Students often do not see themselves as having the potential to become the experts that will define their field. In this episode, Francisco Suarez joins us to discuss his podcast project which is designed to supplement class activities and to connect students with professionals. Francisco is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at SUNY Oswego and as the host of From Suarez’s Basement, a video podcast that was a recipient of the 2021 Communicator Award of Excellence by the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts.
Rebecca: Students often do not see themselves as having the potential to become the experts that will define their field. In this episode, we discuss a podcast project designed to supplement class activities and to connect students with professionals.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
John: Our guest today is Francisco Suarez. Francisco is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at SUNY Oswego and as the host of From Suarez’s Basement, a video podcast that was a recipient of the 2021 Communicator Award of Excellence by the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts. Welcome, Francisco.
Francisco: Thank you for having me. This is awesome. I’m glad to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are: … Francisco are you drinking tea?
Francisco: I’m drinking a delicious tea, it’s an imaginary tea. [LAUGHTER] I have this beautiful tea cup that I’m opening right now… sorry for the sound… that say Tea for Teaching, which is the name of the podcast. And yeah, having a delicious hot tea. [LAUGHTER]
John: And I am drinking a cranberry blood orange black tea from the Republic of Tea.
Rebecca: Oh, that sounds nice. I don’t think I’ve had that one. John,
John: We have plenty of it.
Rebecca: I’m sure I could stop buy and get some.
Francisco: How about you?
Rebecca: I have just an English breakfast today. I think. No. Yes. It’s been a long day already. Yeah, I think it’s Awake tea which, I think, it is English breakfast. It has a name called Awake, but it is technically an English breakfast tea. That was way more information than anybody needs.
John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your video podcast. Could you tell us a little bit about the focus of the podcast?
Francisco: Sure. First, thank you for having me. It’s always good to be between friends nd this is a very cozy environment actually. I have to say we’re having tea. Well, From Suarez’s Basement, you can imagine, [LAUGHTER] it was created in the basement of my house during the pandemic, I was trying to find something to do to don’t go crazy or make my family more crazy than we already were stuck at home and to put my creativity to work. So I decided to start a podcast that has to do with experts in the communication media and the arts, visual storytelling in specific because that’s what I love. And the idea was to create bridges between experts in those fields, and the audience, which is very much concentrating students and faculty. That doesn’t mean that the podcasts doesn’t have a general audience. So I started in the basement of my house, very small, like everything that we started with a small idea, and having grow very much, which I love it. And again, we have conversation with those experts that are working behind some of your favorite TV shows, or films, produced shows, artists, musicians, you name it, anybody who can bring me a good conversation, that’s where I’m interested in. You can sometimes have guests like me talk a lot or guests that don’t talk a lot… nothing… zero. But that’s how we start.
Rebecca: You mentioned that you started it during the pandemic to keep those around you from going crazy and yourself…
Francisco: Ah yes.
Rebecca: …not to go crazy. But clearly you had some other motivations…
Rebecca: …probably around students and things. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Francisco: Yeah, of course, the part ofnot going crazy is the joke part. The serious part about the podcast is that I believe very much in the interaction of my students with the professionals in the field. I’m in love with education, I’m in love with the process of mentoring the students. So to give this opportunity to students to have conversation with cinematographers and set design, costume design, you name it, was always the intention, to create this connection between the students and those experts. Because you know, the funny part… we all are professors here… a lot of our students in those chairs, and they never realize that that person that you admire so much was once sitting in that chair, too. They see us so far away. It’s like, “Oh, my God, I’m going to talk to the set designer of Bridgerton.” It’s like, “Wow, this is amazing,” like, “but this person was you in some point in life.” So if we can create that connection, I think, that’s what is the beauty of the podcast is to see the students realizing that that person or the other end is no much different than you. So the motivation is to really keep my students engaged and optimistic about the future, especially when the pandemic hit, I think, we all were not very optimistic. But students in general were like, “Okay, what is a career’s going to be? Where I’m going to find a job?” So I say, if these people that are actually working in this industry can give some kind of wisdom to the students, I think they will feel a little more better, then things will get better. So that’s how we start but again, little by little it grows. So it’s all about education, connection, networking, and created a sense of belonging to industry. That’s what I like.
