These were among the highlights of the decade I’ve spent teaching journalism at a community college. And they made me wonder: Why journalism? What was it about this form — often disdained as non-literary — that engaged students more deeply with their research and writing?
Full disclosure: I’m no expert in journalism. I’m an associate professor of English who has a doctorate in women’s studies and contemporary literature. I fell into teaching journalism back in 2008, after I agreed to advise the student newspaper when the liberal arts college where I taught was in a pinch. (My role as advisor mostly consisted of attending biweekly production nights to eat Oreos and chat with the editors who probably would have been fine without me.)
A few years later, when interviewing at Queensborough Community College — one of the consortia of colleges that make up the City University of New York, or CUNY — the department chair raised an eyebrow, cocked his head and said: “So you review books for the Christian Science Monitor …” I do! “… and you advised the student newspaper at your last job …” I did! “Would you be interested in teaching journalism?” I stifled a laugh of surprise. Was he kidding? I’d love to!
This even though I had never taken, let alone taught, a journalism course. A friend in broadcasting was supportive:
“You’ll be fine,” she said. “Just start with the inverted pyramid.”
“The inverted what?” I asked, reaching for my laptop.
“Oh, wow,” she said. “You are in trouble.”
That was in 2013. I spent the next decade teaching journalism to myself and my students while advising Queensborough’s newspaper, the Communiqué. Our students don’t have much time for extracurriculars, so the previous instructor baked the newspaper into the journalism course. The textbook I inherited highlighted media convergence and “citizen journalism” as buzzy new trends; no mention of Twitter or Facebook or even “social media.” Beyond explaining concepts like ledes and the inverted pyramid (I learned as I taught), the book didn’t seem to offer much, so I created my own lessons on the fly. I drew from the Guardian, The Cut, “On the Media” and the like, often jotting notes from whatever NPR was airing on my commute to campus. By 2016, I built in significant time for disinformation — how to identify it, what incentivizes its production, how it proliferates, its distinction from bias or slant.
All this time, as technology and social media were exploding the journalism landscape, there was one constant: Students loved the class. And, they said, it taught them to write. They wrote it on their course evaluations, but they also brought it up unsolicited at the end of the term, confessing they hadn’t liked English before — they were “bad” at it — but our journalism class was different.
I kept this to myself for a while. It would be humble-bragging to talk about how much my students loved me, er, my class. But over the years I realized that students from my other classes weren’t rushing in at semester’s end to say how my class had changed their lives or their writing.
Perhaps it wasn’t my teaching that fueled the rave reviews of the journalism class. Perhaps it was something about journalism itself.
Community colleges could save us
Community college students are a huge and diverse swath of our population. There are 1,044 in the U.S., awarding 878,900 Associate degrees in 2018-19. More than 40 percent of undergrad’s that year attended “CCs” (as I’ll abbreviate them) and almost 40 percent of all first-year college students were enrolled at CCs.
When it comes to journalism classes, community colleges are all over the map. Some are housed in communications departments and others in English. Most exist as a lonely elective floating in a sea of courses in media, literature and creative writing. Some CCs offer no journalism at all; others offer it as a cycle of courses, like at Kingsborough CC, another CUNY campus, but these are rare.
However journalism fits in a particular program, it’s important to note that it often is taught in a lab-like model; I think of it as “immersive journalism.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: Toohey refers to an immersive approach of teaching journalism, not necessarily the the kind of immersion done by a journalist in the field.) Los Angeles CC offers an Associate of Arts in Journalism, with publication laboratories that produce the student newspapers. At Bunker Hill, Massachusetts’s largest CC, the catalogue is pretty explicit: Journalism “combines class discussions of journalistic principles with practice in writing news stories,” then “shifts emphasis to field work for the student newspaper.” In the Community College of Rhode Island’s “Media Writing” course, “almost all assignments are designed to get published,” says Professor Holly Susi. In “Fundamentals of American Journalism,” Susi’s students write opinion pieces that get sent to professional media outlets; one had a piece published as a letter-to-editor in a Rhode Island daily newspaper.
