I know, I know. My last blog post was self-centered. Hard to avoid when talking about the many great opportunities that have come my way since leaving the newsroom and embracing the college classroom as my new workplace.
Today it’s all about the students. Those young (and not-so-young) men and women who enroll in your course expecting that you’ll have something of value to teach them. You’ve got a tremendous responsibility as an educator and you don’t want to let them down. So you put in the long weeknight and weekend hours, trying this and tweaking that and hoping you’ll see signs of making an impact. And when it happens, nothing could be sweeter.
During a 40-year career that spanned eight newsrooms in three states, I had the privilege of working with some great colleagues; of meeting and interviewing some fascinating people; of helping hundreds of people jump-start their careers; of adapting to rapidly changing technology that transformed every aspect of the way news is gathered, produced and distributed.
As a college instructor for the past nine-plus months, I’ve had the opportunity to take all that experience and find ways to share it with my students so they can become smarter consumers of modern media, and more aware of the economic and ethical challenges facing journalists and the companies that employ them. All of this work is aimed at increasing the media literacy of a new generation of college students, a responsibility I don’t take lightly.
During the past academic year, I’ve taught three classes at Portland State with a total enrollment of 150 and two classes at Washington State University Vancouver with about 40 more. With class sizes ranging from 18 to 70 and class starting-times ranging from 8 a.m. to noon, one goal was just keeping students awake. Seriously.
Those early-bird morning classes were a challenge for many students — especially those who work and/or have families — because it meant getting up early to catch public transportation or commute by car from the ‘burbs or beyond. Wintry weather at the start of the year didn’t help. Likewise, a midday class that led into the early afternoon hours could be a challenge for the sleep-deprived whose caffeine had worn off.
But that was a minor issue. More often, I found the vast majority of students engaged, eager to learn and genuinely curious, and many of them not hesitant at all to question or take issue with a point I had just made. I loved that aspect, going back and forth as one adult to another and having others join the conversation.
Though I used a textbook in each class and designed most of my lectures around them, it was during the class discussions that I sensed much of the real learning took place. When ideas are explained and challenged, facts are given meaning, and dots are connected, that’s when greater understanding comes in the form of context and insight.
During the course of each of my communications classes, I tried to demonstrate to the students what I know from experience: that journalism is an honorable profession dedicated to the pursuit of truth. We get criticized by people on both ends of the spectrum for multiple perceived sins — that we are biased, that we are pushing an agenda, that we have little or no regard for facts. There are even some, from the Tweeter-in-Chief on down, who believe we literally make s*** up.
Before you accuse a news organization or an individual journalist of bias, consider your own, I urge my students. All too often, what a reader dislikes or disputes reflects his or her own opinions and life experiences, or lack thereof.
Journalists do make errors. Teachers make errors, too — as do doctors, lawyers, mechanics, engineers and retail clerks. And each of those professions, like journalism, has its bad apples. But that’s no reason to dismiss the good intentions and good work of the vast majority in any of those fields.
One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of teaching is trying to connect with a diverse cross-section of students. I’m happy to say that task is made easier by knowing that, by and large, students at both campuses come to class without a sense of entitlement, unlike many young people of privilege who enroll at private, liberal arts schools.
PSU is a commuter school nestled in the heart of downtown Portland. WSU Vancouver has no dorms. Both schools attract a lot of folks from the working class, many of whom are transfer students from community colleges.
In their brown, black, yellow, red and white faces, I see myself: a first-generation college student at a state college, the son of parents who had no opportunity to attend high school. I commuted for two years before moving into an off-campus apartment with roommates, paid my way through school with scholarships and a part-time job, and did better academically in college than I did in high school.
Older students. The student bodies at both PSU and WSUV have a much greater proportion of non-traditional students than do most four-year schools. Looking out at my class, I see plenty of folks in their mid- to late 20s and early 30s. Two of my students were in their 60s. Others were as young as 19.
Many of my students are parents themselves, some with toddlers, others with teenagers. Those experiences often add humor or wisdom to our discussions. Some have learning disabilities requiring special accommodations. During one class last fall, a student (a young mom) had a full-blown seizure. One student called 9-1-1, while others helped me comfort the student until paramedics arrived.
Working students. A majority of students worked — most part-time, but some full-time, even while taking a full course load. Many students worked in retail at places like Best Buy, Starbucks and Sephora, while others had work-study jobs around campus. A recurring issue for some was having to miss class because an employer would schedule them for a shift with little notice. As a result, I made it a point to be flexible about deadlines for class assignments.
Athletes. I had three football players, two soccer players and two softball players in my classes. I would have liked to see them compete, but purposely didn’t attend any games for fear that doing so might influence me in grading their work. I was happy to be asked to sign off on progress reports that kept the athletic department apprised of how each student-athlete was doing in class.
Demographics. PSU is the most diverse of Oregon’s seven public colleges and universities. I love that aspect, all the more so because of the large number of international students. Roughly 1 in 5 students in my PSU classes was born outside the United States. They’ve come here from Japan, Laos, China, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, Ghana, Russia, Ukraine, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Beyond race and ethnicity, there is a good cross-section of students from rural and suburban communities, as well as cities; a handful of home-schooled students and military brats; a number who are openly gay; and several men and women who’ve served in the Armed Forces. It’s an honor to teach the veterans, knowing they are on the same path as my youngest son, who just obtained his bachelors degree with the help of the G.I. Bill.
Role model. Like it or not, I realize I am a role model to many of my students. Several have told me they’ve never taken a course from a Latino professor or high school teacher. In one class alone, I had six Latino/as, including a grandmother from Salinas, California, where my parents met as children of migrant farmworker families, and two who arrived from Mexico as undocumented children. Having that cultural connection is pretty special.
Bottom line: All in all, this gig as an adjunct instructor has been a great experience. The pay is notoriously low, especially when you factor in the countless hours outside the classroom. Grading a stack of essays can take far longer than you ever imagined, given the less-than-stellar writing ability of many students, especially those for whom English is a second language.
But nothing is more rewarding than seeing a student struggle and then blossom. There is a profound joy in knowing I’ve had a role in providing greater understanding of a subject and contributing to a greater sense of personal confidence.
I’ve seen the results of four Instructor Evaluation surveys now — two from PSU, two from WSUV. Happily, the students have given me very positive marks along with suggestions for improvement: Be more organized. Trust yourself more instead of relying too much on the textbooks.
One student wrote: “It help me a lot in the sense of how I now view media. I have learn so much throughout the course from guest speakers and of course the material. The assignment were somewhat difficult in the sense that my writing skills are not as good, but he was very good at providing me with great feedback on all of my assignment.”
Spelling and grammar flaws? Yes.
But the sentiment? Priceless.
Previously: A rookie no more