Save the Date: IWCA Talk Time for March, 2011, 1:00-2:00 PM Eastern (12 Cen, 11 Mtn, 10 Pac)

Join Jared Featherstone and members of his writing center staff for the first spring 2011 IWCA Talk Time. Jared and staff will discuss the conception and production of their writing center music video “We Think You’re Gonna Like It Here,” along with the effects of having their music video go viral within the James Madison University campus community. View the music video, along with an article in which Jared and staff discuss the piece, below.

IWCA Talk Times are synchronous Wimba-based audio/video discussions of a focused topic relevant to writing center work. They are hosted in Wimba at St. Johns University, courtesy of Harry Denny, IWCA Treasurer. Instructions for logging in to Wimba are available by contacting the IWCA Web Editor at .

Date: Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Time: 1:00-2:00 Eastern (12 Central, 11 Mountain, 10 Pacific)

We Really Like It Here

Our music video went viral. It literally shot up the billboard charts of the university administration, bringing praise from deans, administrators, and directors, some of whom I’d never met. The day I emailed the link to the WCenter and posted the video on our homepage, our center’s website traffic nearly doubled. I had been a bit reluctant to send this out to colleagues beyond James Madison University because we saw it as an advertisement for JMU students. Our Learning Center’s director, Kurt Schick, pushed me to send this creation out to a broad audience, and we soon heard the sound of virtual applause.

I had no idea our center could gain ground by producing an adaptation of a musical. Although this project was fun, it remained rather low in the mix of our Center’s work. The file sat dormant on my hard drive for over a month. The narrow vision of routine and daily maintenance did not allow me to see the video’s potential. It was only after I heard the reaction of others that I realized what we had done. Writing center scholarship has noted the value of these “Trickster moments” that can lead us to “a shape-shifting writing center practice, one that is not easily pinned down” (Geller, Eodice, Condon, Carroll, & Boquet, 2007). JMU WC They Like It Here

Now I have my own example, one that reflects our practice and sets the tone for the center we are becoming.

Our center is somewhat unique in its personnel structure. We have faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates all tutoring in the center and working on projects together. We even eat lunch together. We are colleagues.  The peer tutors have a regular development meeting in which they discuss tutoring practice and theory.  They are also invited to attend the weekly UWC faculty meeting, develop new online resources for the center, co-present with us at conferences, and conduct in-class workshops. I try to offer them an active role in almost every aspect of our Center’s work and allow them to develop and follow through on their own ideas. The success of this video project reminded me that I need to look to my talented staff to help determine the future of our center. ―Jared Featherstone, Coordinator

Peer tutor becomes lyricist/director

I’m a peer writing tutor and a writing and rhetoric major. But I used to be a piano performance major. When I signed on to work at the University Writing Center, I couldn’t have foreseen my passion for music mixing with my tutoring job—but it did.

The idea for our writing center commercial grew out of one of our weekly peer tutor development meetings. A fellow tutor excitedly told us about a video she had recently stumbled across. It’s a writing center musical parody of Enrique Iglesias’s “Hero.” We watched it, and everyone laughed. It had a strong impact on me, though: I really wanted to make a music video for our writing center. I saw a music video as the perfect way to combine my music and writing talents, and to have the writing center collaborate with my musician friends from around campus.

I immediately started research to find a song we could parody to make a music video for our writing center. Listening to the Annie soundtrack, I first considered creating a song about citations: “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” could be rewritten as “You’ll Never Hit the Press Without a Style.”

At first, I was thinking that our video would be informative about writing center theory and practice; I envisioned it being used by tutor training classes and featured on the “peer tutor corner” of our website, a space where we want to share helpful resources for peer tutors. Then it occurred to me that there was a larger audience we could try to reach: the student body. We could make a commercial for the writing center—a musical commercial. Soon after this revelation, I decided that “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here” from Annie would be the perfect song to parody.

I started drafting a script right away. I checked out the score to Annie from the music library and rewrote the lyrics line by line. I wanted to make the commercial funny and over-the-top but still true to the values held by the writing center. The writing center presented in our video needed to highlight our inviting, collaborative environment. So I imagined a first-time visitor being welcomed through song by enthusiastic tutors. The writer would work briefly with a tutor and then be ushered off to start writing. Within an hour, I had written almost the whole script.

Draft in hand, I took the score and went to the music building. For three hours, I sat at a grand piano with my laptop and used GarageBand to record myself—first playing the accompaniment part, and then singing the vocals. I had so much fun and couldn’t wait to share my creation with my writing center colleagues.

I brought my laptop to the next development meeting and played my demo for everyone. They smiled and laughed; their reactions provided me with some much-needed validation. I had worried that my parody was a dumb idea, and I was so glad to know that the others liked it. We made one revision to my “draft”: the writer’s paper originally was due in a few days, but we changed this to four hours to create more urgency. I played my demo for Jared, the UWC coordinator, and other members of the professional staff—everyone seemed excited and encouraged me to make my demo into a reality.

