Since the year is coming to an end and a new semester will soon begin, I figured I’d review some of the journalism classes I’ve taken so far at Michigan State University.
I’ve also been reviewing my Spring 2011 schedule and thinking about my summer plans (Work? Classes? Live at home or stay up in East Lansing?), so I figured this may be on others’ minds as well.
JRN 108: Introduction to Mass Media (now The World of Media)
When: Fall 2009
Who: Professor Geri Zeldes
Review: I took the “old” version of JRN 108 before MSU’s J-School underwent the major curriculum change, so this class may have changed to some degree. I also took the honors section with Geri (which had about 20 students as opposed to the 240 in the regular section that year), so my experience was a bit different than most.
However, the highlight of my class – like the other JRN 108 classes – was the variety of speakers brought in to talk about their jobs and experiences in their respective industries. We had authors, radio/TV personalities (like Mario Impemba, “voice of the Tigers”), journalism advisers, journalism professors involved in new media, editor-if-chiefs from The Big Green and SpartanEdge and others come to give us advice about journalism, where it may lead us, where we may lead it, and how it may affect our lives.
These speakers came about once a week. The rest of the class was spent discussing issues from the textbook, which covered the history of journalism to present-day issues. We wrote several essays throughout the year on these topics – but we didn’t write a single article in the class. Our final project was to create video (in our groups of three) about some aspect of media. (My group interviewed students and campus experts about stereotypes in the media.)
The class wasn’t hard and the textbook (which was thankfully very current; it had just been revised that year) wasn’t very thrilling. JRN 108 is a very introductory class that I could have done without. If it hadn’t been a requirement for the journalism degree, I would have skipped it. (Note: Being in the Honors College allows me to skip prerequisites… unless they’re requirements.)
I did value highly the speakers who came into our class, particularly those who gave us insight into where the field of journalism is going. This insight and advice was worth much more than the textbook and essays.
JRN 200: News Writing and Reporting I (now Gathering and Writing News)
When: Spring 2010
Who: Instructor Chris Andrews
Review: Again, I took the class before the J-School’s curriculum revamp, so the class may be different now.
Students consider this the first level of hell of the journalism classes. It’s the class that’s meant to make or break you as a journalist, to “weed out” the students who don’t truly want to be journalists or aren’t cut out for it.
I loved the class.
You learn to actually write well. You’re finally writing actual articles and you learn AP style. Your grammar is graded – harshly. Your writing style is whacked into shape. I loved getting articles back and seeing them all marked up. (And mine were excellent articles, too. I was among the top in my class, I think.)
My friends call me the “editor,” so in high school no one could ever find any edits to make on what “the editor wrote,” so I was pleased that in JRN 200 I found an instructor who could actually edit my writing. I loved it, and my writing and sentence structure improved immensely. Besides these nitty-gritty basics, the most important lesson I took away from this class was that networking is incredibly important for journalists. In fact, both my JRN 108 and JRN 200 instructors helped me get my current (and fantastic!) job as a student writer for MSU’s University Relations department.
As an aside, I would like to note that the students in my class who said that JRN 200 was killing their desire to pursue journalism – they stuck with it.
JRN 203: Visualizing Information
When: Fall 2010
Who: Instructor Karl Gude
Review: Well… This class was pretty crazy.
This was the first semester that the class had gone from about 40 students to 160 students (and in Spring 2011, it’s increasing to 225!) – and it showed.
It was a bit crazy sometimes because of reasons that include:
- Karl is crazy (but we love him… and his stories… and his advice… and the wild things he has us do just because he can.)
- There are no prerequisites for the class and it is now a requirement for the journalism degree, so there’s a flood of people from range of skill levels in the class. Some of them hadn’t taken any journalism classes yet.
- The technology we used was sometimes unreliable. We used wikispaces for our class website, and we could all edit the pages to post our assignments. Since much of the technology was new to the students, they would sometimes delete others’ projects from the page in the process of posting their own. The various visualization websites we used also had errors or sometimes went down completely, which was a mess.
Despite these problems, JRN 203 was an incredibly valuable class. Here are a few of the reasons:
- Karl had the most thorough explanation of how to use Twitter that I have ever heard. Everyone was required to get a Twitter account, and the only way we could communicate with Karl – who apparently has 13,000 unread emails – was by tweeting to the @JRN203 class account or to #JRN203. I set up a stream in Hootsuite to monitor what was being said to the JRN203 account or about the class, which was fun, and I loved responding to my classmates and even getting some of my posts RT’ed by Karl himself.
- Even though some of the visualization tools that Karl showed us had issues and we didn’t use any one tool very extensively, it was great to get a taste of the smattering of tools out there. And I loved that they were all free, and thus totally usable outside the class. Karl even showed us a website where he compiled an organized list of free visualization tools of various types: http://freevisualtools.wikispaces.com/. I have the site bookmarked and I even showed it to my JRN 300 instructor – who forwarded it to the whole class – when we were working on our final multimedia projects.
- It was fun and stress-free. Maybe a bit more disorganized and lax than it should have been – but students learn best when they’re not terrified out of their minds.
Overall, this class was a great way to learn about new media and social media and to get my feet wet in visualizing information. It’s definitely making me consider more visualization/design/infographics classes in the future. I hear that Karl’s JRN 338 class, which is significantly smaller, is much better than JRN 203. I hope to find myself in that class during my time at MSU.
