Teaching Op-Docs: Course Wrap-Up and Reflections

Teaching a course about online documentary production proved an ambitious but worthwhile undertaking. Below are some reflections on the course, its strengths, and its challenges.

The Op-Docs Series

The New York Times Op-Docs series made for a very engaging set of shorts to explore journalism, documentary, their overlaps, and their divergences.

The series offers an immense range of subject, form, and style. Some shorts, such as A Threat to Internet Freedom, follow the “documentary formula” with talking heads, media clips, and animations. Others, such as Pass It On or Hotel 22, rely on visuals. Some, such as How to Build a Country from Scratch, use a more intellectual approach to their subjects, while others rely more on emotional, intimate approaches, such as A Marriage to Remember.

The variety among the shorts allows for movement away from the objective / subjective bias that sometimes informs conversations about both journalism and documentary. That variety also encourages richer discussion of the different approaches and their effects (in a limited sense). The more traditional or more intellectual shorts resonate less than the shorts offering personal stories, and reasons why became a further point for consideration.

A particularly engaging question was the role of the journalist within the overall work. Several Op-Docs address their directors’ own experiences, such as The Long Wait, Love and Stuff, and 35 and Single. These three and others opened questions about the role of the documentary maker versus the role of reporter.

Documentary Topics

The course requirements called for a topic about women or women’s issues in some way. My students came up with some great ideas: painful beauty rituals, female entrepreneurs, single-sex colleges, and gender roles, to name a few.

Some Op-Docs do explore women and women’s issues, such as health, economic instability, and marriage, and others offer portraits of contemporary and historical women. I wish, however, more of these issues had appeared throughout the series, and more of the representations offered something other than overcoming obstacles.

Gnarly in Pink offers an example of what I mean here. The short shows three, 6-year-olds who love skateboarding. The short addresses gender expectations, sure, but it does much more than that.

Finding Balance

The balance of asserting control and letting it go as a director seemed to offer the biggest struggle for many students in my class. This balance in particular appeared with story development and participant interviews.

Part of this struggle for balance occurred in developing their story ideas. The best stories come from people, and the best documentaries allow people to tell their stories. Shifting the pronouns from “my” story to “their” story for some proved one of the most difficult discourse shifts throughout the semester.

Participant interviews proved the other difficult balance. One of the most challenging parts of working on documentaries is working with people. After teaching reporting, social media, and research methods over the years, I have learned that many students resist the idea of talking to people and resist even more asking people to do something for them.

But working in documentary and news media means working with people and asking them for on-camera interviews. Finding willing people and then scheduling time with them became a challenge for many students. Some placed their bets on one person, only to find that person unavailable. Others struggled to find people in general due to topic. Frustrating lessons, but important ones.

Then came the interviews themselves. One of my students used the brilliant approach of talking with her participants for a while beforehand, guiding them through the conversation before even turning on the camera. When the camera did come on, the interviews appeared more natural and relaxed. Others struggled to shift their discourses from “what I want participants to say” to “what participants want to say.” With the attachment to “my story” came a strong desire for participants to say things that the directors wanted them to say. They struggled with trusting their participants to tell their own stories and allowing the stories to evolve organically.

The assignment required three interviews. If I teach this course again, I might start with requiring that they find someone to interview right away and then develop the topic from there, instead of the other way around.

Curricular Concerns

I taught this class within a junior-level news writing and reporting class. The course catalog description called for creating and editing video, and I thought this approach would work well within that. Fortunately, it did, particularly in the levels of sophistication and critical thinking about journalism and documentary that developed during course discussions.

If you are considering bringing a course like this one into your curriculum, allow me to make two sets of recommendations. First, require students take a journalism course such as introduction to news writing or principles of journalism and a course in basic video production first. This way, students have foundations to build on.

Second, require separate, longer times for a discussion component and a lab component. Documentary production has its own issues that need to be addressed. We found 50 minutes, three times a week, always rushed.

Teaching Op-Docs: Helpful Resources

Multiple resources, both online and print, proved helpful in developing materials for and running the journalism class using The New York Times‘s Op-Docs series. Note that most of these resources are dedicated to documentary production, and not history or criticism. The key ones are listed below.

The New York Times Op-Docs
Videos from The New York Times Op-Docs pages of course provided the bulk of the in-class screenings. Other videos, such as trailers and clips, came from YouTube and Vimeo.

