April 29, 2010

Putting an ear up to the community

This term, anthropology and sociology (AnSo) professor Maureen Mullinax’s Producing Community-Based Media class offers students a hands-on opportunity to learn about and create radio documentaries.

“[Radio documentary] is a unique methodological approach to studying the social,” said Mullinax. “It’s rewarding seeing people get turned on to listening and thinking about the world in new ways.”

Before coming to Knox, Mullinax spent ten years teaching radio and video documentary to high school students. She offered the class for the first time last year with mixed results.

“You learn to interview, develop a project, record and edit in ten weeks. It’s a lot,” Mullinax said. “But it’s going much better this term.”

Every week, students listen independently to at least an hour of radio documentaries online and keep listening journals in which they critique and respond to each piece. The end goal of the class is for the students to produce ten-minute radio documentaries about issues in the Galesburg community. Students must also write research papers to accompany their documentaries, ensuring that each project is backed up by sociological research.

Freshman Josh Gunter chose to take the class because of an interest in public radio.

“When I really love something, I want to make it,” he said. “I’m a big listener of public radio…I can identify correspondents by voice. I’m a big nerd like that.”

For his documentary, Gunter hopes to deal with the issue of public housing.

“A lot of people with vouchers for public housing [in Illinois] come to Galesburg and people accuse them of bringing crime and increasing the dropout rate,” he said. “I want to find a family I can interview and follow.”

In order to research their projects, many students will have to step outside of their comfort zones and act as journalists, going out into the community and searching for their stories.

“I’m not that type of person but I’m going to have to…go out on the street and talk to people,” said Gunter.

In order to produce their documentaries, students have access to digital audio recorders and four different types of microphones for different environments. In order to give a professional quality to their projects, students use Final Cut editing software to layer music, narration and their interview material.

“Editing is very consuming. It’s not just slapping something in there,” she said. “You can play around with opportunities to be creative.”

After completing their projects, students have to present them publicly.

“I might have an informal gathering with the family where we sit and listen to the documentary,” said Gunter.

In a culture used to watching video documentaries, radio documentary may seem a limited field lacking the benefits of the visual. Still, a strictly auditory experience can, ironically, provide a different way to “see” issues.

“Sound is nuanced and adds layers of meaning,” Gunter said. “There’s an imaginative quality you don’t get with video.”

Though the course may seem geared towards people with specific interests, Mullinax believes that anyone with an interest in sociology and exploring community issues can benefit from taking it.

“You create things,” she said. “You come away with something you’ve never had the opportunity to make before, and it’s yours.”

Anna Meier

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