Journalism Education

As the semester ends…

As the fall semester ends – my 12th term as a full-time educator – I figured I’d take a moment to reflect on what worked, what didn’t and how I might continue to improve both my own skills and the experiences of my future students.

I know I’m going in the right direction on a few things, though I’m still frustrated by a few others. I’m going make a practice of writing this type of semester wrap-up in this space, and perhaps throughout the semester as well. And, given that our department, college and university are moving away from using student evaluations as the main determinate of instructor success – adding in self-reflections like I’m about to do to a larger mix – it probably makes sense for my career as a whole.

It makes sense, really. I understand even after only a short time doing this how easy it is to simply teach classes cookie-cutter style. Once a syllabus has been perfected, just step and repeat through the semesters on unto retirement. But in a profession as dynamic as journalism, where the ground (and business models) have been shifting as long as I’ve been alive, we as professors may be doing our students a disservice if we do no adjust our courses continuously.

Almost like a scientist working in a lab, we need to test these changes in a clear and controlled manner, check the results, adjust and test again. And, because my conclusions are will likely be wrapped up in my own perspective, bias and (sigh) ego, I need to send out my thoughts to my colleagues to get their take on things. I suppose, using the researcher analogy, this would be like publishing the results of a study. I’m also publishing it on a blog, giving the larger world a chance to weigh in (glup).

JOU 3117 – Writing & Reporting

My teaching load since I’ve gotten to FIU has included two classes as well as overseeing the Miami bureau of the on-campus internship, called the South Florida Media Network. The two classes vary from semester to semester, but it almost always includes JOU 3117, which is the beginning reporting class. Students in this class have very often never written a piece intended for publication or interviewed a source.

Unfortunately, many have relatively weak grammar skills despite being college juniors and few have much of an understanding of AP style. (Associated Press style is the standard rulebook used throughout journalism regarding the use of numbers, titles, addresses and hundreds of other items. It is a bit like learning another language.)

The class is a required one for both what we call “journalism” and “broadcast” majors, a nomenclature that most of my colleagues think is a bit weird. Some complain it implies the camera-toting folks aren’t “journalists” and others note that even people employed primarily as writers are going to be at a serious disadvantage if they don’t know the basics of video shooting and editing. For my part, I agree. The same reason broadcast folks need to go through the gauntlet that is JOU 3117 is the same reason more word-focused majors should be required to take more video classes. Fortunately, that is being worked on.

In the past, there were concerns about whether students had been properly prepared for JOU 3117 by the class prior, called Writing Fundamentals. This seems to be less of an issue now for me personally, though, for a couple of reasons.

First, as suggested by my colleague that teaches the class, I looked at the “Course Description & Objectives” section of her syllabus. That is, what should have students mastered? They are:

  • Students will learn to write with purpose and clarity, and understand the importance of rewriting, editing, and effective communication.
  • Students will develop skills to gather and organize information, ask effective questions, develop stories, research facts, and utilize key writing practices in form and style for media.
  • Students will demonstrate a working knowledge of the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook and use it in their writing.
  • Students will review and apply the fundamentals of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Since the students should already know this, she said, you are not responsible for teaching them those items. (And, as I reflected later, I can hold them to account for not executing correctly, in the form of lower grades.) They have to take responsibility for their own successes, she said. We can’t do it for them.

I admit that this was a bit of a relief. Since coming to FIU, I had been surprised by the relatively weak English skills of the juniors – and even seniors – in my classes. I had not been sure of what I needed to do with dedicated, hard working students who was barely passing because they had only learned English a few years prior. My worries were a strange mix of guilt (that I wasn’t doing my job well enough), compassion (for the fact most worked 20 or more hours a week) and anger (a suspicion they were failing due to simple laziness.)

My colleague’s advice was simple: It doesn’t matter why they don’t do it correctly, only whether they do or not. Regardless of the reason, they have to have those skills in hand to do well in JOU 3117, and letting it slide does them no favors for future classes or in their careers.

The second reason was a bit more straightforward, and amusing. After receiving a low grade on an article this semester, a student complained that she didn’t know AP style would be so important, claiming she had never been taught the basics. After pointing out the various exercises we had done in class – which she had missed – and the part of the syllabus that mentions it, I added that it had been a topic in Writing Fundamentals.

“I know that class,” I said. “And I know AP style is drilled, pretty constantly, in that class. Right?”

“Umm,” said the student, looking down. “Umm. Yeah. I think it was.”

Her grades, I’ll note, dramatically improved after that point. I think she learned I was serious about enforcing the penalties for sloppy work and adjusted accordingly.

Course structure

In broad strokes, the work during the semester is broken into two parts. During the first seven weeks, the class is very lecture and drill heavy. Starting in Week 2, there is also a regular news quiz, based on events from the previous week. There is no formal textbook. Instead, students are assigned a set of readings from an online source called “The Process of Writing News.” Though outdated in several ways, it is fairly good – and free. However, I don’t have a good way to make sure they’re actually doing that reading.

The second half of the class has been, for the last few semesters, focused on the production of deadline articles. Students find events to cover and have to turn them within 24 hours. I require a total of three during the semester, though if they do more they have their lowest score(s) dropped. The only extra credit available is if the work is published on SFMN, and they receive a 1.5 percent overall grade bump for each piece. Due to their level, and the fact event-based deadline pieces have a short shelf life, publication is relatively rare in JOU 3117. A total of eight pieces were published in JOU 3117 this semester, in line with previous semesters.

