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Josh Fishburn is the IMM Department Chair and Associate Professor at TCNJ
Consistently ranked as one of the top regional universities in the northeast, The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) was founded in 1855 and has remained rooted in a comprehensive approach to higher education. Thanks to its multidisciplined approach, TCNJ can boast one of the nation’s highest rates of graduation within four year, as well as one of the best returns on investment for undergraduate degrees. Among its offerings is the Department of Interactive Multimedia (IMM) which we believe readers of ACR would do well to take a closer look at.
Merging disciplines that range from game design and UX/UI to music tech, digital fabrication, and animation, the IMM department allows students to explore the breadth of today’s many multimedia fields while deep-diving into areas of their own interests. Students can choose between an IMM major, minor, or interdisciplinary minor, with abundant opportunities to cross-pollinate and build broad skill sets. Courses are taught by a diverse group of faculty members who each draw from their own professional expertise to energize and engage students in the possibilities that a degree in the field can offer. We caught up with IMM Department Chair and Associate Professor Josh Fishburn for our latest interview. We hope you enjoy his candid insight into TCNJ’s Interactive Multimedia program, and what he values most about the cultivating the next generation of multimedia artists and practitioners.
ACR: Josh, let’s start at the top. You’ve travelled far and wide in your career as a game designer, multimedia artist, and educator. What were the merits of TCNJ’s program that attracted you to it?
Josh Fishburn: From the beginning, my interview for the Interactive Multimedia faculty position at TCNJ was by far the most student-centered faculty interview I've had. Usually, when you make it far enough in the process to be invited for an on-campus interview the visit is dominated by presentations to faculty and meetings with administrators. While I did have those, there was also a separate, dedicated presentation to current IMM students for which faculty left the room and I could hear the unvarnished experiences and hopes of students.
I am passionate about teaching so it was very important for me to be at a school that values teaching at its core. TCNJ's roots as a normal school and its stated value of the "teacher-scholar" model told me that this was a place where my teaching would be valued equally alongside my scholarship.
ACR: Interactive design is a varied discipline, and the IMM program hones in on 6 areas of study within the field which speak to the breadth and scope of it - games, animation/story, digital fabrication, music tech, culture & tech, and creative coding. To what extent do all students in the major learn the foundations of these areas, and how far can students dive into a particular area(s) of focus following sophomore review?
JF: In our core courses which are typically taken in the first and second year, students are exposed to a bit of each area. I would describe it as being able to dip one's toe into the six areas to develop thin to moderate depth of knowledge. As students progress through the major, their broad knowledge is punctuated by smaller "spikes" of deep knowledge and expertise. Each of the six areas has at least two intermediate/advanced courses some of which overlap. Students also complete a two-semester senior thesis project for which they do research, planning, prototyping, and iterative design and development, all with faculty guidance and mentorship.
Our curriculum is broad, fluid, and dynamic. Our faculty frequently develop new courses that may only run one or two times as "special topics," or become permanent due to student interest or because they fill a gap in our curriculum. We want students to benefit from what faculty are best at and most passionate about.
ACR: Speaking of faculty, you work alongside a diverse roster of faculty colleagues who each bring their own interests and professional expertise to the classroom. What’s the culture like within the major, and how do faculty and students help each other excel in their respective areas of research?
JF: The culture here is dynamic! I think the hallmark is the trust that forms between students and faculty. In a way, all of us - students and faculty alike - ended up here because we didn't fit anywhere else. That creates a tight bond. You can see it in our recruiting events—after the one hour Zoom presentation, faculty and student representatives usually hang on the call for another half hour just chatting. We just enjoy spending time together. Trying to create a department culture where not everyone fits neatly into one category is challenging but on balance I think it's a really positive environment. We do our best to support each student showing up fully; we learn from them as they learn from us.
ACR: In what ways might we see faculty research in the field influence the curriculum or particular projects and courses?
JF: IMM faculty frequently tie their research and creative work to the classes they teach. For example, Professor Kim Pearson (IMM affiliate faculty and co-founder) and Dr. Teresa Nakra (IMM core faculty) collaborated with students in classes and in the Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience (MUSE) program to kickstart and produce podcasts and live events for their Trenton Makes Music project. Last semester, Dr. Nakra involved students in two substantial projects. One is a collaboration with Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in a course called User-Centered Musical Design. For the second project, Dr. Nakra has hired students to work on a grant-funded interactive music conducting system built for VR headsets with hand controllers. This project is a collaboration with the Peabody Conservatory, Johns Hopkins University, the musician Thomas Dolby, and conductor Marin Alsop. It also uses a prototype of Imogen Heap's MiMu gestural gloves.
