This continues my series of posts on advice for a new journalism professor. This is a guest post by Lori Shontz, senior editor at The Penn Stater alumni magazine and an adjunct lecturer in the Penn State College of Communications.
I start every semester by telling students something like this: “Writing is a craft. Reporting is a craft. As you do things over and over, you get better.”
I’ve found that teaching is similar. I tweak, I worry, I experiment, I revise. I reflect. So my transition from the newsroom to the classroom felt familiar. I learned to teach partially by reporting — asking questions of veteran instructors, observing and analyzing speakers, mulling over ideas just as I do as a journalist.
Reading other syllabi helps, too. I’ve found the journalism teaching community to be generous with their time and materials, and the syllabus exchange at Poynter’s NewsU is a terrific resource, too.
All that said, here are the three biggest things I’ve learned in nine semesters teaching a 200-level introductory news writing and reporting class at Penn State:
1. Remember that less can be more: I’ve learned to plan lessons the way the experts say to pack a suitcase: Put everything you want to take on the bed, then put half back in the closet. Buttry note: This echoes some advice earlier in the week from Pam Fine, but she used a different metaphor. That usually means something’s important.
My first semester teaching, I required students to read the A section of three newspapers daily, allotted one two-hour class to discuss “basics of news” and taught AP-style ledes on the fifth day of class—with a graded assignment due for Class Six. Basically, that worked. But students didn’t develop the depth of understanding I thought they needed, and I’m also certain no one read all three newspapers.
I realized that no 200-level news-writing student needs to know everything I know, not right away. I evolved. Now students read the front pages of two newspapers — very carefully — and follow three news Twitter feeds. I’ve divided the “basics of news” lesson into parts of three classes — what is news, following and consuming news, parts of a news story. I spread the first lede lesson over two classes, and students write a couple of “practice” ledes in class (and get my feedback, verbal and/or written) before they do a graded assignment. Over the course of a semester, we spend three or four classes doing nothing but reporting and writing ledes. (If you want to see my most recent syllabus, click here.)
Going slowly allows students to more fully understand each step, and devoting so many classes to the basics shows how important those basics are. A deliberate early pace also makes it easier for teachers, I think, to set the high standards that our profession needs.
I’ve also found that breaking journalism basics into small parts has sharpened my own writing and reporting. What a pleasant surprise—and a reminder that teachers must always, always keep learning.
2. Listen to your students: I can’t stress enough how much I’ve benefited from doing an anonymous survey midway through every semester, asking which lessons were the best (and why), which were the worst (and why) and what they wanted to do more of (and why). I ask students to fill out a similar survey on the last day of class, after they’ve finished the university-required evaluation.
The students are honest. Some of their comments make me angry. Or sad. Or both. But some make me smile, and the students, whether complimentary or not, are also smart. After every survey, I’ve updated my syllabus based on their comments and suggestions.
I’ve tweaked assignment sheets to make them more clear. Repeated lessons that students didn’t understand. Instituted a series of 10-minute comma lessons when a brief grammar discussion got, to my shock, rave reviews. One class complained about the punishing pace, making me realize that I was exhausted, too, and that we’d all benefit from taking a day’s break and just reading good writing out loud.
This is crucial: If you’re going to ask students for their thoughts, you owe them a response. (Full credit: I learned this from Penn State’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence. See if your institution has a similar resource teachers.) After reading the surveys, I take class time to summarize the highlights, outline what I’m going to change and — just as important — explain what I can’t or won’t do, and why.
My students’ most important suggestion is my last piece of advice.
3. Grade revisions. Especially at the beginning of semesters: I resisted this for a long time, thinking the automatic result would be grade inflation. But several students made a convincing case for doing so, saying that they wanted to do something with my feedback, not just read it and hope they could apply it to the next story. So I gave it a try. The results have been so great that every semester, I’ve changed another assignment.
Grading the revision forces students to pay more careful attention to my feedback and, even better, ask questions about it—i.e., engage. The best ones get even better; the struggling ones improve more steadily; the ones who would normally never bother to read what I’ve written at least take a glance.
I’ve also found—the anonymous surveys back me up—that my feedback has improved. The students don’t say it this way, but I’ve realized I now spend less time justifying the grade and more time making suggestions for improvement. In short, I’m behaving more as I do as a magazine editor, and doing a better job, I hope, preparing students for the real — and changing — world of journalism.
Buttry note: I welcome guest posts from other journalism faculty — adjunct or full-time — for this series. Or if you’re a current or recent journalism graduate, I’d be interested in your observations about what your professors did that was most effective and what didn’t work as well. Please name any professors you’re praising, but I’m not interested in giving you a chance to publicly bash professors you didn’t like. If you’d rather contribute from your own blog than as a guest post, send me a link and I’ll promote it here.