|Professors' Video Project Illuminates Diversity of Views on Davidson's Stated Values
July 02, 2010
Contact: Bill Giduz
Two professors and a student spent a large part of the spring semester examining the values that Davidson espouses. They hope that the video they produced illuminates the range of opinions the community holds about those values, as well as demonstrating the value of video as a tool in teaching and learning.
For the past two years, teams of college constituents have been developing a Strategic Plan for the college. This process has involved extensive consideration of college values. The plan as adopted affirms that the college's Statement of Purpose supports five core values-honor and integrity, teaching and learning, service and leadership, inclusive and supportive community, and the Reformed Tradition.
Associate Professor of Philosophy Paul Studtmann and Professor of English Paul Miller seized upon adoption of the plan as an opportunity to consider personal interpretations of those institutional values. Studtmann said, "As a philosopher I'm interested in the discrepancy between official public announcements of things like values, and what people actually think. I thought it would be interesting to get a broad spectrum of comments on an issue that Davidson talks about a lot."
The two professors were also eager to extend their interest in video production. Miller teaches video in some classes, and often assigns students to create short documentaries. Studtmann doesn't teach video in class, but he and Miller had collaborated last fall on production of a half-dozen 30-second "Profs on Books" shorts for the philosophy department Web site.
Both professors believe strongly in the power of video. "This generation of students is all about video," Studtmann said. "For a lot of kids, it's second nature to take a video, edit it, and stick it up on YouTube. That's not to say students don't read any more, but video is their medium. "
Studtmann and Miller also share an uneasy feeling that the academy is failing to embrace video as a teaching and learning tool, and is falling behind by clinging to the culture of books while young people rapidly adopt digital learning.
They recognize that one of the primary impediments to adoption is technical. "Video is unwieldy," said Studtmann. "You need equipment and software, and you have to make a real commitment to learn to use it. And if you're going to do it, you want to do it professionally so that it matches the level of your other scholarship, rather than producing something amateurish that might reflect poorly on your academic reputation."
With that in mind, the professors recruited Studtmann's philosophy honors advisee Jeff Tolly '10 to help with the values project.
They began with an open appeal to students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees, inviting them to be interviewed addressing the question, "What should the core values of Davidson College be?" More than 50 people expressed an interest, and 39 completed the process and are included in the final film.
The producers didn't want to impose any particular viewpoint on the interviews, so the final video is strictly documentary, presenting excerpts from interviews without music, narration or images of anything except interview subjects talking. The five value areas of the strategic plan provide the framework for the final product, beginning with "community" as the first value and continuing until all five have been presented.
All three producers conducted the interviews, which lasted about 15-20 minutes each. They spent five or six long nights reviewing the 4-1/2 hours of raw footage to identify the best 30-to-45 second excerpts for a half-hour final product. "The difficulty was not technical, but getting the content right," said Tolly. "Taken out of context some of the comments might come across as attacking another position, so we tried to be as fair as possible in getting the context right and presenting different points of view."
Tolly spent a full weekend creating a first draft from the designated excerpts. Miller, Studtmann and a few outside reviewers then watched that and offered suggestions for a final draft.
Early on in the interview process, the producers expanded the project beyond their original vision of a single half-hour video. Miller explained, "We were quickly surprised at how eloquently so many people spoke, and recognized how difficult it was going to be to extract sound bites for a short, edited compilation. So we decided that in addition to a 30-minute video, we would stream all the interviews in their entirety."
Therefore, links to all the complete interviews are available on the introductory Web page as an appendix to the film.
Studtmann said the final product put to rest his reservations about the choice of subjects. "We were afraid it might be a boring series of one-after-another interviews, but we ended up with some interesting dramatic tension because people expressed some oppositional ideas."
For instance, the interviews about the Reformed Tradition elicited responses ranging from the importance of being a Christian-centered college to suggestions that Davidson should abolish entirely its adherence to faith. In addition, both professors were surprised at responses about teaching and scholarship. While many professors expressed concern over the student workload, many students said they appreciated and valued that aspect of student life.
Tolly said the video confirms his initial impression that people view Davidson's values differently. "This is an academic environment where people are passionate about issues," he said. "It prompts a lot of dialogue and disagreement, but that's not bad."
The premier screening of the film on April 26 attracted a full-house audience in the 900 Room on a busy night late in the semester. Miller concluded, "I think the response to our call for interviews shows how seriously people at Davidson take the issue of thinking and talking about our values. I was impressed that so many people reflect seriously on our values."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.