We then began the long and complicated process of making the video. So many aspects had to come together: we needed singers and actors and sound and video experts. Fortunately, we had some of these experts in our center. Jared volunteered do the sound recording and Martin, a peer tutor, offered his video expertise. I emailed a few singer friends and asked if they wanted to star in the video. I also got a small band of music majors together to record the background music. We made the background track first, me at the piano. Then we attempted to record the vocals with “real” singers in the two lead roles and some brave faculty and peer tutors singing the chorus part. This first attempt didn’t sound peppy enough—the style and energy didn’t fulfill my vision for the project.

We decided to try again with more qualified singers: nearly the entire cast of a recent student-run musical. These results were much better, as you can hear in the final product. A few days later, we rounded up a handful of these music theater majors, plus Andrea, a peer tutor, and myself, and shot the video in the center. It took about an hour and ten minutes to capture fifteen minutes of video. Martin and I edited the video that night. It took four hours to line up the lip-synced video with the final soundtrack and put all the best takes together, cutting the fifteen minutes down to two minutes and 38 seconds.

Making this video was quite an experience. The biggest challenge was organization, getting these people in this place at this time. I had to be really flexible since we had a limited amount of time to achieve the best result possible. Despite these organizational challenges, bringing together my music and writing was truly rewarding. And it was great to see writing center folks collaborating with music and theater folks.

I’m really excited about the result. We’ve tracked over 1,400 views so far! I think the video presents a positive message about our writing center. People on campus are talking about it and sharing and, unsuccessfully (we hope), trying to get the song out of their heads. ―Paul Loman, Peer tutor

Peer tutor becomes actress

One afternoon, Paul strolled into our weekly peer tutor meeting and confessed how he spent his snow day. Embarrassed, he told us he wrote a song about the Writing Center to the tune of a number from Annie, the musical. After some tutors and I urged him to share, he eventually caved and played his recording of the song. I knew that Paul was musically inclined and a great piano player, but this was impressive! We encouraged him to continue to develop this project. Christina Wulf, a UWC graduate assistant who led our peer-tutor meetings, suggested that Paul make it into a commercial by teaming up with others in the writing center, making use of tutors’ various talents. Paul asked for volunteers and assigned roles.

I volunteered to be one of the singing tutors in the video. The song was catchy, so the lyrics were easy to pick up. Paul walked us through the set-up of each scene, and then we briefly practiced. Each scene mirrored a fun and overly dramatized rendition of our writing center reality. Shortly after practicing, we began recording. Martin filmed each scene a few times until we said our lines right or got into our marked places on time. This was very much a group effort; each person contributed his or her talent to work toward the same goal.

Though I’m not gleefully singing during daily writing center sessions, this video connects to my real-life role as a tutor. This video portrays the tutors as welcoming and supportive towards students. The main tutor’s role in the session was to encourage and guide the stressed-out student in his writing endeavor. Similarly, as a tutor, I try to make students feel welcome and comfortable in a session, especially since—similar to the student in the video—students often enter a session feeling overwhelmed about assignment requirements and stressed about meeting their deadline.

Minus the dramatic singing, the writing center commercial quite accurately portrays what many sessions look like: encouraging students in their writing, which, in turn, equips students with confidence to face the challenges they may encounter in the writing process. ―Andrea Smith, Peer tutor

WC Coordinator becomes music producer

When I became the Coordinator for the University Writing Center at James Madison University, I, like Paul, did not foresee the intersection of my music career with my teaching life. The years I spent playing in rock bands seemed like a separate universe. When Paul brought his music theater commercial to our writing center, he opened the door for me to bring my music experience to the center.  Hearing how great his arrangement and lyrics were, I told him the song deserved full studio production.

I packed up the microphones, stands, cables, and laptop from my home studio and met Paul and the other musicians in a music classroom one evening for a recording session. I set up the microphones and software while Paul and the instrumentalists rehearsed the arrangement of the song. The players listened back to the first take and decided upon some changes. We altered the mic locations and recorded a few more takes until we had at least two versions everyone approved of. We recorded some vocal tracks, too, but we were running out of time before another group had to use the room. We decided that we might have to set up another recording session.

The second recording session involved the music theater cast Paul recruited.  We ran through several takes that sounded great except that the dynamic range of these vocalists made it difficult to get the recording level just right. Just when I thought they weren’t going to get any louder, they did, distorting the track and adding to my existing ear damage through the headphones. I had to practice moving the levels around while they were singing. Revise, revise, revise. Eventually, we all got it right.

Looking back on this video production process, I see that the roles of UWC Coordinator and music producer are alike in many ways.  The producer is not typically the star, but he or she has the power to make the musicians into stars. The producer has an overview of the project each individual musician might not get to see because he or she is focused on developing as a player.  From the control booth, the producer not only hears how good a musician sounds, but how good a musician could sound. He hears potential and possibility. He hears when a song needs a lead guitar part or some tambourine. Musicians become better than they realized possible, and the producer learns something from each musician he works with.

