MCS 373/MCS 541

Audio Documentary

Spring 2010


Dr. Daniel Makagon                          

Office: 14 E Jackson, #1828

Office Hours: M 9:00-10:00

Phone: 312-362-7979                        




Course Description and Objectives


In recent years an explosion in the production and accessibility of documentary work has created an unprecedented interest and expansion of the documentary form in nearly all sectors of public life. The increased creation and availability of audio documentary work largely stems from two important factors. First, a proliferation of low-cost digital technologies has virtually democratized the production and editing of audio recordings. Digital sound recording equipment can be purchased for less than $500. Armed with a relatively inexpensive recorder and microphone, a person can record interviews and sounds, and edit them into a broadcast quality documentary with one of many low-cost (or free) software programs. Second, there are more media outlets willing to air documentary programming. National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition and All Things Considered have been joined by a variety of radio shows (e.g., This American Life) and Internet sites (e.g., that feature audio documentaries. Taken together, the steady decrease in production costs and the increase in media outlets have helped create conditions that allow people with a range of interests, experiences, and skills to make and disseminate their own work.


Through practical application and the exploration of cultural reporting and documentary approaches to communication, we will consider questions that surround the interpretation and representation of cultural experience. We will analyze and create audio documentaries in an effort to understand better a significant form of storytelling. There are three central learning objectives that will guide us through the course: (1) we will develop an understanding of the techniques people use to observe, (2) we will develop an understanding of the aesthetic and structural choices people make to explain what they do, and (3) we will use this knowledge to inform the production of our audio documentary projects.


Required Materials


Jessica Abel and Ira Glass, Radio: An Illustrated Guide


Daniel Makagon and Mark Neumann, Recording Culture


All other course readings are accessible via a password protected Web site. You are required to print each day's reading and bring the article with you to class.


4 rechargeable Double-A NiMH batteries (and a battery charger)


Multiple blank CD-Rs and DVD-Rs to store your projects during production and after production. (Note: It is highly recommended that you purchase a portable hard drive with a firewire and usb connection if you are interested in media production more generally. This will ensure that projects can be saved without having to separate files, will allow you to work at home and in computer labs, and will be a valuable asset if you continue to work on media projects in future classes or jobs.)


Course Assignments


Attendance and class participation                                                                   10%

Reading Quizzes                                                                                             15%

Hearing Places Assignment                                                                            05%

Audio Documentary Preparation                                                                     20%

Audio Documentary (8-10 minutes)                                                               50%


You are required to complete the reading assignments before you attend class. This will lead to more fruitful discussion.


Hearing Places Assignment: For this assignment you will work alone or with a partner to record and edit a 4-minute soundscape recording of an intersection in Lincoln Park. You will record 8 straight minutes of sound with the microphone directed at the same space. You will then edit that recording down to 4 minutes (chopping off sound prior to and after your best 4 minutes of straight ambient sound). The final project will be uploaded to


Research Process:


(1) Each class member will work alone or with a partner. We will select street locations for each person or pair to record.


(2) Record your sounds. Document the starting and ending time, where the microphone was placed, and the equipment you used. Perhaps, document other interesting things that were happening at that intersection.


(3) Edit and mix your piece. Burn it to a CD. (This process is described in the Prot Tools—PT—document that is located in the folder where you access our readings.


Grading Criteria:


Your soundscape recording should be 4 minutes long. Your recordings should be clear (free from distracting background noise and the mic should be in a good position to record the interviewees and ambient sounds). Basic edits should not hinder the quality of the final recording. Note that a soundscape recording represents sounds as they exist in a particular place at a particular time. You should not be adding effects or creating a sound art piece.


Audio Documentary: You can work alone or with a small group (1-2 other classmates) to record an 8-10 minute audio documentary. The documentary should feature interviews, ambient sounds, and other techniques to help create an engaging story. (See assignment sheet in the folder where you download course readings for a complete description of this assignment, including percentages for each graded portion of your pre-production work.)


Reading quizzes: Quizzes will be short answer and will allow me to gauge how well you understand the arguments made in the readings. Unlike your audio projects and class discussion, where I am interested in your opinions about the issues and your assessment of the matters at hand, the quizzes are designed for you to state the author's argument only. In other words, I am not striving to understand what you think about the issues; rather, I am interested in how well you understand the construction of the author's argument. If we do not understand what s/he's saying then our critique of her/his work will not be properly grounded. Possible points for each quiz question will be listed after the question (usually 10 or 20 points per question and usually 1-3 questions per quiz). Answers will be graded based on your ability to clearly summarize the author's argument(s) and use examples from the reading to support your answer(s).


