Monday, August 25, 2014
Professors, doctors, professionals in all fields.....Better buff up your on camera skills!
Attention, college professors: If you aspire to film a lecture series for the Great Courses, the extended-learning outfit here, be prepared to check your idiosyncrasies at the door.
“I had a professor who liked to rest his finger on his face,” Alisha Reay, a producer at the company, recalled, demonstrating the tic. “And he liked to use his middle finger.”
In two television-quality studios here, the company puts academics and other experts in front of cameras to record courses on a wide range of subjects — game theory, photography, ancient civilizations, differential equations, cooking with spices. The courses are aimed at people who want to further their education just for the sake of the knowledge (no tests or college credit here), but the filming process is an education, too, for the expert being filmed.
“If I’m going too fast for my students, I can see it in their eyes,” Ron Davis Jr., a chemistry professor at Georgetown University, said during a break from his first taping session for Foundations of Organic Chemistry recently. “But these cameras don’t react.”
The company was founded in 1990, at first marketing audiotapes, and in June released its 500th course (Understanding Modern Electronics). It has been busy of late, entering into partnerships with National Geographic to expand on a popular photography course, the Culinary Institute of America to develop a cooking series, and the Smithsonian Institution. It recently sold its 15 millionth course.
Ed Leon, the senior vice president for product development, said customers for the courses, which range from less than $40 to several hundred dollars and come in video or audio formats, might be broadening their knowledge of a particular country in preparation for a trip, enhancing a job skill or simply expanding their minds.
“We have binge watchers like Netflix does,” he said, “and it’s a real badge of honor among some of our regulars to be the first to finish a new course.”
The extended-learning world grows more competitive all the time, with online colleges and iTunes entering the mix. The company tries to stay competitive with a production process that is more sophisticated than simply taping professors delivering their classroom lectures. Instead, the Great Courses staff comes up with ideas for courses, tests them out through surveys, then looks for a professor who can develop that course. A screen test might be involved, and, yes, sometimes a professor flunks.
“That’s always a difficult conversation,” Mr. Leon said.
The professors who do make the grade often need a little help to become camera-friendly.
“There have been times when we had to write ‘Breathe’ or ‘Pause’ under the cameras,” Marcy McDonald, senior director of content, said. One professor had the crew members tape pictures of people under the cameras, so he felt as if he were talking to someone.
And plenty of professors need to be told to stop swaying. “That’s the most common thing,” Ms. Reay said, "and the camera magnifies it.
In addition to professors who have to be purged of classroom habits that don’t work on screen, an increasing challenge for the Great Courses staff is professors who don’t know how to lecture at all. The “flipped classroom” model that is taking hold in academia — in-class time is devoted to hands-on activity rather than one-way instruction — means that some professors have little experience with organizing and delivering a traditional 30-minute talk.
“Now, fewer and fewer people lecture,” Ms. McDonald said. “That’s making it harder for us.”
A lot of the performance kinks are worked out in practice sessions, but the tapings are still a learning process at first. The filming is done with three cameras, so professors have to know which one to talk to, and when. Graphics, often elaborate, will be added in postproduction, so the professors also have to become accustomed to gesturing at something that isn’t there. Many work from a teleprompter, which also takes some getting used to. And there’s the clock.
“Rule No. 1 is, ‘Pause, pause, pause,’ and I’m looking at the clock and saying, ‘I can’t pause,’ ” Dr. Davis said after his first try, which he brought in at 35 minutes 34 seconds, a little long. Professors usually end up reshooting that first lecture after they have become more comfortable with the process, an adjustment Dr. Davis will certainly make: His course will ultimately consist of 36 half-hour lessons.
That same day, Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, showed the benefit of experience, zipping through the 21st installment of his 24-lecture course on cultural and human geography in 29:48.
Developing a course of that length is a significant commitment, Dr. Robbins noted, and for the Great Courses audience, it requires shedding academic jargon.
“It means writing a textbook, and writing a really good textbook in plain language,” he said. “I’m thinking with a playwright’s hat rather than as a talking head.”
Not that the process lacks academic rigor. As the professors tape, staff members in a control room listen, and not in that zoned-out way you absorbed lectures when you were in school. They have to catch mispronunciations, garble, dropped words and more, so that the flubs can be fixed in postproduction. If the speaker leaves out a “not,” a law of physics can be radically altered.
For the lecturers, a Great Courses assignment pays off in royalties, which can stretch for years, since the courses stay in the catalog for some time. But there are also less tangible benefits.
“It had a transformative effect on me as a teacher,” said Jennifer Paxton, who teaches at the Catholic University of America and has recorded two history courses for the company and is working on a third. “One of the things they told me is that I should not hold back from really demonstrating the enthusiasm that I felt for the material. I think that, in a sense, I had drunk the academic Kool-Aid: You present something in a serious, sober manner.”
For instance, her Great Courses coaches encouraged her to demonstrate graphically what happened in a medieval battle.
“It was really like being unchained,” she said. “That experience was very profound. I came out and demonstrated the act of chopping the head off a horse. I had never done anything like that in lectures before.”
Robert Greenberg, by far the most prolific Great Courses instructor, with 618 lectures in the can, said that the course he was working on now would take him a year to develop, but that the effort pays off in front of cameras.
“The beauty of all that prep is, I walk into the studio, and that’s the fun part,” he said. “What is for some people the worst part, and that is the recording, is for me a great pleasure.”