Rebecca:I know one of the things that John and I experienced when we started this podcast is we started with some of our local colleagues and started branching out and then we were continuously surprised by how many people would agree to come on to share their experience and expertise. And you’ve had some really wonderful guests on your podcast. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience has been like?
Francisco: Yeah, it has been fantastic. I cannot say who is coming in season five, but now I’m just recording season five, and have this amazing conversation with a Grammy Award winning singer, and I’m like I cannot believe I’m talking to this person. But not only that is a conversation that makes it so special, truly, truly special. So how that happened is like everything right? It’s true. When I started my first guest, and all my guests are important, but what I’m saying were people that I knew: friends, professors from here, from SUNY Oswego, until I start getting the point where my first big guess was the production designer for Game of Thrones. She’s not only produced Game of Thrones, and a lot of other TV shows and movies, so she was a big deal. And because of her, then other people start following her. I think, and this is important, because the podcasts have an educational component to it, that makes a big difference. When I send the emails to the managers or the agents of these experts, I’m always very clear this is not about just gossiping. I don’t want to know if you broke up with your boyfriend, or whatever. This is about, I wanted to understand that this is an educational tool. And I think that educational component have allowed these very prestigious guests to say, “You know what, I can take 20, 25 minutes of my time, and be sure that I can contribute to the education of the listeners of the podcast. So little by little have been growing and as soon as you get kind of a big one then other ones start following. But like I say, for me, the titles, if you want to call it titles, or awards are not necessarily the attractive aspect. Is this guest someone who’s going to give me a good conversation, and that I’m going to learn something new from it. So you can have Oscar winners and Grammy winners and Emmy winners and all these stuff, but in fact, I’m not going to say who, but I was very excited about this guest, I was like, “Oh my god, this is awesome.” Oh my, it was so difficult [LAUGHTER]… dry, dry, like yes or no answers. In fact, at some point, I was doubting to air the podcast, because it really wasn’t too much there. But again, I say, “Well, it’s a big name like it will bring other people into the equation.” So I did air it, you can guess. What I’m saying is that you never know what you’re going to get. But the process of getting these prestige experts are getting easier because of the educational component of the podcast, and because now the list is getting better and better.
John: One of the things we found following up on this was that we had a few big guests as you did that brought in a much larger audience, but one thing that really amazed us was how many people would agree. I found it much more difficult to get some of our own faculty and the people we know to join than people we’ve never met. That surprised me quite a bit in terms of how many people agreed to be on it. Do you get a lot of positive responses?
Francisco: Yes and no. I sent around 20 email, from those 20 emails, I get around three. So that’s the average more or less. It takes me 20 emails to get three of the possible guests. And then it’s a back and forth between agent, a manager, and then time commitment. So it’s difficult in that sense. But I get around three from 20 emails that I send. And then from people that are my friends, and now that the podcast is growing, the other ones are like “I can be in your podcast, like I would love to talk about this and that. I found people from the UK that are big, big, big in their field, I just interviewed the director of Ted Lasso, which is one of my favorite shows right now. He’s from Ireland, actually, the sweetest guy ever. And he was so humble, so easy to talk. So for some reason, some people from the UK seems to be very approachable in compare with maybe some people here in the US where it’s like, “Oh, he doesn’t have the time or she doesn’t have the time or they don’t have the time,” like “email us in three months.” And I do. In three months I’m going to be emailing you. It’s cool to see students like “How professor? How? You say “because I told you nothing is impossible.” Like that is the point. If you ask this question to yourself, and I say this to a lot of my students that want advice, “What do I have to lose?” And the answer is probably nothing. I don’t understand why you will not do it. So I don’t have nothing to lose to send an email to Tom Hanks. What is I can’t get? No he’s too busy. Which probably he is. But you will be surprised. Maybe the guy is like, “Well, yeah, sure I come 20 minutes to talk to this crazy Latino guy.” I don’t know, but I don’t have nothing to lose. Right? And that is the beauty of it, when students see reflecting themselves into the process, that issue is not much that you can lose.
Rebecca: How have you used your podcast in teaching and within your department?
