.  It is in this process of call-and-response that they become critical thinkers.  As important as realizing an accomplished production is, the value of the producer is limited if he/she can’t competently evaluate the work. It’s very important that student filmmakers learn to speak about their films. In my professional experience in media industries, I found that the key value that separated workers who moved above the line from those working below the line was the ability to speak about the work with elegance and critical skill.  While I certainly believe there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to a career as a technician, if a student wants someday to work as an editor, a producer, a director, he/she needs to learn how to communicate to collaborators and potential audiences about their work.  To that end, I make my students speak about their projects in every single class meeting, so they can get comfortable with the process and develop their skills as communicators and collaborators while simultaneously growing their skills as filmmakers.

Students must learn that media production involves a great deal of interpersonal interaction, not only with their own production teams, but with members of the public whose knowledge of the production processes will be limited.  An awareness of the responsibilities  and sensitivities required of a good media producer is always foregrounded in my courses.  Recently, I had a group of students shooting documentary footage in a large working hospital, talking to patients and doctors under incredible stress.  It was a crash course in how to operate as responsible media professionals with grace and discretion in a politically and emotionally fragile environment.

From the very beginning of a class students should be aware of what I’m expecting from them.  Grading should never be an ambush.  Assignments should challenge students, but they should understand the assignments as well as any other material introduced in the course, and my approach to the assignments as the person who will be evaluating their work.  Full written evaluations of student work are essential to me in the grading process, and I always welcome one-on-one discussions of any student’s work or grade.  I also seek out the continued evaluation of my teaching, inviting other faculty to sit in on my classes and carefully considering student feedback in the classroom and in end-of-term written evaluations.  Obviously, teaching and learning go hand in hand, and I am always striving to become a better teacher, learning how to improve my courses and my teaching style.

I strive to make the learning environment comfortable for students.  I believe that most of the students entering a classroom are there because they are ready to learn and exchange ideas.  The teacher’s job is to facilitate the informed engagement of the material – the asking of questions, the trading of reasoned arguments, the construction of debate.  Of course this is easier to do in smaller classes, but it’s far from impossible in the large ones.  When lecturing to sizable groups, I speak to them, not at them.  They can just read the textbooks if all I’m there to do is recite information – it’s my job to be creative and energetic as a speaker, and to convey my enthusiasm for the material.  If I’m not excited about my lecture, how can they be?  I prefer to use my lecture as conversation, to invite feedback and questions so that the material emerges in a dialog with the students.  While I recognize the value of teaching tools like powerpoints, written notes, and videos as assistive devices, I never allow them to become crutches.  I prefer to know my lectures by heart, so I can diverge and come back to them as the dialog with the students unfolds, and not stand behind a podium or a desk.  My long history as a public speaker (including stints in stand-up comedy, where I’ve played to audiences of over a thousand people) has been indispensable in my development as a teacher.

Another important part of what I do as a teacher is build student confidence.  This is especially pertinent in media production classes where students are frequently presenting their work, or learning technologies with which they may have little to no experience.  Many students have difficulty mastering the artistic and academic remove needed to be openly and productively critical of their own and others’ comments and works.  It is easy to spot the student who shrinks to the back of a classroom, sometimes physically as well as vocally, and even easier to lose track of that student.  But that student needs to be prodded to step forward and make his/her voice heard and presence felt, and feel at ease doing so.  This is crucial to creating a comfortable classroom environment, where all are given an equal time to speak and to present their work, and where only well-reasoned and constructive criticism is permitted.  Every student has inner strength and confidence, and it’s part of my job to recognize it and encourage it.

Part of teaching media production is teaching technology, which doesn’t have to be as dry and challenging as it seems.  There are few things more frustrating than listening to an instructor drone on, “This button does this and this button does that.”  I learn new software and new equipment quickly because I find that understanding technology is largely intuitive when imagined from the perspective of the developer.  When I’m learning a new program, I try to imagine why the author of the software laid it out as he/she did, and similarly, when I’m learning a new piece of equipment I wonder why the engineer constructed it in a particular way.  These are questions I bring up when teaching technology, and I have found that it always helps students learn more quickly.  It is also important that students understand that mastering technology comes only with practice and that understanding technology is just one small step toward becoming a good media creator.  Knowing how an Avid operates doesn’t make one an editor, just as a knowledge of Photoshop doesn’t make one a graphic designer.  I recognize the difficulties in teaching technology even to small groups, most especially that different students learn at different speeds, and I am always eager to assist anyone who needs additional help outside of class.

