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Innovations in Teaching

Andrea Frantz Andrea Breemer Frantz, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Professional Communication from Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. At Wilkes she teaches courses in journalism, communication ethics, visual rhetoric, and research, and also serves as faculty advisor for The Beacon, the weekly student newspaper.

What is the name of your class?

Advanced News Writing: Civic Journalism
For a quick PowerPoint overview, click here.

How was the class designed?

In the spring of 2004, the students enrolled in this course co-determined a civic journalism approach. My students regularly acknowledge that news outlets can point to the problems our communities face; however, few news practitioners concentrate on developing solutions to the problems on which they regularly report. Therefore, to effectively “put our money where our mouths are,” our civic journalism focus in the spring 2004 Advanced News course required a careful investigation into the challenges and needs facing the community of Wilkes-Barre and to eventually also offer solutions to those challenges using local media outlets.

Throughout the months of January and February, we concentrated on learning as much as we could from local leaders and their professional and personal reflections on Wilkes-Barre-its history, its present and its future. Those local leaders (among them: elected officials from city and county government, education leaders, human service professionals, health professionals, and environmentalists) were challenged to offer their own insights into the challenges and the needs facing the city of Wilkes-Barre in one 50-minute lecture and discussion with students. Following those presentations, one or two students were then assigned to conduct follow-up research on the issues raised by the individual speakers. Sometimes that research involved follow-up interviews. Sometimes it meant talking to other experts. And sometimes it meant spending a lot of time in the library or with documents provided by the professionals themselves.

Simultaneously, we conducted a walking tour of Wilkes-Barre and a visual research project. Each of us took photos of the challenges and needs as we saw them and also of the city’s assets. We used those photos to begin narratives and to fuel further discussion.

We also researched and studied civic journalism projects across the nation using cases highlighted by the Pew Center, PJNet, and from papers we heard at the AEJMC Mid-winter Conference at Rutgers, which we attended as a class.

Based on our research, we compiled a 131-page book we called Wilkes-Barre, PA: A Snapshot of its Challenges and Needs in 2004, which we distributed to a variety of local constituents and those professionals who had offered their time and insights to the research component of the class. Each student was responsible for researching and writing a chapter, and each chapter offered insights into specific issues such as the local “brain drain,” crime, AIDS/HIV and Hepatitis-C, poverty, homelessness, and environmental/pollution.

Then the students divided into two groups and assessed the challenges facing Wilkes-Barre and posited means by which the community might begin to address them. The students determined that morale was of chief concern-Wilkes-Barre residents seemed to feel little hope for positive change. From this, one group-calling itself “Small Steps, Big Solutions” -proposed that downtown beautification might be one “small step” toward attitude change, and that creating a public garden, something in which all community members could invest and share responsibility, was one means to that end. The students’ argument, and ultimately what they put before the mayor’s office and city council, was that we all share space, and we need to learn how to do so with a sense of respect and shared responsibility. The public garden was planted May 2, 2004, in the middle of downtown Wilkes-Barre.

Other projects included the creation of a human services directory to be distributed through the local YMCA and Red Cross, and a booklet that analyzed local media coverage on key local issues such as drug abuse treatment, children’s issues, economic development, and victims’ resources. The chapters in the latter each offered analysis of how the local media outlets could push the issues to the next levels of solution development and community discussion. Those booklets will be distributed to the local media leaders.

Why is the class innovative?

Because this class has always been based on a feminist pedagogy that allows for co-creation of the course based on shared goals between the students and me, I never create a traditional syllabus for it. The feminist theory that grounds my approach hinges on empowerment of student voices through collaboration and shared investigation. The result of this approach has been that the students learn a variety of important aspects of journalism including but not limited to:

  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Leadership on a variety of levels
  • The very public nature of research and writing
  • The importance of ethics
  • The many aspects of publication development (from funding/ corporate sponsorship to deadlines to visual and verbal identity creation to audience assessment)
  • The importance of intensity, tenacity and rigor in investigation
  • The value of doing

I think this course was innovative on several levels. First, it flouts one key convention of the “traditional” academic course. There is no syllabus, though I do prepare formal assignment sheets and grading criteria. Second, the course requires the students to move out of the traditional classroom and the safe haven of the campus to engage as journalists with the community at large. Our classroom became Public Square and the river commons on more than one occasion. And their interactions took many of the students out of their comfort zones as they found themselves working for the first time with city council members, local citizen groups, the mayor’s office, and local television and newspaper professionals. Third, my journalism students learn from the very beginning of the curriculum that news writers must strive for objectivity and the kind of distance that ensures fairness. With this class, all of a sudden, students were challenged to walk the fine line of advocacy and engage the public in problem solving. Again, this perspective moved the students outside of what they knew and what many were comfortable with. Finally, this course asked students to invest emotionally in a community in which they are widely regarded as transient. I think one of the long-term benefits of the experience is that for many of the participants, the class afforded the students insights into the community that encouraged an ongoing relationship beyond their time spent in college. I have no idea how many of them will return to Wilkes-Barre once they become Wilkes University alumni, but when they do this particular group of students now has more than the Wilkes campus they can visit-they also have the downtown public garden.