Professor Christopher Ault is running a special topics course to develop an original exhibit funded by the National Science Foundation and to be displayed at Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, as well as the TCNJ Art Gallery. The course, Interactive Exhibit Design, explores user interface design, data visualization, graphics, animation, projection, augmented/virtual reality, digital fabrication and more.
For me personally, over the past four summers I've participated in the MUSE program with IMM students, creating networked "game poems", worked on the beginnings of a web-based textbook for creative coding, and for two summers worked an Fresh Start, a narrative-based video game to encourage mindful drinking among college students. During the academic year, my collaborator Dr. Yifeng Hu (Communication Studies faculty member) and I ran independent studies with students to continue development of the game, involving at least 15 different students to date. These are just a few of the examples of student faculty collaboration.
ACR: How has the curriculum recently evolved to include new trends or technologies used in industry?
JF: In many ways! For instance, students honed their podcasting skills in the aforementioned Trenton Makes Music project. Professor John Kuiphoff's Product Design course, by virtue of being taught remotely and without access to the usual Makerspace equipment due to COVID-19, has morphed into an entrepreneurship course where Prof. Kuiphoff is sharing his expertise creating a successful YouTube channel and producing Makerspace-themed tutorial videos. For eSports, Lions Gaming is one of our student organizations and has been running successful gaming tournaments; their efforts to get eSports recognized recently resulted in them becoming an official club sport on campus.
Other examples include media entrepreneurship. Professor Kim Pearson, in response to the rapidly changing field and business models of Journalism, has been offering Introduction to Media Entrepreneurship, which is cross-listed with Interactive Multimedia. Another cross-listed course is UX/UI from Dr. Belinda Haikes in Graphic Design.
In AR, I taught a course called Playful Experiences in AR that taught the ARIS Editor in combination with Viewforia, OpenFrameworks, and Unity's AR Foundation frameworks so that students could experiment with a wide range of AR authoring tools and programming frameworks. With regard to VR, Dr. Teresa Nakra's aforementioned VR conducting project and Warren Buckleitner's Dust or Magic class have both been teaching with and about VR technologies. Many of our students have also pursued VR-themed senior thesis projects.
My video game project to encourage mindful drinking (collaboration with Dr. Yifeng Hu), Fresh Start, is the first of hopefully many explorations in the area of health and games for social impact.
ACR: Fill us in on some of the hardware/software available to your students in TCNJ’s U-Lab.
JF: When in-person, students have access to computer labs with up-to-date Apple iMacs that have the full Adobe Creative Suite, Unity, Maya, and other essential software preinstalled. Through the School of Arts and Communication, students also have access to an institutional Adobe Creative Cloud subscription for their personal devices (the majority of students do their work on personal laptops), as well as a LinkedIn Learning subscription for self-directed learning.
Students also have access to high-end photo and video cameras, VR headsets, mobile devices (iPhones, iPads, Android Tablets, etc) for game and augmented reality development, lighting equipment, etc. through our equipment checkout system.
ACR: Switching gears a bit, it’s been said that designers must humanize technology. In your view, how does TCNJ’s curriculum develop the broad skills necessary of today’s multimedia designers?
JF: I'm glad that you asked because TCNJ is a small public college in the liberal arts tradition. What we hear over and over again from our alumni is that they benefited from the fact that Interactive Multimedia is situated in this liberal arts context. Of course, they don't use that language, but they talk about having the time and space in their schedule to explore other disciplines and to take courses they might not have were they in a more tightly structured major or professional school. Almost all of our students have either a minor or second major, and we have many cross-listed courses that help students develop a humanistic lens while learning practical skills, including UI/UX (with Graphic Design), and Media Entrepreneurship and Data Journalism (with Journalism and Professional Writing).
ACR: As a designer yourself, Josh, what skill sets have proven the most integral when it comes to the interface between tech and the psychology of its users?
JF: This will probably sound cliché, but the most important skill that I've learned is listening. A lot of the tech we all use has encoded biases - they were designed by people, after all! Even though the question is asking about the psychology of users, I always want to know about the psychology of the tech. That's partly why I'm a supporter of open-source, community-oriented projects like p5.js and Processing. Open-source communities aren't perfect, but the best ones share a commitment to the public good, which is important for any designer, developer, media producer, etc. to be thinking about.
