Saturday, December 01, 2007

Preparing for a departure

I’ve been preparing for my “Introduction to Writing for the Media” class, which runs for 10 weeks beginning the second week of January. (It’s listed as J-200 in the Portland Community College catalogue.)

I’ve taught the course under various titles for 12 or so years at a couple of campuses. Until now, I’ve stayed in lockstep with the regimented chapters of hefty, slog-it-out textbooks.

For next term, I’ve decided to break free of a text and sprint down a new path.

This time the required reading will be the Associated Press Stylebook (which I have required before), the classic “Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White (see earlier post), and a recent New York Times best seller “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. The subtitle of the latter is “Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.”

I have two motives for changing. The first has to do with money. My students', not mine. The cost of the standard textbook is pushing $90. The three new required books can be had on-line or at Powell’s, used, for no more than $20 — total.

For community college students, the difference can be huge. I have had students who have waited four weeks into the term before they could scrounge up money to buy the text. By then they were lost.

More important than the stratospheric price of textbooks are several experiments I want to try.

For example, one calls for dissecting news stories. I’ve done some of this before, but this time I want the students to approach the stories almost as mechanical devices to be taken apart and reassembled. Not that I said "almost."

Working alone or in pairs, the students will be assigned their own news story to disassemble into facts and sources, listing them on a fact/source inventory sheet.

Then the students will swap fact sheets from the different stories broken down by other students. From one student or team’s inventory sheet another student or duo will reassemble the story — or a story, their story.

The final step will be comparing the new student-written story to the original, exploring questions that arise from the comparison. Here are just five:

• How do the leads (and hence the news judgment) differ?
• Did you find you wanted information that wasn’t listed on the fact sheet?
• Was that missing information in the original story?
• Are the sources reliable?
• What other sources would improve the story?

I also want to press students to come up with their own exercises. In a way, I want them to work for that $70 they’ve saved and to help create a better "text" and a better course.

Right now I’m trying to figure out exactly where “Made to Stick,” “The AP Stylebook” and “The Elements of Style” will fit in. I have a month to play with that part of the puzzle.

One other thing: I have recommended purchasing the essays of George Orwell, which should add no more than $3.50 to the cost of the “texts,” if that. Our PCC library has Orwell’s essays, which remain the gold standard of journalistic purpose, passion and conscience.

I may come back to my musings about this class on the blog. I want to offer an idea or two for your examination and criticism. If my sharing of ideas only results in self-examination and self-criticism, so be it.

Just knowing you are reading will steel me to the task.

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