The class is broken into two groups – Woodward and Bernstein. During the Woodward week, that group pitches and writes a story while Bernstein is off. The following week, the roles switch, meaning students are producing work on a two-week cycle. They are required to write and pitch during their team’s week, but are allowed to do so on their off week. This may be because they want to increase a low score on a pervious paper, their event got cancelled or some other life event (car breakdown, work, etc.) got in the way.

In addition to not overloading the students, it means that the copy flow to me is spread out more though the weeks, giving me more time to give each piece more attention. And, since I can get to each piece more quickly, it means – if the student does what I ask – the piece can be corrected and published before it loses all its news value.

But getting back to the first half: the work at that point is essentially pass/fail, except for the news quizzes. This is also how I take attendance, as work cannot be made up. (Functionally, this is difficult to manage, as students will do work later and/or claim there was some type of computer screw-up, and I often give them the benefit of the doubt.)

There are some advantages to this, and some disadvantages. First, by making the work pass/fail, I can point out the systemic issues some students have with structure, grammar or AP style without them getting discouraged. Of course, this means they may not work as hard without a possible “F” floating above their heads like a Sword of Damocles.

Second, as I like to do these exercises in-class, students that do the work more slowly sometimes do not yet as much attention. Though I ask the students who did not complete the work to do it later – and discuss it with me during my office hours – probably only a third actually do.

Another question is whether the individual drills and exercises are effective. For instance, there is a fairly weak correlation between grades in the news quizzes and the final overall grade. Or, rather, some students do very well in the news quiz but poorly overall. It is rare for something to get an “A” who bombed the quizzes, but not uncommon for someone with an “A” on the quizzes to get a “C” overall.

I think my news drills are more effective, though they are so time consuming that it’s difficult to do more than two in a semester. Here’s a brief description: Students are given a scenario (car crash, fire, etc.) orally and asked to write a lede. About 10 minutes later, I provide more information and ask them to write a brief. About 20 minutes after that point, I provide even more information (often take the role of an official at a news conference) and then the students are tasked with writing a longer piece.

It is intended to provide a deadline experience in a classroom setting, and was lifted from an exercise my Columbia Graduate School of Journalism professor, Sandy Padwe, used to do.

This semester, I only did one-and-a-half drills. The first time the exercise is done requires a lot of explanation. And, because it’s often the first time any of them have written on any type of real deadline, they are often very, very slow. During the first drill, we only did the lede and brief parts. The second drill, though, included all three parts.

It is tough, because a drill can take a full week of class time. The first class is completely taken up by the drill while the second is taken up by peer and one-on-one editing with me. I tried editing/correcting their drills outside of class, but I’ve found over the years that the one-on-one editing is far more effective. The peer editing helps as well, as it helps students understand their colleagues have many of the same struggles, and provides them with a task while they wait for me.

The AP and grammar exercises I do seem to work fairly well. I also have the students do a series of NewsU courses, though I am not sure how much they really help.

Possible course adjustments

Syllabus: Explicitly put the “Course Objectives” from Writing Fundamentals in the JOU 3117 syllabus, making it clear to students that I will be holding them accountable for knowing these items.

Textbook: I’m thinking I need to update the textbook. I’m considering this one: “News Reporting + Writing” by the Missouri Group. It has a wealth of knowledge, is engaging and up to date. It also deals with both print and broadcast forms of writing, which is excellent. In addition, it is broad enough that it could be used for several courses. It is, unfortunately, expensive. I would also need some way of requiring the students to actually prove they’ve read the work. An obvious idea would be to do chapter reports, but these can take up quite a bit of time.

News Quizzes: Perhaps instead of news quizzes, require a weekly rundown of the three most important local, state, national and international pieces. They would have to provide the headline, link and a short description in their own words. This would be homework. This would require them to continually read (and give me an idea of where they’re going for their news). It would take less class time and would allow me to require it throughout the semester. As of now, I stop the news quizzes at about Week 8, when the deadline article period starts. The story pitch meetings and one-on-one editing leaves little room for anything else.

NewsU: I’m going to not do NewsU stuff next time I teach the class and see if there is any noticeable impact. The system is somewhat wonky and difficult to use anyhow.

Grading Rubric: I think I will require the photos they turn in with their stories to have a human being in it. Too often students are just turning in photos of a building, which has little-to-no news value. Also, I’m going to mark down individual papers if they fail to follow instructions about formatting, length, etc. I think a penalty of two points for each grammar and AP error is fair at this point. It results in very low grades for some students at the beginning of the semester, but that pain causes a quick change in behavior. And, since they can do extra work to replace the initially bad grade, their overall grade is based on effort, which seems fair to me.

Article assignments: I sometimes wonder whether three assignments is enough, though increasing it to four seems like a lot. Perhaps one brief and three articles? That might be a good idea. It would mean we would have to start the writing a lot sooner, which is probably not a bad thing. Should they do more than just deadline pieces? Am I adequately preparing the broadcast students for the class they’ll take next? I’m thinking the assignments could be something like this: one advance (the brief), two event-based deadline assignments and one final project that could be a news feature or a profile. The final project will likely have a longer shelf life, meaning more students could get their work published.I also want to build in time for students to do make-up work at the end of the semester, as I want to encourage them to do extra work to replace a poor grade earlier in the term.

Grading percentages: In Fall 2019, the deadline articles amounted to 65 percent of the total grade, 25 percent for in-class assignments and homework (pass/fail) and five percent each for news quizzes and professionalism. If I increased the articles to 75 percent, the in-class assignments and homework (including the change to the news quizzes) would then be a collective 25 percent (pass/fail). The implication of this would likely be an overall depression in students’ grades, as they would held significantly more to account for performance.

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