This is perhaps the most exciting time and also the most challenging time to teach future journalists. As our field continues to evolve as part of the greatest revolution in communication technology since Gutenberg, I continually revise my syllabi and strive to prepare students to meet new demands that require them to apply sound journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness, and independence to new media forms. In addition to educating students about these critically important enduring values of our profession, one must also instill in students the capacity to continually learn and adapt. While an education in journalism once largely meant emulating one’s mentors and learning a set of fundamental skills, the current generation will be part of the process of creating the future of news.
The core of my teaching philosophy, then, is not just about teaching students a skill set or the ability to use a particular piece of technology, but about fostering in them the ability to be flexible, curious, and able and eager to learn quickly and evolve constantly. I do this by creating assignments that will force them to stretch their technical and creative capacities and to seek help when they need it from myself or the vast array of resources at their disposal. For example, although I offer a basic introduction to using WordPress as a blogging platform and a host of how-to links, I keep the details and the hand-holding at a minimum at the outset, asking students to grapple with it themselves first, coming to me as they encounter problems for one-on-one coaching.
The most fundamental aspect of all great teaching, I believe, involves helping students to develop the critical thinking skills that will help them adapt to change and apply the core values of their profession to their daily routines in conscious and thoughtful ways. I believe that above all, it is these skills that will help students succeed not only as journalists, but in all aspects of their lives. To achieve this, I strongly encourage open discussion in the classroom and often use case studies to stimulate students to draw their own lessons from what is presented, rather than relying simply on lecture to impart ideas. I continually update my curriculum with current examples from the news, and have learned from experience that effective teaching often requires the utilization of multimedia in the classroom to keep students engaged and focused. I’ve also learned the importance of providing coherent structure and organization, particularly for younger students who have not yet built the cognitive capacities to handle ambiguity without anxiety. I have almost no quizzes or exams in my courses, replacing them with written assignments, final projects, and class presentations. In a subject like journalism, learning by doing instead of memorization is vital.
I also believe that students who are able to write well, talk with others professionally, find and verify information, and that are comfortable collaborating and working in an online environment will be successful in an information economy regardless of where their particular career trajectory may take them. Databases and other technologically sophisticated ways of gathering and presenting information will be increasingly important, and so will learning to interact directly with readers in the two-way environment of information sharing online. My courses heavily utilize social and multimedia and encourage students to choose the best media to tell the story, and I often work in partnership with professors and students across the globe to allow my students to experience firsthand the power of collaboration, crowdsourcing and conversation.
I built all of my syllabi essentially from scratch, drawing upon ideas and best practices from instructors across the nation and minimizing or eliminating reliance on often rapidly-antiquated textbooks in favor of cutting edge research and articles accessible to students online from some of the brightest minds in journalism. When a field is changing as rapidly as ours, large, expensive textbooks just can’t keep up, while free or inexpensive articles, resources or shorter guidebooks are plentiful. I prefer that my students spend their limited funds on the kinds of mobile reporting technology that will help them keep pace with their national peers and allow them to constantly practice and innovate, such as smartphones, laptops or broadband Internet access.
I find that encouraging my students to find their voice using Web publishing technologies is both an excellent teaching tool and a larger social good. By voice I don’t mean adding to the sea of unsubstantiated opinion that often passes for journalism these days, but rather to use one’s passions to inspire great writing and reporting and the pursuit of verified information. I have moved towards allowing my students to choose their own beats, and I’ve found that it fosters enthusiasm and commitment among students that ultimately results in better work. Instead of me just telling students how important good writing and grammar is, for example, students grasp that concept quickly on their own when they are writing about a subject they care about for a real or potential audience online. Many of my students belong to minority groups long underrepresented as sources and audience for mainstream media, and for them, finding a voice and building an audience are transformative activities.
Finally and most importantly, I am deeply committed to fostering a relationship of compassion and trust with my students. There have always been and always will be some students who do not come ready or willing to learn, but I believe that many of them will rise to meet high expectations when these are established in an environment of mutual respect. I believe that it is part of my job to engage students in the subject, showing them not only why journalism is important, but also how it can be interesting – and even fun. Although my students learn quickly that hard work is expected of them, I also try to understand the kinds of pressures they find themselves under and work one-on-one with students who face significant barriers to learning, including things like serious illnesses and full-time jobs. If nothing else, I want my students to know that I care about them and their ability to learn, and to share with them my lifelong passion for journalism and news. Teaching has been the most rewarding aspect of my experience as a professor thus far, and I am looking forward to continuing to learn and build skills in this area throughout my career.