Tenure-track faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill undergo a third-year review to see how things are going. As a part of that process this year, I have been asked to write a statement on teaching that describes what I do in my editing classes and why I do it. Here’s a draft of that statement. Comments are welcome.
As a member of the “practice track” faculty, I strive to create a professional environment in the classroom. This means making the classroom as much of a newsroom as possible. I serve as a managing editor or slot editor, overseeing students’ work, coaching them and providing feedback in a timely fashion. I believe that this approach prepares students for the internships and jobs ahead of them.
The classes I teach are skills courses: News Writing, News Editing and Advanced Editing. They require students to think critically and analytically, to verify information, and to edit and write clearly and effectively in a variety of forms — all under deadline pressure. They are among the most challenging courses in our curriculum, but students who work hard find them to be rewarding.
USING THE TOOLS
I allow students to use every resource available in a newsroom: stylebooks, textbooks, dictionaries and the Web. I never take these away except when required to do so by the School (e.g., the spelling and grammar test) or for midterm and final examinations. I believe it’s more important for students to master how to use the stylebook (and to appreciate the reason for it) than to memorize it.
All the courses I teach are in a computer lab, a setting that creates opportunities for plenty of hands-on work but also obstacles for students who are unfamiliar with software used in newsrooms. The editing courses in particular are heavy on software instruction as the students learn InDesign, InCopy and other computer skills. As they do so, I let them know that mastering the technology itself is not the objective of the course. The key is to understand that the software is a tool to communication. Indeed, the names and methods of computer software are likely to change several times during these students’ careers, but the skills and principles of writing and editing will remain constant.
I on occasion allow students to work in pairs or in small teams, again to mirror the newsroom experience. In the professional world, little work is done solo; collaboration is essential. Even the reporting and writing of a story includes guidance by editors and input from fellow reporters and copy editors. By allowing students to work together, they learn how to interact with others on a project, to brainstorm to give and take, and to compromise to create a more effective story, critique or page design. This technique is especially realistic and effective in Advanced Editing, where the class functions as a copy desk, with assigned roles that change from class meeting to class meeting.
I weave an ethical component into all the classes that I teach. Given the Jayson Blair scandal and other issues in the media, I believe it is vital to our curriculum. In the News Writing class, we discuss the problems of plagiarism and fabrication, and we watch the movie “Shattered Glass,” about disgraced reporter Stephen Glass. We discuss the need to quote accurately and to fact-check information.
In my editing courses, we discuss the ethical ramifications of word choices (“illegal alien” or “undocumented worker”?) and photo selection as part of the editors’ job. In my Advanced Editing class, these issues became reality when editors detected an example of plagiarism in a story written by a fellow student. Although it was a difficult moment for all involved, the student editors said that overall it was a positive experience because it was similar to situations that they had read and talked about in other classes but never went through themselves.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
I have worked hard to bring in new ideas and trends from the profession into my teaching. One element I have introduced is writing and editing of alternative story forms. Story structures such as Q&A formats, checklists and “chunky text” have become more common in print and, to some extent, online. Some job descriptions now ask for proficiency in this area, and my students will be prepared for this requirement.
In my News Writing course, I have students report and write a recurring story (holiday shopping, tax time, etc.) in an alternative story format. In my editing course, I give them an existing story in traditional form and ask them to recast and design it into an alternative format. Interestingly, students in both classes list these as among their favorite assignments of the semester.
I also worked with my colleague Jock Lauterer to form a partnership between his Community Journalism course and my Advanced Editing course. His students were the reporters and photographers for The Carrboro Commons. The result was what we think could represent the future of the newspaper: a highly local news site with a print corollary, available for .pdf download at the leisure of the reader. The collaboration also resulted in a paper that Lauterer and I will present to the National Newspaper Association annual convention in September 2007.
CONCLUSION and OUTLOOK
Overall, students respond well to my approach to teaching, as reflected in teaching evaluations. They enjoy the courses, often more than they imagined that they would. My scores are especially high in areas such enthusiasm, clarity and preparedness. Most of the negative comments — issues regarding length of class meetings, credit hours and School-administered tests — are outside my control.
One valid area of criticism involves the editing class. A few students have said that the class is excellent for those who want to go into print journalism, but not so much for those seeking careers at Web sites. I am working this semester to bring in more online elements, specifically how to write headlines for news Web sites, and I plan to make it more clear what editing skills are shared by print and online journalists and which are different. I am actively seeking an “internship” at a newspaper Web site for summer 2008 so I can get hands-on experience that I can then bring back to the classroom. In addition, I will work with colleagues to revise News Writing to incorporate discussion and assignments for online media.
These changes are a natural reflection and necessity of my idea of classroom as newsroom. As the newsroom changes, so does the classroom. My goal is to keep pace with that change (and stay a step ahead) and to continue to prepare students for the work, and lives, ahead of them.