Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

By Jan Schaffer

The plea for advice came from a new faculty member, anguished that her department’s journalism offerings were outdated: There were limits on social media involvement; no training in podcasting; a senior project that called for students to create a Sunday centerpiece — for print.

“I have lots of ideas about courses we need to start offering and courses we need to start extinguishing, or updating. I have ideas about recruiting more students,” the faculty member said. “But a piece of advice I got … was that ‘new faculty should keep their mouths shut.’”

How might this faculty member proceed? Please weigh in with your advice. Here’s mine:

I’d prepare a one-page memo (not too threatening) to hand out at your faculty meeting. (Maybe give your department chair an advance heads-up, if that seems to be appropriate.)

Outline some baby steps the school could take to test-drive some courses. It’s an ordeal to get new classes approved so don’t ask people to take such a deep dive at first. Instead suggest smaller ways to train students — and faculty — and gather intelligence for designing future courses.

Avoid talking about print too much to avoid a print vs. digital dichotomy. Instead, suggest that the department owes its paying students a current education that will deliver meaningful skills — ones that will get them the jobs they want. Of course, students need core reporting, editing and ethics courses to be a journalist. But, at a minimum, they also need to know basic multimedia production skills — video editing, podcasting, building a simple website with a theme or template. They also need to understand how to distribute their journalism on social platforms. These are gateway skills that not only can get them jobs in media, but also in government, business or the nonprofit sector. Further enhancing these skills would be courses in data journalism or media entrepreneurship.

Start with a series of boot camps or workshops — either in the evening or on Saturdays, whatever works. Bring in some local experts to do some training. Maybe videotape these so components can be re-used for classroom teaching.

Any of the following could work as day-long or four-hour boot camps for students. If you need to raise funds to pay instructors, you might consider a registration fee — $50, or whatever works. Comp any faculty member who will come. If you have the bandwidth, offer to organize these sessions or partner with someone to do it.

— A Facebook bootcamp: How to use Facebook to distribute journalism and engage audiences. How to do Facebook Live.

— In and Outs of Video: How to shoot video on a smart phone or tablet; how to edit and post it, including posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. How to use Periscope. How to upload to YouTube or a website.

— How to build a WordPress website: How to find a theme, get a domain name, post stories and images. How to track your metrics.

— How to use Social Media to distribute and engage readers. How to use Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and more. How to track social media metrics.

— The basics of Data Journalism.

Then you could offer shorter workshops of an hour or two on:

— How to use Medium as a publishing platform for your class.

— How to do a podcast

— How to create slideshows and upload them.

— Building graphics with Tableau or other tools.

Overall, it would be helpful if the faculty agreed to incorporate multimedia and social elements in every class. For instance, they could require students to publish stories on their own website or on Medium; require every story to have some multimedia or graphic element; assign students to tweet out their stories or videos.

Once faculty members get a taste of what needs to be taught, then the department would be in a better position to design the courses needed. Obviously, several of the above topics could be combined into a couple of semester-long courses.

What else has worked for others?

Jan Schaffer is Executive Director of J-Lab and an adjunct professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and American University School of Communications.