By Chryss Cada
In the past I’ve considered my annual teaching assessment as an unnecessary hoop to jump through to prove my worth to the journalism department at Colorado State University. This year I’m going to take it as an opportunity to explain my teaching methods, so get comfortable.
I inherited my first 210 (newswriting) class three days into the fall 2000 semester. I had applied a year prior when I saw an ad in the classified section of the Fort Collins Coloradoan (younger readers please Google “classified ads”), but an opening had not been available until a scheduling snafu came up that fall. I jumped at the opportunity even though I had no prior experience teaching, much less holding the lofty title of “adjunct professor” at a university.
Lee Peck, who was an editor at the Coloradoan during the eight years I worked there as a reporter, had been teaching 210 for years and was kind enough to share many of her teaching materials. I still use some of them and pass the originals around so my students can feel what the imprint of actual typewriter keys feels like.
She also shared the advice that I could be a friend to my students, but should be wary of getting too entangled in their personal lives. I’m pretty sure I’ve broken this rule a couple of times.
Armed with Lee’s advice, handouts and AP style quiz reviews, I headed into C255 for my first 6 p.m. Newswriting Course (the same section that I have taught for the past 19 years). I stood at the front of the class, looked up at 18 sets of eyes fixed on mine and froze like a deer in headlights.
It was only minutes into that first class that my teaching style began to develop. I was in my late 20s, only a few years older than the many non-traditional students in my class and no more than 10 years older than my youngest freshman/woman. There would be no “Ms. Cada,” nor would I call them by their last names—they were my peers, interested in uncovering the truth and telling the world about it or representing public relations clients in an honest way or just telling fans the way the game really went down.
The truth and how to tell it in the real world has always been at the core of my teaching. That’s why I still write for the Denver Post and other newspapers and magazines—and continually strive for new outlets for my work.
My approach is continually validated in my student course evaluations and most recently by a letter to Journalism and Technical Communication faculty from Rocky Mountain Collegian editor Erin Douglas.
“Courses tend to lack a “real world” perspective, with a few exceptions,” she writes of her concerns with the education the Department is providing its students.
Having the press come under attack since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, has provided an increased challenge for journalism instructors and students alike.
Sen. John McCain wrote of this challenge in a Jan. 16, 2018 op-ed piece in The Washington Post.
“President Ronald Reagan recognized that as leader of the free world, his words carried enormous weight, and he used them to inspire the unprecedented spread of democracy around the world,” McCain wrote. “President Trump does not seem to understand that his rhetoric and actions reverberate in the same way.
“He has threatened to continue his attempt to discredit the free press by bestowing “fake news awards” upon reporters and news outlets whose coverage he disagrees with. “
As evidence of the power of Trump’s anti-press rhetoric, McCain refers to the Committee to Protect Journalists finding that 2017 was one of the most dangerous years to be a journalist. Last year, the organization documented 262 cases of journalists being imprisoned for their work.
“Reporters around the world face intimidation, threats of violence, harassment, persecution and sometimes even death as governments resort to brutal censorship to silence the truth,” McCain continues. “Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.”
While some students are inspired by this new challenge, others doubt their decision to join such a vilified profession. At the very least, it’s scaring the hell out of a lot of them.
During the past three semesters I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with this strain on my students not only because they are young journalists, but also because many of them her themselves being identified as “different” or “others.” Some are Latinex students who feel the effects of our crude public discourse on immigration. Some have a sexual identity that suddenly feels scary to talk about.
But the overwhelming issue with my students now is mental illness and/or emotional issues. In my 210 class last semester, four of my students wrote, “I have depression” under “Anything else you’d like to tell me?” section of my class entry form.
During the course of the semester I had a different student unable to attend class due to “overwhelming anxiety” (a condition that she backed up with a doctor’s note). One student was the victim (although I hate to use that word) of sexual assault and unable to get out of bed and come to class most days (she also had documentation).
Because of my own background in suicide (Since my brother took his own life at age 15 I’ve been through extensive training in suicide prevention), I believe I have intervened in several suicides during the years.
I unapologetically care for my students first as people, and secondly as developing journalists. In 19 years that hasn’t affected the quality of what my students learn in my class.
With a handful of exceptions (there are some students who discover they aren’t really interested in journalism after 210, their first writing course), my students go on to do impressive things in this field. I know this because they keep in touch.
Through the years literally hundreds of students have written to let me know the difference my class made in their careers. Nothing personal, but I treasure these notes more than any review or accolade from the University. Many times it’s not the writing skills I taught them that student attribute with their success.
“I keep thinking how I would have never had this opportunity to intern here (Rooster magazine) and have my work published if you hadn’t encouraged us to take a risk and reach out,” wrote a female student from my magazine writing class last year. “Your lessons will truly be ones that I will remember forever. I owe a lot of this success to you!!
In a nutshell (or as we say in the biz “a nut graph”), my teaching philosophy is: I’m in front of a class to give the students in it all the knowledge I have—as a journalist and a human being.