Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Becoming The Talent

In early June 2012, we began the filming of the lectures that the Rome students are watching outside of class. Initially, I had wanted to record only my voice and the screen capture (as happens when Echo360 is used in class).  I had no problem going to the audio studio to do this since the sound quality would be much better than what I can get recording on my laptop with the cat meowing in the background.  I was not, however, especially eager to be filmed.  I pushed hard not to be filmed, in fact, but the Assistant Dean who runs the Liberal Arts ITS department, Joe TenBarge, was insistent.  In part, filming me would allow them to collect data about student viewing habits.  Students often  say that they would like video on the in-class Echo recordings; now they could see how true that was, at least in one case.  Of course, in my own head, I am thinking, "hmm, maybe you'll just find out that they don't want to watch *me*!"  Now that I have real students watching these videos, I am more persuaded that it was a good decision.  I can see the ways in which having me present and speaking directly to them creates an interesting kind of intimacy.  This is an important antidote against the inevitable depersonalization that occurs in a 400-student classroom.

For reasons that seem silly in retrospect, I had imagined myself teaching in an empty classroom, with a camera somewhere out of sight filming me.  I thought that the weirdest part would be getting used to talking to nobody.  Well, yes, that was weird--but definitely not the most disorienting part of the process.  Before I began filming, I was given an orientation to the audio studio and introduced to the student interns with whom I'd be working, in addition to the UT Echo guru Mike Heidenreich.  We also did some test shots.  One thing that quickly became clear was that I needed to make some important decisions about my appearance: did I want to wear the same thing every day? a new outfit every day?  or something in the middle?  As well, I realized that I would need to real wear make-up because of the bright studio lighting.  For the test shot, I wore a navy blue shirt with some decorative fabric folds on the front--pretty simple as far as women's clothing goes.  On camera, however, it looked distracting, especially because I have dark-rimmed glasses.  The image was too busy.  I also realized that it was not a good idea to wear any sort of dark eye-shadow because, every time I looked down at the computer screen, the viewer got a full view of my eyes.

It didn't take long to arrive at a couple of important decisions: if the video is just a head/upper torso shot, it's probably a good idea to wear something very simple if you want to blend into the background and have the students focusing on what your are saying rather than on you (of course, if you want them looking at you, wearing a new and outrageous outfit every day is the way to do it!).  Wearing foundation and powder (for women, at least) is a good idea.  If you wear eyeshadow, make it a neutral color.  Simplicity was my guiding principle and it seemed to work well.  I ended up wearing a long-sleeved, pinkish t-shirt with a decorative but simple neckline.  My glasses are what stand out the most, but otherwise I coordinate with the Power Point design.  It never occurred to me that a. I would need to think about how I looked on camera; and b. think about what my objectives were in creating an image (have the students think I was a cool dresser?  get them talking about my different "looks"?  fade into the background as much as possible to help them focus on the content rather than the person delivering it?).  It also never occurred to me that I would have to walk around in the hot Texas summer sun with foundation and powder on!  My favorite part of the day was getting home and scrubbing my face.

A screenshot of what the students see when watching the lecture

Another big surprise to me about the filming process was learning how to speak to a camera.  Yes, as it turned out, I wasn't going to be filmed in an empty classroom but rather, the audio "cave"--a soundproof room with a microphone, a camera, a stand holding my laptop, and me.

Bobby the bat enjoyed his time in the audio cave so much that he has become a permanent denizen

I did bring an "audience" with me--some fuzzy friends who inhabit my office--but otherwise it was just me.  And it was weird, disorienting, uncomfortable, scary, etc.  I am accustomed to standing in front of a crowd and lecturing (aka delivering content).  But talking straight to a camera?  I quickly realized that all of my usual teaching habits--making eye contact with as many students as I can; speaking at a reasonably slow pace so that everyone can process what I am saying; and moving around the room--were precisely what I could NOT do when being filmed.  On film, the lecture looks best when one stands completely still (some hand gestures are ok), stares down the camera, and speaks as quickly as possible.  For the first few days, I felt completely out of sorts--here I was doing all the things that would make me a disastrous lecturer in person.  Yet, when I watched the rough cuts, it looked good--and completely normal.  Perhaps most surprising to me was the disconnect between my sense of how fast I was speaking and how normal it looked on film.

Finally, it became immediately obvious that I would need to completely re-work the Power Points I had used to teach the course in the previous fall.  The ideal length of a recorded lecture is about 15 minutes and certainly no more than 25.  In addition, because the students could press pause, I realized that it would be helpful to insert review questions at the midway point and at the end of each lecture.  That way, they could quiz themselves on what they had listened to and rewind if necessary.  They could also use these review questions to guide their preparation for midterm exams.  All of this meant that I completely re-shuffled the arrangement of material.  Each lecture covered less material, but was also more focused on specific topics.  Particularly when it came to lecturing on the complexities of the last century of the Roman Republic (the period covered by HBO's Rome), it was a big advantage to be able to present the material in smaller and more digestible chunks.

No comments:

Post a Comment