Some advice from the academic trenches

Steve Buttry has launched an excellent discussion this week on advice for a colleague teaching journalism as an adjunct faculty member. On Tuesday Steve advised her to teach lessons a variety of ways  and yesterday he suggested seven types of content to include in journalism classes. More great ideas have poured in via the comments section of these posts and on Twitter.

I’d like to offer two more pieces of advice.

Don’t assume. A  basic part of reporting is to never assume that you know what your source is thinking or how that person did something. A good reporter asks. The same thing should happen in the classroom.

Show examples. Look at good work every class.

Don’t Assume

We’re not teaching in a static world. Journalism is evolving and the audience is, too. When students critique journalism education they all too often say that professors are teaching what they did a decade ago, not what journalists are doing now.

The problem is really more fundamental than that.

We professors all too often assume that our students consume news the same way they did ten years ago, or even last semester. It’s very difficult to ask them to produce news if we don’t understand what — or where — they think news is.

Here are two examples. When I started teaching full time in 2007 I would pick a major breaking news story and ask two questions.  How did the students first learn about it? And where they did they go to get more information? The answers are changing. Six years ago, one of the benefits of attending a big school like Penn State was that you could get really robust broadband wireless Internet almost anywhere on campus. Not surprisingly, most students carried around laptops, found wi-fi hotspots and got their news from the Web. They laughed at their parents for having to go outside each morning to retrieve a newspaper from the front lawn so they could read information that was already half a day old.

Now my students walk into class, log in to the desktop computer and pull out a smartphone so they can check Twitter or Instagram. The idea of seeking out a wi-fi hotspot or typing a URL into a browser seems outdated to them. (I would digress here and describe what it was like to watch a student try to shoot video of a rabbit on the alumni center lawn by using the video camera on her laptop while monitoring the image on the screen. But you get the picture. There’s a reason we’ve switched to smartphones.) Most of the student’s parents get the news from television. If they come from a small town it is quite likely students have never read a newspaper and their only contact with a traditional news story is seeing a rookie reporter struggle through a stand-up on local TV. And these are journalism majors.

Teaching basic skills like news judgment and lead-writing is a huge challenge if students have never really looked at (or thought about) news hierarchy on a newspaper front or a news site homepage. As my colleague Lori Shontz, one of the finest writers I know, Tweeted in response to one of Steve’s posts, teaching beginners how to write effective leads can easily take more than a week. This is not because the students aren’t engaged, but because they’ve never seen good journalistic leads.

Which leads me to my second suggestion:

Show examples

I teach multimedia reporting, which can be a lot of things. So I start every class by showing an example of good story telling that can be read, watched or listened to in five minutes or less. We call them multimedia moments. This solves a couple of problems. I start the multimedia exactly when the class is supposed to begin. Students who arrive late have to quietly find a seat. They’re not missing anything vital, but their classmates are usually engaged with the story and don’t like being interrupted. I let peer pressure provide a penalty for tardiness and I don’t end up being the bad guy. The students like these stories so much that they complained when I didn’t have a multimedia moment before a test.

The stories are brief and interesting. I try to choose content that reinforces a particular concept, sometimes related to what the class is about that day. But I don’t use that as a limit. On Monday we looked at the story Auction school students take a chance on chants  by Boyd Huppert and Jonathan Malat of KARE TV in Minneapolis. The video is an excellent example of character-driven reporting, well paced and funny. The text that accompanies the online version of the story is well written, too. It’s not a regurgitation of the video piece. It includes useful background and hyperlinks. I also like this piece because of the way Huppert promoted it on social media:

Facebook promo for Boyd Huppert's story on auctioneer school

Facebook promo for Boyd Huppert’s story on auctioneer school

I had the class try to do this Facebook tongue twister as a group. It was fun and definitely got everyone’s attention, which is vital at the beginning of class.

On Wednesday I showed Bear’d Up,  a student-produced project that won some awards last year. I like this package because it was produced by students with no prior video experience who worked hard (and learned a lot) to produce a professional-caliber piece. The story itself does not focus on the obvious sports angle (The Clairton Bears have the longest winning streak in Pennsylvania high school football history), but on how the community has leveraged this success. The characters that drive the story aren’t the usual suspects like the coach, or the mayor (although they’re in the video). The people that make this story work are regular folks — passionate fans — that the students found on the street. I also like this story for what got edited out. The only head coach I have ever seen who stays late and personally sweeps the locker room after the team leaves works in Clairton. A great detail, but it didn’t fit into the flow of the video. The students figured this out and this scene appears as a still photo embedded in the text story. Good edit.

It’s tough finding these examples because they have to be short and specific. My target is three minutes or less. There are lots of examples of award-winning projects — Snow Fall leaps to mind — but you can’t show and deconstruct a story like that in five minutes as a warm-up for class. This means that I spend a lot of time looking for multimedia moments. On some days this search becomes the majority of my prep for that class. But it’s time well invested because these examples keep the class current, reinforce key concepts and gently penalize tardiness.

4 thoughts on “Some advice from the academic trenches

  1. Thanks for this excellent advice, Curt, and for plugging my blog. The finding and showing of examples could be an assignment, too: Each student presents one multimedia moment during the course, noting the techniques used by the journalists and why they worked (or didn’t).

  2. The inclusion of multimedia and adapting to how students get news is great advice. I dropped out of a journalism program because it felt too stale and seemed outdated — if an approach like this had been used I would’ve stayed on!

  3. I encourage students to suggest Multimedia Moments (the request line is always open!), but I pick what I show for each class based on how well it demonstrates a particular aspect of good reporting.

  4. Can you share your collection of Multimedia Moments? I believe it will be of tremendous help to new journalism instructors who want to take your advice.

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