Practicing What We Preach

Teaching engagement in j-schools means listening to our students

Students from the University of Oregon participate in a session at Elevate Engagement.

This reflection comes in response to the Elevate Engagement manifesto published in July 2017. Lori Shontz participated in that gathering, along with a team of students from the University of Oregon.

As I read the Elevate Engagement manifesto, an eloquent and provocative summation of what I and 129 others grappled with during four intense days devoted to the relationship between journalists and the communities they cover, one of the lines that jumped out at me was this:

As we convened, we discovered that when we are “covering communities,” we need to hear from and reflect people who often go unheard.

It resonates so deeply for me because I teach journalism, and for three years now, I’ve known I need to revamp my core reporting classes. I’ve tweaked them plenty. But I’ve been vaguely dissatisfied with the results, and the fact is, the profession and the world have changed dramatically, and my classes need to reflect that.

I’ve got to figure out how to keep what’s important from the way I teach it now and add what I’ve learned is missing. I’ve chewed over how to do this with colleagues, both in academia and the profession. But after Elevate Engagement, I discussed it with a group that is, frankly, “often unheard” when we discuss the j-school curriculum: students.

I’m lucky because seven University of Oregon students accompanied me to Elevate Engagement, and they had plenty to say during a debrief two weeks later.

Two major themes emerged — critical thinking and craft — and they dovetail with the two sides of journalism education, which is basically a mash-up of a liberal arts university and a trade school.

Regarding craft, the students noticed a disconnect between how we teach reporting and what we discussed at Elevate Engagement. In class, it’s all about showing up at, say, city council, and identifying the story using traditional news values — being a gatekeeper. It is not, as one student put it, about “spending time in the community asking, ‘What do you think about the city? What do you think are the issues?’ I’m the voice of the community who should take things back to the city.”

Whoa.

On the more theoretical side, the students identified a hole: “We say we do it for the democratic process, but what does that mean?” one said. “Why is that important? It’s political science and history where you learn those things, not the journalism school.”

Not the journalism school. Oh, no. That hurts.

I think my colleagues and I teach both of those things. But I’ve got to put my own preconceptions aside. Listening to the students’ insights and figuring out how to act on them is the very least I can do… given that I’m working to teach them how to do that exact thing when they are reporting. On some level, I think, what I’m teaching — and learning — is humility. Can we all agree journalism could use a little of that?

If engaged journalism is a way to increase trust in media and generally improve democracy — and we believe it is — then journalism schools need to be a part of the process. This isn’t flat-out stated in the manifesto, but it’s inherent, especially in another sentence that has stuck with me:

Our community of practice is seeking guidance and mutual support to elevate engagement in our work.

Wrangling with the journalism curriculum is never easy. In grad school, when I was trying to figure out what an ideal j-school program would look like, I read a 2012 survey of journalism program directors that probed that exact question. Every one of the 134 respondents identified a different set of classes. Only two classes got more than 50 percent of the “vote,” so to speak — media ethics and law, and reporting. And that didn’t even allow for the variety within the categories. I imagine you’d get 134 different responses on what, exactly, should be taught in a basic reporting class.

If we journalism educators want students to get out of their comfort zones, we need to get out of ours, too.

We need the energy and the fresh perspectives of student journalists as we work to rebuild trust. And hey — perhaps we could talk to our students’ sources and our neighbors, too. I bet they’ve got perspectives that will shake us up, that will make us think. As the students pointed out, if we can introduce engagement concepts early, and figure out assignments that drive home how to do the work, those lessons will affect every story the students report during their j-school years.

And then imagine what they’ll do when they graduate.

I’ve got a lot of work to do. Class starts in two months. But I do have one thing done, at least — the first addition to my course reading list: the Elevate Engagement manifesto.

Add your voice.

Whether or not you participated in Elevate Engagement, what would you put in your engagement manifesto? We invite your thoughts in the comments, and we also welcome longer reflections on this topic, for future publication. Email those to joy@joymayer.com.