Project: Stories of the Susquehanna: Utopian Dreams
Faculty: Alf Siewers
DP&S Liaison: Brianna Derr
Date: Summer 2014-Spring 2015
Stories of the Susquehanna is a long-term digital scholarship project that presents stories focused on and around the Susquehanna River. As part of the project, Professor Alf Siewers partnered with a group of students and with Digital Pedagogy and Scholarship staff members to create a short documentary film: Stories of the Susquehanna: Utopian Dreams. The film highlights the legacies of the utopian Pantisocracy project (associated with Joseph Priestley and Samuel Coleridge) and French Azilum.
Students began in the summer of 2014 with the pre-planning phase, which included script writing, story boarding, and production development work. During Fall 2014, the students embarked on the production phase, which involved interviewing selected people and collecting b-roll footage. Interview subjects included the president of the Friends of Priestly House, a Susquehanna River tour guide and conservationist, a French Azilum docent, an expert on historical landholdings, a Joseph Priestly descendant, a French Azilum descendant, and a Joseph Priestly impersonator, among many others. In Spring 2015, students undertook the post-production phase, which involved editing the story into an almost 30-minute-long documentary film.
The final film was aired on WVIA on April 17th, 2016, and played in a variety of local movie theaters.
Utopian Dreams Documentary Film
Environmental Residential College has been teaching the documentary film as a form of pedagogy for the past three years. Each year the professors assess and re-shape their approach, and every year the results get better. Currently Professor Alf Siewers and Professor Kat Wakabayashi are teaching the course, which contains 25 students forming a total of 8 teams, all of whom learn how to create a treatment, script, storyboard, film, conduct interviews, edit, peer review and assess each others projects. Professors Siewers and Wakabayashi have combined each of their courses, Christianity and Sustainability and Reduse, Reuse, and Recycle, with an overarching topic of sustainability. Students then break this topic into subtopics, selecting from subjects such as re-purposing old buildings, recycling, community sustainability, community gardens and CSA’s, hunting, water quality, and waste disposal.
“For me, these documentaries really demonstrate the well-rounded, forward-thinking approach to the learning experience that Bucknell University has to offer. These students are learning some really critical 21st-century communication skills. They are becoming producers of their own media messages, and they’re not just existing behind Bucknell walls. One group of students produced a documentary film on the Tire Burner facility that almost planted roots within the nearby community of White Deer. The local anti-tire-burner committee placed the documentary on their website to help raise awareness about the dangers of the facility.”
I asked Professor Siewers and Wakabayashi the following questions regarding their experience with documentary film making in the arena of the Environmental Residential College and this is what they had to say.
1. Why did you choose the documentary film as the main focus for your course?
2. What were some of the challenges you faced with the documentary film process in the beginning? How has it changed over time?
Initial challenge challenges included allowing enough time for and focus on preparation work by students, and building in a detailed process of assessment of student group work on that preparation. Also, students needed to realize the public nature of the audience for professional video work. This is similar to how they must grow to learn professionally to address a public audience in their written work. In other words, they are familiar with video work recreationally, but they need to see it as a professional vehicle for communication. In all this we were greatly helped by support from ITEC and the tireless professional work and guidance of Brianna Derr. We could not have done this without her.
3. What do you think the documentary film can offer your students that something like a research paper can not?
That sense of a larger audience is also needed for a research paper, but the documentary form complements their understanding of what professional work involves, in a medium that engages them personally in an intense way. I think it’s easier to teach those lessons regarding an individual research paper when it’s possible to draw on parallels to the group video work. So the video work becomes complementary to written research work.
4. Would you recommend this video format to other universities? Why or why not?
Documentary films from Environmental Residential College 2013.
Food Waste at Bucknell
Sustainability at Bucknell: Then and Now
Burning the Future: The White Deer Project