As a journalist and journalism educator, I’m constantly thinking about the skills and knowledge students need to thrive in the unpredictable digital media age. While rereading an article I wrote about this topic, a quote from a senior editor at The Atlantic stood out. When he hires recent graduates, the editor said he looks for “junior editors-in-chief” and “people who are intellectually curious.” His comment illustrates my two primary teaching objectives:
(1) Prepare students to be confident communicators who can operate with little oversight, and can adapt to new technologies and work environments.
(2) Foster critical thinkers who understand the role of journalism in society and in their lives, and who are able to judge the reliability of information they access.
My teaching philosophy is founded on the premise that writing clearly and persuasively, and accessing information from trustworthy sources are universal goals for students as they start their careers and become engaged citizens. Regardless of whether I teach news writing and reporting to aspiring journalists or media literacy to students who might never take another journalism course, I view my role as giving them the tools to evaluate media messages from a variety of sources, understand how editorial decisions are made, and appreciate the importance of free speech and self-expression.
Students preparing for a career in journalism or communications will likely be asked to work independently, serve as their own editors and curators, and make immediate contributions in the workplace. They will be asked to learn new multimedia storytelling tools or make sense of information posted on social news sites that have yet to be invented. Being junior editors-in-chief means having a breadth of writing, editing and decision-making skills that are transferable to many settings. My role is to give students the critical thinking and foundational journalism skills that will help them respond to inevitable changes in their fields.
How do I accomplish this?
Student-Centered Learning Begins With Self-Assessments. I attempt to spur students’ intellectual curiosity by asking them to examine their media consumption habits and attitudes about the press. I challenge their assumptions and create case studies based on the media sources they reference in their self-reflections. I use these exercises as a jumping-off point to broader discussions about reliance on media and the impact of the digital age on the news media landscape. Students in my newswriting course evaluate their strengths and weaknesses as journalists before, during and after the course. Students need to be aware of their mindsets and skillsets. They need to see the relevance of what they are learning. Self-assessments accomplish both of these objectives.
Give Constant Feedback and Be Available. Students in my courses are required to schedule a face-to-face meeting with me within the first several weeks of the semester so that we can discuss their self-assessments and early progress. I have found that giving students personalized feedback early in the semester has several positive outcomes. Students are more likely to feel comfortable participating in class discussions and approaching me with questions. Through formative feedback from students, I learn about how I can adapt my teaching to target areas of student weaknesses and cover topics of student interest, and I have a better sense of how to tailor instruction and feedback to individuals. Early interventions also demonstrate to students my investment in their success. As a news writing student wrote on my course evaluation: “He was very willing to talk to students when they were struggling. He sought me out when I was failing the course.
I provide students with the type of detailed feedback on articles and papers that they are unlikely to get once they leave the classroom. In teaching evaluations, several students noted the unusual amount of personalized attention they received, as illustrated by the comment, “You can tell he cares about us as individual students. All of his comments on our papers were made on an individual basis, they weren’t generic statements that left you wondering whether he has actually spent time on your story or not.”
Get Students Out of Their Comfort Zones. I have spent too many hours in classes where students’ heads are either buried in their computers or transcribing a lecture verbatim without reflection. I believe in active learning and view my role in seminars as a facilitator. My job is to surprise them, to put them in unfamiliar situations, to get them to lift their heads and keep them up. I use humor when role playing during mock press conferences and ask for volunteers to act out scenarios when discussing journalism ethics. I teach students to adopt new storytelling tools like Storify and get them thinking like journalists from minute one of day one by asking them to live-tweet a recent event. The class activity that perhaps best exemplifies my philosophy toward classroom management is a mock courtroom exercise in which students serve either as a panel of judges or lawyers arguing both sides of controversial statements such as “Jon Stewart is a journalist.” The classroom turns into a courtroom – I guide students as they litigate the merits of the statement in question and the judges determine the winner. This exercise challenges students to see multiple sides of an issue and tests their definitions of journalism.
Connect Pedagogy to Research. I feel strongly that research should inform teaching practices. As such, my dissertation sets out to learn more about students’ cognitive processes as they access and analyze news. I measure their ability to perform situated acts of filtering, reading and credibility assessment through tasks that take into account the ways in which news is presented in the digital age and the ways in which students access news in typical environment. This research will help inform my future teaching.
ACTIVITIES TO IMPROVE TEACHING AND LEARNING
Attending Orientations and Workshops. In order to improve my teaching, I attended an optional orientation for teaching assistants before classes began in my first semester on campus. I took a one-credit journalism seminar on effective teaching in which I created a sample syllabus and was evaluated on teaching a full lesson. I also enrolled in two education courses – one on politics of education and another on assessment – in order to better understand teaching, learning and evaluation. Most recently, I was chosen to take part in a three-day portfolio retreat hosted by the Center for teaching Excellence at the University of Maryland.
Sharing Best Practices With Peers. As lead teaching assistant, I served as an advisor to new teaching assistants by sharing best practices, developing a rubric for course assignments and evaluating course examinations. I continue to take part in new TA orientations for the media literacy course and oversee curricular changes. I constantly seek out peer advice and discuss course content with my fellow instructors.
Formative and Summative Student Feedback. Throughout my teaching career, I have put great stock in student evaluations. As a teaching assistant, I never received official student evaluations from students – only the lead professor was assessed by students. In order to improve my teaching, I asked students to submit hand-written narratives of my teaching strengths and weaknesses. As the instructor of record, I ask students early in the semester to share their expectations for the course and what topics not on the syllabus they would like to learn about. I make an effort to integrate their suggestions, as well as their feedback about how the class can be improved.