The Learning Curve

BY JOEL BEESON, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR

In my photojournalism and multimedia reporting classes, diversity is a crucial part of the curriculum and instruction. But this doesn’t mean every assignment confronts issues of race. As a journalism instructor, I have to address diversity with a broader brush. College-age students are just emerging from a youthful preoccupation with being at the center of the universe. For many, college may be the first time they are exposed to groups and individuals who are different in substantial ways. One of my jobs is to teach them that “the other” is a social and cultural construct that takes many forms, and that as a journalist-to-be, it is their job to recognize and develop an appreciation for these differences.

My first assignment in the Introduction to Photojournalism class is an exercise in interviewing “the other.” This assignment intends to convey the weight of responsibility journalists have for representing others to the world. It’s a simple exercise, but it can have astonishing results. Students are asked to partner with, then interview and photograph a classmate. Afterward, students introduce their subjects to the rest of the class. Students quickly discover that the manner in which they are portrayed by an unseasoned journalist may be superficial at best, and at worse, stereotypical. They discover that in the role of documentarian, they are drawn to characteristics and details about their subject that are often the most familiar. Details that are unexpected or different are more difficult to portray. On the flipside, as the interviewee, they can experience for themselves the misconceptions that can arise when someone else speaks for them.

This is the first step in preparing students to enter the intimate lives of strangers. Students are reluctant to approach people they don’t know, and when they do, they tend to select someone like themselves. We discuss the anxieties they feel when they’re asked to approach someone outside of their comfort zone. And I give them real-world opportunities to explore this process in service journalism projects like this website.

Service learning and civic engagements courses are central to our curriculum. We recognize that these opportunities nudge students beyond the security of sameness and immerse them in meaningful, real-world projects that foster diversity. May of the techniques I have incorporated into my courses are interdisciplinary and enhance a journalist’s toolbox for reporting and crafting meaningful stories. These include methods and skills borrowed from anthropology, sociology and other qualitative fieldwork traditions that are notable for questioning the relationship between observer and observed (Resources).

A case in point is the school’s Veterans History Project, in which young journalists learned the basics of conducting a historical interview and collected the oral narratives of hundreds of war veterans for the Library of Congress. The character of diversity in this project was primarily generational, but also of values, class, race and gender. Oral historians often regard the narrative as a performance between “informant and interviewer” that involves memory, as well as individual and collective identities. This pushes the boundaries of awareness for students and asks them to recognize the social and cultural nuance that emerges in story telling and to learn how those shape meaning.

For example, in the oral history project, we found that some male WWII veterans avoided confiding details about violent events or sexual activities they experienced during wartime with a female interviewer. As one veteran put it “ I was taught never to talk about those kind of things in front of a female.” In this case, sensitivity to diversity means recognizing the roles age and gender gaps play in the process of interviewing. These are valuable lessons that give young journalists insights into the complex process of how to gather accurate information and appropriately validate observations and interview data. Students ultimately discover the burden is theirs as journalists to ‘get it right.”