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EDU Feature Article: A Look at VAMA Department Chair, Paul Weinrauch

The Visual Arts, Media Arts Program at Colorado’s Red Rocks Community College shifts to stay relevant -- Here’s how it happened.

More than two decades ago, Paul Weinrauch sold all his material goods, packed his bags, and traveled the US with his camera, capturing the beauty of America along the way. That marked his full-fledged entry into photography, which eventually led to a career in wedding and architectural photography, then advertising and corporate work.

But Paul always knew he wanted to move into teaching, and he first dipped his feet in those educational waters as an adjunct instructor at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewoood, Colorado. “Then, almost three years ago, I decided to make the leap and go full time” at Red Rocks, where he now heads up the Visual Arts Media Department, overseeing students who study videography and film, journalism, graphic design, UI UX, and simulation and game design, photography, among other subjects.

Tamron talked to Paul about his goals for the program, what he wants students to get out of it, and the big changes he’s spurred so far.

What do you think sets Red Rocks’ program apart from others?

One of my biggest goals when I took over the department was to create the equipment “cage.” When students first get here, they don’t have the gear they need, and often they don’t even know what they need to buy. We decided to build this unit that would house all kinds of equipment—from cameras and lenses to lighting and grip gear—so that students could start their program without having to drop thousands of dollars right off the bat. When they do decide to put money down on equipment, it’s based from their experience using what we have in-house already.

I’ve also concentrated a lot on rebuilding programs at Red Rocks. For instance, I rewrote the entire professional photography degree to make sure we were offering courses that were relevant. Students could walk away after graduating and be able to immediately jump into a career or contract or start their own business.

There was also no portfolio class when I arrived, so one of the first things I did when I got here was start to set that up. Things can move slowly in academia, so this semester is the first time we have been able to offer it. It focuses on such things as creating your own website, setting up a profile on LinkedIn, printed portfolio, and other avenues to promote yourself and your work.

Another priority is to reach out to professionals in the community and involve students in outside work. Work-based learning is important. We have an industry experience class where the students get to do real work with real clients. I’m still a working professional in the field myself, and in the past two months, I’ve hired two students to come on jobs with me.

What do you want students to walk away knowing after they leave Red Rocks?

When I was going to school, I never truly understood the business side of things. In addition to making sure they leave with a solid foundation in their genre of choice, it is a mission here to teach the business of photography. That way students really understand what it looks like to be able to be a subcontractor, how to do their taxes, how to handle copyrights, how to get a sales tax license, and things like that.

I hope to also help them avoid some basic mistakes. Of course, everyone is going to make them starting out, but if there are some that are preventable through education ahead of time, why not clue them in? For instance, looking back, I wish I’d started out with softboxes instead of umbrellas for better control. Or I remember when I didn’t set up a contract correctly one time and ended up losing a lot of money over a copyright. We can help them avoid these scenarios by sharing real-world experiences.

Finally, I want the students to learn how to mix, and network. We have one class that includes not only graphic designers, but also photographers and videographers. We’ve been really good about stacking classes together so that students are meeting their program requirements but also connecting with other creatives, which will hopefully continue in the outside world. They’ll know how to interact with each other in a real-life work situation, with better communication and entrepreneurial skills under their belt.

What’s your overarching goal for the program?

I want the offerings here to be equitable for all students. I was finding that when people had money, they had no problem joining our degree programs. It was tough to recruit those who didn’t have those same economic advantages. I wanted everyone to have the same access, which was a big reason we set up the equipment cage.

In creating the equipment cage, it was important that students need to learn to be accountable to themselves and others. We created a system that if an item breaks or is damaged the student is accountable. This ensures students have the ability to set up a lighting grid, take it down, and keeps the gear in good shape for future students.

I would like the program to be more inclusive in general. As an example, photography can tend to be dominated by white, cisgender males. I wanted to make sure we’re allowing for opportunities for people of color and those who are otherwise underrepresented in our creative community. That includes making sure I hire people who don’t look just like me and showcasing work by people who aren’t just white. Representation is important.

Do you keep in touch with your students after they leave Red Rocks?

I do now. When I started teaching, it was kind of a no-no to give out your phone number—there was a line you were supposed to keep between work and personal. Overall, I want to be accessible to my students, though, and I want that connection to still be there after they graduate, whether it’s for advice or just to let me know how they’re doing. In this past month I sat down with some students who graduated a year ago because they were having trouble with Lightroom Classic. I stay connected with them on social media—Instagram, LinkedIn, and so forth—and still get text messages on a regular basis from some of my past students. When I’m in the car commuting to and from work, that’s when I’ll make like 30 phone calls. That’s just how I’ve done business for 20 years. I want to be as helpful as I can to people, whether it’s clients, current students, or former students.

Check out the VAMA Studio Space:

Here’s a look at the students’ work from RRCC: