Be “Marshmallow Alert:” Four more things that will prevent your first media-writing class from sucking

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Since many places start up again on Jan. 7, here’s a post to help start up the new year. We will return to our regular posting schedule next week. -VFF)

A year or two ago, I tried to be inspirational for new students who were entering their first media-writing course with a post on the “Four things to know to keep your first media writing class from sucking.” As you can tell by the headline, inspiration isn’t my forte.

Still, with the start of the new year, new semester and new set of classes for many of you, feel free to flip back to the previous version and then enjoy these Filak-isms to help add some merriment (and some thinking points) to your first couple days :

Be “Marshmallow Alert” in Class: I have always taught in small labs because writing, reporting and editing courses were set up that way wherever I worked. I also had the benefit of classrooms where I could see everything students were doing on their monitors and phones. Thus, when I noticed people were screwing around, I could call them out by name (another benefit of small classes) and they would re-engage pretty easily.

That didn’t mean some students didn’t try to engage every electric device they owned short of a curling iron and a Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset to avoid paying attention to me, but I did my best. (My “best” somehow included ripping the power cable out of the back of an iMac and once texting a young lady’s boyfriend three poop emojis and a snowflake after snatching her phone in mid-text.)

However, when I ended up having to teach a mini-pit class with 50 or so students, I wasn’t able to apply that same level of personal call outs and electronic monitoring, so I went a little old school in my solution. I built a marshmallow gun out of PVC piping and loaded ‘er up for each class. When I saw someone dinking around after a couple  warnings, I fired off a round or two in that person’s general direction. That really freaked them out.

By the time that class was done, I was a regular Annie Oakley. It was almost sad that they became so attentive that they didn’t even want to challenge my accuracy any more. That said, the class started participating a lot more and started doing a bit better on graded stuff.

The point is, don’t just vaguely pay attention in class. Pay attention as if a momentary distraction could get you drilled with a tiny white pellet of sugar and then mocked by a room filled with your peers.

Don’t just be alert. Be “Marshmallow Alert.”


Use the “Buffet vs. Cost” Theory:

Question: Why is it that so many people eat to the point of exploding while at a buffet?

Apparently, stomach pains, bloating and that constant regurge of generic-soft-serve-vanilla-with-Gummy-Bears taste are all part of getting one’s “money’s worth” out of  a buffet. If this were a sit-down restaurant, these people wouldn’t eat half that much (except for my kid, who would eat the entire bread basket and hide crackers in her socks), but at a buffet, hey, let’s go for death!

When it comes to your education, particularly a writing course in your area of study, you are paying a ridiculous amount of money, or at least a lot more than what the Golden Corral will charge you on “Shrimp Night.” With that in mind, it’s baffling to me that students skip classes, drift off in class and refuse to answer any questions. That’s like going to the Coral (or your own regional buffet of choice) and saying, “Let me pay double for this, but all I want is one of those sprigs of parsley and a cracker, please.”

To heck with that. Gorge yourself.

Ask questions in class, be that annoying kid who always has an anecdote for every example the professor has, visit office hours to go over your graded work to find areas of improvement, color-tab the crap out of your AP style book and more. Get your money’s worth out of this, especially since you’ll actually benefit from the stuff you learn in the writing class. (This is in no way meant to disparage that “Quest Class” on Ancient Babylonian Calf Roping you are forced to take in your Gen Ed program, but trust me when I tell you that media writing is a skill employers will heavily value.)


Embrace Your Inner 4-year-old: Anyone who has spent more than 35 seconds in the presence of a 4-year-old knows the only question any of them seems to ask is “Why?” It eventually gets to the point that you want to hand the kid a fork and tell him/her to go play with the toaster. The thing is, though, they really want to understand stuff that they don’t understand. They don’t get why they can’t stay up past 8 p.m., watch another cartoon or give the hamster a bath in the toilet. They have this sense that those are all logical propositions and they really feel like the adults should have to justify the “No” answer to those requests.

When it comes to your media writing class, embrace your inner 4-year-old, but do it in the right way and at the right time. Students have no problem asking “WHY?” when it comes to things like “Why is my grade so low if I turned in almost everything?” or “Why do we have to take the midterm when it’s so nice outside?” (Two questions I’ve actually heard.) However, when it comes to things that are more about learning and improving and less about point deductions and the one sunny day a year we get in Wisconsin, I have found students are quieter than a church mouse on Sunday.

Take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about your work. Don’t ask questions about the grade, because, as we explained in the previous edition of this list, your grade will not haunt you for the rest of your life. However, if you don’t understand why you can’t write a news story in chronological order or why it pays to have at least one or two of the W’s (and maybe even the H) in your lead, you’re going to be in trouble.

Talk to your professor whenever you get work back and you don’t understand what made something wrong. Don’t focus on the points or the grade, but rather on the underlying rationale behind the negative outcomes and you’ll be able to improve moving forward.


Now is the Time to Care: I know this is cheating because I pulled it from the last list, but it bears repeating. I can’t remember a semester like the one I just had where students treated the final grades I filed as the start of a bargaining session. (It literally felt like something out of contract negotiation: “Dr. Filak, I see you have proposed a D for me here. What I’d like to do is counter with a B- and see where we can find some common ground…”) The time to care about this stuff is now, so look at what it is that you can do to keep yourself on the right side of the best outcomes possible.

I’ve told this to students before and it’s the best bit of advice I can possibly give you for any class:

Instead of saying, “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to your professor after you screwed up your work and you have no hope of getting out alive, say “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to yourself every day from the beginning of the semester and act accordingly.

Have a great semester and knock ’em dead.

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