Electronic Media Program marks 20th year

April 28, 2014

HCC electronic media arts professor Justin West adjusts the lights in the Black Box Theater. Electronic media arts professor Jay Ducharme teaches a class in digitial audio at HCC.

Twenty years ago, the term "electronic media" didn't mean much to most people, if anything.

Few people were using email to communicate. The Internet was mainly the domain of government scientists and university researchers. No one surfed the Web.

Phones were connected by wires. Facebook and Twitter weren't a twinkle in anyone's eye. Photographers used film in their cameras and had to develop prints to share them with friends. 

Editing video required scissors and glue to cut and splice together segments of tape.

"If they had video at all, people were editing on reel-to-reel or cassette," says Justin West, professor of electronic media at HCC. "Nobody was using a computer, particularly at a community college. Twenty years, in terms of electronic media, is sort of like going back to medieval times and illuminated manuscripts for writers."

Back then, West marveled at the way computers had changed the way people write and imagined a day when they would also be used for video, photo, and sound editing.

"Looking down the road," West wondered, "if students are using computers for word processing, why not all these other things?"

Thus was born the Electronic Media Program at Holyoke Community College, founded in 1994 by West and former HCC professor Roy Faudree.

HCC will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the program with an Electronic Media Festival on Saturday, May 3, from 10 to 2 p.m. in the Media Arts Center. The day will include the presentation of awards to area high school and college students who submitted their work to a pre-festival competition, as well as a panel discussion and individual presentations by professionals and HCC alumni working in electronic media.

Click here to see a schedule of the day's events.

What started in a windowless storage closet with one teacher, two Apple computers and a handful of students has grown over two decades into a program that includes four faculty and about 150 students (50 majors) taking  15 courses each semester and occupies the entire third floor of the Campus Center.

Marking the occasion is important, says West, for two reasons: as a history lesson, to remind people how much technology has changed in 20 years; secondly, to boast about what is now the oldest college electronic media program in the region.

"For a community college to offer this level of access to new media is very unusual," says West. "The idea that we as a community college actually have better electronic media resources than a lot of four-year colleges in the area, I think, is amazing."

The story about the program's origins in a closet is not exaggerated.

"We were in a storage closet over in AV," he says. "No windows. We moved the junk out and put up a couple of folding tables."

Classes were small, with three or four students. In those early days, video and audio projects were limited by the speed of the computers.

"Editing was clunky. Computers crashed all the time," he recalls. "The computer would sort of go dut-dut-dut-dut-dut, but at least it moved images on the screen. It was fun."

"I remember it was a big deal when we got our first CD burner. Everyone was amazed we could burn CDs. I remember when I bought my first video hard drive. It cost $700 and it was 900 megabytes. It wasn't even a gig."

 A few years later, the program hired its second full-time faculty member, Jay Ducharme, an HCC alum who was initially hired as director of the Forum (now the Leslie Phillips Theater). Ducharme came to HCC with a theater and musical background.

"He's a real technical whiz," West says.

The courses offered 20 years ago were pretty much the same as the ones offered today, West says, among them introduction to electronic media (a survey class that explores how a message changes depending on the medium, from text and sound to images and interactivity); fundamentals of video; digital audio and animation.

In 2009, the program relocated to a dedicated Media Arts Center. Another big change is a focus away from specific technology and software, which are always changing.

"The principles are the same: good communication is good communication," says West. "So, we really offer core courses that talk about how electronic media communicates and then we can plug in whatever piece of software is current at the moment. That's really a technical transition we make under the surface. The course remains the same, we're just using different software, like the choice of  text in an English class."

As electronic technology has become integrated into all aspects of modern society, a wider variety of students is taking classes.  

"We have people in nursing, business, music and biology taking courses in order to be able to use electronic media in their field," West says. "And then there are people who decide, wow, I want to make movies or videos or do digital audio or interactive media."

After 20 years, West says the things he's most proud of is that the Electronic Media Program still exists.

"College programs come and go," West says. "The fact that a program that was so new and unproven has gotten to be the oldest running electronic media program in the area indicates that the college believed in it, we believed in it and the students believed in it, and they've gone on to do great things. I'm just as proud of the students who took one class as I am of the students who started their own companies."

Photos: (Left) HCC electronic media professor Justin West adjusts the lights in the Black Box Theater in the Media Arts Center. (Right) Professor Jay Ducharme teaches an electronic media class in the HCC Media Arts Center.


Holyoke Community College
303 Homestead Ave. Holyoke, MA 01040