Rowan professor keeps media classes rolling with the times

Rowan professor keeps media classes rolling with the times

When Ned Eckhardt was growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, neighbors came to his house -- his parents had the first television set on the block -- to watch Uncle Miltie.

Now, when the respected Rowan University professor views the tube at his home in Glassboro, he looks for the names of former students working in TV and Hollywood.

The medium "is magic," says Eckhardt, a lively, personable and erudite fellow who recently won the university's highest teaching honor, the Lindback Award. "It's pictures in a box."

The 6-foot, 5-inch sports fan and married father of two became smitten with storytelling as a second grader.

"I wrote a skit and performed it in front of the whole school," Eckhardt recalls. A passion for storytelling

Later, telling stories with pictures and sound would be his passion and his life's work -- but only after he graduated from Colgate and Case Western Reserve universities (bachelor's degree in English, master's degree in dramatic arts, respectively) and tried to make it as a playwright in New York.

During the ?s, Eckhardt worked in commercial TV as a producer and writer. He also taught at community colleges in Central New Jersey and Upstate New York.

In 1979, he answered an ad in Broadcast magazine; a small school (then called Glassboro State College) in South Jersey was seeking someone to head up its fledgling Radio/TV/Film program. When he arrived, "there were two black and white cameras in a classroom," Eckhardt recalls. "It slowly grew."

About 600 graduates of the program Eckhardt built are now out in the world, and many are working in the profession.

"In a discipline like television production, the quality of teaching is best judged by the achievements of one's students," says Craig Monroe, dean of Rowan's College of Communication. "The depth and breadth of student learning reflected in Ned Eckhardt's students' achievements over the past quarter-century demonstrate that he ranks among the elite teachers of video production in the nation."

Monroe notes that Eckhardt's students "have won more than 60 awards in regional and national competitions, including an Emmy. Often, his students have competed for recognition not just with their peers, but with professional media makers and broadcast organizations.

"These are stunning achievements. I know of no television production program in the nation that can match them," Monroe says.

The evolution of Rowan's Radio/TV/Film program, currently enrolling 350 students, is paralleled by the evolution of the medium of television.

Although I'm too young to have watched Milton Berle, I certainly do recall the allure of early TV. Even as displayed on a 14-inch, black-and-white screen, the three "snowy" (remember that quaint term?) channels I grew up with were mesmerizing.

Who would have imagined the medium would morph into a ubiquitous 24/7 stream of images, information and (too-often puerile) stimulation? It's amazing how "active" the once-passive pastime has become, what, with everything from TiVo to YouTube to "reality" shows.

During Eckhardt's 27-year Rowan career, the technology of TV production -- once firmly in the hands of stations and other institutions -- has become utterly democratic. His students come to class comfortable not only with the ubiquity of the medium, but with the means of making (and making available to viewers) their own content.

Until the ?s, making a student film "was time-intensive, and you got an inferior product," Eckhardt says. "The tools of production were not in the hands of the people."

The professional opportunities for graduates, meanwhile, were pretty much limited to broadcast stations and networks. New avenues to explore

Now there's cable, corporate and reality TV, and, of course, the Web. And equipment has become "smaller, cheaper and better," in Eckhardt's words.

But there's more to telling stories with pictures than simply clicking a mouse; the most sophisticated video-editing software is of little use if the would-be film or documentary maker has little to say and little clue how to say it.

So Eckhardt aims to instruct as well as inspire his students.

"Passion and creativity are the most important qualities," he says. "You have to bring them into your life and into your classroom. That's who I am, and I bring it to the classroom."

Eckhardt, whose own documentaries (Seabrook Farms Remembered is his most recent) have won honors, including the Dore Schary Award from the Anti-Defamation League, says he thinks the accessibility of the technology is fantastic. He also likes the sophisticated storytelling that's become common on dramatic series such as Lost.

Unlike the self-contained, single-thread, strictly linear plots that were standard until at least the ?s, "layered, complex stories -- this layering of imagery and sound," Eckhardt notes, can make TV storytelling more powerful, persuasive and revealing.

Editing conventions have been challenged; with its abrupt cuts and eclectic visual vocabulary, "MTV blew the doors off," the professor says. And students "have been liberated from the old rules that held creative artists down," he adds.

"You can still make a beautiful Ken Burns-style documentary," Eckhardt says, referring to the esteemed documentarian whose work includes The Civil War. "But you can also make a totally crazed documentary (in which) there's more of a chance to express yourself." More than technology

But just as technology doesn't make a student a good storyteller, it doesn't automatically make for good TV either.

Eckhardt cites CNN's The Situation Room, with its extravagant bells, whistles and Wolf Blitzer, as particularly depth-free. "I don't like that at all," he says.

Eckhardt also is concerned that the proliferation of personal and personalized media (I-Pods, IMs) may well be contributing to the "fragmentation" of American family life.

"There's a terrible longing for family and for the connection that family provides," he says. "The media brings you pictures, the illusion of connection and warmth." Kids who are essentially stoned on Web surfing and music downloads "don't have much of a life," he says.

But the professor's outlook is hardly bleak. "I tend to look at the good things," he says.

So I ask what he expects the video revolution will look like a few years from now.

"I think the next step," he says, "will be virtual."


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Date Published: Sunday, October 8, 2006 - 01:00
Source URL: Courier-Post