On Teaching

Teaching writing

C.S. Lewis said people read to be not alone. Fine writers strive to make intimate connections with their readers. Literature, in all its manifestations, is the primary medium through which we try to explain the courses of our lives. Good journalism has literary aspirations in the sense that literature is memorable writing, words that leave us with lasting impressions. The best print journalists strive to create literature in their stories, at the least a form of literature on the run, the literature of the people, of free people in a democratic society. The literature of journalism is expressed through stories that are true. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, says print journalists help us understand the wilderness of our experience by erecting the fenceposts of a beginning, middle and an end.

In my own writing and as a teacher of writing, I follow the vision of William Strunk, the teacher of the great essayist and journalist E.B. White. Strunk’s instructions should hang over every writer’s desk: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” Clear and vigorous writing results from clear and vigorous thinking. People read to be not alone, therefore nothing is more important than the clarity of the transmission from writer to reader.
Can university professors teach students to write? The simple answer is yes. We can teach students to write in the same way that music teachers instruct students who are learning to play instruments. We teach principles of composition and grammar and establish practice regimes. Even the most gifted students of music must practice their scales. We introduce students to examples of fine writing, to train their ears and eyes to distinguish good from bad, sweet harmonies from discordant voices. We design exercises to help them develop their aesthetic abilities and techniques as observers and listeners. Then they take these principles and techniques and retire to their practice rooms where they strive to express themselves clearly. In time, they become storytellers and creators of literature.

For the past three years I have approached the teaching writing at St. Thomas in this fashion. During this time I have found that the quality of writing produced by students who embrace the process improves dramatically. They begin to express themselves in clear, clean language. Then the students become writers and the professor becomes a writing coach.
My writing classes combine lectures about writing principles, readings of examples of fine journalistic writing and writing workshops that allow students to read their work aloud to be critiqued by their colleagues. In between classes, I try to have as many exchanges as possible with students about their writing, often by e-mail. Fine writing emerges from the rewriting process. When students learn the art of revision, they have become writers.

Teaching Journalism

There is currently a fierce debate within journalism schools in North America about what we should be teaching journalism students. The debate began at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City when Columbia’s president refused to appoint a new dean of journalism until the most distinguished programme in North America defined its mission more clearly. Should journalism schools teach students practical skills, such as basic reporting and training in the various technologies they may encounter on the job, or is journalism a legitimate academic pursuit? Clearly there is a problem in many journalism schools throughout North America. For example, a recent survey of journalism students in Canada and the United States suggested that the majority of students studying journalism don’t read newspapers, watch television newscasts or listen to radio reports. If students who were attending our music schools didn’t listen to music we would know we were facing a serious problem.

In my view, journalism is a legitimate academic pursuit. During my time at St. Thomas I have designed journalism courses and approached the study of journalism with this in mind. We introduce students to technology by allowing them to tell stories in the various media they will encounter in the workplace, however our aspirations for the journalism programme are greater than creating a technical primer. The best journalists are curious, independent, critical thinkers. They are voracious readers, keen observers and clear writers. The student defined by St. Thomas goals for a liberal arts education is the ideal journalist. An education in journalism should teach students how to think not what to think.

In the general journalism courses I have taught at St. Thomas (Introduction to Journalism and Free Speech and the Free Press), I have allowed students to consider the possibilities of journalism as a moving force in democratic society. I have encouraged them to challenge their preconceptions about the free media, to consider how free speech becomes an end in itself, and to openly critique the work of a wide range of journalists. I have introduced them to a wide variety of texts to allow them to begin to make connections between the central themes of writers in different times and places and to recognize the central theme of all fine storytelling, which is a search for the nature of human virtue.