Friday, September 4, 2015

Teaching the Most Depressing Subject on Earth: The Professor and the Green Screen


The history of the Holocaust. What a topic to have to teach! But of course I'm a professor, and that's my job. Complicating matters has been the fact that my course on the history of the Holocaust is totally online. So I'm supposed to assign some readings, ask for written responses, and hope we don't all die of boredom. No way! We have a gorgeous TV studio on campus, with state of the art editing equipment, a green screen, and even a Teleprompter. And nobody's using it. Of course I had to figure out exactly what to do with all this equipment. By now we've probably all seen at least a few examples of traditional video lectures, delivered by traditional professors in the traditional way. But let's face it; a lot of these are barely more engaging than reading a phone directory. The goal I've set for myself has been to reinvent teaching. Not just thinking outside the box, but teaching outside it! And that means you don't stand in front of the podium reading stale old notes. We’re producing television here; and that means it all starts with a script. I cut out everything extraneous and get to the nub of what I want to teach. Amazingly, I find that it's actually possible to compress what I would normally teach in an hour and a quarter down to 20 minutes or so. Naturally, a story like this involves a lot of historical characters. But rather than just talking about them, why not become them? All it takes is a little costuming, putting on an accent and maybe a few props. It dawned on me that I could become any number of characters in the larger saga. And the green screen can place me anywhere in the world. Of course I'll still be the professor, dressed in suit and tie, introducing the people I impersonate. But when the moment comes, it's off to the green room, where I do my costume change and return to shoot my character segment. The editing for that segment is all done in sepia color, with a filter that makes it all look like old time news real footage. The audio is even made to sound a bit tinny. What we produce in the end isn't really a university lecture at all. It's something akin to a documentary, though not exactly. What we've done is to invent a whole new medium. There's nothing like it anywhere. Potentially, we can take this far beyond the confines of academia. The possibilities are endless, and we're just getting started. Stay tuned...

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