JRN 300: Writing and Reporting News
When: Fall 2010
Who: Instructor Fara Warner
Review: This class is known as the second level of journalism hell. But again, I came out a much better writer because of it.
This was another down-and-dirty article-writing course, but much more hard-core than JRN 200. Whereas many of my JRN 200 articles were feature-y and I often interviewed my friends rather than strangers – and almost always students and never adults – I think I used friends as sources only in one of my JRN 300 articles.
We were told that this class would be “run like a newsroom.” While this wasn’t quite true (JRN 400: “Spartan Online Newsroom,” on the other hand, is – as I hear), there was a huge emphasis on journalism ethics.
The class was divided into groups that were assigned to cover hard news stories in Lansing-area communities. There were groups covering Mason; Meridian; Lansing; Okemos; Ingham County; etc. My group of four covered East Lansing and we created and maintained a website where we posted all of our stories.
I covered how MSU football games affected the work and budget of the East Lansing Police Department; how the economy was affecting the budget and services offered at the East Lansing Public Library; 2010 election polls; a profile of an MSU professor and East Lansing community member running for re-election to the E.L. school board; and my final/multimedia project, a look at the ordinances East Lansing is considering to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.
The huge emphasis on ethics was a bit intimidating, and at some points I felt like a “dirty” journalist who had “gone to the dark side” because I work at MSU’s public relations department. A lot of ethical issues in new media were brought up, such as StatSheet (a computer that writes articles about sports statistics – which could replace the need for actual journalists), whether news anchors on FOX and MSNBC (such as Keith Olbermann, who had recently been suspended for making political contributions) were really journalists, granting anonymity to sources, how to deal with city officials who brush off student journalists, and when it’s okay – if ever – to lie about being a journalist to get a story.
I’m glad I was forced to interview so many local officials. It made me a lot more comfortable with interviewing non-students – a habit we all needed to break – and I learned a lot about how East Lansing works and how MSU and East Lansing work together. In fact, I know much more about East Lansing than I do about my hometown – where I spent the first 19 years of my life. The more people I interviewed at MSU and in East Lansing, the more I fell in love with the community.
But there’s one thing to be said: many of us agreed that man-on-the-street interviews are awful. Students and non-student residents are terrified of being approached by students/journalists. We confuse them. Many didn’t want their names printed and didn’t understand where their words would be posted. East Lansing is a strange community in that many of its “residents” aren’t permanent – they’re just students who live off-campus – or they’re people who come through the area but don’t actually live in the East Lansing or even the Greater-Lansing areas. Some of these people said they didn’t know anything about East Lansing. (One woman even told me she “didn’t care.”)
We were taught that even failures to find sources for a story could be stories in themselves – such as a story about the demographics of East Lansing and how such a large sample of the population is so transient, and how the permanent residents deal with and work with MSU students.
Fara taught us that journalism is not always glorious and not always fascinating. She taught us that it is our job to make what may seem “boring” relevant to our communities and to tell them why banal issues like property taxes, millage rates and the Headlee Amendment are important and how they can lead to important consequences such as a community’s fire station being shut down. Through my reporting, hearing about the experiences of my peers and Fara’s guidance, I learned how important journalism is to informing citizens about the “boring” but vital issues in their communities.
JRN 300 was my toughest class this semester, and I am very proud of the work I did to earn myself a 4.0 in her class.
JRN 336: Designing for Print and Online
When: Fall 2010
Who: Instructor Jeremy Steele
Review: I took this class because I wanted to diversify my journalism skills beyond writing and reporting. I wanted to learn how to lay out newspaper pages and web pages using InDesign.
I gained a solid grasp on using InDesign – which I wish I had taken the opportunity to learn on my high school newspaper – mostly to make hard newspaper layouts and feature pages, which allow for a bit more creative freedom. While most design principles are applicable to web page design (with special consideration to the different media, of course), I wish there had been a stronger emphasis on web page design. The only non-print design project we did was a design for an iPad or iPhone app.
The principles of design are absolutely fascinating and are outlined in an easy-to-read, highly-visual book “The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook” that I didn’t have time to read during the semester but am reading now during semester break.
Thus, most of my learning came from Jeremy’s instruction and his criticisms of our designs. Many of these critiques came after we were graded on our projects, so we couldn’t do anything to improve them, and I wish we had received more help while we were working on the projects in class. (A lot of class time is set aside to work on our projects. The class is two hours and 50 minutes, twice a week.) While the process of instruction could have been better, I learned a ton of valuable information about design, not just for newspapers/magazines/news sites, but general design principles that could be applicable to things as simple as flyers.
In addition to our series of projects (front page; inside page; feature page; iPad/iPhone app; tabloid cover/related inside page/two-page spread), a couple design-on-a-deadline in-class “exams,” and a few pop quizzes, we also had “rip-off” assignments in which we had to bring examples of design that caught our interest to show the class. These included flyers we found in the Comm Arts building hallway, the State News and Vogue magazine; I even used a Cheerios box and a Quaker Chewy bar wrapper.
The class was a bit tough (though not stressful; there are just so many “rules” to design, and some of them go on a case-by-case basis and it can sometimes be subjective) and the critique process could have been better, but overall I’m very happy that I have a solid beginning understanding of design (and typography! I love typography!) and I hope to build upon that.