Dr. Carrie Buchanan
Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts
John Carroll University

    Question Everything

Teaching Philosophy

My teaching philosophy is predicated on the spiritual principles that guide my life, two of which are particularly relevant to teaching: respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and for the democratic process with its underlying freedoms of conscience and expression.

 

With the first principle in mind, I work to foster respect for each individual and for difference, including difference of opinion. I attempt in each class to build a community that encourages and empowers students. While such an achievement depends on the students as well as the teacher, when a class creates that kind of community, it encourages everyone.

 

Every person in a democratic society is a potential journalist. This arises from the principle of freedom of expression. Responsible “citizen journalism” (i.e. by people without journalism training) is therefore to be encouraged: it promotes the kind of free, full and fair debate on which democratic societies are based, and acts as a counterweight to corporate and government control of our news media. 


To promote active citizen participation, the doors to journalism education must be as open as possible. All journalists, not only those headed for careers in traditional media, need opportunities and encouragement to learn journalism’s best practices and discuss its legal and ethical issues.

 

I believe that a liberal arts education is the best possible preparation for journalism, especially when combined with a master’s degree from a journalism school. I am far from alone in that view. 

 

Many people think of journalism as a writing discipline but this is only half true. It is equally about content. No student can achieve a passing grade in my journalism courses without understanding that research is at least half of what we do. The other half I call presentation, which includes more than writing. For more than a century, journalism has combined written text with visual and auditory media, including photography, radio, television, graphics and animation. In the 21st century, every journalist must work effectively with video, audio and textual media on a variety of platforms, from basic print to digital and online text; from still photography to video and sound recordings; plus an evolving range of social media. 


Thus, from the very first assignment, my approach in all story assignments is to split the grade 50:50 — half is for content; the other half, for presentation.

 

Of course, writing remains important in all areas of journalism across all media platforms. That’s why we spend considerable time in my classes on both the “fun” parts of writing (creativity, lead writing, story structures, blogging and tweeting) and the less fun, but crucially important, grammar and AP style. Mastery of grammar and style may be boring, but it can change your whole life for the better. The converse is also true: poor grammar,  bad spelling and/or inconsistent style will get your job applications thrown into the trash, and could deny you promotions once you are employed. This is true in any field that relies on good writing, not just journalism.

 

Evolution is constant in journalism, which makes it important for students to have a basic grounding in the Principles of Journalism and its most widely used Code of Ethics, as well as ways to evaluate the transformations taking place in journalism that are in keeping with these principles and ethics. The principles were drawn up in a widely acclaimed national study that spent four years consulting journalists across the country from 1997 to 2001 (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001), and later led to the founding of the the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. The project continues to track and evaluate journalism’s evolution in its annual State of the News Media reports. The second document, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, is something we also study in class, using excellent materials provided by SPJ to educate student journalists.

 

As a professor, I not only introduce my students to these resources, I also take the time to keep up to date myself on the prolific reports and activities connected with them, not only through their websites but also through my own active involvement in the Society of Professional Journalists. This involvement keeps me current and connected with journalists, and it provides me with many important contacts who have been of significant help to my students, both in the classroom and outside, through internships and job opportunities. I also belong to the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists, which have brought similar benefits to my students in health and environmental writing.

 

Journalism students tend to be less enthusiastic about theory than practice, but academic research and theory help them to think critically about the work they are doing now and may be doing in future. Journalists in the field are often called upon to act quickly, without time to think things through. Yet we deal constantly with moral issues. We often make assumptions about the way things are in the world and why they must remain so. Classes that focus on media literacy, history, theory, ethics and law provide a range of perspectives, as well as resources to use later when challenging or unsettling situations arise. I hope students will leave my classes feeling changed because they have had the opportunity to see the world, and the practices of journalists and other communicators, from different perspectives. They might not agree with all the theories and examples I cover  — indeed, some contradict others, so it would be impossible — but alternative perspectives can be enlightening, even if you don’t agree.

 

In practical courses, the journalism teacher is both coach and judge. Students tend to like the coach: the person who is training and, one hopes, inspiring them to learn new concepts, master essential techniques, and improve their research and writing skills. The judge, who assigns the grades, is less popular, particularly when the grade is low. With this in mind, it is important from the start to be clear about expectations, to go over them carefully with the class and, when grading, to be fair and honest. We cannot let down the standards of our academic institution or profession, however, we cannot grade students on things they have not yet learned. I provide handouts for each assignment specifying the goals of the assignment and the things they will be graded on, including what percentage of the grade is allocated to each element. Rubrics, where appropriate, outline what constitutes an excellent, average, or poor performance in each category. In some cases, I have obtained permission from previous students to share excellent assignments done in the past. In all these ways, I hope to make the standards on which students are assessed clear and fair.

 

Constructive feedback is essential for students. Many have told me they didn’t like getting low grades but when they did, they could always understand why and how to improve. I still despair about the small number of my students who did not feel this way, and constantly try to improve my teaching effectiveness. Constructive feedback is essential to build students'  confidence and help them learn not just from successes, but also from mistakes. Helping low achievers to gain confidence is as important to me as maintaining it in those who “get it” from the start.

 

My 15 years of practical experience in journalism animate my teaching, in part because I truly loved and continue to value the work, but also because I often found it frustrating or unethical. I have found that students respond well when I use occasional stories about situations I have faced as a journalist as examples in class. However, I am not in the classroom to re-live former glories or to focus attention on myself. I encourage students to share experiences they have had in the field, the frustrating ones in particular, so we can discuss them and find answers that might help them in future. Recalling my own foibles and occasional triumphs is useful if it helps to foster and enliven that discussion.

 

Excessive seriousness can take the energy out of a classroom, so I encourage a sense of humor and fun. Even news quizzes – designed to ensure that students read, listen to and watch the news – can lead to lively discussions and comments if structured to encourage this. News does not have to be dry and dull.

 

It is important for students to have journalistic mentors and examples other than myself and for that reason, I often invite journalists to visit my classes and the university, to share their experiences and advice with students. Sometimes, these visits, as well as field trips to visit journalists on their own turf, are organized in conjunction with the campus chapter of SPJ, for which I am the adviser. 

 

I encourage my journalism students from the start to see themselves as professionals and learning as a lifelong task. If I have done my work well, my students’ careers will be marked by integrity and community spirit as well as excellence. I hope that some will be moved, after a career in the field, to return to the academy and provide experience-based critiques and practical instruction. Others may be inspired to reform traditional institutions or create new forms of journalism. We in the academy will always be there to support them but also to challenge and critique their work. We are a community that our students should see as their wellspring, to which they can return time and again.

 

References

 

Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2001). The Elements of Journalism. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.