newsmeeting

The sophomores were having trouble with the Monday morning news quiz. In the first three weeks, only two students had passed even once, and a passing grade here is only 60. It’s not as if the questions were obscure or they didn’t understand English. The stories had been all over the media: “Why did a 3-year-old Syrian boy make the news this week?” “How are Central European countries reacting to the refugee crisis?” “What big mistake did the Egyptian military make last week?”

It’s bad enough that they were flunking the quizzes, but they also weren’t learning anything. “Why are you majoring in international journalism if you don’t pay attention to the news?” I asked. Two dozen blank faces stared back. So I took another tack: “Next week, I’m making you responsible for the quiz. We’ll have a news meeting.”

The class would become a news organization, most likely a website, based in Guangzhou but aimed at an international audience. I would be the chief editor; the students would form teams representing six news departments. They would propose stories for home-page consideration; I would choose seven or eight and explain why.

A week later, it wasn’t exactly the Page 1 meeting at The New York Times (from which this exercise is admittedly cribbed), but it was a start. Having budgeted half the class, 45 minutes, I pushed the meeting along much as a pressed-for-time masthead editor at The Times would have, by barking out questions: “What do you have on the two shootings after the Oregon shootings?” (More blank faces.) “What’s your next story?” “What else have you got?” The students wrote too much information on the whiteboard, talked to the board instead of the class, and humbly recited their stories instead of selling them. Well, they’re sophomores; they haven’t sat through those Page 1 meetings yet. But at least they were paying attention. At the end, I asked if they wanted to continue with news meetings or go back to the traditional quizzes. Silly question.

Here at Jinan University, I am literally starting from scratch. After three years of coaching graduate students at CUNY, many of whom arrived with significant professional experience, I’m back to undergraduates, teaching their first professional courses in the new international journalism program. One of the most important lessons I can teach them is that a journalist must be adaptable. I had to adapt a teaching method that wasn’t working. They have to adapt themselves to so much more: a new classroom style, professional expectations, a new way of looking at the world.

“How many lectures a week do you have?” other foreign experts here have asked. “Four,” I answer, but it’s hard to think of them as lectures. I teach three courses, each two hours a week, to roughly the same group of sophomores. (I also have one bubbly class of freshmen for oral English.) The courses make a nice balance in subject matter and work, for all of us.

“English News Gathering and Writing I” is what the title says: an introduction to who-what-when-where-why, inverted pyramid and basic reporting techniques, like asking questions and getting the facts straight. When I took the equivalent, called Journ 213 at Penn State circa 1973, we met in a lab room with typewriters nailed to the desks and had assignments like covering town council meetings. Here we meet in a lecture classroom, and I doubt if any Chinese government body would welcome 25 note-taking undergraduates to whatever public meetings it holds. Still, through classroom exercises and homework, they’re learning — some the hard way — about organizing information, meeting deadlines and not plagiarizing. (First lesson: a PBS documentary on Jayson Blair.) Like the news meetings, it’s a start. The final project will be a fully reported story, 1,000-word minimum, considered a long story in Craft I at CUNY.

“Survey of English-Speaking Countries” is my most lecture-like course, and much the same as I’ve taught in Hunan and Poland: social studies on the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Through lectures, readings and videos, I hope to give a taste of what it’s like to live in these countries and look at them from a journalist’s point of view. Grading is based on three written exams, two take-homes and a closed-book final.

Having spent little time editing foreign news since The Boston Globe in 1980,
I felt relatively unqualified to teach “International News Comparison and Analysis,” but I’m making it up as I go along. It now consists of half news meeting/quiz, half close reading and discussion of current news texts; with luck and a little tech support (ha!), I hope to Skype in two guest speakers with foreign reporting backgrounds. Class participation, i.e., the news meetings, makes up a big chunk of the grade; the final project will be an essay, five pages minimum, analyzing media coverage of an international issue during the semester.

While teaching journalism, I’m also teaching a little ESL and basic Western presentation skills, like projecting the voice and speaking confidently, rather than mumbling into a notebook, and not standing in front of the material on the board or slides. For that reason, the students spend a lot of time on their feet in front of the class. It’s a new experience, I think, for most of them.

On Pearl TV from Hong Kong the other night, I caught the finale of “The School That Turned Chinese,” a BBC series about a British secondary school that imported Chinese teachers for four weeks to test whether their far more demanding methods produced better results. In this case, they did, in the form of test scores – which, as American educators should know by now, are no definitive measure of learning. One of my “takeaways” — that’s teacher talk for the basic message students take away from a given lesson – was that Chinese education stresses conformity, becoming a good citizen to serve the country. That may help explain my students’ hesitation to speak up and stand out. But it’s the opposite of what it takes to be an international journalist.

That said, some are already showing promise. I pride myself on being able to spot early on who’s going to make it in journalism and who’s not. (I spotted AP’s Jerry Schwartz, recently celebrated on jimromenesko.com, the first night he dropped off his copy – on paper — at The Daily Collegian.) Among my sophomores, I can see at least two students with serious CUNY potential, in four or five years. They’re smart; they ask good questions; they speak and write English well; some are already engaged in entrepreneurialism.

And they’re digital natives. They may not carry laptops everywhere, but they use their phones as extensions of their brains: as dictionaries, research tools, references when they present to the class. Sometimes they take notes by photographing the whiteboard. They know every news app in existence, even The Times’s new bilingual digest on WeChat, which their government has theoretically blocked. They’ve already been there, read that.

Of course, their chief editor is still Old Lady Print Journalist. At the news meetings, I select seven or eight stories for a front page or home page, as if the news hole were still finite and mattered. Chinese students generally save their real, burning questions for after class, and on Saturday the ever-perceptive Bonnie came up to ask, “How important is that, when we have all these apps that know what we want to read, and our phones know us better than we know ourselves?” Good point, I said, and please raise that question on Monday. She had just given me another lesson plan. Thanks, Bonnie.

Saturday was a makeup for a class missed during the Golden Week holiday, to be followed by the regularly scheduled class – and news meeting — just two days later. “We have to do it again?” the sophomores groaned. Gently, I explained that when they’re out of school and working in the media, they’ll have to perform at news meetings (and produce a publication) every day. That’s another of the lessons I hope they’re learning.

One thought on “Starting from scratch

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