Monday, December 26, 2011
Lessons Learned from Teaching Freshmen Journalism
This has been a new experience for all of us. The students are just out of high school and eager to get into the journalistic culture. I've never taught freshmen (always referred to as "First Year" in Canada) before. Prior to this, my teaching has been at the graduate level or senior year. I'll admit to a few surprises from these students.
I expected that they would be voracious consumers of news. They aren't.
I assumed they would be cyber-literate. They aren't. They consume only some aspects of new media, but not a lot of it. Astonishingly, they don't read email. Or if they do, they check it infrequently. They do text. A lot. They send SMS, and are addicted to tweets and facebook friends.
I hoped they would show some flair for writing. Here, I was not disappointed. Some of these students are going to be literary stars.
But they remain disconnected from the daily news. I could not figure out why.
On campus, the Toronto Star is distributed daily. Yet, the piles of newspapers outside the food courts remain virtually untouched on a day-to-day basis. When I would urge my students to pick up a copy and look through the paper, they would not.
Nor do they listen or watch mainstream radio and television either on line or over the air.
Even so, they remain convinced that a journalistic life is what they want.
After a number of weeks of trying to figure them out, it hit me: I was perusing the Star, just before going into class. I suddenly saw the newspaper with the eyes of my students: while the Toronto Star is a great, content rich newspaper for people like me, for an 18-year old student, it's chaotic, gray, ugly. In short, it's a mess. Worse, it makes no sense to them.
In class, I asked the students if they knew how to read a newspaper. They were somewhat miffed by this, so I rephrased it: " Do you know HOW to read a newspaper?" They admitted that they did not.
They confessed they had no idea why something was on the front page, why a reporter could be writing an op-ed one day, then back to reporting on another. They did not know why the paper wrote an editorial, or what the differences are between something above the fold and below the fold. One young woman admitted that when she tries to go online to read it, she gets distracted.
"By what?" I asked.
I brought a friend to class the following week: Peter McNelly is a long-time journalist (print and broadcast) and a great teacher. I asked him to show the class how a newspaper comes together and why. In two hours, he did it and I saw the light come into my students' eyes.
The following week, we listened and watched how different broadcasters handled the same story out of Cairo. We listened to CBC Radio's World Report of November 16, NPR's Morning Edition for November 16, the CTV National News (from the night before) and CBC TV's "The National," also from November 15th.
The students were very perceptive: they found CBC Radio to be dull and not very informative (I had to agree. It sounded like reporters and host were just mailing it in that morning...). They picked up on NPR's heightened anxiety level around whether the Islamists would take over and what this would mean for Israel. They liked Lisa Laflamme's hosting on CTV. But they really liked CBC TV's "The National." They found it very nuanced and smart. I had to agree. The National that night, was excellent with two solid reports on Egypt.
What this taught me was that journalism instructors need to understand their students better. These students are coming from a different place than I imagined. Probably a lot different from where I and my journalistic cohort came from.
It is pointless to lament the lack of connective tissue between first year students and the media, as I have heard many teachers do. Once these students make it to grad school, it will be different when students and profs are more closely aligned intellectually and share a common journalistic language.
But right now and back at the beginning, we need to help these smart and motivated students find their way. It's awfully easy to crush their hopes and dreams. The assumptions harbored by the professoriat (and by me) about patterns of media consumption need to be re-thought, especially for students just out of high school.