What did you hope to accomplish from it?

My goal for this class could be boiled down to one simple challenge: inspire positive change.

But obviously, there were many complex pedagogical goals I could outline here as well.

  • I wanted students to learn a new way of thinking about the role of journalists. As public communicators, journalists have enormous power to advance communities, and there are huge ethical challenges they face as they commit to this role.
  • I wanted them to learn how to work with each other and with strangers. They are regularly asked to collaborate with peers, but most don’t know how to collaborate and communicate effectively with people outside the university.
  • I hoped they’d gain valuable insight into the complex challenges communities like Wilkes-Barre face, because I believe that such insights are likely to “travel well” with the students as they leave and begin careers elsewhere.
  • I wanted to challenge their research skills and ask them to write in ways they hadn’t written in previous journalism classes. As a result, they wrote several formal reports, proposals, thank you letters and editorials on top of traditional news/feature stories.

What worked best?

I have found the “ah ha!” moments in learning almost always happen when students invest themselves in a long-term project, get their hands dirty, make mistakes (some of them public), and care about each other and the project’s outcomes. In addition, here at Wilkes I had observed a fairly pervasive “us” versus “them” attitude among students about city residents. Historically, students have felt ignored, or worse, ostracized, by residents and government in Wilkes-Barre. But strangely, this is also a generation of students with a strong propensity to engage in community service-perhaps more so than any group of students I have taught in nearly 17 years. The tension is obvious, then. Students seem to want to make positive change, but they don’t always feel they can. Consequently, a hands-on project that allowed them the opportunity seemed a good challenge. Hence, when my class determined that a civic journalism approach was what they wanted for the term, I’m fairly sure no one really knew what that meant or just how much investment into this community that would require on their parts. But the engagement has been real, and I no longer hear that “us” versus “them” language in their discussions. I hear “we.” That is perhaps the most gratifying outcome of the semester for me.

Clearly, the evidence of the public garden and the recognition the community has given that project is a success-indeed, it is one “small step” toward addressing the much larger issue of developing and maintaining hope.

I would also say that the research book was an important tangible outcome. Students learned a lot by doing it, and readers gain valuable insights into the challenges facing Wilkes-Barre at this point in time. Recipients of the book have passed it on to others with interest.

Finally, we created a web discussion list-serve ( that helped all participants connect and communicate efficiently about the project and its specifics. The students valued the bond that electronic communication afforded and the organizational aid it provided.

What would you change?

The work involved with this course was a lot to pack into one semester. A few of the students complained that the bulk of the heavy writing and editing also came at a time when they were running around town, interacting with City Council, the Penn State Master Gardeners’ Association, the Downtown Residents’ Association, downtown businesses, and also getting the garden planted.

Hence, I’ll try to front-end some of the writing in the course next time I teach it. I’d also prefer to teach the course in the fall. When spring semester finishes, students tend to scatter; thus, the follow-through into summer is fairly difficult to maintain. While I do have some local students, some of the class participants have graduated and left town. If the course were taught in the fall, maintaining the emotional investment and encouraging ongoing public discussion would be more possible through the next semester.

Finally, I would encourage more attention to organizing public discussion via weblogging or community forums. While a variety of Wilkes-Barre stakeholders absolutely took active roles in initiating positive change, some constituent groups were not represented and needed to be.

What recommendations would you have for other professors?

This class and the projects the students undertook were, in many ways, dependent upon how much risk of failure I was willing to assume. There were projects that were much more successful than others. And the risk in all of this is that when such projects are less than successful, they are less than successful in a very public way. Hence, the risk is substantial.

The students’ assessments of the class bear this out. While the vast majority of the students seem to have loved the experience and broadened their understanding of possibilities in journalism, some clearly never reached that level. A few wanted more traditional news writing experiences for this class and while they had the power to make such writing assignments happen, the groups chose to take different directions. Professors who create a course like this, and employ a feminist pedagogy that empowers students to guide projects, need to be prepared for the reality that pleasing all of the students all of the time is highly unlikely.

For those interested in teaching public journalism, however, asking students to critically analyze local media and community needs is not only empowering, but can, in fact, have a lasting impact on both the community and students.

I do recommend a few small points of organization and planning for those interested in developing such a course:

  • Create a list-serve early in the semester-the communication that happens outside the classroom is every bit as important as what occurs in it. Therefore, developing a variety of means by which students can connect (with each other and outside constituents) is extremely important. My students also developed a list of their own individual cell phone numbers.
  • Involve university/college administrators-By including my university’s President, Provost, Dean, and Department Chair, my students garnered a great deal of enthusiasm and support for their efforts across campus and through those administrators’ outside contacts. I regularly sent them updates and copies of the materials my students produced. In addition, the administrators also offered unique vantage points and expertise that were very useful to the research phase of our project.
  • Keep complete list of contact information for all participants-the key to success of any public journalism project is maintaining complete records and accurate contact information. I created an informal directory to that end.
  • Forecast honestly-Students are frequently uncomfortable without traditional guidelines and assurances of specific outcomes. Thus, it is important to communicate honestly and frequently about issues like grading criteria, deadlines, and participation/collaboration expectations.