It’s important to note that it often is taught in a lab-like model.
This is partly pragmatic: It’s hard to produce an extracurricular news site at a commuter college where students are already stretched thin by financial and family obligations. But there’s also a pedagogical side: Reporting is a remarkably effective way to teach students how to research and write. It’s also way, way more applicable to the world outside college. A third plus: Learning the basics of journalism while producing a student newspaper is the glue that holds the class together; students bond through their collaboration and become invested in their campus community. This is no small thing: Community is notoriously hard to cultivate at community colleges, which are rarely residential. There’s no dorm life, and two-thirds to three-quarters of the students work at paying jobs.
Professor Sharon O’Malley, who teaches journalism at Anne Arundel CC in Maryland has taken note of the way her students stay in touch with each other, even going on to room together at four-year schools. “I have my journalism students all the time telling me that they’re doing better in English,” she adds. “They’re doing better in other classes when they write papers, because they’re writing directly to the point.”
Several journalism instructors echoed this, from other CC professors to former New York Times editor-in-chief Jill Abramson, who teaches “Introduction to Journalism: Workshop” at Harvard and stays in touch with her students long after they graduate.
If it’s such a good way to cultivate community and strong writings skills (not to mention news media literacy, which I’ll get to later), why aren’t we all teaching first-year college students journalism?
It’s not the 1960s, so why are we still teaching like it is?
The principles of journalism run counter to the philosophy that has shaped the writing curricula of American colleges for more than 50 years. This field is known as “comp,” short for “composition.” Comp classes are widespread throughout CCs and four-year public universities as gateway courses. They introduce students to college writing through:
- Personal narrative
- Process over product
- Argument and persuasion
So in journalism I essentially have to un-teach students most of what was taught in their previous English courses.
Before getting into why these three legs of the comp stool are not what today’s college students need most, it’s instructive to scan comp’s evolution.
I essentially have to un-teach students most of what was taught in their previous English courses.
Comp as a field has a 1960s vibe. Assignments tend to center self-expression, usually requiring that students relate a personal experience or argue a point. They are encouraged to “find their ‘voice” in a personal or literary narrative that explores how they came to be who they are or reflect on their evolution as a reader/writer. Two colleagues (one directs a comp program and the other a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program) told me that the process of composing is emphasized. The journey, as it’s been taught, is more important than the destination. At the course’s culmination, students argue a thesis supported by library research.
This all feels very American. But the case for personal writing was first made by a Brit with the very British name of James Britton. This was at the Dartmouth Conference of 1966, famous among comp scholars as a sort of Woodstock of Comp. There, Britton and his colleagues from the London School of Education advocated for a method that “ privileged students’ personal responses” as an antidote to more rigid models of writing favored in the competitive post-Sputnik culture of the U.S. Though other approaches developed in the growing field of comp, none seriously questioned Britton’s premise of prioritizing individual expression as the path to good writing.
Personal writing will not save us
The model that Dartmouth sparked may have made sense in the 1960s. It certainly captured the zeitgeist.
But starting college with personal writing makes far less sense for the technologies and culture of the 21st century. We’re no longer bucking a man-in-the-grey-flannel-suit conformist culture. The U.S. is oversaturated with personal narrative. We swim in selfies.
Alexis Redding, co-chair of Higher Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, is among those who question the wisdom of assigning personal narrative to first-year students. Redding has drawn on ethnography and developmental psychology to study how college students navigate the undergraduate years. She characterizes first-year college students as “in transition, decoupled from everything they know and in a state of disequilibrium.” In light of that, she says: “Developmentally, it’s actually inappropriate for them to write personal narrative for a class assignment That exact moment when everything seems out of kilter is exactly the moment we’re asking for a deep level of vulnerability in telling their personal story to someone they do not know and who is evaluating their work. It’s potentially detrimental.”
