THROWBACK THURSDAY: Four things journalism professors wish we could get students to understand as soon as humanly possible

A friend who monitors all sorts of internet activity hit me with a message a day or so ago with the question: “What did you do to your students?” Apparently, he found this fun nugget on one of his favorite sites:


I honestly don’t care about the post, but I wished the kid had talked to me about whatever it was that was bugging them. I think in a lot of way that’s much more productive than stewing in silence.

With that in mind for today’s Throwback Thursday, I bring you the post that tries to cut off the student insanity at the pass:


Four things journalism professors wish we could get students to understand as soon as humanly possible

Kermit Freaking Out GIF - Kermit FreakingOut Crazy GIFs

(“Professor… I’m kind of freaking out just a little bit right now…”)

Around this time of year, I’m getting four distinct types of panicked contact from students, and it usually breaks down along the “year in school” divides:

  • SENIORS: “I’m sorry I’m bothering you…” followed by concerns about everything from graduation to a class assignment to how to find a job.
  • JUNIORS: “I don’t know what I’m doing with (ASSIGNMENT) and I don’t know why I have to do this… I’m going into (FILL IN FIELD WHERE THEY WILL TOTALLY NEED THIS BUT THEY DON’T KNOW IT YET).”
  • SOPHOMORES: “I’ve always been told I’m a great writer, but I’m not doing really well in your class and I’m worried I’m going into the wrong field.”
  • FRESHMEN: “I’m really worried about my grade in this class…”

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, these questions show up with predictable levels of certainty each year about now. It would be so much easier if we could just answer all of them, all at once, right up front and let the students get the message clearly.

With that in mind, here are the four things that could answer all of those questions, in advance, and make all of our lives easier:

YOU ARE NEVER A BOTHER WHEN YOU ARE ASKING FOR HELP: I wish I had a dollar for every email, phone call, D2L message or personal interaction I had with a student that began with them saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…”

I’d buy the Cleveland baseball team and stock the thing with every decent player in the league.

I think that students worry about bothering us because they’re trained to think that we’re really important or that whatever we’re doing is more important than they are. The truth is, for most of us, anyway, we really enjoy working with them to make their work better. We also enjoy helping them get to that “light bulb comes on” moment where they figure out whatever had been a struggle for so long. We also enjoy getting to know them as more than a name on a grade sheet.

And, if they don’t believe all of that, here’s one that’s kind of self-serving: The more we help you up front, the better your piece will be in the end and the less time we will spend grading the thing.

In terms of helping you with “life stuff?” Heck, that’s what we LIVE for. It feels great to know that whatever we did in our interactions with you made you feel comfortable enough to ask us for help in some of those big life decisions. Plus, we probably have gone through this stuff before, or at least helped other students go through it, so we know how to succeed at it.

So, show up at office hours. Email us. Just randomly stick your head in the door when you see it’s open.

Trust me. You’re never a bother.

WE HAVE A GOOD REASON FOR WHATEVER WE’RE DOING, SO TRUST US AND PLAY ALONG: At the beginning of each semester, my students tend to think that I’m old, cranky and addled and to be fair, I actually deserve this.

When I was 19, I took a class with a guy who thought he was “hip” even though he was “middle-aged” and he kept referencing his glory days in college days. Finally, I’d kind of had it, so when he said, “Back in (YEAR) when I was a sophomore at Iowa State…” I cut him off with, “Yeah, Steve, back in (YEAR) when I was in third grade…”

That wasn’t very bright, and God’s been punishing me ever since.

How else can you explain my reference to One Direction being met with, “Oh, Dr. Filak! You like the oldies too?”

So, I get it. We’re old, cranky, addled and we probably think that newspapers are going to last forever. We have nothing to teach you and those stupid grammar exercises aren’t going to help, let alone that story about covering the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or whatever story it was we were telling the other day…

Guess what? Most of us still actually know stuff and can help you get where you want to go if you’ll just give it a shot. The key in this field is that there are several bedrock principles that really haven’t changed over time: Be accurate, get to the point, tell people what they need to know and be clear. There are ways to make that happen that you don’t know because you aren’t as old as dirt and haven’t done it so many times you could practically write an armed robbery brief in your sleep.

