McGuire on Media

Advice for an adjunct professor at Steve Buttry’s request

Steve Buttry extended an invitation to several former journalists who are now teaching university journalism classes to offer advice to a new adjunct professor.

There’s already been a lot of good advice so I will try to go in a few different fresh directions and discuss respecting students, experimentation and appreciating learning styles. I also have strong feelings that the professor needs to concentrate on engaging students but I wrote about that a couple of years ago in this blog post

I think it is crucial that university journalism instructors like, respect and show genuine enthusiasm for students. Rather than concentrating on our experiences, we need to focus on theirs. They read and do some amazing things, they understand the popular culture world in ways we can’t. They have been exposed to knowledge many of us don’t even know exists. I sometimes hear professors complain students don’t know what we know. Well, we don’t know much of what they know either.

If you buy into that horse hockey about this being an ignorant or lazy generation I would argue you have no business in the classroom. Some  professors demand respect from students without respecting the students. That’s silly and morally bankrupt.

Here at Arizona State’s Cronkite School I face an incredible array of smart, bright, practical students who want to make a difference. Most of them have skill sets too many people in our generation don’t begin to understand. If they don’t know grammar or don’t meet expectations, that’s our fault for not setting the bar high enough. Here at the Cronkite School freshmen have to take a grammar class and pass a tough grammar test before they move into journalism classes.

I am not just moving my lips when I tell students I learn at least as much from them as I teach them. I speak with conviction when I tell students they will decide the ethical precepts for the future and that they will invent the new business models that save journalism. Those answers aren’t coming from my generation.

I find the ageless Socratic method needs to be more of a conversation than a rigid question/answer approach that leads to a predetermined place. As I tell students every semester class my ethics class and my Business and Future of Journalism class are not designed to teach them stuff, they are designed to teach them how to think about stuff.

My close friend and ASU colleague Prof Rick Rodriguez perceptively says, “if students see you working hard for them, they will work harder for you.”

I find that experimentation is the soul of effective teaching This is my 15th semester of teaching and I’ve never used the same syllabus twice. Sure, I keep some elements from previous semesters but every semester I essentially redesign my courses.

I certainly want to stay current with the fast-breaking world of journalism, but it is even more important that I continue to try new methods, new approaches and new ways to incite the imaginations of students who want to think outside the box.

In the fall semester I sent my graduate students to two local hot dog shops to help them think about how newspapers can avoid being commodity products. It worked to a certain extent, but I think I can improve upon it and so I have kept it in the undergraduate course this semester to see if I can’t perfect it.

Experimentation can certainly be planned, but it can also be ad libbed. As engaging as I think I am, I sometimes look out out at very bored faces. For some students that is congenital, but for others it’s my signal I have to change my game and I often switch directions on the spot. Sometimes I even ask why they’re bored.

After all, and this must be remembered, I am there to serve them. They are not there to serve me.

That brings me to the point with which I have just recently began struggling. Different learning styles are a very real phenomenon. I have been battered over the head with that realization by watching my grandkids. My 10-year-old granddaughter, Kayley, learns the way I did, she reads. Unlike her grandpa she also pays strict attention in class.

My grandson, Collin, learns by doing. He can put together spring-loaded can crushers and he understands and is fascinated by nature because his Dad shows him the way with hunting and ice fishing. They have helped me appreciate my students all learn differently.

That’s why I more and more work on telling, showing, demonstrating and even talking to students about my pedagogical intent.  Most of them didn’t know what pedagogy was until I started to seek their help. More than I used to, I now ask whether they are following my points and I try to make it completely okay to slow me down.

I do not dodge the fact that I have been blessed with two callings in my life.  I viewed editing newspapers as a calling and I view teaching as a calling. As such I could rattle on for pages about my views on teaching.  I care about it deeply and I think about it a lot but knowing when to stop is an important skill in both journalism and teaching.