Observing Professors In Action

Class 1: Chris Palmer – Producing for Environmental Filmmaking

When you walk into the classroom there is a table full of snacks – candy, wheat thins, guacamole, fruit. Apparently each student is assigned a day to bring snacks for the class break. Already I like this professor’s style. Food makes people happy.

He writes the agenda on a chalkboard and tells students to grab their name tents. It’s only the second class, so he is still getting to know everyone. He collects homework which appears to be resumes and letters to themselves. Student Linden Jennings explains students had to date the letter on the last day of the class and state how they did in the class. “He’s an awesome professor,” said Jennings, who is a film student.

Prof Palmer introduces 4 guests sitting in the classroom. He greets each student and makes sure they have a name tent. This is how he takes roll. He asks one of the students to count how many people are in the class.

He announces the International Environmental Film Festival in Mazula, Montana.

He tells students, “Don’t be a passive observer in this class and be responsible for your own learning” and thanks them for the one-minute papers they wrote giving feedback about the first class.

He writes a weekly letter to the students. Ten of them still hadn’t turned in homework. I wonder why? He reads students’ questions aloud like:

Q: What happens if I find myself on an unethical crew?
A: You don’t want to be viewed as a troublemaker but he advises that you can ask questions to make everyone aware of the issue.

Q: To what extent does the camera influence the story?
A: How many of you seen Wale Wars? It was made by my friend Jason Carey.

Prof Palmer uses real-life examples to answer the question. The students are impressed when he name-drops.

Q: Is it true some crews will be cruel to get action from animals on camera? There was a crew that shot a zebra to get some lions to come out of their den.
A: I don’t want to be dogmatic because I wasn’t there. But you would all be shocked at what goes on out there.

At 5:59 all students are still engaged and attentive.

Q: What is Jane Goodall’s perspective on anthromorpholizing?
A: She’s a friend but I can’t talk for her (name-dropping again, ha ha). She’s a wonderful person so I’m sure whatever she did was defendable.

Q: I noticed all the names on the thank-you page of your book. Where do you meet all these people?
A: Conferences, givin speeches, film festivals. I have 10,000 people on my private address list and I am 65. I stay in touch.

6:10 – Questions end and Prof Palmer shows a film called “Battle at Kruger,” a wildlife video posted on YouTube and picked up by Nat Geo. He asks students to think of the following question while they watch:

What does a producer do to make a film like this?

After the film, he asks everyone to write on their own the answer to the question. After 30 seconds, he tells them to get up and find a partner to compare their answers.

6:35 – He opens the floor for groups to announce their answers to the question.

This producing class is much more dynamic and participatory than the one I took with Blair. Blair actually discouraged questions because he wanted to get through the syllabus content.

He goes through the list of things producers do but does not write them on the chalkboard. During the break, I ask him why and he says it’s because it’s already in his book. But if I were teaching, I think for the discussion, to remember what has been said, and for emphasis, I would also write on the chalkboard.

He gives feedback to every idea – is it too much? Is it necessary? Can there just be silence after a student speaks? However, his lukewarm feedback to one student encouraged him to come back with a better idea, which won much more positive feedback from Prof Palmer and you could actually see the student’s confidence regained.

Prof Palmer gives students the opportunity to pass on a question if they want and just write the answer down for themselves.

The students all seem to be creative and have great ideas. They all feel confident in speaking and contributing to the class. Is this because it is only the 2nd class and the students don’t know each other yet and have no reason to compete or dislike each other?

Prof Palmer gets everyone into a circle just to get everyone to know each other – he asks random questions about their personalities and interests.

He invites guest speakers regularly to talk about real-life producing.

He hands out the homework assignment for the week and announces that if some of the exercises are not useful to a student’s career path – “Call me and we will come up with another project.”

