Too much editing? A Journalism New Years Resolution

New Year’s resolutions

After the latest round of marathon marking and student feedback extravaganzas that have been underway at my house since mid-December, when classes ended, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching and evaluating methods, and about just how much is enough, and  how much is too much.

I’ve been teaching journalism at the college and university level in Toronto since 1999, and one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2011 is to try to figure out a better way of marking. It’s a good time for reflection, as we are about to begin a brand new winter semester where I will be teaching 4 sections of Radio News, and one section of Advanced Interviewing.

Here’s the resolution:

Decide how much feedback a student really needs on an assignment. Then adjust accordingly.

And I have to admit there is another motivation to this quest, aside from wanting the best for my students. My health has suffered because of the non stop grading sessions most weekends, and doing course preparation every weekday night. For the past four months. Not to mention my weight, the height of my laundry piles, and the cleanliness of my kitchen! There has to be a better way.

Do students need every CP Stylebook mistake noted, and copy edited, as I usually do for the more senior students work? Do they need spelling and grammar corrected? Isn’t it enough to just mark the broader picture? In TV news stories, do they need every jump cut noted, every scene checked for white balance? What about mic handling noise in radio interviews?

I debate about this problem a lot with my husband, who is also a professor (of Accounting) about how heavily to mark an assignment. He says I spend way too much time on each assignment, which is why it takes me a whole day, or sometimes two, to mark 36 stories.

One the one hand, I worry that the articles are going to be published online, on our college journalism website, on our YouTube channel, and on the students’ professional blogs. Without a good stiff edit, there are stories that I’ve graded this weekend, for example, where I found libel or contempt of court in them, or have factual mistakes, and I worry about the reputation of the college, as well as how such stories, if published but unedited, could also potentially hurt the students’ own professional chances at employment. I also like to check for plagiarism, if I suspect something looks too perfectly written, or sounds like it came from somewhere else.

Also, my teaching philosophy has been based on the belief that students benefit from a close look at their story structure, syntax, research, and writing style. That’s what they are coming to journalism school for, isn’t it? To learn to write properly, I mean. Or do they only care about the mark, and not about how they got it or how they could improve for next time?

I do get some students who take my suggestions into consideration and rewrite their stories so they are better. More often, I see simple superficial clean ups of spelling and grammar mistakes, but not much new interviewing or research to fix major flaws.

Then there’s the shock and awe factor. Does a student freak out or go on the defensive when they see their script with too much red pencil through it? Does this discourage a student? Probably.

With about 100 students each semester, it would be great, but nearly impossible to have individual one on one meetings with each one, for each assignment, to review their progress. I do it as often as I can, during class time, and outside of it as well, regularly during the semester. The rest of the time, the stories are handed back with my comments and corrections, by email, or hard copy.

For now, until this issue is settled, I remain convinced that the best way to give a journalist feedback is to sit down with them, one on one, and go over where they did well, and where they didn’t, and show them line by line how to fix stuff. That’s how I learned to write more clearly and concisely during my career as a journalist at C.B.C. and CTV.  There was nothing that improved a story more then reading the draft of it out loud during a “vet” with David Tweedie, editor of “World Report”, or having afternoon editor Mario Carlucci take apart a script before I could record it. I know some veteran reporters who hated having to vet their pieces, but I always felt having another pair of eyes look at a story before it goes to air helps find flaws, holes, confused writing, and…yes, even mistakes.

The floor is open.

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