I believe the best education marries careful, critical thought with hands-on, experiential practice, and communication and journalism education demand this integration even more than most disciplines. Communication and journalism education should mirror the media industries’ priority on experience rather than credentials, with a heavy emphasis on learning through creative action that identifies and solves real-world problems. Students should be given ample freedom to experiment, fail, learn from their mistakes, try again, and improve. In my courses, I make space for this by having students file reporting projects as a series of drafts and constructively critique their peers’ work, which allows them to learn from each other’s perspectives and realize that they, too, have valuable experiences to offer. It also helps create a collaborative learning environment in which students are encouraged to take an active role in their own and their peers’ education.
At the same time, these trial-and-error technical skills should be tied closely together with critical thinking at every point. While journalism and communication curricula are often split into theoretical courses on media and society and practical courses on the work of media production, I believe both aspects need to be intimately integrated within each course. The best way to accomplish both is to focus on two parallel goals: Teaching students both how to practice journalism and communicate effectively, and how that communication fits into a broader social context. This involves helping students understand the social and cultural forces behind media practices and content, through, for example, ethics discussions in skills courses that include reflection on the social contexts for ethical principles rather than simply taken them as given. Just as importantly, it involves creating space in both classroom discussions and student assignments to encourage a wide variety of diverse perspectives by listening to and affirming marginalized voices and experiences among students.
And because educators are sending students into a media environment whose norm is continual upheaval and innovation, it’s crucial to be creative and aggressive in preparing students to be as technologically literate and adaptable as possible. This does not simply mean chasing after each new technological fad. Instead, it entails continually learning new digital tools and techniques, testing their usefulness for reporting and storytelling, and creatively integrating the best of them into courses. This is something I’ve made a priority throughout graduate school: I have taught myself several new data-driven analysis and visualization tools and developed a syllabus for a data journalism course based on that work. I’ve also taken a mobile app development class, in which small groups of journalism and computer science students developed their own apps over the course of a semester, in order to learn how to develop a similar course as an instructor. Through processes like these, we can model to students an entrepreneurial spirit of continual experimentation, adaptation, and thoughtful flexibility regarding new technological tools.
Finally, I’ve found that students grasp skills and concepts – especially as they report and produce media content – most thoroughly when they’re able to sit down one-on-one with someone who can help guide them through what they’re trying to learn. In the primary class for which I have served as a TA, Reporting Texas, this was the central means of instruction, with instructors sitting down with students to pore through each story. Though class size doesn’t always allow such close classroom interaction, I believe it’s crucial for instructors to make individual connections with their students as teachers and mentors, to show them we care deeply about their own experiences and growth — both as professionals and, more importantly, as people.