Students in the course will bikepack through Big Bend Ranch State Park compiling media content they will later use to produce documentary, editorial and commercial media while gaining valuable real-world experience.
Jerod Foster remembers vividly the moment during his time as an undergraduate student at Texas Tech University that changed his life.
An aspiring photography student, Foster took the popular senior-level intersession photography class where students travel to the Texas Tech Center at Junction and become immersed in the surroundings where they could one day work for a living. It was the class that set Foster on the path toward becoming a world-class and highly publicized photographer.
Now an associate professor of practice in the College of Media & Communication, he teaches the same class he took, as well as a similar study abroad course in New Zealand, but is looking to take that experience to another level.
"That was a turning point in my life," Foster said. "It was a unique, extremely hands-on experience at a big university, and I've had it in mind to keep creating experiences like this."
Foster and assistant professor Justin Keene in the Department of Journalism and Electronic Media are trying to give students the same opportunity of a life-changing class with the creation of Adventure Media, which takes a limited number of students and places them into the very environment outdoors-oriented companies thrive in. The students will spend their spring break bikepacking through Big Bend Ranch State Park gathering both still and video footage which they will then turn into short documentaries, print and online feature content and marketing collateral.
Bikepacking is essentially backpacking on a mountain bike – riding trails that include at least one overnight stay where bikes and the riders are loaded down with all the gear necessary.
The goal of the course is to produce high-quality material while at the same time giving students an inside, personal look at what it takes to work in this environment. The experience will give them an idea of what it would take to do this kind of work as a professional after graduation.
Foster likens it to being a great football photographer. If you want to get the best shots, you better know the game and how it develops.
"It's going to be a mentally tough class," said Keene, who also has taught a study abroad program in London. "Cycling as a sport is not an easy one to have as a hobby, and to do it loaded down with gear is not easy, either. This is a mental commitment as much as it is a monetary or physical commitment."
Thinking outside of the box
Both Foster and Keene are outdoor enthusiasts. Whether it's professionally or away from work, both are at their best outside the classroom, so the natural progression for both was to find a way to merge their personal and professional interests. And there's nothing that says a class has to meet in a classroom, either.
"There's nothing out there saying you can't hold a class in fewer than 15 weeks. You can, it's just really intense," Foster said. "I've been teaching the Junction photo class as an assistant or as the instructor of record for 11 years now and that is 15 days of some of the most intense academic experiences you can have. It's incredible for the students.
"Last summer we were talking and Justin mentioned that he wanted to teach a long-semester version of the class I taught previously, so I asked, " Why don't we co-teach this thing?' I've gone bikepacking in Big Bend a couple of times and we're both cyclists, and we both feel we have enough expertise in a couple of different areas that we can combine them for this class to make it immersive and very hands-on."
Adventure Media (EMC 4301) was born. The class does not meet in a traditional classroom or lecture hall. It is limited to 15 students, chosen from a thorough interview process, who meet three times prior to the expedition to Big Bend to get used to biking over rough terrain, using Mae Simmons Park to simulate the trails. They also review the photographic and video requirements during the trip, which involves shooting as much still photography and video as they can, all while concentrating on an adventure and outdoors-oriented audience/market. Among other individual assignments, three groups of five students each will produce short documentaries on some aspect of the trip, whether it's the park, the people they meet or something else.
Students also are required to keep an adventure journal throughout the semester detailing their experiences before, during and after the expedition. They also will produce commercial and marketing material for various local businesses such as Velocity Bike Shop and Mountain Hideaway, which have supported the class through discounts and product, as well as national and international supporters such as Tailwind Nutrition, an endurance athletics supplement company based in Colorado, and MindShift Gear, a camera bag company based in California.
The eight-day trip will involve students traveling to Big Bend by van on the opening weekend of spring break and stashing the vans at locations for later use. Foster, Keene and the students will then bikepack through the park for the first two days, covering about 15 miles per day. The third day will be one where students can rest and recharge, or shoot more footage if needed, and the last two days will involve more riding and gathering further footage.
Given the physical and mental requirements of the class, Keene and Foster made sure students they interviewed for the class understood exactly what was going to be asked of them during the trip. Being in strong physical shape was not a requirement, but the demands of the class weren't sugarcoated, either.
"We had the conversation with them that if their current lifestyle is not getting off the couch much and playing video games, you need to get up for an hour," Keene said. "If your current lifestyle is that you used to be a cyclist, you need to get out every day."
Once the class returns from the expedition, they will meet twice more to discuss post-production needs and issues before the final delivery of the documentaries and assignment work is due on April 22.
The content will not only earn the students a grade but could become valuable examples of their work that catches the eye of a potential future employer while putting these students a step ahead of their peers in an ever-competitive and vicious job market. Foster cited as an example one of his past students who was part of the New Zealand trip; he was hired by Southwest Airlines to shoot stock photo material of many of its destinations, getting the job based on his photography portfolio made in New Zealand.
"The ultimate idea of this class as a whole, and this goes for the professional and personal objectives of every student, is to be as real-world as possible," Foster said. "We do a really good job in this college, we think, in creating these experiences for students that are completely immersive. The London class has a very real-world production component to it and also critical thinking that is performed in professional areas. The New Zealand study abroad course, the Junction photography course that we teach, and courses we can highlight in the college, all contain impactful, real-world experiences. Adventure Media is another one that allows students to take an intense peek into that world."
New way of learning
Foster said he has been encouraged by Todd Chambers, the associate dean for undergraduate affairs in the College of Media & Communication, to think outside of the box – or in this case outside the classroom – for educational opportunities.
Part of the New Zealand study abroad course involves a 13-mile hiking trip through three volcanic zones that students raved about in course critiques. Foster also taught a similar course to Adventure Media in 2015 as part of the rotating collection of special topics courses, and Prescott University in Arizona used bikepacking as part of a class involving its geology department, so he knows there is a desire for these types of learning experiences.
Foster and Keene have discussed possibly tweaking the class to give students other experiences. Possible trips could include documenting the Texas Water Safari, a 300-mile canoe race from San Marcos to the Texas coast, fly fishing (Keene's specialty) in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado or bikepacking the White Rim Trail in Utah.
Foster also mentioned the idea of teaming with the public relations department in the college to do humanitarian media production, possibly working with an orphanage in Haiti to produce a visual media campaign.
"We've talked about this class formulating itself in some other ways, too," Foster said. "This class doesn't always have to be set on bikepacking, but it is themed toward the outdoor and recreational adventure market. This class is not that unique in that it is immersive but it certainly is in how we've been able to structure it or do it during the regular school year and not as a summer or intersession class. That makes doing other classes like this possible."
Foster said the concept doesn't have to be limited to just adventure media. It could morph into other areas such as environmental or natural history media where students could produce content that communicates about renewable resources or something similar.
"The educational opportunity is there," Foster said. "We are teaching a different type of student these days than we were five years ago, and five years ago we were teaching a different kind of student than we were five years before that. One of the most effective ways to continue being successful in the classroom is creating immersive learning experiences that are able to take certain theories that are taught in large lecture halls in practical ways but do it in a smaller class setting. If it just happens to be a classroom that is 300,000 acres that has desert and snakes and plants that want to stick you, so be it."