We have these tools and we know these things because we’ve been around a lot and we’ve done them an awful lot. We’re not trying to torture you with pointless activities because we receive 30 free steaks for every student we piss off. We’re not trying to fill your head with an ideology so we can create an army of drones who will do as we see fit in the world of media. (Hell, I can’t even make the DOG do what I want, and I have access to all the Pupperonis in the world…)

The next time you think we’re being unreasonable, take one of two approaches:

  1. Treat us like you treat your grandfather at Thanksgiving and play along like this is all new and you are totally interested. “No, Grandpa, you didn’t tell me about the time you struck out Babe Ruth in a minor-league game… What was that like?” Then, actually listen and see if there’s something there you might have dismissed the 148 other times you heard the story.
  2. Ask why you have to do this, but do it in a way where you actually want to know the answer, as opposed to the long drawn out “WHHHHHHYYYYYY?!?!” that is usually followed by that “ugghhh” noise you make to show displeasure. If your professor is worth their salt, they’ll have an answer that will help you make sense of this. If not, well… OK… Let’s hope that doesn’t happen…

In most cases, we’ve built the class with a purpose in mind: To make our students better at stuff. Everything builds toward that, whether you see it or not.

YOU WILL NOT BE PERFECT AT THIS, OR ANYTHING ELSE IN LIFE, RIGHT AWAY: The first writing assignment my media-writing class does is one sentence long: A lead rewrite. When I introduce it to them, I tell them, “This is going to take three class periods to complete and you’re probably still going to struggle with it.”

I then get the stares that say, “Exactly how stupid do you think we are? What kind of student takes three class periods to write one frickin’ sentence?”

The answer: All of them.

I watch as they try to wrangle nouns and verbs like they’re grabbing a fistful of Jell-O. I see them write a sentence only to delete the thing one character at a time, stabbing the “delete” button like they’re firing bullets into the screen. I smile when the “I’m a natural writer” kid tells me, “Nailed it” and then realizes when we read it over that it’s missing at least three W’s and the H.

When they finally do get the lead to vaguely function, they often tell me, “This is way harder than I thought. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a journalist.”

Every professor in this profession knows the response to that statement: “It gets easier the more you do it. You just need to practice. You also have to understand it’ll never be perfect.”

I don’t know why students expect to be perfect at things on the first pass. I’m sure I could devolve into some old-guy, get-off-my-lawn, damned-kids-and-their-hippity-hoppity-music tirade if I felt up to it, but it really wouldn’t be accurate. What I do know is that nothing I’ve ever written has been perfect, no matter how much time I poured into it or how long other people have looked at it.

I have the best editorial pit crew in the business at SAGE and we go over everything at least a dozen times and we STILL aren’t perfect. Every edition, I’m rewriting things with the “What the hell is this crap?” thought rolling through my head. Every proof that comes through, we find another “Good grief, that could have been really bad!” mistake.

And we do this for a living.

If there’s one thing I want my students to understand before they leave here, it’s that nothing they ever write will be perfect. Also, nothing they ever do in life will be perfect. It’s admirable to pursue perfection, with the goal of making something as good as it can be for the betterment of society. However, if you let perfection get in the way of the possible or relatively decent, you’re wasting your time and your talent frozen in fear.

Do the best you can each time. It’ll keep getting better.

NO ONE IN THIS FIELD CARES ABOUT YOUR GPA, SO STOP OBSESSING ABOUT IT: Journalism is a “What can you do for me?” field, not a “My college rank was X” field or a “Do you know who my father is?” field. The skills you build and hone, the talents you develop and apply and the general ability to get the job done is what people who hire you will care about.

In almost 25 years of teaching, I have heard of exactly two cases in which a student went to a job interview and someone asked about their GPA. (In one case, I knew the editor and when I called to ask about this, he said, “Yeah, that was stupid. I kind of blanked on what I wanted to ask, so I went there.” The other was from a reporter at a paper who must have been all of 22.5 years old and asked it in the tone of, “Yeah? So what do you bench, bro?”)

The best students I’ve taught and sent into the field were not always the “A” students. In fact, a lot of “C” kids did really well for themselves for a number of reasons:

  1. They got C’s because they were never in class because they were pouring their lives into student media.
  2. They got their butts kicked by an assignment or three and used that to motivate themselves to figure out what went wrong.
  3. They weren’t “test” people, but rather “make it work” people. If you needed a story done in five minutes, those folks could do it. If you wanted a ScanTron test completed, it was like Kryptonite to Superman.

I’m not saying grades aren’t important, nor am I saying that getting an A makes you some kind of Pointdexter. What I am saying is that if you’re sitting outside of my office every day, noting that you’ve calculated your grade in the class down to the .00001 place and if I were to just round it a little, it could get you that A- you need to keep close to a 3.8… Well… You’re obsessing about the bark that’s on a tree and ignoring the fact you’re in a forest.

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