Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
Eleven years ago, a weekly newspaper in Portland, Maine ran an article about the The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. The very last paragraph mentioned Salt was considering adding a radio track to the existing writing and photography tracks. So, I gave them a ring.
Despite the fact that I had never taught graduate-level documentary radio before, they took a leap and hired me. In the fall of 2000, Salt bought some lollipop-colored iMacs, installed ProTools free, and sent a few willing writing students interested in learning radio out into the world with Marantz cassette decks. Thankfully, it worked. They each produced a short feature and the pieces were good. So, we did it again.
Prior to Salt, I’d trained hundreds and hundreds of people to host music and talk shows on community radio stations; I was a station manager for fifteen years. I also did a stint with Blunt Youth Radio Project and learned how to teach radio from one of the best, Blunt’s director Claire Holman. But, teaching at Salt was different — fifteen weeks of graduate-level work based largely on experiential learning models.
It’s now eleven years and some one hundred and fifty students later. And, as hackneyed as this is going to sound, I’ve learned a ton along the way, too, especially about teaching.
Here are a handful of teaching tips that seemed to work semester after semester at Salt:
1. Start With Listening – Every class, listen. Good work. Bad work. Documentaries. Sound art. Narrated. Non-narrated. Just listen.
2. Deconstruct – Then have the students take the pieces apart. What worked? What didn’t? How was it done? Why?
3. Gear, Door – Get gear in the hands of students as soon as possible – the first day is best. Then send them out the door immediately. Remind them to come back.
4. Plan – You might take issue with this one but I have found if you don’t provide parameters for students, they’ll record everything. And then where will they be? Up to their eye sockets in tape with no discernable way out. As a student considers a story, plan it out, in pencil — potential scenes, characters, themes, focus sentences… even before they’ve recorded their first piece of tape.
5. Mutual Aid (all props to Peter Kropotkin) – Flatten the class hierarchy as much as you can. Yeah, sure, I’m the teacher, they’re the students. But, create an environment where everybody is teacher and student, everybody is producer and editor. For instance, during the planning phase, everyone helps plan stories. Everybody helps brainstorm interview questions. When it’s time to edit scripts, everybody edits all the scripts. Do that and I can almost guarantee students will become highly invested in each other’s success. No one will get left behind.
6. Get Out of the Way – Maybe this is 5b. I think the hardest thing for me to learn as a teacher is when *not* to talk. Frankly, I could probably talk for hours and suck all the oxygen out of the room (and probably have — apologies to those who suffered through that). But, that’s not a good way to teach. This may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way to teach is to be quiet, to get out of the way and talk only when necessary. Letting students take the lead builds confidence, taps into the collective knowledge of the group, and fosters group cohesion.
7. Drop In When Necessary – 5c? That said, students do need your help. Handholding is sometimes best. Recognize when to show the way and when to let a student squirm un-assisted. (Though, a good squirm never hurt anyone.)
8. Guests – Refresh the class. Mix it up. New thoughts. New approaches. Even contradictory ones. At Salt, every semester, at minimum, a local news director and a regional editor for NPR visited class. Students pitched story ideas and the visitors sliced and diced. Really ups the ante. Besides, the students get seriously tired of the Rob Show.
9. Have A Pretend Beer – If a student is stuck trying to tell a story, just talk to them. Have them try and tell you the story right then and there. Last semester I said to a student “Pretend we’re having a beer. You haven’t seen me for a while. And I say to you ‘So, whatchya workin’ on at Salt?’” Invariably, the student unties the storytelling knot right then and there. (Then go out for an actual beer.)
10. End With Listening – Make it real. If students are producing stories just for the teacher, that’s an “ivory tower exercise.” Who cares? Students will just produce for the grade and they’ll often perform to the minimum. But, if there’s an actual audience for the work, that’s a whole new ballgame. Put stories up on PRX. Have an event where the public – including the people in their stories – are invited to come and listen. And, make it special. The students deserve it. They did all the work. You just sat there.
After twenty-two semesters, I left Salt this spring.
Soon after, I pitched the idea of a storytelling workshop to Transom. They said “yes” and we’re now in the throes of creating a pilot Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole on Cape Cod in the fall. We plan to guide students “from zero to producer” in seven weeks. I’ll be there. The Transom crew, including Jay Allison, will pitch-in. Even Ira Glass will stop by to teach a master class. You should come, too! And, I promise, we’ll start with listening.
Rob Rosenthal is an independent producer and a teacher. Most notably, he launched and then ran the radio track at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies where he taught for more than ten years. This fall he will pilot the Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole, MA.