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New Class for New Media

Innovative class trains students to find the right media for messages Hollywood largely ignores

By Jon Reidel Article published June 29, 2005

SIMSI Filming
Valerie Esposito (L) and Robin Smith conduct an interview for their documentary on sustainable business. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

The co-directors of the new Summer Integrated Media Studies Institute have a definitive answer for those wondering how the university’s fledgling program can carve out a niche among the more than 600 film and media-related courses currently offered at colleges and universities across the country.

“We can’t compete with UCLA, USC and NYU, so if you want to make it in big-time Hollywood then you should probably go to one of those places,” says Tom Streeter, associate professor of sociology. “We’re interested in showing students how to get useful information out to people in a meaningful way that can make a difference.”

The intense national interest in courses focusing on “new media,” a term referring to electronic communication tools like Web sites, streaming audio and video, chat rooms and digital video, became evident to SIMSI organizers when they had to turn back applicants and limit the course to 32 students. Those taking the 9-credit, five-week course are required to complete a documentary. The student works will premiere in a free, public screening on June 30 at 5 p.m. in Billings North Lounge.

“No matter what you’re passionate about, communicating in an audiovisual way is critical in today’s climate. I think we’re unique because of our interdisciplinary approach,” adds co-director Andrea Grayson, an adjunct professor with more than 20 years of writing, producing and documentary filmmaking experience.

Message is the medium
The overriding goal of SIMSI is to create the next generation of communicators with the skills to deliver an effective message in the most appropriate medium for the intended audience. In order for that occur, students are exposed to documentary production in the digital environment, video news and computer-related media. Ultimately, Streeter hopes students will create innovative ways to communicate as they enter the workforce.

The student documentaries focus on a wide range of social issues including alcoholism and youth homelessness; alternative fuel sources; urban sprawl; sustainable agriculture; and how media influences the perception of America abroad. The diversity of topics is due in part to the majors of the students, which include political science, business, environmental studies, community development and applied economics, the university’s new film major and others.

Students give different reasons for taking the course, but share one common objective: getting their message out powerfuly. Robin Smith, an environmental studies major, took the class so she could learn how to make a documentary for her upcoming senior thesis. “I would not have been able to do it without this course.”

Fellow student Malachi McCaulley wanted to learn production from beginning to end. “I definitely think everyone has their own goals and reason for taking the class. What we’re learning today, for example, while specific to the documentary, is applicable to all forms of media,” he says.

Time for partnership
Some of the impetus for SIMSI came from a trip to Los Angeles by Michael Monte, director of the City of Burlington’s Community & Economic Development Office, Ed Antczak, an economic development specialist with CEDO, and Bob Costanza, professor and director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. The initial purpose of the trip was to meet with three individuals who were considering starting a media-based company in Burlington.

The company, Earth Network, an informational web and video channel, seemed like a natural fit for Burlington where information-based businesses are fast giving the area a reputation as a creative economy hub. Once the three principles of Earth Network agreed to locate here, the discussion turned to ways the company could partner with the university.

“We love these kind of public-private partnerships,” says Antczak. “There’s a vested interest on the part of the city because this particular partnership has potential long-term effects to the community, especially if some of these students stay in the area after graduation.”

Back at UVM, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect given the approval of a new major in film and television studies this year and considerable existing interest in offering more new media production courses. Continuing Education enthusiastically embraced the SIMSI concept and put the entire venture together in less than six months, assembling a team of professors with backgrounds in film, culture and media, including Sarah Nilsen, assistant professor in English and film studies, and Hilary Neroni, assistant professor of English and film studies.

Part of the attraction to SIMSI is the lineup of guest speakers, which includes industry insiders and prominent filmmakers like Sundance Award winner Eugene Jarecki and Vermont’s Jay Craven. “These are people that PR firms pay thousands of dollars a day to listen to their unique advice, and our students are hearing the exact same information,” says Streeter.

The connection with Earth Network also paid off in this area as its three principal owners Seth Zimmerman, founder of Evolutionary Enterprise Group, Ltd., a consultant firm specializing in media penetration and product placement; Ron Schneider, former manager of the Beatles and Rolling Stones; and Todd Stevens, producer of the television sitcom “Joey.” Dewey Reid, former creative director for Microsoft and a partner in Earth Network, also spoke to students.

The institute's partnership with the company will pay dividends in other ways. The network has agreed to air the best student documentaries from SIMSI, raising the stakes for students. Zimmerman says that commitment reflects the group's belief in the students' potential.

“The new media is starting to change how people get information,” he says. “It’s the new FM. Some of these kids who are inspired could create new forms of communication. This course is being taught by some of the best on the planet, so these kids are getting a big jump. We don’t need more right spin or left spin, we need truth spin, and some of these students are good enough to create it.”