This semester, grade your profs

A keener attitude in j-school will take you places, but it’s the top-notch professors that will really make the difference between an OK experience and a great one. PoynterOnline has published a list of dos and don’ts for journalism profs, so maybe keep these in mind while you choose your classes and professors for next semester. It’s not a given that a great journalist will make a great journalism professor.

PoynterOnline’s Roy Peter Clark wrote last week about a recent study conducted by former Harvard University president Derek Bok, titled Our Underachieving Colleges.

“Real proficiency,” writes Bok, “requires sustained practice…. Undergraduates will never learn to write with clarity, precision, and grace unless they have repeated opportunities to keep on writing and get prompt feedback from the faculty.”

Clark writes that, “If you talk to the experts, they are likely to tell you that you have a better chance of landing a good writing teacher in elementary school, less of a chance in middle school, even less in high school and least in colleges and universities (and don’t get me started on graduate and professional schools).”

I don’t think the situation is so grim, but luckily neither does Clark, who included a list of the teaching practices and traits of some of the best writing teachers he’s worked with.

A few of my favourites:

Encourage students to write every day. Students should spend some time writing in class, where the teacher can see them write or not write.

Connect reading and writing. The idea is not just to read literature for content and theme, but to come to understand the strategies professional authors use and pass them on to students.

Offer appropriate praise and encouragement — as well as correction. Teachers, especially journalism teachers, seem much better at communicating what is wrong with a text than what is right, what needs work rather than an appreciative understanding of what works.

Believe that all students, not just the “stars” can improve their writing. Writing coach Jack Hart argues persuasively that we teach reading as a democratic social skill, something that every person should learn; but we continue to frame writing as if it were a fine art.

Personally, I’ve always been a fan of professors who bring me candy, but I suppose Clark’s list is a little more important in the long run. Speaking as someone who’s experienced both great and not-so-great teachers in my years at j-school, I can attest that a good teacher really does make all the difference. (I went through two years of schooling before I truly understood what “show, don’t tell” means.)

So if you’ve got the power, do a little reporting on your potential profs before you sign up for classes. I’ve always been a fan of RateMyProfessors when it comes to checking out my mentors-to-be, but it’s wise to always take the recommendations with a grain of salt. Many appraisals have been accurate, but one of my all-time favourite profs got a very poor rating on RMP, so it’s not gospel.

For further discussion on the topic, PoynterOnline also hosted a livechat about great writing teachers, which you can check out here.

Students: Tell me (and the lurking j-school profs) about your favourite j-school teachers and what made them so awesome.