Gerald Grow, Grammar Guru

“In a manner of speaking, students cannot learn journalism; they can only learn to become journalists. That is, students cannot remain who they used to be and just add journalism to that self. They must experience a transformation of identity, skills, habits, and values, a transformation in the way they think and know and see the world — the transformation of becoming a producer of journalism and not just a consumer of it. It’s like that point in learning a foreign language when you begin to think in that language.” — Gerald Grow, professor of journalism (retired), Florida A&M University, in “When Journalism Majors Don’t Know Grammar (causes, considerations, and approaches),” from ASJMC Insights,  Spring 2006

This bears repeating: “[S]tudents cannot remain who they used to be and just add journalism to that self. They must experience a transformation of identity, skills, habits, and values, a transformation in the way they think and know and see the world … “

Some might argue Gerald’s point that students must become producers of journalism and not just consumers of it in a world in which everyone, especially current college students, publishes all the time to Facebook, Twitter and so on. But publishing is not journalism. Publishing is a necessary but not sufficient condition for becoming a journalist. It is the critical mindset; the thirst for understanding and describing events, people, trends; the voracious reading — these are the necessary and sufficient conditions.

Which brings me back to Reporting in NYC, Winter 2010. Course requirements, expressed in the syllabus and on the first day of class, include “Come to class prepared to discuss the news of the day.” I told the students to read all metro and regional coverage in The New York Times. I assigned each of the six students to bring either the New York Post or the New York Daily News to class each morning.

I assumed it was clear that this meant buying the paper at the start of the commute, reading it on bus, ferry, subway or train, and being fully abreast of the latest developments by the 9:30 start of class. I hoped that each would go to nytimes.com the night before class and learn the history and context of the day’s news from the lengthier stories there. (It’s horrifying how short the tabs’ non-scandal coverage of most local stories has become — a few grafs at the bottom of each page. But that’s a post for another day.)

So far, only one student has come to class prepared.

Understanding that this kind of work informs the journalistic mindset — that it must take place — is the part of the transformation Gerald described so acutely in his 2006 piece on teaching grammar. The connection with grammar comes, in part, with his observation that “it is possible that the problem of grammar might prompt journalism schools to refocus many types of instruction in order to deal with the underlying problems that originally led to the grammar problem. The goal in this case is not to teach grammar, but to teach students to figure things out for themselves — in preparation for a life of figuring things out for themselves.”

Figuring things out for themselves: Whether it’s syntax or the dysfunction in New York State government, the journalist figures things out for herself. Figuring it out requires preparation. Preparation requires reading. Reading requires curiosity. Curiosity — is there an app for that?

Reporting in NYC, Winter 2010: Day 3

Nothing is more gratifying to a journalism teacher than watching a student find an original story idea and get fired up with excitement during the reporting process. Today, the six students in our winter reporting intensive — 12 days in three weeks, finding and developing stories in Manhattan — began to show signs of real progress on their stories.

Gabby Pretto came back from the ice rink at Bryant Park aglow both from the cold air and from the pleasure of alighting on a willing and eager group of sources. The early-morning skating crowd, upon discovering her presence, had descended upon her, and she got interviews with seven of them.

Ryan Lavis came in with some good ideas for reporting on the recession-charged business of thrift shops.

Constantine Loizides had found a 9/11 rescuer who, having recovered from the injuries he sustained when the buildings fell, has made a new life as a Ground Zero tour guide and motivational speaker.

Jie Jenny Zou is exploring Curry Hill, that stretch of Lexington Avenue in the 20s populated by spice shops and South Asian restaurants. She’s examining whether Curry Hill is losing steam as a center for Indian and Pakistani culture, losing out to Jackson Heights and Edison, N.J. Now the trick is finding the demographic data she needs to support shopkeepers’ anecdotal evidence.

Luis Gronda has a lead on a candy store off Tompkins Square Park, a local institution threatened by rising rents, the recession and the aging of its longtime proprieter.

And Fendy Lamy spent the day interviewing the folks involved with an odd community garden in Chinatown, where nothing grows but artifacts contributed by local residents.

A New Year, A New Blog

January 2, 2010. 01/02/10, 01/02/2010. How anagrammatical. Or, as I’m among many to observe, how palindromatic.

JRNTeaching.wordpress.com: Inside the J-School Evolution has two purposes. One is to examine how the Internet revolution, which is reshaping the news industry, is driving changes to the journalism academy. It’s a parallel journey. Just as legacy news businesses — newspapers, magazines, network television — are thrashing about in a frenzy, trying to hold onto readers, viewers and advertisers in an era of free content, journalism schools are striving for new ways to prepare students for a very different industry than the one we professors came up in.

It’s a constant amazement that students are flocking to j-schools despite constant reports  of layoffs, cutbacks in coverage, shuttered publications and the rest of that grim litany. Young people want to tell stories. They want to share information. They’re turned on by the things that alternately intrigue and terrify their teachers: transparency, change, community. The school  at which I teach, the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, is midway through its fourth year of existence and has nearly 300 majors and 70 minors. Our youth as a school makes us more flexible than some long-established institutions, yet we, too, struggle to anticipate what will best serve our graduates.

At the same time, the fundamentals of journalism remain paramount. Those venerable ABCs: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. How to get there? Research. Interviewing. Proper syntax. Quantitative literacy (the clear and accurate use of numbers). Writing about how I teach the fundamentals in the Internet Age is the second purpose of this blog.

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