So where does listening fit into all of this? I think it's a mistake to assume that a specific tool or piece of software or outcome is the solution for a challenge just because it's the thing you're most familiar with. To really listen—to users, students, constituents, whomever—you have to be willing to be wrong and be open to changing course on a project or design. If you are too rigid (in process or schedule or vision), listening in this way can be really painful because you can end up spending a lot of energy resisting necessary change. But you also can't be so open that you lose all direction on the project. It's difficult to find the balance, but I can say with certainty that listening has been the most important skill for me.
ACR: You’ve said that you savor teaching students to program who don’t otherwise consider themselves programmers. Why do you enjoy educating people in the programming languages, and how can it become an enjoyable exercise that leads to big outcomes?
JF: I love teaching programming for a few reasons. First, I was frustrated by the way it was taught to my beginner self. I was a Computer Science major in college, but it wasn't until I went to graduate school and learned about the Processing creative coding environment that I really fell in love with programming. I think it was very important to see it as a tool, a medium, and as something I could build a creative practice around. As a graduate student, I also had the opportunity to work on a National Science Foundation-funded grant project to teach kids and teachers how to design and program "humane games". I think if I had been exposed to a more visually-oriented approach to programming that made the underlying processes clearer and had a more welcoming community, I may have been more motivated as an undergraduate.
I'm grateful for the theoretical foundation I got, but I think the way I learned is a turnoff for some people. My mission is to prioritize open-ended assignments so that students are motivated by the desire to express an idea or creative vision. Teaching and learning programming is hard, and there are studies that show that most students who take an introductory programming class do not learn the content of that class (paraphrasing CS Education researcher Mark Guzdial). So if I can build some foundational, practical knowledge along with a sense of belonging and self-efficacy around programming, I consider that a successful outcome. I want students to feel like programming is "for them."
ACR: There are more career-path opportunities for multimedia and interactive designers than ever before, and your alumni are testament to their readiness to pursue diverse paths. What do you attribute to their success after TCNJ?
JF: First, as I mentioned earlier, our situation in a small liberal arts school is very important for the wide ranging careers of our graduates. The essential ingredient, and something I've heard from many alums, is that they "learned how to learn" in IMM. I think there are a couple lenses through which to view this. One lens is a sort of growth mindset. Because IMM is such a broad curriculum, and because students are largely responsible for defining their senior thesis projects, there is tremendous opportunity to experiment with different visions of one's creative self.
A second lens is a sort of deficit mindset. Because IMM is not one thing, and because it may not have a deep course sequence in the specific area that a student wants to study, it forces students to create that curriculum on their own. They might achieve that through independent studies, internships, minors, second majors, extra-curricular activities, or personal projects. I think both of these are right! On balance, the breadth of our curriculum is a benefit rather than a detriment for students. This results in a pretty tight-knit group of alums who want to give back to the program and support current students as much as they can, which results in opportunities for each successive graduating class.
ACR: Do students participate in internships or other partnerships with industry?
JF: While internships are not required in our major and we do not have a formal internship program, it is something that students can do for academic credit and we partner with corporations, alums, etc. who seek out IMM students for internship opportunities. In the past 5-10 years, students have interned at the following companies/organizations (just to list a few): Microsoft, Sesame Workshop, DreamWorks, Goldman Sachs, Nickelodeon, CBS, NPR, MTV, Focus Features, Amazon, NBCUniversal, NFL Films, National Sawdust, Canon, American Museum of Natural History, Lakehouse Recording Studios, Local Wisdom, Oxford Communications, and Critical Response Group.
For projects, collaborations, and opportunities, we have long partnered with, consistently sent students to, or hosted events with Campus MovieFest, Global Game Jam, SIGGRAPH, and the CUNY Games Conference. We've also placed students for advanced graduate work at SMU Guildhall, Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), NYU ITP, SCAD, just to name a few.
ACR: Last but not least, Josh, is there anything we missed that you’d like readers to know about TCNJ or the Interactive Multimedia program?
JF: Check us out on our social media channels for news about upcoming events, like the Spring Showcase where IMM seniors showcase their thesis projects, as well as info about events for prospective students. You’ll find us on Facebook and Instagram. And feel free to email us with any questions: [email protected].
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.