McGuire on Media

Engaging students in journalism classes

On Wednesday I was asked by the Cronkite School to give a presentation to our annual faculty retreat on student engagement in journalism classes. These are my prepared remarks though I admit to some ad libs that do not appear. I do not view myself as an expert but this is how I approach engagement.

Basic principles

  • Engagement is not easy or natural—We’re dealing with students with unformed frontal lobes, not to mention facing lots of pressures from work to alcohol to drugs to family pressures in this tough economy and the dreaded “coupling” issues. That’s a lot of things on their minds and all those are your competition.
  • It must be expected/demanded– I am convinced engagement only comes if you expect it and demand it. From my first day I espouse the theory that the class will be more fun and a far better learning experience if we are all engaged. In no uncertain terms I make it clear I will enforce attention and ban obvious distractions.
  • It’s a two-way obligation–While I have no trouble demanding engagement, I also believe that it’s a two-way street. In order to get engaged students I have to be at the top of my own game. I need to be well-prepared, clear, conscious of what works in terms of engagement and committed to giving the best of me I can offer.
  • Engagement is the Holy Grail. All teaching follows from it—Talking to myself is not my idea of fun. The reason I teach is to touch young lives by making them think in ways they’ve never thought before. That requires me to have their hearts and souls committed to learning. I think that’s what I get paid for above all else.

My approach

  • Know and respect the students and their interests— There are 8 million stories in the Naked City and 1,300 great ones at Cronkite. All our students have fascinating interests, traits and backgrounds that will intrigue you. I do three things to get at those. I ask them on the first day of class to tell me something that will make me remember them. They usually provide me with lunch conversation for weeks. Secondly, as I teach I am constantly asking questions to see if any students have a particular relationship to a subject we are discussing such as SEO or intermediaries. Finally, I get to class 10-15 minutes early and listen to the gossip. Invaluable!
  • Wherever possible, link those interests to what you do. Knowing about my students is not enough. I have to use that knowledge to make my material more relevant and interesting. A few semesters back I had a student in my business and future class who was a music technician of considerable skill. He was collaborating for free with some major bands to enhance his personal brand. As such, he had some very interesting ideas about copyright. A student, originally only marginally interested in the class material, became a centerpiece of the class because I was able to incorporate his interests in to the class material
  • Understand where the students are in their lives and respect them for it—Most of our students are incredibly anxious about their futures. Contemplating the business and future of journalism is a far more trying experience for them that it is for a 60 year-old tenured professor. It is my obligation to meet them where they live. I can’t be disconnected from their reality. Some of my colleagues ask me why I keep changing my syllabus. The answer is simple, The world they are going to work in keeps changing so I have to change to keep the class relevant and engaging.
  • Read the class constantly. Be willing to trash your plan and go with what works.– I am always sensitive to what’s working and what’s not. Sometimes I will change directions in the middle of a class session and eliminate stuff that is boring the hell out of students. My basic rule is don’t talk more than 8 minutes without seeking discussion and input but if that material is putting people to sleep I move to another area..
  • Histrionics have their place—I have often said that if it will guarantee engagement I will wear a pink tutu and dance. I haven’t had to do that, but my infamous shouts of touchdown and weird “McGuirisms” are all designed to keep people awake and engaged. Just like producing a newscast or a newspaper you want surprises, rewards and “holy bleep Mabels” to retain audience.
  • Be passionate: If you don’t care, they won’t either—Passion will overcome a lot of engagement sins. Journalism and passion should go together. I believe totally and completely in what I did in the newsroom and I want students to see that. I want them to catch that same passion.
  • Teach critical thinking and values as much as stuff—Students find much of life, business and journalism to be mysterious. They are going to forget a lot of the stuff we teach them. They are not going to forget ideas about life or how to organize a cogent argument. The more relevancy we provide the more engagement we will get.

My biggest engagement challenges

The Hijackers—In a class that encourages participation you are always going to get a few “hijackers” that dominate the conversation. I admit to “hijacking” tendencies of my own so you’d think I’d be very sensitive to it, and yet I am not always. These dominators will ruin engagement in a heartbeat so you must stop them early. The right way to deal with them is before class in a private aside. The wrong way to deal with them is to engage them in class. Unfortunately, I have done both.

The quiet, inscrutable ones—The quiet students in your class are either very bright observers who are learning in their own way or they are disengaged slackers. I have not figured out ways to distinguish them. Sensitivity and finding their interest points are my only tools.

A class is a journey and where you end is what matters—The semester is long and bumpy. You try some things and they don’t work and you go back at it with more creativity. There have been semesters when I have called a time-out midway through a class and started over in the next class. Usually by the end of a class you have a rhythm of engagement that works.

You can’t please all the people all the time—Your act is simply not going to resonate with everyone. Some people will simply not engage for one reason or another. Move on. Make sure they don’t infect other people but do not spend 80 percent of your resource on the 5 percent who don’t want to play. That’s a crucial management lesson it took me years to learn, but it also applies to teaching.

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