Constructing Journalism Knowledge in the Classroom

The journalism class that I’m preparing to teach this fall is a writing course, but it’s also very content-heavy — lots of specialized vocabulary, lots of unique professional practices to teach.

This fall, I’m not using a big $100 journalism textbook. Instead, I’ll be spending more time with several smaller texts.  In place of assigning chapters for students to read passively (out of a sense of obligation that I need to “cover” loads of specialized topics), I’m going to treat it more like a writing course, which means more writing (and pre-writing, and peer editing, and revision).   I already teach my freshman writing courses this way, but I guess I had to teach this journalism course a couple of times before I could make the shift.

The best way for students to learn how to do journalism is to work on the student paper, so there’s only so much I can expect from any course. Nevertheless, in the years when “News Writing” is not offered, the student editors report they have a much harder time developing the newbie staff members, so clearly this course does have an impact on the quality of the student paper.

The last time I taught this course, I came down with pneumonia just a few weeks into the term, so I had to rely — far more than I had planned to — on assigning chapters and workbook pages.  After I was physically capable of coming back to the classroom, it was fairly easy of me to fall back on lectures and book chapters, but I could feel my mental energies draining whenever I tried to evaluate a paper at any level beyond marking grammar mistakes, or when I tried to moderate a class discussion at any level between lecturing and replying to specific questions.

This year, I’ve signed up to particpate in a pilot project using “clickers” — wireless hand-held response gadgets that students can use, in the middle of a lecture or workshop, to respond to spot quetsions.  I’ll go into the classroom with an agenda, and a set of loaded questions that are designed to get the students thinking, “Hey, I noticed that, too… I wonder why it is?”  (Which is preferable to “I’d better write that down in case I have to spit it back for a quiz.”)

I’m preparing my syllabus with a list of what clicker questions I’ll need to prepare for each day’s topic.  I’ve got a fairly decent, very brief handout on newsworthiness, and a more detailed podcast on newsworthiness, but rather than assign these texts first then quiz students on their ability to spit back cognitive chunks (thus placing myself as the source of knowledge to be memorized, and training the students to expect that I will do all the filtering and heavy lifting for them), I will instead try to introduce the concepts through questions:

Which potential story is more interestiing to you?
A) a power outage that affects 20 families.
B) a power outage that affects 10,000 families.

Which potential story is more interesting to you:
A) President Obama enjoys tea with the Queen of England
B) An ostentatiously tatooed and pierced children’s librarian who married the impeached former mayor of your home town enjoys tea with the Queen of England.

…and follow up with discussions that move towards synthesis and evaluation, with links and page numbers for the students to refer to (for review, or for further examples, or for more depth).  (The idea in this case is not simply to get them to spit back the characteristics of a newsworthy story, but rather to help them recognize that the metrics of “newsworthiness” are derived from human nature, rather than a bunch of arbitrary values.)