Comp instructors frame these assignments as “invitations” to “share.” But students are as likely to experience it as a pressure to expose themselves in a way that feels performative. This can be especially true for students of color when a white instructor occupies the role of power at the front of the classroom. Jonathan Rabb, founder of Watch the Yard, an online forum for Black college students, put it this way: “You get taught Americans want this ‘overcoming narrative.’ If it’s done the wrong way, (Black students) think they need to unpack traumas in front of the group for a grade. With students of color, you’re taught that the only way white people will listen to you is if you tell them about trauma.”
Personal narrative can be empowering under the right circumstances, of course. Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me,” Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” or Susan Madera’s “One Voice” (widely anthologized in comp textbooks) are powerful personal narratives about racial and class marginalization. But Tan and Alexie were award-winning writers when they penned these essays. Many first-year college students, by contrast, are struggling with imposter syndrome, especially true at community colleges which draw more first-generation students.
As Andrew Levy, a fellow CUNY journalism professor, told me: “Many of my students at BMCC are from underprivileged backgrounds. They’re smart — it’s not about that. But they’re insecure.”
This creates a dilemma for professors: How do you grade someone who has just opened up by writing about their high school teacher’s scorn for their accent or some other deeply private experience? A common response is to grade them less on the strength of their writing and more on their willingness to share something, anything, personal. That gives students an unrealistic expectation of how their writing will be treated in their other college classes and out in the world.
Journalism doesn’t require students to serve the trauma-drama of their private lives on the academic altar.
Journalism, by contrast, doesn’t require students to serve the trauma-drama of their private lives on the academic altar. Nor does it require students to factor out their life experiences. Instead of asking students to expose themselves, journalism frames their knowledge and experiences as potential areas of expertise. (More on this point to come.)
Process (also) will not save us
Process-based writing has value. In journalism, for example, students reflect in an ungraded post on how they researched and wrote their articles, assessing both their strengths and the areas to improve. I’m not suggesting we jettison process writing, but rather that we complicate it. This is because, in focusing so much on process, we’ve created a false dichotomy of process versus product. Frankly, “product” is also pretty unappealing; it smacks of the factory model of education.
What if we reframe the conversation around the value of public writing? Essays read solely by the professor are transactional: You hand in a paper; I give you a grade. Technology has shaken up this model a bit through discussion boards where students comment on readings or on Google docs, but these are usually low-stakes, making up a small percentage of a course grade. Even requiring students to read peers’ essays is more like an extended family gathering than true public writing.
For students to strive for writing that is compelling and clear, they need a wider, more authentic audience. Immersive journalism — that lab model I described above — does that organically.
In comp, it’s common to assign students multiple drafts or revisions of a paper; in WAC courses it’s often required. It’s also common for students not to turn them in (yes, even when they count for a grade) or, when they do, to add a comma here or delete a word there, following whatever grammar notes were given on an earlier draft.
For students to strive for writing that is compelling and clear, they need a wider, more authentic audience.
Students take the writing process more seriously in journalism because of its public nature. I see that most in drafting and revision, but journalism’s collaborative nature helps. Students seek support from their peers and are expected to solicit it from their editors. When a line of students is waiting to talk to me (nine times out of 10, they have a page or two of a story draft, waiting to ask, Is this good?) I send them to peers who have strengths that match their needs. It only takes a homework post or two to know who is equipped to give what kind of support.
Says Redding of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education: “You’re giving students not only a sense of empowerment, you’re giving them a forum where they can share their emerging expertise.” She assigns op-eds to be submitted to a news outlet of the students’ choice. Several have been published, one in a local newspaper in Hawaii, another in the BU campus paper and another in Inside Higher Ed. “What I hadn’t anticipated was how meaningful it would be for their knowledge to be celebrated and validated,” she says.
Holly Susi in Rhode Island has had a similar experience: “Having an audience changes their viewpoints. Understanding that they are journalists gives them a sense of responsibility. That goes a long way toward helping them see the usefulness of what they’re learning.”
My own students take great pride when their bylined work appears on our digital platform or in print. Many send their clips back to grandparents who still live in another country.
Redding points to other benefits, such as the way a news site can cultivate engagement with the community around campus and may “demystify college by putting something readable into the community, where (a student) can say ‘Look, Mom, here’s what I ‘m doing.’” Those articles are proof that the student is learning and growing.
