Teaching journalism — differently

About six months after I finished my graduate journalism degree in the mid-1980s, the University of Western Ontario asked me to return as a sessional instructor. A faculty member had taken ill, and her courses in the history of Canadian print journalism and the history of Canadian broadcasting were without a teacher. Although I was already working full-time at a magazine, I agreed to fill in.

Long story short: I’ve never stopped. Through most of my tenure at The London Free Press, I continued teaching “service” courses in journalism history and communication theory to Western’s undergraduate students, as well as courses in municipal reporting, business reporting and journalism ethics to graduate students. When I left the Free Press for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, I simultaneously accepted an endowed chair at Ryerson University’s journalism school, where I taught journalism ethics. When an offer arrived last year to teach journalism full-time at rapidly expanding Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, one of the finest community colleges in Ontario, I accepted the challenge.

Although teaching certainly wasn’t new, I’d never before taught foundational newswriting courses. And it had been a long time since I’d dealt with undergrads fresh out of high school. Despite that, my first full-time year went well. I quickly located my undergrad “legs” (though I continued to teach a journalism ethics course to grad students at UWO as well) and found teaching this type of student to be extremely rewarding.

Journalists will have to learn to write for mobile platforms.
Journalists will have to learn to write for mobile platforms.

Classes begin in a month and, once again, I’ll be teaching basic newswriting to both the first-year print and broadcast sections. But I plan to tweak my course content and teaching style slightly to better equip students for a rapidly changing job market and the expanding toolbox with which they’ll do and deliver journalism. (I always resented profs who trotted out the same course outlines and presentations year after year, distributing handouts that were a decade old, and promised myself I’d never become one.) So here are a few of the changes:

1. Encouraging “high performance”: Even more than last year, I’ll emphasize the importance of a fast start as the first step toward a “high-performance” career. It’s language borrowed from education consultant Don Fraser, whose seminar I attended in the spring. My students will have to compete — and compete hard — for journalism jobs. The best way to boost their chances of success will be to encourage them to develop a track record of excellence, beginning in their first year as journalist-trainees. They should aim not just to be capable journalists but high-performance journalists, fully competent in the many skills and tools they’ll need by the time they graduate. And it begins on orientation day.

2. Making corrections tangible: Last year, as I graded student assignments, I marked errors, omissions, style mistakes, etc., and handed them back next class, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation on the most common errors. I provided examples of the right way and wrong way to present information. Then I hoped they’d incorporate what I’d said into future stories. This year — though it may sound “old-school” — I’ll ask them to make the necessary corrections in their stories and resubmit them. Sounds archaic, I know, but I’m beginning to think there’s no better way for them to learn from their mistakes than by seeing corrected versions on their screens and feeling them through their fingers.

3. Platform agnosticism: I’ve bought into the notion that our print and broadcast “streams” or programs are quickly becoming anachronistic. While college administrators work on revamping programs to produce more fully flexible journalists for integrated newsrooms, I hope to get ahead of that curve by placing greater emphasis on story, then expecting wide-ranging discussion on how best to gather information, what tools and media to use, and what platforms might be best suited for final delivery. Conestoga’s curriculum in the first year is common to both the print and broadcast streams anyway. And in addition to writing traditional hard-news ledes for print and broadcast, they’ll practise writing news for blogs, screen crawls, mobile devices and Twitter posts.

4. Adding a little low-tech: As in most journalism programs, our students learn to use modern tools in their newsgathering, writing and presentation. Most have laptops. Wi-fi is readily available across campus for free. They use Zoom H2 recorders and edit audio with Audacity or Audition. They shoot digital photos and edit them in Photoshop. They learn pagination software such as Quark or InDesign. We have plenty of high-def cameras to lend out, and they edit their video using Final Cut. But late last year, I began to worry about . . . well, whether they could effectively use a reporter’s notepad and a pen. I noticed they were using their laptops and smart phones for note-taking in many classroom and newsgathering situations. But could they cover a story with nothing but a pencil and paper? At crash sites, demonstrations and the like, they may not have access to their precious digital technology. So I’ll look for ways to incorporate manual notetaking. And if it’s raining, snowing, cold or windy outside, so much the better.

5. Getting off campus: To improve their grasp of how journalists function in the real world, I’ll look for opportunities to get them out — already in the first semester — into newsgathering situations and functioning newsrooms off campus. Faculty have sometimes arranged for class trips to news organizations in Toronto, for example, some time in the second semester. I’ll push for that kind of thing to happen early on, in order to give students an early peek at the realities of the vocation and to beef up their sense of being journalists in training. This is more difficult than it sounds, because of the part-time jobs students hold down, their life situations, and their general lack of transportation aside from mass transit. But with some creativity, we should be able to provide a more robust real-life experience.

One month to go; time to put some meat on these bones.

One Reply to “Teaching journalism — differently”

  1. As a retired high school English teacher there is much here to admire about your new school year foci. I really like #5 also: getting them off campus. Opportunities for relevant connections will provide them with energized learning and retention.

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