Our reading load in this class is heavier early in the quarter and very light late in the quarter, since we need to simultaneously learn about the meaning and practices of documentary production as we begin the production process but then have time to do the production work. Reading materials will balance important skills and broader intellectual contexts for documentary work. We will spend a bulk of our time early in the quarter listening to audio pieces and discussing issues raised in course readings. The bulk of our time later in the term will be spent listening to audio pieces and working in the lab.


Course Policies


Attendance and Active Participation are expected and required. Participation grades are factored by considering how often you participate in class discussion and how that discussion advances our overall learning (i.e., I will consider how your questions help us understand difficult passages, how your contributions further discussion rather than hinder discussion, how your comments foster lively debate, how your participation grows from an engagement with the reading and college experience rather than functioning to advance an autobiographical tale only). If you miss very few classes and your participation level is excellent, you can expect an "A" for this portion of your grade. If you miss very few classes and your participation level is above average (i.e., you participate every other class rather than every class session), you can expect a "B" for this portion of your grade. If you miss very few classes and your participation level is average, you can expect a "C" for this portion of your grade. If you miss the most possible classes you can miss without failing the class and your participation level is average, you can expect a "D" for this portion of your grade.


Promptness is expected as a general rule. If you are consistently late to class, your grade will be negatively affected.


You are allowed one (1) unexcused absence in this class and two (2) absences total if at least one or those absences is excused. If you miss more than two class sessions with at least one of those absences being excused, or if you have more than one unexcused absence, then you will receive an "F' for the class. Missing this many class sessions undermines the integrity of the classroom experience. Note that arriving more than 10 minutes late to class or leaving early will constitute an absence. If you exceed the quantity of allowed absences because of illness or a family emergency, you should meet with the Dean of Students office to discuss withdrawal options.


All assignments are due on assigned days. There will be NO MAKE UPS. Documented illnesses or documented emergencies are the only exception to this policy. Changes in work schedules, personal celebrations (e.g., birthdays), or vacations are NOT considered to be legitimate reasons for missing assignment deadlines or class meetings. If you miss a quiz and have documentation for your absence then you will take the quiz on the next date you attend class. Similarly, if you have an excused absence for a class session when you would turn in an assignment then you can give me the assignment on the next date you attend class. (Note: If you will be missing a class because of a religious holiday, let me know in writing at least two weeks before the holiday so we can make arrangements to make up missed work.)


Students with disabilities should provide me with documentation from the Office of Students with Disabilities.


Cellular Phones: If you have a cellular phone or pager, turn it off or set it to vibrate, and keep it in your backpack or purse. All cell phones must be put away during the class session. I will confiscate cellular phones for the remainder of the class session if you are sending or reading text messages or using your phone to check email/surf the Internet.


Written Assignment Requirements: All written work should be typed, double spaced, and use a consistent style (e.g., MLA, APA, etc.). Use one-inch margins and 12-point font. Further details on written assignments can be found in a syllabus addendum on writing academic papers.


You must make sure your preferred email address listed in Campus Connect is correct and make sure emails from me will pass through any spam blockers. I will only send email to you from


Plagiarism becomes tempting when students feel pressured. When in doubt, quote. If you are quoting somebody directly or paraphrasing then you need to properly cite your source(s). You can do this in an audio project by explicitly identifying the person you are quoting or paraphrasing and the source of that quote (e.g., "As Chicago mayor Richard Daley noted in a city council meeting last October, ÔRental inspections have improved the quality of Chicago's housing stock and created safer living environments for the poor.'"). If you are writing a paper then you should list the information within quotation marks and then cite the proper information. When paraphrasing, just cite the proper information. Never quote others to the point where your ideas become indistinguishable from your source's ideas. We will read a variety of materials that teach us how to construct narratives and produce our own projects, I will be available to discuss problems with and possibilities for your projects, and DePaul's policy on academic integrity offers useful insights for college-level ( Given all of these resources there is no reason to plagiarize. If you do plagiarize, you will automatically receive a grade of "F" in this class. Moreover, the Academic Affairs office will be contacted.

Grade Scale


A = 93-100, A- = 90-92, B+ = 88-89, B = 83-87, B- = 80-82, C+ = 78-79, C = 73-77, 

C- = 70-72, D = 60-69, F = 0-59 (I do not assign incompletes)