I have noticed both in the classes that I took in college and the ones that I have taught that when the teacher introduces some of his/her own work or some part of his/her life that is relatable to the course material, that the response has been very positive.  For example, in my media writing courses, I lectured briefly on my industry experience and the paths of solicited and unsolicited scripts through the production market.  The goal of the courses was to learn the theory, art, and practice of scriptwriting, but moving beyond that to give the class a presentation on the business of media writing proved to be a big hit with the students, especially since nearly all of them desired to work professionally in production upon graduating.  Similarly, when we came to the parts of the courses addressing narrative structure and voice, I told them about my own artistic experiments in those areas.

I also find the introduction of guest speakers and artists, when possible, to be extremely useful in stimulating productive discussion.  One of the great things about teaching at the college level is the wide variety of disciplines at your doorstep.  I’ve found that most other faculty, schedule permitting, are happy to visit my classes and discuss their areas of study and their research.  Students should be exposed to as wide a range of contemporary and historical media practices, as well as multicultural and historically underrepresented producers and artists, as is possible. Teaching in Portland, one of the great film cities in the world, has given me access to a broad range of filmmakers, from those that make microbudget, very personal DIY films, to directors of large-scale Hollywood-backed productions. Most of these filmmakers have been more than happy to come into my production classes to chat with students.

I am an enormous advocate of the value of international education.  I believe that studying abroad can be the most rewarding experience a student can have while in college.  To that end, I secured the position of the Director of Temple University’s Summer Seminar in Dublin, a position I held for several years.  I developed an exciting curriculum involving history and literature, site visits and field work, creative work and writing.  During the program, I also taught courses that I authored, including “Irish Media Arts and Irish Identity” and “Travel Writing in Ireland.”  With a firm foothold in Ireland’s media market, I have been able to open doors to students that would be closed to most academic programs, including the engineering of learning experiences at RTE, Ireland’s national television network, and Hot Press, which is the Irish equivalent of Rolling Stone.  I also secured the position of the Director of Temple University’s Summer Seminar in London, where I was asked to provide the creative direction and program revision that I brought to the Dublin program.

I’ve also led the video production unit of the Institute for Education in International Media’s program in Armagh, which is located just outside of Belfast in Northern Ireland.  I supervised and instructed digital filmmaking in a massive multimedia project in which students from multiple American colleges and universities produced a portrait of the small city, which has a fascinating and troubled political history.  In addition to their production work, the students learned intercultural competence, a skill that no media producer should be without in an era in which media production industries have become so globalized.

Most recently, I was the Director of the University of Oregon’s ‘Cinema in Ireland’ summer program in Dublin, where I taught a course in Irish film studies and took students to the sets of the RTE miniseries Rebellion and the History Channel show Vikings, and to the Galway Film Fleadh. I have also presented research on methods for teaching and marketing intercultural and international media-centered study abroad programs at multiple conferences.

At both of the large universities where I have taught full-time, Temple University and Portland State University, I took the lead in designing the production curriculum. At Temple, I was brought in to rework the broadcasting/video courses, which had become a little outdated and needed an infusion of creative energy. At Portland State, I designed the structure and all of the key courses of its new production curriculum, expanding on the film studies program already in place. Curricular and program development has become one of my absolute favorite parts of my job.

I firmly believe that courses need to evolve from term to term, and that it is only apathy that prevents some faculty from retooling their courses to reflect changing trends in media markets, developing technologies, fields of scholarship, and demonstrated student needs. When I design my courses I attempt to think laterally, something I train my students to do in my writing and production courses. To think vertically is to be convinced from the beginning of any creative process that there is only one option, one solution that must be pursued from the outset. To think laterally is to brainstorm, to ideate, to present oneself with as many options as possible without initial evaluation and judgment impeding the process. In short, to have an open mind. This is why so many of my courses have experimental elements – I want to feel free to take risks in advancing my courses.

I truly enjoy teaching above most anything else, I feel passionately about the material I am so fortunate to teach, and I work hard to make that enthusiasm contagious in the classroom.  I take great joy in watching students succeed in my courses, and I am delighted when they ask me for letters of recommendation for internships, jobs, and graduate school applications.  Three graduating seniors recently told me that I was their favorite teacher while they were in college, while another told me that she planned to become an editor because of the passion for it that she discovered in my film editing course.  Feedback like this drives me to continue to construct effective teaching methods to assist students in the development of critical minds, professional-level talents, and artistic visions.

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