This is especially important for community college students, who, again, are often the first-generation to attend college.
Arguing will not save us
Recently, I went out on a limb and asked my 9-year-old if he wanted to try a new TV show with me. I warned that he might dismiss it as too grown-up to his liking. About 10 minutes into “The Good Place,” a sitcom set in the afterlife, he turned to me and said, “This actually seems like the Bad Place.”
I’m not usually a chicken-soup-for-the-soul type, but here I’ll indulge in one of those why-can’t-we-just-play-by-the-schoolyard-rules rhetorical questions: Why are we emphasizing argumentation and persuasion over curiosity, balance and representation?
No, really, non-rhetorically, why? Or, in multiple choice form:
Given the choice of what to prioritize in higher education, do we think our world needs more practice and skill in
- making a claim about an issue, based on an opinion, and arguing for it
- formulating questions on an issue of interest and asking a diverse range of people those questions with the goal of understanding and representing multiple experiences and points-of-view
If you said (a) you may as well stop reading now. But I will continue to press my case: Journalism can cultivate curiosity, openness, respect and collaborative problem-solving —good things that would make our world a Good Place, or at least a better one.
Journalism can cultivate curiosity, openness, respect and collaborative problem-solving.
The question is one of priority. Learning to persuade or argue a point is a valuable skill. But do we want to place it first and foremost in the college experience? What would it look like if students were introduced to college by learning how to show curiosity, formulate questions, conduct interviews and fairly represent viewpoints other than their own in their writing? What if their first experience of choosing a topic to research and write on was based not just on their own interests, but on what could benefit their community?
It is part of American culture to view community in opposition to individuality. Community gets conflated with conformity and constraint (not to mention communism!), a thread that runs through the American canon, from “Huck Finn” to “On the Road” to “Catcher in the Rye.” In that light, it’s not surprising that no matter how innovative writing pedagogy becomes, we drag along the 1960s zeitgeist of amped-up individualism.
Journalism counters this tendency by suggesting that “finding yourself” is not a solo project but something that unfolds in relation to community. Done right, immersive journalism instills a sense of responsibility to engage with people with opposing points of view — all the more valuable, Redding notes, “because students may not be getting that modeled anywhere else.”
Journalism as “Third Space” and “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy”
Two concepts in pedagogical theory get at the heart of journalism’s value in the classroom. The first is “third space,” which emerged from the writings of postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha. In his book “The Location of Culture,” Bhabha argues for a space of cultural hybridity that is productive by “elud(ing) the politics of polarity.”
An immersive journalism class is a natural third space. Students create it by bringing knowledge from their “first space” of home, peers, and community to the “second space” of institutional school. The merger is evident in the stories they produce. Some examples I’ve seen include:
- a DACA student reporting on the status of DACA legislation
- a bio major reporting on women in STEM
- a Chinese-speaking student interviewing members of a Chinese immigrant community in their native language
- a theater major reviewing the college’s new production
- coverage of any issues directly affecting their lives as students, from rising rents to COVID protocols to stop-and-frisk
The experience brought from their first space can also generate a deeper understanding of a journalistic concept; for instance, a Muslim student notices a double standard in a newspaper’s use of the term “terrorist,” which sparks a discussion about the skewed demographics of newsrooms and how that contributes to bias.
Comp content tends instead to be driven by the instructor’s interests. “There are always faculty that have pet interests and then make their students read about whatever that is all semester,” says CUNY’s Andrew Levy. “Then the students complain to me that they’re tired of reading about vampires all the time because that’s their professor’s thing.”
Does that mean journalism can give students some agency? “Yes,” he says. “I like that word.”
“Culturally relevant pedagogy” (CRP) relates closely. The term was coined by educational researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings to frame the values and practices of teachers in Black classrooms that help “students to accept and affirm their cultural identity while developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools …perpetuate.”