Francisco: The teaching aspect is that if you go to the website, which is fsbasement.com, we have there a tab that is called teaching resources. What I do is I record both, I record video and I record audio, in the two formats. Those videos are being used already by faculty members not only in my department, but outside of SUNY Oswego, which is also very excited when I get an email from a professor from NYU, or from USA, or any other university to say, “Hey, you know, I’m loving what you’re doing, I got to show your podcast about production design or set design in my Set Design class, because the amount of knowledge studies combined in those 30 minutes is amazing. It really is.” My goal is hopefully to write a book, not necessarily about podcasting, but about the knowledge absorbed to those… we are now season five, so we’re going to have already like sixty episodes already produced. But I ask, for example, one of the questions I asked to the guests, that is a common question is about perseverance and rejection. And it’s so good to hear so many different guests talking about how to deal with rejection, and what it means to persevere in an industry that you most have that in you. So is a lot of knowledge there that for me, I want to be sure that the podcast doesn’t end just with the first air of the podcast. So professors of any university can go to the website, go into the tab of teaching resources, and they can found by category… if you teach cinematography is a bunch of videos there with cinematography; if you teach set design, there’s a bunch of video of set design. So it allows easy access to these interviews that are more or less a short masterclass, I think is great.
John: Do you use assignments with your classes based on the podcast? And if so, what types of learning activities do you use?
Francisco: And in fact, if you go to that tab, not only i give you the video, but I give you already what you can do in your class. So it’s basically you go there, and you have a whole day of lecture where you can watch the video and then you say, “Okay, you can do these activities based in what the video is about it.” So if you go there, you not only have the video, but you have activities or questions related to the video. You can do kind of a short quiz of okay, what do you learn through these videos? So the questions that are already there. The actual episodes have the questions that we did in the episode. So if you are a professor and you’re looking for a specific question about how to build a set in the desert, you probably will find it there. And you just can use that piece of information for it. So each of the episodes have an assignment, put it that way. It is a lot of work, because we need to pull apart the episode and be sure that what is here, where were the questions, what kind of assignments we can do is some bit of work, but I love it. That’s exactly what the podcast is about.
Rebecca: Well with all those nice assets that you have going with the podcast, I imagine that’s why you’ve decided to do seasons…[LAUGHTER] to help manage that a little bit.
Francisco: Here’s the thing. The market is telling you, I want my podcast delivery very much at the same day, same time, with this timing periods. Our podcast is bi-weekly. So is every two weeks that come out. But having seasons allow me to say okay, we need to get a break. Normally the break is during the semester, because I’m too busy with other stuff. And then I use summer and part of the fall semester to do everything I have to do with production, post-production, and then I accumulate, let’s say around 12 episodes. I try of course, as information is no by any specific time. So we don’t talk about things that happen necessarily in a specific week or month or things like that. So I can air an episode six months later if I want. But yeah, I like it. I like to talk like you can see. [LAUGHTER] So it’s perfect for me. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’re still on our first season….
John: …and a very, very long season. We did have a break last summer, literally actually, when a car ran over my leg and broke it. So we took four weeks off for that.
Rebecca: ….first four weeks ever, John.
John: …the only time we’ve ever missed publishing an episode. It’s nice to be back on track. At times a break would be appealing…
John: …but it’s still fun, so we’re still doing it.
Rebecca: There was a design education podcast that I listen to a lot that, it wasn’t video, but it has a similar kind of feel to your podcasts that I used to use all the time when I was teaching our capstone class. And I’d pull out like portfolio ideas and application ideas and like collate little snippets from various things and students really responded to of hearing someone else say the same things that I would have said anyways.
Francisco: That is always the case, right? It’s crazy. It is. it is. Listen, is no easy job. But for me the hard part is not the production process, is more the breaking noise process. Because of digital era, we are very lucky to be sitting here and having a great conversation and for me podcasts is the new mass communication, a way for people to be able to express themselves. I always say it’s not about quantity. It’s about quality. He doesn’t matter if you have 200 listeners to 2000. As long as 200 listeners come to you every week, that’s what you’re looking for. But the issue is, because of the digital era, there’s so much noise out there, unbelievable amount of noise. So I think I spend more time sometimes not even producing and getting the guests and all this stuff, is how I’m guarantee these awesome interviews I have with any of my guests can reach where I want you to reach. So the whole TikTok, on Instagram, and is quite a lot. Because again, there’s a lot of noise out there. So you need to figure out what is the best way to reach your audience, for sure.
