#Dispatches Special Contribution: Advice From a Dean and Expert in Media and Performance

In our Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

This week, the question continues: How do I manage my new 100% online professional life?

We continue weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question – WHICH REMAINS: ADVICE FOR ONLINE CAMPUS VISITS— and the link to share your wisdom and advice.

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Today’s advice is generously provided by Dr. Sarah Bay-Cheng, Dean, School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design, York University.

Sarah Bay-Cheng is Dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design (AMPD) at York University in Toronto, Canada. Prior to York University, she served as Chair and Professor of Theatre and Dance at Bowdoin College and as the founding Director of Graduate Studies in Theatre & Performance at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Her research focuses on the intersections among performance and media including histories of cinema, European and US avant-gardes, and digital media in contemporary performance. https://sarahbaycheng.net.


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There are plenty of recommendations online for how to physically set up for the video interview. In my experience, the most useful recommendations align with what theatre and film people have known for decades (or longer) about what makes the most effective visual communication in frames (either proscenium stages or screen frames).

  1. Here are my top recommendations for the physical set up:

·    Adjust your camera and screen to roughly eye level, so that you’re looking at the screen straight ahead and not up or down. If possible, adjust the settings so that the person speaking is close to where you have your web cam. You want to be able to look at their face and take in their expressions while keeping your gaze close to the camera so that your expressions as you listen are visible.

·    Make sure that you are have enough (soft, if possible) light on your face so that the dimensions of your face are visible and that you’re clearly positioned within the screen.

·    Keep in mind the framing and remember the rule of thirds. You want your eyes to be roughly centred and one-third from the top of the frame.

·    Aim for a simple and neutral background so that the person looking at you can focus on you.

·    Remember you’re acting for the camera. Practice, record and adjust your efforts accordingly.

There are other recommendations you’ll find, such as including plants in the background, among others. These seem less important to me. I can’t say that I’ve never paid attention to the background, but now as I am (like most of us) in constant Zoom meetings, my eyes are getting tired mostly from people in low-or back-lit rooms, or who are looking down at their laptops. As one of my directing teachers once said to me about a badly lit play I was directing, “If I can’t see, I can’t hear.” As much as possible, make it easy to be clearly seen on screen and people will hear more of what you have to say.

2) Lighting to reduce fatigue

Also, remember that we’re all working with an information deficit here. Mediated conversations deprive us of a lot of the information we take for granted in face-to-face conversations, such as subtle facial expressions, physical gestures, and the real-time feedback we typically receive when we’re speaking and listening in person. I think (and perhaps others with actual research data will correct me) that this information deficit is part of what makes tele-video meetings more tiring than other meetings. Many of us are accustomed to multi-tasking on screens and this impulse can be a tough habit to break. Make sure you’re clearly visible and making eye contact as much as possible to replicate the experience of talking in person. A good camera and microphone can be helpful, but with some attention to details, you can make a basic set up look its best. Here’s a pretty good primer for lighting set ups that can be done with a few well-positioned house lamps.

3) How to interact with the camera.

First, remember that you’re acting for a camera, not a person. There’s a story that Rose O’Donnell tells about acting on the set of A League of Their Own with Geena Davis. After doing a take, O’Donnell was unimpressed that Davis was underplaying the scene, so that they’d have to shoot it again. When O’Donnell she saw the dailies, she realized that really it was she who was overperforming. O’Donnell looked foolish on film because she was treating the film set like a theatrical stage. After years doing theatre and stage comedy, O’Donnell was used to projecting her voice and gestures to be visible for the audience members in the rear. On film, performers don’t need to project to the back of the house. They just need to play to the camera and let the camera and screen do the work. Similarly, in a video chat, the screen will amplify you, so you don’t have to do as much work to read on the other side of the camera. Be careful of overdoing it.

That said, you don’t want to do nothing. As I noted before, there’s a gap in the information when communicating by screen. A lot of what I and probably other search committees and interviewers are looking for in campus interviews are all of the intangibles that aren’t evident in the cv and written materials. So, you want to communicate who you are as a whole candidate through a little camera. It’s a distinct skill that is hard to do well and takes time to develop, so I recommend at least a little practice. Record a few elevator pitches about your work and play them back to see which ones look better or worse. Play around with the extremes, so you know what’s too much and what’s not getting through on screen. Practice focusing on the person speaking on screen and how you perform listening. I realize this probably sounds silly, but being attentive on screen is it’s own skill. And, as everyone is now experiencing, talking through screens can be tiring. Coupled with the stress and strain of everything else that’s happening right now, it can be hard to focus. Practicing listening on screen can help maintain focus.

4) Advice for Search Committees

At the same time, I expect that many of us who are able to continue with “campus” interviews are adjusting the schedule to accommodate this new reality. At the same time that candidates can refine their techniques for on-screen communication, I think it’s important that those of us on search committees and administrators like myself also pay attention to how we’re framing ourselves and our online conversations. One of the small advantages of the current situation is that we may be able to avoid the asymmetrical video interview in which a few people are in a room together interviewing a single person by video. So here’s a plea to my fellow interviewers and administrators to schedule shorter, more focused conversations and recognize that long on-screen interviews may be even more draining than the in-person visits (which are plenty exhausting on their own).

5) Let’s all be generous

In the current moment, we need to recognize that none of us are at our best and I’m willing to make allowances for the anxiety of the moment, home-schooling in the background, stressed partners off-screen, and more. I’m glad that we are able to continue with our own interviews and searches for the moment, so I’m committed to doing what I can to make the experience as good as possible for everyone.

Next Question Remains: How do I prepare for a campus visit that has switched to all-online due to COVID19? And Search Comm members: if you’ve made the switch, what do you expect-slash-want to see from candidates?

Share Your Wisdom Here.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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