Like third space, CRP is organic to journalism. It emphasizes dialectical learning, which underlies immersive journalism as students work in teams by beat or section to refine story ideas or share source contacts. It also, Ladson-Billings writes, “encourage(s) a community of learners, rather than competitive, individual achievement.” Lab journalism classes elevate the expertise each student possesses, encouraging classmates to tap that resource. Expertise might mean language skills (in English to edit, or in other languages for interviews) or contacts, or any knowledge that one student shares to support another.
CRP hinges on an “ethic of caring” — not so much through individual nurturance, according to Ladson-Billings, but by “preparing the student for confronting inequitable and undemocratic social structures.” How better to encourage an ethic of caring than for students to learn how to report on issues that touch their lives? Their work amplifies the voices of marginalized people — a core tenet of journalism and democracy — highlighting both the needs and good of those communities. For example, a student might cover a musician or movie that’s relevant to them — perhaps for reasons of geography, religion, race or class — but has been overlooked by mainstream critics.
As professor/editor/advisor, I don’t see what my students see, or at least, not in the same way. My job is not to script them or assign the stories I think are important. My job is to help them see the knowledge they already bring to our classroom and teach them how to build on it for the public good.
A short note on news media literacy: Library search engines are not our friends
Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, researchers have written reams about media literacy as a fundamental skill required for a healthy democracy. As Stanford history and education professor Sam Wineberg says: “The only way that we can deal with these kinds of issues (of disinformation) are through educational programs and recognizing that the kinds of things that we worry about — the ability to determine what is reliable or not reliable, that is the new basic skill in our society.”
What better way to develop news media literacy than through journalism? It’s a must if students are reporting news that requires direct, up-to-date information — the kind that isn’t found in peer-reviewed journals, encyclopedias or library search engines.
Why journalism needs our students
For most students, where you go to college is shaped by your financial situation. College’s financial underpinnings are also manifest in a web of influential factors, from the resources of the high school you attend to your guidance counselor’s relationships with admissions offices to the network of people your family knows.
Community colleges carry an unfortunate stigma born out of Americans’ delusion that we live in a meritocracy. My students themselves are often self-deprecating about attending a CC, which pains me to no end. Yet Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Trymaine Lee was a community college graduate, as was Jim Lehrer. Other luminaries include Amy Tan, Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Queen Latifah, astronaut Eileen Collins and actor Tom Hanks, who makes a compelling case for why a CC education should be accessible to all Americans.
When I say journalism needs our students, it’s not just for equity’s sake. It’s for the sake of better journalism, which hinges on representation.
Journalism has much to offer community college students, but journalism also needs our students.
As the AP reported in October 2021, newsroom demographics are blurry at best because of their reticence to self-report. A Pew report from 2020 reports that “Newsroom employees are less demographically diverse than U.S. workers overall:” Approximately “three-quarters of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic white,” 61% are male, and “almost half are non-Hispanic white men, compared with about a third (34%) of workers overall.”
“Why is newsworthiness so raced and classed? It’s all about who’s in the room,” photographer and New York Times columnist Teju Cole has said. The media culture functions for white consumers.”
Also consider Moustafa Bayoumi’s “What’s a ‘lone wolf’? It’s the special name we give white terrorists”; Pacinthe Mattar’s “Objectivity is a Privilege Afforded to White Journalists”; and Tara Pixley’s “Why We Need More Visual Journalists and Editors of Color.” While diversity isn’t a panacea for inequality, as Janelle Salenga has argued, representation is an important step in righting the balance in coverage of issues like policing and health and crime and education and employment — really, any and all aspects of our society.
And it’s key that diversity encompass economic class, as well as racial diversity.
Journalism has much to offer community college students, but journalism also needs our students. It needs their intelligence, their experiences and their perspectives.
“What would it look like to value lived experiences in reporters, not just institutional training?” Salanga asks. “What would it look like to visualize journalism as something we co-create with communities, honoring the agency of the people we interview?”
It would look like reporting for a student newspaper at a community college.
Elizabeth Toohey is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York, where she has taught journalism since 2013. She has published extensively in journals and anthologies on the influence of 9/11 in film and fiction, and as a book critic for the Christian Science Monitor. A 2020 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow, she is writing a book on her experiences teaching journalism.