Thursday, August 16, 2012

Teaching Journalism at the University of Georgia

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, basically the whole staff of the Red and the Black, the University of Georgia's student newspaper, walked out after the newspaper's Board of Directors promoted the paper's non-student "editorial adviser" to "editorial director" and gave him complete veto power over the student staff. The Red and the Black has always been a student-run newspaper, independent of the University itself, where students have final say. So the walkout is predictable and even laudable.

The final straw seems to have been a draft memo, which has been put on line by the students who walked out, which laid out the new standards, such as an emphasis on "more GOOD than BAD." (caps original) The memo is ragged, not always coherent, and spells "libel" as "liable," all of which is forgivable in a draft but maybe less so when you're pontificating about basic standards. Even less forgivable is using the word "journalism" in scare quotes when addressing student journalists. As in:

- Content that catches people or organizations doing bad things. I guess this is "journalism." I think we are aligned on Crime and "who started the year off with a police record". And that the freshman class lacks some minority demographics".

If in question, have more GOOD than BAD.

What's really striking about that draft memo is that it's very much aimed at teaching students how to create a certain kind of newspaper: a small-time local newspaper. The emphasis is on feel-good stories, running as many feature photos of readers as possible, having a generous letter column, and so on. If you grew up in a small town, like I did, you know the type of newspaper I mean. It covers Little League games and church suppers. It's a perfectly respectable enterprise. But I have to ask: if you were a student journalist at a flagship state university, would you only want to be trained for jobs at that kind of newspaper? Because, let me tell you, it's pretty hard to make a living at those places.

And this is where we run into one of the larger problems in pre-professional education: sometimes an emphasis on "practical" skills that students will be able to use in the "real" world, ends up teaching them skills that are only practical in a small corner of the world. You teach your journalism students how they do things at a "real" newspaper, but what you teach them limits them to jobs where they'll never be able to advance much. (Lots of "pre-professional" undergraduate majors teach students to do exactly one kind of job, usually a decent but not glamorous job which will keep them solidly in the lower middle class. Nothing wrong with learning to be an x-ray technician. But you have to know that x-ray technician school never takes you to any job except being an x-ray technician.)

Here, the focus was going to suit students well for gigs at the Bedford Falls Gazette or the Daily Mayberrian, but leave them unprepared to even apply for entry jobs at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, let alone the Washington Post or New York Times. Try getting a gig at one of the big places when even your undergraduate clips look like they're from a small-town daily. Here the teaching approach, however well-intentioned, strongly favors the weakest (or least ambitious) students, the ones who the teachers don't expect much from, at the price of limiting what's possible for the more ambitious students. The memo represents a shift of focus to lowest-common-denominator "professionalism," training students for jobs that even the weakest of them could probably get, at the expense of what the better students might be able to do someday.

The memo also brings up one of the constant struggles with teaching writing, or any of the other arts (broadly speaking): the tension between assigning tasks that the students are 'ready for' now and can complete successfully, on one hand, and on the other setting tasks will inevitably end up being the student's first, imperfect try.

The logic of giving assignments that the students are "ready for" is pretty obvious. They understand what they've been asked to do, they mostly end up doing a good job, and they're generally a lot happier. The down side is that they don't stretch, and if there's too much of an emphasis on students "succeeding" at things they can already do well, they don't get much better. I've certainly met students who seemed, from my point of view, to have been badly served by earlier teachers who only taught them simple tasks. Some of those students seemed totally unprepared for more advanced classes.

There are some things that are very much worth learning that are impossible to do successfully on the first try, or even the third. You have to learn them by trying them, and it can take a while to improve. One of the reasons colleges exist is to give students a place where they can have the first and third and fifth tries they need to master a complicated set of skills. Most jobs don't have a place for that. That's why an emphasis on producing a quality product at the Red and Black seems misguided to me. That's not a full education. Helping students turn out an unambitious but "successful" paper will teach them a little. Letting them turn out a flawed but ambitious daily paper teaches them a hell of a lot more. And that's what's unforgivable here: losing sight of the education.

Student journalists are supposed to care about turning out the best paper they possibly can, and as budding journalists they're supposed to focus on their readers. But the adults involved should never mistake pleasing the readers, or the quality of the morning broadsheet, with the actual goal. The world doesn't actually need the newspaper. What matters is that the students learn. A campus newspaper that makes everyone who reads it happy but doesn't force the students to stretch is a criminal waste of everyone's time.

When I teach writing to undergraduates, I go in with the knowledge that none of them are going to write anything, this semester, that anyone else would ever pay to read. Understanding this reality is one key to my job. I could assign them writing tasks that they already have the skills to do well, and everyone would feel good about themselves and I could pat them all on the heads. The reason no one would ever pay money to read those "successful" assignments is that the things the students already know how to produce are, by their nature, not worth a stranger's time. ("Oooh, look! A summary of the plot of Othello! Just what I've been looking for.")

On the other hand, I could assign the students to undertake tasks that they aren't yet capable of completing perfectly, and maybe even that they won't be able to do without two or three more tries. The results won't be worth a stranger's time to read, because even the best will have some problems and one or two will be a hot mess.  But I will read them, at least two or three times apiece, because it is my job and because what I'm interested in is not what the student wrote this semester so much as what the student might write down the road. My job is to get them further along the road, no matter how bumpy reading through any stack of assignments seems. That also means, of course, that I talk to my students about things that are holding their writing back. But when you worry mainly about "results" and "quality" you've taken your eye off the ball. You've stopped being an educator.

The point of student writing is what it does for the student. It isn't to make it easier on my eyeballs when I sit with a stack of papers on the coffee table, and it isn't to make the nice folks of Athens, Georgia happier with their morning copy of the Red and Black.  It's to move the students closer, one unsteady step at a time, to producing a piece of writing that will hold a stranger's attention and do its writer some good in the world: the writing sample for graduate school, the published story, the  portfolio that gets you hired at the Journal-Constitution or Newsweek. The "results" a teacher gets paid for worrying about aren't coming tomorrow, but years in the future. But that future, as every year teaches me, comes very fast. You can't ever stop preparing for it.

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