Fox in the Field: Student Journalists Cover Day of Dialogue at Wash U

Team picture! Front row, left to right: Leslie Ding, Ria Han, Maya Theus, Brandon Pobrob. Back row, left to right: Sophia Brown, moi, Eden Lewis.

As I have noted in recent posts, I'm teaching a new course this semester titled "Visual Journalism and Reportage Drawing." The origins of the course can be traced to several sources: for starters, of course, my own research in the field, both as a practitioner and historically-minded critic. But I have also developed a creeping sense in recent years that the overall quality of student drawing in our program has slipped. I have associated this (anecdotally observed) phenomenon with the dominance of "problem-solving" projects in our curriculum. There has been less open-ended drawing, even though my colleague Mr. Hendrix teaches a sketchbook course. Since I'm teaching opposite John's capstone seminar course (in which students complete their senior project) I wanted to give them a chance to work steadily and without much conceptual overlay. That is, I want them to practice their craft. (Larger projects will occupy the 2nd half of the semester.)

Context: as everyone knows, the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson set much in motion, catalyzing what is turning out to be a 21st century civil rights movement. Editorially speaking, Washington University has responded as directly and supportively as seemingly it could, through the Wash U Voices project. (Personally, I hope that the university will find a way to work with some of its schools and donors to foster economic development projects in North St. Louis County and City; disparities in opportunity continue to be a source of division–to say nothing of differences in treatment by law enforcement.)

A few weeks ago, I was brought into a conversation with the Public Affairs office of the University somewhat indirectly, through my old friend Dave Gray, former WashU illustration faculty, founder of XPLANE and business consultant/author/change maven. Dave had been contacted by Jill Friedman, the Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs, to explore ways of documenting/facilitating an event planned for February 5 and 6. Given my interest in visual journalism, Dave suggested I join them.

Dave found Maketa Wilborn, a Seattle-based "scribe"/facilitator/strategic ninja to record discussion on large format pages over 5 sessions. Maketa turned out to be precise, tireless, and effective at capturing the dialogue. 

I suggested that a student team staffed primarily out of my course could document the proceedings in a range of ways, including drawing, photography, hand-lettered type and copy-edited call out quotes. The team would consist of illustrators, photographers and designers. We would produce, collate and edit that material into rotating pdfs to run onscreen in breaks, as well as posting to social media. Jill was enthusiastic (though she had to be nervous about the idea) and agreed to create space for the team to work during the events. 

I set aside a week of the syllabus in my course and assigned all 11 students to go into diverse St. Louis neighborhoods; each team of 2 or 3 students had a primary and a secondary site. The work that came back from that group was edited down to 24 images of pre-generated content. Everything else would have to be produced onsite in real time. 

The event began on Thursday evening at 5:00 pm, when Gerald Early gave a lecture–or rather, spoke an essay about the history of the idea of race in America. It was a forceful piece of writing, polemical, quizzical, autobiographical, complicated by experience in Early's inimitable way. A celebrated writer on the black experience in America (and talking head in Ken Burns films), he researches rigorously and writes sturdy, persuasive cultural history. But there is always poetry in it, and he is never doctrinaire. Gerald wrote an essay on race and comics in the 1960s for Strips, Toons and Bluesies, a book I co-edited with Todd Hignite for Princeton Architectural Press in 2006. I admire him and his work very much. 

The team was onsite at the medical school an hour beforehand, scoping out the seats and angles. There were 7 of us total: a crackerjack outfit. I recruited Brandon Pogrob and Leslie Ding from my course to serve as onsite sketch reporters. (Six months ago I don't think I would have guessed that either would do such work, but both have taken to reportage, in very different ways.) I asked Eden Lewis to join the illustration group with art direction responsibilities, and I recruited Sophia Brown to do some drawing while assuming an editorial role in gathering and copy-editing quotes from the proceedings.

My colleague Stan Strembicki is teaching a course in street photography this semester, which pairs with my own very nicely. I had asked him for recommendations for students to join the team, and he suggested Ria Han (the only sophomore of the group, among seniors), who did very well. Maya Theus, a senior graphic designer in the ComDes program, played the lead role in synthesizing Ria's work with quotes and machine typography. Maya developed the typographic signature for the project, and actually built the .ppt files that got projected during meal breaks on Friday. The hairiest interlude of the project was Thursday night, when Maya, Eden and I left Steinberg Hall at 2:00 am. Maya posted the first .ppt to dropbox from home, at 2:38 am.

We were back onsite at 7:30 Friday. Same deal with prep: sussing the place out. The engine room was effectively staffed by Maya and Eden, with others rolling in to drop off work at intervals. 

I had planned to supervise and encourage, but it became clear that the students had the enterprise under control. Aside from occasional back-and-forth with Maya, I joined the group as an illustrator, producing a total of 7 drawings during the sessions. Dave Gray did some drawings, too. 

I'm very proud of the work our team did. It was a challenging event to cover. It consisted primarily of people sitting in chairs and talking in front of a big crowd, with intermittent audience participation and traveling microphones. Not particularly visual stuff. Friday's setting was a business school auditorium and atrium (the latter for overflow capacity, with projection) that–however lovely and new Knight Hall may be–conveyed something of a corporate atmosphere. The visual reportage work provided perspective, touch and texture, and added a layer of meaning. 

I'm also grateful to Jill Friedman for taking the risk. Nobody said a word to me about editorial control, or tried to guide what the students would do. They were there to report, and that's what they did. I think the day was productive, institutionally speaking, though a little more attention to social class (which is intertwined with, yet distinct from, race) would useful, too. 

Warm thanks as well to Liam Otten, the Public Affairs arts writer (and Fox School alum) who ran interference for us on the scene. Liam had our back, and offered encouragement throughout. 

Lastly, thanks to Janet Owen and Enrique Von Rohr, from the Fox School IT team, for help getting equipment onsite for the day.  

Photograph of Gerald Early by Ria Han. Design by Maya Theus.

Illustration of Bob Hansman and hand lettering by Eden Lewis. 

Drawing of the medical school setting before the event began by Sophia Brown. She was right; nobody every did pour a glass of water from those pitchers. 

Photograph by Ria Han. I love this image. 

Illustration by Brandon Pogrob.

 Typesetting in Baskerville by Maya Theus.

Typesetting in Baskerville by Maya Theus.

Illustration by D.B. Dowd of the panel following Gerald Early's keynote address.  Also: please note that the illustration in the tweet embedded below is by Eden Lewis.  (For some reason Squarespace doesn't seem to want me to caption the tweet.)

Illustration by Leslie Ding. An aggrieved woman asks a question that ran long. Leslie's economy of line and shape is terrific here. 

Illustration by Brandon Pogrob. Brandon's drawings are descriptive and funny, yet stop short of being cartoons.  This central character seems energetic but quite world-weary. 

Eden did nice work with hand-drawn type to isolate key sentences and moments.  

On Day 2, Leslie shifted to pencil for some of her drawings. She did a nice job with likenesses (though I prefer the graphic decisiveness of her ink work). 

Photograph by Ria Han. Design by Maya Theus. Rather pithy quote, no? 

Illustration by Dave Gray. He made a ton of these. Nice pockets of density in a relatively airy drawing.