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.
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.
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.
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.