Setting the Stage for Student Success in Digital Media
Originally published in the Summer 2022 School of Liberal Arts Magazine
Monday, August 15th, 2022
Two faculty members new to the Digital Media Practices (DMP) Program—Casey Beck and Billy Saas—discuss how collaboration plays into their teaching and share techniques they’ve found effective in helping students become stronger candidates for competitive jobs.
Beck teaches DMP's “Directing Actors” concurrently with the Theatre Department’s “Acting for Other Media” class. Saas is jointly appointed in Communication and DMP, where he teaches courses on podcast production, cultural studies and rhetoric & political economy.
Casey Beck (CB): What does collaboration look like on a podcasting crew?
Billy Saas (BS): Simply speaking, a podcast can be produced by one person with an idea, a microphone, and some digital editing software. Most mainstream podcasts, however, will consist of a larger team that resembles a traditional radio or film crew: a producer, an editor, a sound engineer, a narrator or interviewer, one or two researchers and fact checkers, and so on. I’ve had experiences with both solo and team-based projects, but I find podcasting is most rewarding when it’s collaborative—which is why I prioritize collaborative production work in courses like “Introduction to Podcasting & Social Justice.”
BS: Your turn, Casey. What does a film production crew look like?
The filmmakers who tell the most poignant stories are exceptionally engaged with the world around them, not only on set, but more importantly, in everyday life.— Casey Beck
CB: I’m reminded of the great Orson Welles quote, “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.” It’s indicative of the sheer volume of people that need to come together to create a film. A traditional film crew is quite large, with many different people across the production collaborating in very different ways—thematically, artistically, and across content. It is of course possible to have a nimbler crew, which is something I strive for in my own work. That said, even those smaller and faster crews are working in tandem from the get-go: from conceptual inception to development and production, and then all the way through post-production and distribution. Everything I’ve worked on in the last decade has had multiple entry points and countless people working across every element.
The filmmakers who tell the most poignant stories are exceptionally engaged with the world around them, not only on set, but more importantly, in everyday life. There’s no room for tunnel vision or resistance to change. They’re open to new ideas and concepts, and it’s that openness that allows them to galvanize a crew who can bring those ideas to life. As I always tell my students—you want to be saying “yes” far more than you’re saying “no” as a director.
The actors come to appreciate how they are, just a small cog in a larger piece of machinery on a film set. They also learn the patience, preparation, and focus required on a film set. They see how hard their peers are working as directors, cinematographers, sound ops, etc., and it inspires them to raise their game as performers.— ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF THEATRE & DANCE JENNY MERCEIN, WHO CO-TEACHES “ACTING FOR OTHER MEDIA”
CB: How does your experience as a podcaster shape your teaching?
BS: I really enjoy producing podcasts, because producing entails lots of planning, coordination, collaboration and, perhaps most importantly, commitment to seeing a project through to the end. My teaching practice looks a lot like my production practice insofar as I do a lot of planning and coordinating before the semester begins, so that I can create the best conditions for students from the first to last day of class.
So my experience podcasting and my experience teaching really inform each other. Both practices help me to appreciate the importance of clear communication to allow for optimal collaboration from the beginning, throughout, and to the end of the “production” process.
CB: I think what’s so interesting about DMP is that we are all practitioners, and that really, noticeably permeates every aspect of our teaching. Our instruction is very much rooted in our own experience as well as what we’re perpetually learning from our own work.
When I asked how a student’s capstone was going earlier this semester, he said, “I just feel like I’m having to pitch my project over and over.” I told him that’s basically my job as a director: selling an idea to countless people to try and get someone excited about, then invested in, a project. I think it’s validating for students to hear from us that what they’re going through in their classes genuinely mirrors the work of a professional career in media.
One of the ways we see this collaboration in DMP is through this trio of courses: two of ours, “Directing Actors” and “Lighting and Cinematography,” and then Theatre’s course, “Acting for Other Media” as well. These three classes work together every fall, with the directors writing or curating a short script, then casting and rehearsing with the actors, and ultimately shooting short scenes with the cinematographers.
BS: Students and faculty are always collaborating in ways we don't even realize. One thing collaborative media production is able to do is to showcase for people, “Hey, I know how to do this!” And then to realize that it can be tremendously fun to work with other people on the same project and toward the same end, learning from one another despite being in separate lanes.
‘Intro to Podcasting’ was my first experience seeing the amount of teamwork that goes into this medium, and how digital media can be used to enact social change. My favorite part of class was collaborating with Max Alvarez, which led to being featured on an episode of the Working People podcast. The stories he tells on that podcast are so captivating, and I’m forever grateful to now be one of them. I had such an amazing experience in ‘Intro to Podcasting & Social Justice’ that I decided to pursue a coordinate major in DMP, most likely on the audio production or documentary track.– Sophie Harris, SLA ’21
CB: In today’s media landscape, no one is working in a silo. So many films are released alongside a podcast. So many podcasts come out alongside investigative articles. There’s photography, interactive websites, social media campaigns. There’s so much that works together in the real world. It’s critical for our students to experience this collaboration now, so that they can enter the job market as genuinely practiced candidates.
BS: Almost any media project today is both collaborative and multi-media!
CB: Do you want to mention any specific DMP classes that you’re excited about?
BS: I’m having a great time in the [aforementioned] intro course, as well as in “Podcast Production I,” which is an even more hands-on lab course. The work that students are producing in each of these classes has been tremendous, and I’m learning a lot from them. I was especially thrilled that students from my fall intro course were interviewed and had their work featured on the Working People podcast in February!
CB: It’s probably a good time to mention that DMP has a new and expanded curriculum that now includes podcasting, game design, and documentary film. And we encourage students to look at these new interdisciplinary pipelines, which lean heavily on our new DMP faculty but also provide many points of contact with other departments.
Digital Media Practices
Listen to a DMP student-edited podcast about the 2022 Bobby Yan Lectureship in Media and Social Change, featuring The Atlantic editor & Floodlines podcast host Vann R. Newkirk II.