Video Journalism for the Web: A Practical Introduction to Documentary Storytelling
Kurt Lancaster’s book served as one of the course textbooks, and it became the most useful one very quickly. Brief chapters broke down key ideas into manageable chunks, and examples illustrated well the ideas at hand. Particularly useful was the interview transcription that highlighted the segments appearing in the final short, deftly showing how little of interviews actually end up in the final piece.

How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck: Advice to Make Any Amateur Look Like a Pro
Brief, lively chapters offer key ideas about cinematography for online video in a way that is easy to understand and apply. Steve Stockman writes for a general audience, making the book very accessible and engaging reading.

Directing the Documentary
Of all the documentary production handbooks available, Directing the Documentary, by Michael Rabiger, is one of the few that dedicates an entire chapter to ethics. That chapter became the foundation for ethical issues raised in the class.

Documentary Filmmaking: A Contemporary Field Guide
John Hewitt and Gustavo Vazquez’s book is overall very useful, but its section about the different styles and types of documentaries created a useful framework for grouping and connecting the various Op-Docs, which range widely in subject and style.

How to Write a Documentary Script
Trisha Das’s monograph not only offers the mechanics of writing a documentary script, but also gets into the rationales that make them different from other types of production.

The Documentary Community
Community members often shared their ideas about this class through e-mail and other social networking sites. Specifically, Tim Horsburgh of Kartemquin Films was kind enough to share a model consent form. Tom Kirby at York St John University offered a comprehensive reading list of so many resources out there, including Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye and Sheila Curran Bernard’s work, among others. Matt Sienkiewicz of Boston College helped refine the scope and parameters of the course assignments and requirements.

Many, many others — too many to name here — also offered their thoughts and insights. Thank you.

Teaching Op-Docs: Course Assignments

This spring I taught a journalism class that centered on making a short online documentary using The New York Times‘s Op-Docs series as model. Below are the assignments used to build the projects and some of the rationales behind them.

Background Preparations

Coming up with an idea often becomes the most difficult task behind any project, and choosing an idea early is essential to succeeding in a production course. The assignment called for a focus on women or women’s issues, which aligned with the mission of the all-women’s university where I taught. Students could choose their own topic within that scope.

The selection process began with a series of brainstormed topics lists, and the story pitch honed those lists to one idea. Since the project required three main interviews, the next assignment called for a potential participants list with short rationales for their choices. After that, students turned in a background research list, with citations and 1-2 sentences explaining how each source might contribute to their finished piece.

Documentary Script

The documentary script assignment was intended to help organize materials before editing. At minimum, the script needed to show their interviews, the key themes, and the structure and flow. The assignment called for a three-column format with approximate runtime, audio, and video. Students were encouraged to include as much information as possible in the script, though the level of what they included depended on how much shooting they had completed.

Pitching Trailer

The pitching trailer was intended to help hone their documentary as we moved toward the end of the semester. It was meant to envision the overall tone and scope within a 30-60 second clip, which was screened and discussed in class. In preparation for this assignment, we watched and discussed trailers from a wide range of documentaries, including Citizen Four, Hands on a Hard Body, American Movie, The Search for General Tso, Cover Girl Culture, Tarnation, and Vernon, Florida.

Rough Cut and Peer Review

With a four-minute minimum length, the rough cuts were also screened and discussed in class. They were intended to help with the questions arising from the editing process, such as if the voiceover worked, the juxtapositions made sense, the images conveyed the story, and the like. We also revisited some ethical issues about consent and fair representation during this session.

Final Screening

On the last day of class, the final (for class, anyway) cuts were due, and we screened and discussed them. Many doughnuts and bagels were consumed.

Other Assignments

I originally had included two other assignments to accompany the final cut, but class flow prevented having enough time to address them. The first was a 500-word article about the doc and the story it told, similar to what appears with other Op-Docs on The New York Times site.

The other was what I had called an “interactivity statement,” which would have looked at how they might connect with audiences through online civic engagement. Some questions behind the assignment included the following:

  • How might audiences engage with the documentary’s story?
  • How might you handle a range of the audience’s responses, both positive and negative?
  • What are some of the profiles for those audiences?
  • On what social networking sites might you find those audiences? How might you engage them where they are?
  • What organizations and other sites might you reach out to help with spreading the word about your documentary?

If you have any questions about the assignments, please feel free to contact me.