John: You talked a little bit about how these podcasts can be used in classes, how have students responded in your classes to the podcast.
Francisco: Very good, I think very good for two reasons. First, because again, the main goal of the podcast is to create a bridge between the experts and the students. And the actual episode brings so much knowledge to the students. But I do see it’s something very special when students see his own professor struggling with a project and putting the time and the effort in that project. It’s almost like I’m walking the walk, I think it’s how you say here, right?
Rebecca: Um hm.
Francisco: I think that creates a student sense of okay, this guy is also trying to get to a goal to a specific dream that I have. So I think that create a very interesting relationship with your students. I don’t talk about how you do your podcast in the sense of my own experience, but not only the sense of what the theoretical aspect, or academic aspect of the podcast is, but by my own experience. So that creates a different type of relationship with your students. But they have been reacting very well. I put them… I don’t overdo it, because I feel also like, “Okay, this guy is like so full of himself. Now, he wanted me to watch every single episode.” But when it’s an episode for example, in my screenwriting class there’s two episodes there that for me are gold. One is with the writer of Only Murders in the Building, he’s a-co creator and writer of it. And he explained very interestingly, how to write for a crime show and how it works. And then the other one was, he’s a creator and writer of Inside Number 9, which is a British show. She’s fantastic and he had been the reason for so many years. And he gave a lot of good, good information about character development, what it means to develop your character first before you develop your plot. So I use those episodes as an amazing way for them to be able to get that information from these experts. So then I test them the next day, they have like a short quiz about it, just to be sure that they really watch or listen to the podcast. So they have been reacting quite well. One of the assignments I’m doing in my screenwriting class is that they need to write an episode of Inside Number 9, based on what they learned from the actual creator of the show. And that worked really, really well. It’s very interesting to see what they write. The whole premise of the show is episodical, so it means each episode is a different story. So they don’t match. But one of the things about the show is that it always takes place in one specific location. So there is no switching location. So it can be Inside Number 9 can be inside warehouse number nine, or inside aeroplane number nine. So all the plots take place inside that space, and that’s very difficult to do. [LAUGHTER] And they are brilliant. The stories are fantastic, so I 100% recommend that. What are you watching these days?
Rebecca: I don’t want much watch TV. [LAUGHTER] Not a good conversation. I don’t watch much TV. [LAUGHTER]
John: I don’t either, but Only Murders in the Building was a really good show.
Francisco: It was amazing.
John: I’m looking forward to the third season.
Francisco: Yeah, I’m very looking forward to it too. It’s very well written.
John: Meryl Streep is going to be on the third season.
Rebecca: If the target audience isn’t like five year olds. I’m not watching it, you know. [LAUGHTER]
John: It might work very well work, hough, because you’ve got Steve Martin there and you have….
Francisco: Martin Short. Yes, yes, and Selena Gomez, which has been a revelation to me how good of an actor she is. But also love to see her interacting with these more mature actors. And it’s a great, great show. I am a TV junker because, well, first, that’s what I teach. [LAUGHTER] But I watch from reality TV to, you name it. And the beauty of it is that streaming media have allowed openness of storytelling that we didn’t have before. Maybe a little oversaturated at this point, but it still, I think, is in for our students here how at SUNY-Oswego or any students who want to pursue storytelling it’s a fantastic time because 20 years ago, maybe, the hallway was very narrow. You go to NBC, CBS, the regular networks. Now it’s like hunting season all these…Apple TV and Hulu are looking for new content and that allow our students who want to pursue that to have a better opportunity to tell the stories that we didn’t have before.
Rebecca: It’s certainly an exciting time to be in that field.
