UT's RTF Department Changes Focus During the Pandemic

Revamped production curriculum emphasizes safety on the set

Ya'Ke Smith (left) with UT RTF students on the set of his short film "Brother" (Photo by Deleigh Hermes)

UT's RTF Department Changes Focus During the Pandemic

How do you make a show in the middle of a pandemic? That's the number one question facing the film and TV industries right now, but UT Austin's Department of Radio-Television-Film is solving a very particular variant of that conundrum: How do you teach filmmaking in a pandemic? Department Chair Noah Isenberg said that the shift will be complicated, "but unlike the spring, when we had to turn on a dime and generate a remote learning alternative under intense pressure – halting all production with very little advance warning – we've had a few months to plan out our courses with more foresight and experience."

The first change is in course structure, emphasizing theory-based film and media studies classes, offered either as remote learning on Canvas or Zoom, or as hybrid remote/in-person classes. This creates one accidental positive: Isenberg said, "There are more opportunities for non-majors to take RTF courses than when we're more severely restricted by classroom size."

It's the production courses that require the greatest degree of reconsideration. Over the summer, the department has drafted a coronavirus production safety pamphlet, drawing on internal consultation, industry guidelines like the Safe Way Forward report drafted by the craft unions, and documents drafted by other universities. Experience has already taught the authors that plans may change. Associate Professor and filmmaker Ya'Ke Smith said, "There were moments over the summer when we thought we had it covered, and then something crazy would happen and we'd go, OK, we have to burn that plan up."

The details may shift, but the overall emphasis is on increased health and safety training and reduced campus contact hours: For example, students will no longer simply check out equipment as needed but instead receive complete shooting packages. Staff will also help to rework scripts to allow for social distancing and fewer people on set. "That big party scene you had? You may have to take that out," Smith said.

The department also had to shift the timetable, due to the university's decision to end in-person teaching at Thanksgiving. All production will have to be wrapped up by the Thanksgiving break on Nov. 25, and the final, remote week of the semester will be reserved for critical evaluation and final edits. Isenberg admitted that the courses will not add up to "a 'normal' semester, but we believe they will be a viable and meaningful alternative."

For Smith, the department's other big challenge is handling the non-academic needs of students. Last October, he was announced as associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion for the entire Moody School of Communications (including RTF, journalism, advertising, communications studies, and communications disorders). The purpose of the position was never to simply shift demographics but to create what he called "an equitable level of education for our students." Under normal circumstances, he said, this involves faculty members being "hyper aware" of challenges facing students, and working with them to ensure they get the support they need. With coronavirus throwing everything in the air, and many students facing more uncertain home lives than ever, he sees the need for "maximum accommodations." As someone who worked his way through college, holding down three jobs, he wants students to know that "we are working on a culture of care, and what I mean is that our students can come to us with those problems. ... If you can't access the internet, or you're working the 4am shift, there is no sense of shame with that."

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