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Arts & entertainment

A Degree of Frustration

23 May 2022 | Written by By Paul Phillips

I’m not a lecturer or an academic. I don’t have a degree or any qualifications to speak of. I’ve never taught students before. But it’s my job to get you through this course. And this how we are going to do it.

Those – more or less – were my opening remarks to the groups of university students I had been made responsible for just a couple of weeks before the start of the academic year. 

They were all doing a media degree and part of that was a compulsory module studying TV Studio Production. The university had a state-of-the-art TV studio, which was pretty close to broadcast standard. The students’ task was to produce, from scratch, two magazine-style programmes (think of The One Show, or a regional news programme). 

They had to do everything; design a set, direct the programme, and operate all the equipment including cameras, sound equipment, lighting and the vision-mixing desk. One of them had to direct the programme and a couple of others would present it. They had to create all the content for the show – filming stories, arranging interview guests, and creating graphics. 

It was, in short, a monumental task, which required each group of around 12 students to work together to produce a programme that would give them enough marks as a group to pass the module. To my mind, it had to be a lot more exciting than sitting in a lecture room staring at a whiteboard.

Now, I know a lot about producing TV programmes. I’ve spent most of my career doing just that. I’ve produced hundreds of shows – news, current affairs, sport and light entertainment programmes. I’ve directed shows. I’ve even presented a few. 

I’ve trained – or more accurately ‘coached’- professionals to help them enhance their TV skills. If there was any reluctance on the part of the trainee – which usually manifested itself with a remark like ‘I know how to do my job, thank you very much’ – I’d remind them that even the best golfer in the world had a coach or two; someone to check on their swing or putting stroke and maybe offer a hint on how things might be improved. 

But what I didn’t know was how to teach students who had most likely never seen a studio camera before, let alone used one. I had no clue about lesson plans and not the faintest idea about university teaching processes and procedures. The one thing I had in common with the students was that we were all some distance from our comfort zones.

You may be wondering at this stage how on earth I ended up doing something I was so clearly unqualified for. 

Well, for a number of years I had been hired by the university to give a professional assessment of the students’ TV programmes on the day of their production. I’d watch how they went about making their show and when they’d finished I’d give them my assessment. My brief was to give them an idea of how close – or, more likely  – how far away they were from a professional production. I have no idea if it was useful or not but that was the extent of my engagement with the students. The university described my contribution as ‘enhancing the student experience.’

So I was a little surprised to be asked to run the whole teaching programme just before the start of an academic year. The head of the module – the guy who did all the teaching – had to shield because of Covid 19 and the university had no one to take on the role. My protestations that there was a gaping hole where my teaching qualifications should be didn’t seem to matter and I was promised much support on the procedures and processes side of things.

Let’s return to my opening remarks to the groups of students and my plan to guide them towards making a TV programme for the first time.

I told them all that they were now working for me. I was their Executive Producer and we would re-create a professional work environment. Their programmes could be about anything they liked – so long as it somehow connected to the local area – but I would have editorial control. 

And here we hit our first issue; very few of the 100+ students I was working with actually watched television in the traditional sense. Their visual media fix was found on social media platforms. Their experience of the sort of TV programme they were being asked to make was as extensive as my teaching qualifications. 

My approach was similar to a driving instructor giving a first lesson. An instructor wouldn’t just say to a learner driver ‘here’s the car, off you go’ would they? 

The students would be working with very expensive equipment. The cost of just the lens on a studio camera runs into thousands of pounds. They needed to be told which button did what and be given a whole list of ‘never do that’s.’ 

They slowly became familiar with all the technical bits and what they could do before we moved on to the essential skills to actually produce a TV programme.

It is a clunky process. So many elements have to come together to produce something visually coherent. There’s an old saying that a viewer sitting at home should be watching a swan glide serenely through the water. What the viewer doesn’t see is the swan’s legs paddling nineteen to the dozen beneath the surface. Another message to the students was that there is no such thing as the TV fairy who, with the wave of a wand, makes TV happen. But there sure is a TV gremlin whose catchphrase is ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

For the majority of students, my ‘this is work’ approach seemed to be engaging them. But for a few, it clearly wasn’t. Some of them didn’t want to do the module at all and their disinterest was blatantly obvious. Others didn’t want to be told what to do; pointing out it was ‘not they had paid for.’ 

On one occasion a student in front of the group informed me that my teaching ‘style’ was ‘crap’ and I should just let them ‘get on with it‘. It was the first session this student had attended and after voicing his opinion of my abilities he was never seen again. 

I had no idea how to deal with any of this. Because of the complications of the work it required a full group of students to make their programmes. If they were short of numbers they would struggle to cope. 

I reported my concerns to the university but there was very little anyone could do to force students to attend or engage with the module. 

Just as I was regretting agreeing to take on the role things took a turn for the worse. The country went into lockdown and the university stopped all face-to-face teaching.

We all know the issues this caused. Online teaching is far from satisfactory. When the subject involves working in a TV studio it is near impossible.

For a few months, we created an online environment that allowed the students to at least study the theory of TV studio production. With a lot of technical invention, which included providing remote control of some of the studio equipment, each group managed to produce a TV programme of sorts. 

The students weren’t happy with their lot and you couldn’t really blame them. I had to mark their work – another new experience for me – while making allowances for the insurmountable lockdown issues. I don’t know if the marks I awarded were contested but I’d guess a few students took umbrage with my assessment of their work. 

It is those few that stick in my mind. What could I have done to engage them more? I have a guilty feeling that I let them down and it bothers me still.

But the bigger question is why I can’t focus on the majority of students who were a pleasure to work with. Is that just human nature? Or does every teacher or lecturer feel the same? That’s a lesson I’d like to learn. 


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