Francisco: It is, it is. I watch a lot of things and sometimes, I’m amazed. So much like washing many films, the production value. Well, Game of Thrones is a good example of a brilliant production design where I always say, in order for you to have a good visual storytelling, you need three aspects: good writing, good acting, and good production value. If one of those three aspects are no present fully in their full potential, you lost me as an audience. So writing, I started watching shows where something’s like, “Man, this is bad writing,” like the way their characters are talking feel very cheesy. Then acting, well, we know what acting does, right? You can really have a beautiful script. But if I don’t believe that you are rocking hard, oh, I’m out. And then production design, I’d say, “Well, if the dragon doesn’t like a dragon, I’m out.” So it’s the combination of those three things. And I think what I tried to teach in my classes is that… depends on the class, right? …if you are in the screenwriting class, you are concentrated in the screenwriting aspect, but if you are in the video production, isn’t only about how to frame, isn’t only about how to shoot, it’s the production value. And I love when students get out of their dorms because I say “I don’t want to see the lake, please don’t show me the lake, I see the lake too many times at this point and try to film your stuff outside your dorm room, so you feel real.” So of course, they need to work harder. And they need to go to downtown to a diner and ask for permission to record a dating scene in the diner and I say, “Well, that makes a huge difference.” It’s not the same to record a dating scene in Lake Effect Cafe here on campus grounds, going to an actual diner create a different reality. So anyway, that’s my approach. But that’s what I love so much watching TV to actually peek in those things.
Rebecca: Yeah, I can imagine students really digging the idea of getting to hear from a writer or a producer or a set designer, and then doing a project based on what they’re saying. Because it does provide that frame for something that feels real…
Rebecca: …and not forced, which I think a lot of students struggle with.
Francisco: Yeah, the other thing that I think is important is that I try to have co-hosts in the show. And I invite students to be part of the co-hosting, because they bring a completely different perspective. I could have my very fancy intelligent questions, I guess, but the students really have all the questions… actually sometimes surprised me. it’s like, “Wow, this is such a good question.” So bringing students is really important for me to have those co-hosts. And the beauty of it is, I do have three examples at this point, of students who have been co-hosting my shows, and these three students are now working for the guests, because that relationship is established because the guest was so impressed so impressed with the questions and the maturity of the co-host. I love it when someone says “Professor Suarez, you’re not going to believe it, I’m going to do an internship with blah, blah, blah. And then they call me and say “By the way, I’m actually not working full time as an editor. I have a student who’s doing a first set design called a set design assistant for some shows in NBC. But that bridge was because of the podcast. And that’s what it’s all about. In the website actually is the final tab of the website is something called mentoring program where students can sign up… somebody who is looking for a mentor. But also my guests can sign as a mentoree, so they can actually dedicate 40 minutes of a student meeting with some of these students. So it’s all about creating this community. And you’re a good example, the podcast is just a tip of the iceberg. It’s just a sense of communication. But it’s about creating a community of people who love education, who are in education and academia. And so I think that sense of community is very important for me.
John: We always end with the question, what’s next?
Francisco: What is next? That is a great question. I want to find other platforms to distribution of the podcast. That is very important to me. So more people that I can reach the better. I think that’s a goal we all podcasts have. Not for the sense of the quantity again is for the sense of the quality. Now, From Suarez’s Basement is a PBS WCNY radio station, which is great because it’s giving a huge platform of people listening to it. Of course, it’s in their regular Apple podcasts and Spotify, and those kind of regular things. But I would like to see if I can get all the kind of distribution, especially the visual aspect of it, to see if we can put those videos to work in another way. But more than that, my aspirations is to be persistent, to keep going. I think that is important. I think that this project, in the specific, are teaching me that if you put in the hard work and you keep going, it get back to you. And I think students in this day, or this generation in general, we are living in a time where immediate gratification is all about you post something, and you get 200 likes in two seconds. So they feel like, “Oh, if I don’t get 200 likes, or if I don’t get 200 followers, or I’m going to drop this, this doesn’t work.” And then I’m saying, “Oh, actually, that’s not how it works.” When you say what is next is to remind myself that this is a long trip. And I’m willing to go into that trip and see what cool things come on my way, awards or new guests or being here with you guys. But, what I what is next? I’m not sure. Hopefully, again, reach more audience and the podcast is used more and more by other universities. And the book, I want to write a book, again, not necessarily about how to podcast. There’s so many books already out there about podcasting and what kind of equipment do you need. I want a book that brings the experience of these experts into a text that, if you read it, you can learn very much from these interviews, for sure.
Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing this great project with us.
Francisco: No, thank you for having me. This is fantastic. And I’m loving my imaginary tea here. [LAUGHTER]
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.