A professional journalist’s experience is both essential and dangerous when teaching journalism.
Whether you’re hired as a full-time professor or as an adjunct, your career has given you countless lessons and insights you can share with students. And it’s given you countless irrelevant stories you can bore students with. And the relevance of your lessons is perishable in a swiftly changing marketplace.
This is my fourth post offering advice to Jenn Lord Paluzzi, a Digital First colleague who was hired as an adjunct professor and asked for advice for a first-time journalism professor. I blogged earlier this week about the different ways that people learn and about the types of content you should include in a course. A post by Curt Chandler discussed the importance of examples and of learning how your students use media. I’ll be publishing other posts next week from Kathleen Woodruff Wickham about learning about academia and Pam Fine about grading.
Let’s focus here on how to help students benefit from your experience in the field (which probably is a big reason, if not the sole reason, you got the teaching job). You want to share enough of your experience to give your teaching authority without making the class all about you.
Use your experience
Identify key lessons you learned early in your career as well as those you’ve learned recently (of course, you need to focus on the lessons that apply to the topic of the class). How did you learn each lesson: Through experience? Through reading? Through advice (or ass-kicking) from an editor or colleague?
If you learned an important lesson through experience, consider what type of assignment or in-class exercise might give the students a similar experience, even in a limited way. If something you read helped you learn a lesson, see if you can find it and consider whether it’s still timely and relevant to journalism today. If not, do some searching (and perhaps crowdsourcing) to see if you can find a good current reading on the topic.
If instruction helped you learn something, make plans to provide instruction for the students on that topic.
Tell war stories sparingly – with a purpose
While students need to learn from your experience, they don’t need to hear all your stories. Before you plan to tell a story from your career, be clear on what point you want to teach and be demanding of yourself in considering how well the story makes the point.
Two stories I have used in workshops and in some guest shots in the classroom (they haven’t fit the classes I’ve taught since I had the experiences):
- As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, I tell my Walmart-sack story to illustrate why a reporter doing an interview needs to get more than just answers from the character you’re interviewing. The Walmart sack illustrates that people have things that can help you tell their stories better than they can themselves. I use the Walmart sack as a metaphor: It becomes the goal of the interview: identifying what this person has that will help you tell the story better and getting her to trust you with it (or them). I know the metaphor works because I’ve had multiple occasions following workshops when reporters told me by email or in person about “finding the Walmart sack” on stories they were working on.
- I tell the Tanya Bopp story to make a point about verifying facts. No one deliberately lied to me as I was working on my 1996 story about the 1971 Farragut Admiralettes girls basketball team. But their memories were faulty. I didn’t learn the truth of the championship game until I watched the videotape (it was the “Walmart sack” in my interview with one of the Adettes) of the game. The story helps me make the point about seeking videos, photos and other forms of documentation in your reporting to verify or refute the “facts” you gather in interviews.
An important point about both stories: I can tell them without boasting. In both cases, I kind of stumbled into the lessons the stories illustrate. In the case of the Walmart sack, it was really obvious during the interview that my source had important information in the sack (it’s not always that obvious). In the Adettes case, I wasn’t watching the video because I was suspicious of the stories people had told me about the championship game. I was just watching for some details for my story.
I’m not saying you should never tell a boastful war story. I’m sure I have. But I think students will tune you out quickly if you are just boasting, especially if your stories don’t really teach important lessons. If you have to tell a boastful story because of its valuable lesson, consider whether you can introduce some humility to it, so the boasting doesn’t distract from the lesson.
Even if you always have a point, the war stories can get old. Telling a few good ones can teach those lessons and build some authority and credibility with students. But telling too many war stories runs the risk of getting tuned out and regarded as an old crock living in the past.
I think students are likely to cut you some slack, though, for fresh war stories. If you cover a big story during the class, especially one that the students were likely to see coverage of, they will be interested in hearing about it at the next class. Again, the more you’re making actual instructional points the better. But you have a bit more license for boasting if the story is fresh.
Third-person stories work, too
Sometimes you learn something important from watching your colleagues work. When I’ve shared stories from my colleagues at Digital First or TBD or Gazette colleagues covering the Cedar Rapids flood, I’m boasting, if at all, about someone else, and I think the boasting is much less annoying.
Rather than boasting too much about the wonderful things I’ve done, I’m much more likely to tell a story about Brandie Kessler’s wanted-poster Pinboard, Karen Workman’s experimentation with Google Voice, Mandy Jenkins’ social-media mastery, Ivan Lajara’s use of gifs or the narrative techniques of Ken Fuson, Roy Wenzl or Colleen Kenney. These stories give me opportunities to teach lessons I couldn’t from my own experience or to teach lessons without making the whole class about me.
Don’t be limited by your experience
However much you’ve tried to stay abreast of new developments in journalism, our field is changing quickly. Your students need to learn a lot of the things you know, but they may need to learn some things you don’t know (especially if you’ve been resisting learning some digital tools and techniques).
I recommend three approaches to supplementing your own knowledge and experience:
- Stop putting it off and learn some of the skills or knowledge you need to teach students. (I’d recommend confessing that your experience here is limited).
- Invite a guest speaker to cover a topic where you’re weak. If you don’t have someone who can speak in person, maybe someone will Skype or Hangout into your class. I’ve done this several times (I have two Skype guests lined up for my next Georgetown class). Sometimes I’ll also invite a guest speaker if I do know the topic well because I think the students benefit from the variety of perspectives.
- Put the students to work teaching each other on a topic where your knowledge is weak. When I taught entrepreneurial journalism for American University in 2011, I assigned students to debate some issues in class. This way the students did the research and presentation on those issues. For the issue they debated, the students learned much more effectively through their own research. And the other students probably learned better through the variety of presentations than by having me cover all of those topics myself (this class met all day on Saturdays, so some variety was important). This is an effective teaching technique even if you do know the topic because of the value of the students’ experience researching the method. And for the topic you don’t know well, you need to do enough research to ask the students effective questions and to grade their presentations.