Teaching Digital Creative Artists (or what to do when your department chair channels Ned Ludd)

by Steve Jackson

The Post Modern Era

As we move into a recognizably post modern era of university education I have noticed when consulting on digital media development that the main failure in properly educating students is not the liberal arts model we have inherited, but the use of the model as a means of giving second class status to technologists and artists on campus.  Rather than embracing the difference between the three arms of human liberal expression, the people who study and perfect a grammar approach, the people who study and perfect a logics approach, and the people who study and perfect a rhetorical approach, the current era is seeing a paradoxical movement against technology on the college campus.  It became clear to me that this was happening when an administrator said in an open meeting that the university was not going to lower itself to teaching technology.  This comment was directed at a shocked video production professor who had no idea until that minute that her boss considered her a second class citizen and was busily preparing her a seat at the back of the academic bus.

Fear of technology is nothing new in academic.  Writing in ink was a new experience for the people of the court of Charlemagne when he brought the education Alcuin of York out of his cloisters and into court life.  The era before Charlemagne is rightfully known as the Dark Ages because so little writing was done in the former reaches of the Roman Empire.  Alciun, in establishing an educational system for the Frankish kingdom apparently started first by introducing the soft technology of the written grammatical word along with the hard technology that allowed individuals to use ink affixed to vellum or parchment and bound into larger volumes.  After Alciun the world of Carolingian Europe would open up to later scholars expressly because the technology of writing was taught, but this does not mean everyone of the era approved of this technology.

The motif of advancing technology and the learning of that technology clashing with educational purists continues through out educations.  Gerbert, who would later be a pope, was demonized for introducing tools for rational thought and devices to measure the heavens from the Muslim Caliphate.  Vernacular study translations of the Christian bible just two hundred years later were burned and their authors bones dug up from the ground and destroyed because access to religious information through hand written documents was seen as dangerous to the world order. At the same time European education was being rocked by the fight against scholasticism in studies such as health, science, and astronomy, with new tools being introduced and denigrated for hundreds of years.

The problem with teaching any creative art is that mostly, they involve the use and mastery of technology.

There are a number of clash points that seem to come up.  The first is that while it is possible for a practitioner to learn theory sufficiently to handle even advanced academic classes, mastery of technology is often arrived at from long practice.  The mistake that the video production professor was making with her dean was that she regularly taught theory and studies courses, while very few theory professors had the credentials or skills to teach technology.  Instead of accepting this as a quirk of the liberal arts (where grammar can be a much harder set of skills and values to develop to a professional level of understanding than undergraduate level studies and theory courses (because an understanding of theory sufficient to teach an undergraduate course does not imply the ability to publish or research in that area) it is used as a cudgel to beat down the development of high quality art programs in technology such as video production.

At the same time, more is being demanded of curriculum because the industry is loosing it normal mooring points (such as news casts in local television stations that pay their producers a living wage).  Automation, computer assisted production, and the collapsing of lower skilled jobs into the realm of minimum wage, part-time contracts has demanded more from curriculum that cannot be given to the students over the objections of anti-technology leadership.  The current complexity of the industry has forced the video production student to A) become more skilled, B) become more broadly skilled, C) look away from the traditional media for employment, and D) develop an entrepreneurial edge to their work that makes them always looking for business opportunities. To supply this our curriculum has to use each contact hours for the maximum benefit of the student.  Instead, production majors are being diluted to avoid teaching students needed skills.  A look at a college such as Heidelberg University shows that its Integrated Media major provides three courses for learning the skills of communicating with technology, but each of the courses are vague catch-alls, a series of introductions to the idea of media production rather than strong production courses designed to move a student to a mastery that will allow them to navigate through a complex industry and find work in a marketplace that may require the worker to make up their own jobs.  At the same time the student, who cannot be expected to tell that they are being sold an inferior program, and left to figure their way through no less than five speech courses.  This is egregious considering the fact that the student who will have to be a master of the grammar side of the liberal arts while have far more rhetoric than the skills and ideas they need to understand their own field.

Technology has provided the talented producer with a wide range of tools that they can use to create products that can pay a living wage through creative use of the Internet and new media. A new graduate can earn a living producing documentary videos for sale on iTunes, can produce small/intense audience web series whose funding is through Kickstarter, or can develop advertising revenue through commentary-based media in highly targeted audiences. Most media producers will maintain several revenue sources, moving into and out of the mainstream media as opportunities present themselves.    Making sure the student has five speech classes is not a frugal means to achieve the knowledge and understanding needed of the industry to prosper, and only the best students will turn that information into a career.

To aid a student in reaching this level of competence in their undergraduate career, the faculty member must be prepared to use intensive learning strategies in a linked series of classes. This means that each learning experience must use active learning to assure long-term retention of knowledge, the learning experiences must include intensive educations in the culture of the industry where each member is an active rather than passive participant in the process, and the students need strong review of their work to provide them the feedback needed to become a quality oriented communicator.

In general the public relations specialist or digital media producer needs no less than six experiences where they are actively involved working in their field before they graduate.  A PR specialist must not simply present a power point in a rhetoric class, but must be taught to use advanced data sets to arrive at objective conclusions on persuasion that can be communicated easily to a client.  A production student must be able to conceive of a product and follow the production of that product from idea to delivery of a finished work.  They need not be highly specialized, but they must have the basic traits that make a member of the industry successful, which are different traits that the PR specialist.

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