WOW. He is truly a liberal professor. Why not? He is an independent environmental film producer. He is a free-thinker. He is encouraging the students to be the same. Thank GOD. I aspire to be like Prof Palmer. I am sure many others do as well. I do think his style is a bit too hands-on – perhaps coddling the students too much and not treating them as adults. But then again, after doing the reading for this week many undergraduates are children. How can there be a balance between Prof Palmer’s enthusiasm and Prof Blair’s blase style?

“Because the best way to learn is to teach, I will constantly teach others what I am learning.”

Class 2:  Prof Wilson – Human Rights Law – AU

Asks students if they want to do the “practicum” at the end of class or at the beginning. Majority votes for the end.

He goes over terms and concepts – Dictionary Day

He says he’s been experimenting with clickers in class. There is a set of 50 and he wants to try them to poll class, but he does not use them in this class that I am observing. He seems like a warm person. Very relaxed style. Drinks coffee as he speaks and throws in humor every once in a while, as McKeachie suggests for lecturers.

When he says, “Open text to page 81” it feels like church. Every single student has a laptop; everyone pretty engaged.

The practicum consists of 4 students acting as the judiciary committee; 1 person representing foreign governments; 1 person representing human rights groups; 1 person representing religious groups; 1 person representing the executive branch, 1 person representing corporations. Each person defends his/her position and at the end the class everyone, with the exception of 1 student, votes to pass the bill with amendments. The professor says he didn’t see the debate going anywhere and agreed with the 1 student who voted NOT to pass the bill.

Class 3: Adrian Loving – Fundamentals of Graphic Design – Montgomery Community College

Professor Loving opens his class by surveying the students: “Who are my art design majors?” His use of “my” kind of makes him sound biased, as if he will not give as much attention to the other students who are there to learn skills for their current jobs or to earn credits toward their AA degree. Montgomery College is a different kind of community college because it is solely focused on art and design. The campus is quite new and the classroom for this graphic design class is state-of-the-art with brand new iMac computers for each student and an automated projector for Prof Loving as he walks the students through Photoshop.

The class is broken up into 5 units:

1. Design Basics – print, web, TV
2. Organizing Materials – computer vs. traditional drawing; design practice, color, line form, texture, perspective
3. Graphic Composition – logotypes, archetypes, structures
4. Interpretive Translation, words, pictures and text
5. Professional Practices – design analysis, 20th century design

Prof Loving says things like, “You will be learning something you’ll be able to charge for” and “Has anyone ever had a useless colleague?” and “Photoshop is the standard and always will be.” Prof Loving definitely has opinions, and if this were a lecture class, he would probably become guilty of using his position as an ideological platform, which is a no-no for professors, but it is not – once he starts walking students through Photoshop, and providing the real content of the class, the dogma completely disappears and the students become the stars. He shows them a simple technique and then lets them run with it on their own for a few minutes before pulling up the projector screen and starts lecturing again – this time with useful content and writing on the whiteboard: “What are the basics of Photoshop?”  He uses real-life illustrations: “If you get a job for NBC to redesign their logo, you have to know which color process to choose – RGB? CMYK? Halftones? Threshold? Grayscale?”

He says things like, “If I’m going too fast, raise your hand” and “If you already know this, just humor me – we’ll get to the more advanced stuff in later classes.”

When students ask questions he doesn’t know the answer to, he says, “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it,” and makes a note to himself.

He leads the class in a group exercise. He shows them how to do a Google images search. He asks them to all download the same high resolution photo of Jennifer Lawrence. I wonder if using celebrity is a way to keep the students engaged? He gives individualized attention when students get stuck.

Everyone makes the same changes to the Jennifer Lawrence photo. Once they are done, Prof Loving tells the students to choose their own high resolution photo and apply the same changes. Some choose other celebrity photos and add textures completely different from the example Prof Loving walked them through.

I tell Prof Loving after class it would be interesting to have the students upload their creations to a Facebook page they create so they can start building their portfolios and so they can see their progress from the beginning of the class to the end of the class. He loves the idea and decides he will implement it.