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From Appian Way to Hollywood

Neal BaerNeal Baer, Ed.M.'79, has rubbed elbows with some of the biggest names in Hollywood over his 20-year career as a screenwriter and producer, but he has never forgotten where he comes from. He returned to the Ed School last week to discuss the power of storytelling and give advice to HGSE students eager to make their way in the television and movie industry.

Dean Kathleen McCartney introduced Baer to a crowd at the first Askwith Forum of the year, "Telling Tales: How Stories Can Make a Difference," calling him "an academic of the highest order." In addition to his degree from HGSE, Baer earned both his A.M. and M.D. from Harvard.

As an award-winning executive producer and writer of television shows Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, ER, and China Beach, Baer has made a career out of telling stories that also educate that public about health and social issues. "I don't pigeonhole what I do as entertainment or education writing, but storytelling," he said. "Health and policy issues must be explored on television."

And, contrary to what many some may believe, people do learn from television. In fact, at one point during ER's run, Baer studied, with the support of the Kaiser Foundation, audiences of the show. He discovered that, at the time, more than 50 percent of ER's viewers learned about health issues as a result of watching.

Baer has never shied away from the risky or controversial when writing his shows. And, whether he's writing about sexually transmitted diseases or other complex social issues of our time, or being the first writer to script the word "penis" in daytime television, Baer said he's been lucky to have been given complete freedom by the networks on which his shows appear. Granted, Baer conceded that a lot of discussion and research happens before an episode is actually created. And, in order to keep discussions about issues ongoing, Baer is relying on new media like Twitter and takepart.com.

Beyond the work on television, Baer has coordinated with many nonprofits to work on projects like "The House is Small but the Welcome is Big" - a photo and storytelling exhibit that portrays women and orphaned children living with HIV and AIDS in Africa -- and the documentaries ByKids: Mozambique and Home is Where You Find It, the latter of which explores Africa's AIDS orphans. "I think we are all wired to tell stories," he said.

The day following the Askwith Forum, Baer held a forum for students interested in working in the media industry. "I came to the Ed School because I thought I wanted to do educational policy," Baer said of his untraditional career trajectory. He loved his time at HGSE and noted that several of its faculty made a profound impact on his life. "It really comes down to the mentors I've had here."

When Baer was earning a master's in sociology at Harvard, he took a class about visual and media studies that changed his life. From that moment on, Baer did not look back from a career making stories. (He maintains that he earned his M.D. years later while writing for ER as a "backup plan" in case Hollywood did not pan out.) During the forum, Baer offered his frank advice on when to go to film school, when not to go to film school, where to consider taking courses, how to get a foot in the door in the industry, and the best city in which to live.

"He made some real useful points and practical tips," said Kathleen Kouril Grieser, a master's candidate in Technology, Innovation, and Education Program. Grieser appreciated Baer's advice on film school, as well as his directing students to websites like Harvardwood.com, a Harvard alumni networking site based in Hollywood. However, beyond Baer's helpfulness, Grieser remained thoroughly impressed with his bio. "He is obviously a genius," she said.

Baer's HGSE visit concluded with a lecture to students in Professor Joe Blatt's class, Growing up in a Media World, specifically a session focusing on the impact of globalization on media.

In his presentation, Baer emphasized that media doesn't always have to be done the "old way." And, although adults control media, with "new media there are ways to give children power." Although, as much as Baer applauds new media, he also questions the possible negative aspects of its ability to disengage people. "The challenge for you is to figure out, how do you maximize it?" he said.