The producer also knows that mistakes are not always mistakes.  When the musician intentionally or unintentionally deviates from the rehearsed parts or conventions, the result is often better than what everyone expected to hear. A good producer has to know when to embrace fortunate accidents and welcome the Trickster. I had no plan to make a music video to advertise our center and no idea how effectively a video could communicate the atmosphere of our center. ―Jared Featherstone, Coordinator

Peer Tutor becomes videographer

As we were talking about Writing Center publicity ideas at our weekly meetings, we always mentioned doing a video, but it took awhile before a concrete concept took hold. Initially, I came up with a concept that ripped off a 5 Hour Energy commercial, while Paul, inspired by YouTube, suggested that we do a music video. Paul’s idea was better (and didn’t implicitly endorse 5 Hour Energy’s annoying commercials) so off we went.

I’d never done a video where lip-syncing was necessary, so instead of doing some research like a reasonable human being, I just guessed at how we could do it: have the actors sing along with the song while it played in the room, then mute all the audio from the footage, dub the song back in and wiggle the clips around until they lined up. This meant that we’d have to fit every clip precisely together while editing. Paul agreed with this method. Other than coming up with that, I didn’t do a whole lot until the actual day that we filmed.

Equipped with an out-of-date, cheap Sony camcorder and an unreliable tripod, I showed up to the Writing Center and met all the actors I was about to annoy the hell out of. For those of you who have never acted in a video, it involves a lot of repetition. By the end of the shoot I was as tired of asking people to “do it one more time…again” as they were of hearing it. The idea is to get as much film from as many different angles as possible to make it easier to edit later.

Anyway, we finished all of the shooting in a couple of hours. Paul and I went down to a video editing lab later that night and spent a few hours piecing it together. We were using relatively primitive editing software—iMovie—so it was painstaking to get the song to line up properly with the footage. About 2/3rds of the way through, we began to run out of time (the labs at JMU close at midnight) and from experience I knew that it’d take awhile to save everything. Paul told me he’d try to finish it himself, but I didn’t believe him. To my surprise, the next morning he told me he’d stayed up until four a.m. and finished editing the video.

Viewing the finished result and knowing what I know now about videography, there are a few things I’d do differently. For one, the video’s too dark, especially for the mood. I didn’t have access to or knowledge about proper lighting gear at the time, but doing something as simple as bringing in some floor lamps from my apartment would’ve helped.

Second, my camera had Steady Shot on the entire time. Steady Shot is a feature that autocorrects for shaking (to reduce the “Blair Witch” effect). This was a problem because Steady Shot assumes most camera movement is unintentional, so whenever I adjusted the camera, it created a jerky countermotion. I did not learn about this until the following semester, so I spent a brief amount of time blaming the tripod. Anyway, Steady Shot rendered a few clips unusable because they shook too much, and in a couple of cases we had to use a shaky clip anyway because there was no suitable alternate footage.

But overall I’ve been pleased with the feedback on this video. Oddly enough, some people have said they “recognized” me, even though I never appear on-screen. ―Martin Steger, Peer tutor

Writing Center becomes creative community

The contributions of the tutors to this project and their reflections on the process say a lot about the nature of our writing center. Paul’s vision revolved around the idea of giving a warm welcome to anyone who arrives seeking our help. Andrea, too, was thinking of this nurturing role of the writing center, the way we seek to make people feel at home in our space and to encourage their writing efforts. Students arrive stressed out and unconfident about their writing and perhaps even about themselves generally. If we do things right, we’ll not only lighten the mood, we’ll change a student’s view of herself as a writer, even if this change is incremental. In our video, the student starts off chattering nervously about his assignment but ends up singing.

Another central idea that surfaced again and again in this project was process. We are a process-focused center, and the tutors’ approach to this project shows it. Paul’s brainstorming period of scrolling through his iPod and evaluating possibilities, then bringing his idea to the group for feedback, mirrors the brainstorming sessions that happen in our daily consultations. Martin’s self-evaluation of his editing and filming process shows a perspective that goes beyond any specific project to the craft itself, applying experiential knowledge from one project to another.

A final recurring theme that I see is the way we all value collaboration. Paul, Andrea, and Martin all mentioned the development meetings as a place to workshop ideas with their peers. As the project moved forward, the video production involved several layers of collaborative work. I initially had some mixed feelings about bringing in singers and actors who were not UWC employees, but I realized that having the writing center staff collaborate with a group of music and theater students was a unique opportunity. The singers and actors learned something about writing center work, and the writing center staff learned something about performance.

Considering the results of this video project and thinking about the roles of producer and coordinator, I can see the type of leader I want to be at the writing center. I want to nurture the strengths of my tutors and encourage interdisciplinary thinking. I want to offer opportunities for collaboration. I don’t want tutors to compartmentalize their writing center life in a way that blocks out other interests and abilities. I don’t want anyone to check his or her creativity at the Center’s door, including me. ―Jared Featherstone, Coordinator