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News

Through video lens, students see into heart of Puerto Rico

  • Drew Wilkerson '14 interviews a shopkeeper in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, as Professor Paul Chilsen films during a J-Term study ...
    Drew Wilkerson '14 interviews a shopkeeper in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, as Professor Paul Chilsen films during a J-Term study tour.
    Photo courtesy of Professor Matthew Borden.
March 21, 2013

In Puerto Rico over the 2013 J-Term, Carthage professors Paul Chilsen and Matt Borden challenged 22 students to make tourism videos of a different kind — the kind where the emotions are genuine and the residents are front and center.

“The idea is not to go and be a tourist, but to document the locals,” Prof. Borden said, noting that the group steered away from three of the island’s most popular tourist activities. “We never went surfing, we never did a zip line, and we never did a rum tour.”

The course, Filming Culture: Explorations Beyond Tourism, was offered for the first time. It qualified as a Carthage Symposium, a unique collaboration between faculty members from separate disciplines.

The group traveled to four distinct areas within Puerto Rico, compiling countless hours of video. They took turns filming, being on camera, and logging footage of typical people and activities. Even during mealtimes, they kept the cameras rolling.

“They didn’t really have a moment’s rest,” Prof. Borden said.

After returning to campus, each student completed a two- to five-minute “My Take” video exploring a specific aspect of the tour. Tabby Bell ’13, a communication and public relations major from Bloomington, Ill., chose dancing — salsa, bomba, and dancing in the streets at the popular San Sebastian Festival in San Juan.

“I found it interesting that everyone over there was so friendly and they were excited to be filmed,” she said. “I learned that you have to have the camera readily available when trying to film a project, because you never know when something is going to happen that you want to film.”

Students were encouraged to weave their own observations into the videos for a more personal feel. For coffee connoisseur Ed Swierczewski ’13, a communication major from LaGrange, Ill., the obvious theme was a visit to a coffee plantation.

Ed had taken the Digital Cinema Production course and makes some videos for fun, but many entered the class as novices or complete beginners. Prof. Chilsen, chair of the Communication and Digital Media Department, provided basic filming and editing training before departure.

“It’s kind of thrilling to see them, in a month’s time, make these films,” said Prof. Chilsen, who plans to hold a public viewing of the finished products this spring.

The two professors previously combined to teach an on-campus video course, Filming Don Quixote, during the 2012 J-Term. Prof. Chilsen said the ability to work with screen media has become critical in modern life, a skill he puts on par with written and spoken communication. The course was designed in part to help students hone that skill.

“We’re not trying to crank out mini-Spielbergs,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to communicate actively in the culture we have.”

Prof. Borden, who directs the Carthage Symposia and teaches in the Department of Modern Languages, acted as the cultural liaison for the tour group. Because Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S., the citizens typically speak English to visitors. Students seeking language credit for the course instead wrote journal entries and filmed video segments in Spanish.

The professors said committing observations to video helps students to retain what they learn. Although theirs was far from a leisurely stay in Puerto Rico, those in the J-Term class gained a strong feel for the island’s character.

“This trip was definitely a wonderful experience for me,” said Kimberly Arlington ’13, a psychology major from Barrington, Ill. “I got to climb through a rainforest, swim under a waterfall, dance on the dugout at a (Caribbean) World Series game, and swim with a whale shark — all within two weeks.”