Media & Communication professors Jerod Foster and Justin Keene’s Adventure Media course allows students to push themselves and their concept of outdoor travel media.
Most young people have an idea of what the “college experience” is or should be – making new friends, attending sporting events and parties and, eventually, earning a degree.
“It's easy to look up information about college, and it's easy to be culturally conditioned now with all the media that's out there about what it's going to be like when you go to college,” said Jerod Foster, associate professor of practice and assistant dean for curriculum and instruction in Texas Tech University's College of Media & Communication (COMC). “I don't think any student who has ever come into our class ever thought they would do what they did and ever thought it would be part of their college experience.”
The class Foster is referring to is the Adventure Media course he teaches with fellow COMC Associate Professor Justin Keene. Based in the Honors College and counting toward a portfolio development elective for the Creative Media Industries program in COMC, the course offers students creative, critical, practical and strategic insight and experience in analyzing and producing media centered around the concept and popularized notion of adventure by placing them in the middle of it.
“The course is for students who are interested in working in – or learning about – the outdoor recreation and adventure travel industry,” Foster said. “It's simply another media and communication industry that's specific to the outdoor industry, which is a significantly sizable part of the recreation economy. We've built a program where students get a taste of what it's like to be on the creative production and storytelling side of things. We do that by making it almost completely field based, and we've done it the past few years back revolving around this idea of bikepacking.”
During an average year, Foster and Keene will take students on a bikepacking trip during spring break, utilizing those days off to dig deeper into the “adventure” part of the class.
“Since the class is field based, we benefited by always having a week in the spring where we could get away,” Keene said. “Historically, we used spring break as the mechanism for us to have a large expedition with the class. We would go to Big Bend Ranch State Park or Ruidoso, New Mexico, or somewhere like that, and we would go on a four- or five- or six-day trip during that time. It was really easy because we don't miss class.”
Keene, Foster and the students would load into two 12-passenger vans, drive to their destination, then set out to traverse the terrain, ride mountain bikes along trails, set up interviews and take photos along the way. The students individually produce content that then would be used for campaigns promoting bikepacking and other outdoor activities.
This year, however, wasn't typical. Like with everything in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic made it almost impossible for Foster and Keene to do what they normally would.
“Jerod and I started talking last summer about how we're going to do this,” Keene said. “We weren't going to put ourselves or our students at risk. Then, the university canceled spring break, and that solidified the plan for us. We didn't feel comfortable going somewhere far away, even caravan style, because it opens you up to so much that could go wrong. So, we decided that our trip this year would be somewhere closer to home.
“It gives us a chance to really emphasize the parts of West Texas that Jerod and I love and navigate the class around that idea, rather than, ‘Let's go somewhere distant and make it this travel-oriented thing,' let's make it a, ‘Hey, did you know you could go do this here?' We decided to focus on the Llano Estacado area – the landscape that travels between Lubbock and Amarillo.”
Even though using the normal weeklong break in March wasn't an option, Foster and Keene still had the students go on a few, smaller weekend trips, taking cars instead of large passenger vans. In mid-April, individual students in the class were paired with teams to follow three cyclists riding a new gravel touring route called The 806.
“The students produced a short film on this group as we rode a 375-mile loop that goes from Lubbock to Amarillo and back,” Foster said. “It's 75% dirt road riding. They're creating a film that will promote this type of bicycle touring in the Panhandle, which is notoriously not a tourism destination for cyclists.”
Foster and Keene split the students into four production groups, rotating through daily assignments. One day, they'd follow Foster and the other cyclists on the route, filming action sequences and the riders' experience. The next, they would focus on interviews with locals along the route and the riders themselves. Area scenic and behind-the-scenes efforts were also documented to round out the production assignments.
“We wanted to give them opportunities to have different tasks and different leadership each day,” Keene said. “On the third day of the trip, Jerod was riding through some pretty harsh country and we allowed only a couple of vehicles to follow him. Since my team couldn't find the riders, even if we wanted to, we went through and shot the eastern portion of Palo Duro Canyon. I spoke with my students about doing landscape photography and filters. We did a bunch of mock-interview work – how to set up an interview and then interviewing the students themselves.
“The students had something to do every minute of every day, even if it wasn't directly shooting people riding bikes. This semester was really different in that way, but I think the products we got from them are a lot different than the products we've gotten in the last few years. It's not better or worse, just different because they were able to set up shots and be thoughtful. We were able to carry better microphones, so our audio is better. Overall, I was really impressed with the main part of the trip.”
Challenging, yet rewarding
Both Keene and Foster are proponents of immersive education. They want to combine theoretical with practical, and their adventure media course does just that.
“Students gain so much professionally and personally out of this class,” Foster said. “Their ability to form new relationships and in really intense ways with other students is not unlike how they would form those kinds of relationships outside of college. Students learn a ton about themselves. This class is not easy. It's physically and mentally challenging because they're put into some really challenging situations. They're having to navigate class assignment work while also having to ride a mountain bike down a boulder field, if you will. It's physically challenging, but at the same time, we've never seen a student come out of this class without having something transformational happen to them both professionally and, maybe more importantly, personally.”
Seeing students gain self-assurance also is a highlight.
“The level of confidence the students have in themselves afterwards is increased,” Foster said. “They're able to, in a high-quality way, collaborate with others and utilize their teamworking skills. They also come away with, I think, a great deal of leadership attached to it. We put students in situations where we know they're going to be OK. They don't quite know if they're able to accomplish those things on the outset, but when they do it, there's just this really cool overwhelming feeling that they have. As educators, we love seeing that.”
“This class looks like a study abroad experience to watch from day one to last day of class on the little friendships that form, who kind of naturally bubbles to the top as a leader and who do people go to, to ask certain questions,” Keene added. “It's an intense class. They have to get along and get to know each other. It's a really neat process to watch.”
In fact, some students had such a profound experience with the class that they decided to add a permanent reminder.
“Every year, we name the class something relevant to the stories we're telling,” Foster said. “In 2019, we had four students get tattoos of either the class name or something that was visually representative of the class. I would never have expected that to happen, but that's just how impactful the class is.”
Historically, the adventure media class only happens in the spring. With the pandemic forcing Keene and Foster to think outside the box, that may change.
“Because of the changes we made, one of the coolest things is that we now have a proof of concept that the class could operate in a fall semester where we just take five random days and go do it,” Keene said. “We could potentially do it in summer. It's always operated in the spring because we needed spring break as the main vehicle for the expedition. Well, this year, we showed maybe we don't need that. So, we could move it around if there was a reason to do it.”
Foster said the notoriety the class has received over the past few years has opened up new possibilities.
“We had representatives of the Friends of Guadalupe Mountains group come in last year, inquiring about the adventure media class coming out to the Guadalupe Mountains and doing some work out there,” he said. “Dr. Keene had an idea to go to the Monumental Loop in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The guy who created it supports a lot of bicycling. He and I will have a discussion every few months, and he's supportive of the class coming out there. There are lots of possibilities.”