In late September, I stood in front of a group of 33 young adults in a university classroom. They had registered for Comm 410, an undergraduate Media Ethics course at Portland State University, and I’d been hired as their adjunct instructor.
Like a new kid on the first day of school, I felt a jumble of emotions — nervousness, excitement and confidence, for sure, but mostly curiosity about how this venture would go and what we would learn together along the way.
Just 11 weeks later, I’m astonished at how quickly the academic quarter came and went. I’m also very satisfied — and very proud — at how everything came together for the students and me.
Related reading: My second act
Numerical scores and letter grades provide ways of measuring student achievement. But they don’t fully capture the individual progress one sees in a student who makes a commitment to embrace an unfamiliar subject. These were communications majors, not journalism students, and they knew far less than I imagined about the broad challenges facing contemporary mass media, let alone the differences among various local and national news outlets.
Much to my delight, several students emerged with newfound knowledge about the subject and, equally important, with insights into their own character.
As for me, I had multiple “ah-ha” moments along the way. Not the least of which was recognizing I needed to dial back my expectations if the students and I were going to be successful.
I came in thinking I’d be strict about insisting each and every writing assignment was turned in on time. After all, I reasoned, meeting deadlines is essential not just in journalism but in life in general. I also came in thinking I would turn a deaf ear to what I imagined would be a litany of excuses of why things couldn’t get done on time.
I was wrong. So wrong.
Simply put, I led with my head and learned with my heart.
There was no better time to teach Media Ethics than the fall of 2016. We were in the throes of a presidential campaign that never failed to surprise how low we could go as a nation in choosing the next occupant of the White House. Everyone had their take on the news media as a lap dog, watch dog or scapegoat.
This maelstrom of tweets, investigative reports, pussygate videos, rally coverage and “fake news” blazing across social media — all of it cried out for context and understanding. Meeting twice a week for two hours at a time, we sought to familiarize ourselves with philosophical concepts and ethical news values (such as accuracy, tenacity, transparency and equity) that could be applied to contemporary digital and print journalism.
With a roster of guest speakers whose real-world experiences made our textbook lessons come alive, we connected the dots in ways that left indelible impressions on the students. Hearing how these highly principled editors, reporters, photographers and public relations professionals were drawn to their work in the first place — and how they have dealt with so many tough ethical decisions in their careers — was eye-opening for the class.
These discussions were invariably livelier than anything I might present in a lecture, but that was my purpose. I wanted to lay the groundwork and then have each guest discuss a specific issue and/or recall a particular story that imparted a lesson. It worked.
So now, with the final exam in the rearview mirror and final grades posted, it’s time for my 9 takeaways. Some of these I already knew. Others I learned with my head, others with my heart.
1. Embrace diversity. In a class of 33 students, I had 18 men, 15 women. Of these, 15 were racial or ethnic minorities and 7 were athletes — 3 football players, 3 softball players and 1 sprinter on the track team. All were juniors and seniors, except for one sophomore. At least two were young moms. Another was the parent of two college-age daughters.
2. Make connections. On the first day, I told my students I grew up in a working-class, ethnic household and was the first in my family to attend college. I worked part-time and commuted 20 miles to school my first two years. I know the same was true for many of my students. Some were holding down two jobs and at least one was working full-time. Some were young parents as well. On a campus where the average age is 26, I could relate to these young adults as if they were my own children.
3. Be flexible. I came in thinking I’d be unyielding about deadlines. I didn’t anticipate the extent to which life intervenes. Students fell ill or had parents who did, necessitating visits to the emergency room. Others had employers who changed their work hours or scheduled mandatory training that conflicted with class hours. I saw no reason to penalize students who were trying their best to juggle school, work and family. In the end, what mattered to me was that the work got done.
4. Be patient. Two weeks into the term, I realized I had expected too much too soon. I’d assigned the first paper, asking students to connect their media consumption to one of a handful of ethical principles we’d discussed during our first classes. Reading their essays, it became obvious that they didn’t possess the same vocabulary I’d developed as a journalist nor had they been exposed to basic concepts I took for granted. I decided to return their papers with constructive feedback but no grades. More important, I announced we were hitting the reset button and starting fresh with Week Three. In retrospect, a good decision.
5. Bring in the experts. If there is anything that set my class apart, it was the ability to bring in local journalists and public relations professionals as guest speakers. Students heard from 11 individuals representing The Oregonian/OregonLive, Willamette Week, KGW, Pamplin Media Group, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland State University and more. It was a delight to see the interaction. Students’ questions elicited thoughtful responses from the pros that made it clear doing journalism or PR means constantly dealing with ethical dilemmas. How do you obtain and present the news? How do you deal with vulnerable sources and conflicts of interest? How do you frame stories and own up to errors? How you conduct yourself reflects on your personal integrity and your employer’s credibility.
6. Ask for help. I sought out plenty of assistance long before the first class from senior and junior faculty members in the Communications Department — and continued doing so as the term went on. I adapted some of what I’d seen online to my syllabus. More than once, I consulted with technical support staff so I’d know how to deal with classroom technology. And, not least, I relied on work-study students in the Comm Department for help photocopying essays and exams.
7. Be real. As the term went on, I became increasingly mindful of the big picture. Portland State is an urban campus with a high percentage of first-generation, part-time and transfer students where only 41 percent of full-time freshmen graduate within six years. (Compare that to just over 60 percent at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University.) You’ll never confuse this place with an elite liberal arts campus situated in some small town far away from urban areas. In such places, students straight out of high school typically have the luxury of going to school full-time, often with minimal financial worries or family obligations. At Portland State, not so much.
8. Be encouraging. Understanding that everyone starts in a different place gave me the perspective to calibrate my criticism. With some students who struggled to express themselves clearly, it was a matter of editing their papers in a way that reinforced the basics of grammar, punctuation and word choice. With more advanced students, it was a matter of challenging them to consider this idea or that concept. In either case, it had to be done with respect, not condescension, and I took care to praise visible progress. As I graded the final exam, I got a lump in my throat seeing that one student who had struggled early on had scored 90, the fourth-highest score in the class. Late in the term, about one-third of the class opted to do an extra-credit assignment to boost their chances of a better grade. For many, it was their best paper of the term.
9. Be grateful. In their last writing assignment and in emails, several students said they had learned a lot from the course and now viewed the mass media in an entirely different, more positive way. Some said Media Ethics was their favorite class. A few even said they were applying ethical principles to their behavior in everyday life. And then there was this from one of my quieter students: “This class truly changed my life and allowed me to learn so much…It changed my life in guiding me in a different career direction, and validating my thoughts of being a journalist. I know now that I am capable of being a journalist, and by taking this class I found that I possess a lot of the characteristics that it takes to be a good journalist. Thank you!!!!”
Seeing I had that kind of impact is pretty humbling and makes me excited for next term. I’ll be teaching Media Literacy during the winter quarter. Six of my students have signed up for the class. I take that as a good sign.
Next: A round of thank-yous