Academics (oh, man — am I an academic?) are required to describe their teaching philosophies. Here’s the latest version of mine, updated January 2013.
The best part of teaching at the Missouri School of Journalism, and at the Columbia Missourian, is the learning. In no other job have I had the opportunity to continually step outside my comfort zone, to get smarter about something every single day. And given that I work in a field that is changing so drastically as to be hardly recognizable on the surface, I’m grateful to be able to grow and evolve at such a rapid pace.
In the last few years, my focus as a journalist, and therefore as a teacher, has shifted dramatically. My first several years at Missouri centered around print design. In 2009-10, I created and then taught a class in multimedia planning and design. I also began teaching Participatory Journalism (formerly known as Online Journalism), and that experience pushed me in the direction of community engagement. I now lead a new community outreach team at the Missourian, and our goal is to craft a new kind of journalism — one built on experimentation, assessment and a focus on the audience. The class offers students an experience I think it’s safe to say they can’t get at any other university.
It’s interesting, though, that the more topics I teach, the more I find myself teaching the same core philosophies. The specifics might change, but the foundation is the same. Take responsibility for your work. Tell stories well and responsibly. Put the audience first. Be bold. Embrace failure. Own it. These are the things I challenge my students to do, regardless of the format or situation, and their grade depends on how well they do it.
Through examples I show, questions I ask and tasks I assign, I expand students’ toolbox of ideas. And I assess them more on their ideas than on their execution. I challenge them to be bolder. Go farther. Stand for something. Experiment, and assess.
The process is my favorite part. A fantastic final product is nice, but it doesn’t give me as much pleasure as the evolution — watching ideas form, brains expand and thought processes grow more sophisticated. I don’t solve problems for the students. I point them in a problem-solving direction and put them in a problem-solving mood. I also model a spirit of collaboration and a respect for other departments and disciplines. Students need to learn what their colleagues value, what they struggle with and what they have to offer. Journalism is a team sport.
Students see my enthusiasm. Showing my passion for what I do is a conscious choice, and I thank my college botany professor for showing me the value of it. He made me love plants. I worked for hours memorizing names and processes. He inspired me to be part of his world.
When a student finds a kind of journalism — my kind of journalism — that captivates her, I feel like what I’m doing matters. I enjoy making a mediocre student good more than I do taking a rock-star student from gold to platinum. I take more pride in helping a student find his way than I do from guiding one who already has her life figured out.
I don’t do any of this, however, by preaching the rules of journalism. In my world, there are very few rules. There are standards. There are ideas about what usually works. But when a student asks my permission about something, my answer is usually, “Try it, and let’s see.” The language is purposely collaborative — we’ll find out together whether this works.
Never has this been more true than in our audience engagement experiment at the Missourian the last two years. We truly smile as we analyze what readers don’t respond to. Trying something that doesn’t work isn’t a failure; it’s an opportunity to learn more about our audience. Failure would be if we didn’t try — if we didn’t evolve. Failure would also be if we didn’t analyze what we’d done and learn from it.
That’s what research means to me —analyzing what we’ve done, and learning from it. And as we send students out into an industry that is reinventing itself, that is fighting for its life, an appreciation for research is only growing in importance.
I find that my teaching style and learning style are so intertwined that it’s hard to talk about one without the other. I learn because I teach, and I teach because I learn.
Certainly, I’m becoming a better journalist. I’ve worked in newsrooms where sophisticated journalism is expected and practiced, but I’ve never worked anywhere that had as part of its core mission to explain what sophisticated journalism is, and to analyze whether it has been practiced today. I explain most of my decisions out loud so students understand why I’m making them. Missourian editors naval-gaze out of necessity. And as I coach students, I often explain myself a few different ways, hoping one resonates with that particular pupil’s learning style.
As the industry goes through such sweeping changes, I’ve been lucky to be in a newsroom of editors who are trying daily to figure out what success looks like in the new world. Instead of being immersed in a culture of fear, a culture of foot-dragging, a culture of strict job descriptions and slow innovation, I’ve been blessed to be in a go-for-it culture. A heck-let’s-try-it culture. We don’t always reach our goals, but we’re striving for them, and I’m a part of that effort.
I’m great at making things up as I go along, and that enables me to jump into situations without knowing what I’m getting myself into. It’s getting only more important for students to understand that the career path in front of them is not straight, and it is not defined. I want to model in myself and foster in them a sense of excitement and fearlessness.
I’m proud of my own evolution as a journalist, and I have a sense of excitement about my own future. But I take more pride in what my students do than I ever have in my own journalism. I learn from them even more than I teach myself. They surprise me more than I surprise myself. They think of things I never would have, and they push me to be at my best.
I would be remiss if I did not mention something else I teach my students. They learn from me that it is possible to be a journalist and have a life. I have two young children, and my students see them in the newsroom. They hear me say I’m leaving for a couple of hours to go to a parent-teacher conference, and they know that I come in late one morning a week because I spent an hour reading with first-graders. Each semester, I have students — some mine, some unfamiliar to me — who approach me to share their concerns about work/life balance. They see how hard we all work, and they wonder if they’ve made a career choice that will stand in the way of their non-work life goals.
I tell them about the flexibility of the profession. About all the different schedules I’ve worked in newsrooms. About staying in control of your own career. About learning to say no. About keeping your focus on what is most important. And I tell them that if you really love what you do, and believe in its importance, you find a way to make it work.
Loving what you do is the answer to many of life’s challenges. I believe in the profession of journalism (as our founding dean, Walter Williams, wrote). I believe in the importance of using information to improve lives, and in telling peoples’ stories and giving them voice. I also believe that it’s up to those who need information, not those who produce it, to decide what form journalism will take. That respect for audience, and for community, is what drives my teaching.