Advising student publications can be challenging, exhilarating and fun. It can also be repetitive, time consuming and exhausting. Let’s face it, the staff may be new each year, but the problems get old after awhile--the inevitable reporter-editor squabbles, the embarrassing typos, the ups and downs of advertising revenue, the complaints from faculty who claim they were misquoted. And how many times can you explain the difference between its and it’s without wanting to scream?
If you feel you’re stuck in the doldrums of teaching and advising, here are some tips for reigniting the flame:
• Get involved. Organizations of journalism educators provide support, camaraderie and -- let’s face it -- opportunities to vent. Join the board or chair a committee for College Media Advisers, Society of Professional Journalists, National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, your state student media organization or one of the ethnic media organizations, such as National Association of Black Journalists or National Association of Hispanic Journalists. If there isn’t a group to meet your interests, consider forming your own. When California was lacking a state student media organization, a bunch of us advisers got together and created one. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, and we created a enduring network of colleagues.
• Set themes. For each semester or term create a theme for what you and your staff will focus on. Maybe you’ll decide to emphasize design one semester, planning special training workshops and inviting guest speakers to address your staff. Another semester you may highlight multimedia or investigative reporting or breaking news or computer-assisted reporting. Make sure your themes are in line with the interests of your staff. Establish goals related to your theme, such as “Organize three multimedia workshops for the staff” or “Train the whole staff in InDesign CS3.” Encourage your editors to come up with their own goals, such as “Post a breaking news story at least four times a week” or “Publish two investigative stories.”
•Attend professional meetings. Conferences and conventions are a great way to recharge your batteries and “meet other people who share your challenges, struggles, frustrations, and also just as importantly successes,” says Mathew Cantore, adjunct instructor and co-adviser to The Hudsonian at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. “Hearing from other people, in person, the same things you're going through is worth its weight in gold when it comes to avoiding burnout.” If you’re tired of going to the same conventions year after year, skip those and spend your travel money on a different professional meeting. You’ll meet new people and expand your professional connections.
• Network with the pros. Speaking of conferences, don’t limit yourself to gatherings of journalism educators; sign up for a meeting with the pros. Most organizations of news professionals – Society of Professional Journalists, National Press Photographers Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Radio-Television News Directors Association, state publishers associations – welcome journalism educators to their meetings. These offer opportunities to keep up with changes in the industry, meet potential guest speakers for your classes and break out of your usual circle of acquaintances.
• Retool. There’s nothing like learning something new to invigorate a career and with all the recent changes in journalism there’s a lot of new stuff to learn. Go teach yourself podcasting, video editing or design. Or take a course at your university or from a professional organization. The Center for Innovation in College Media, the Knight Digital Media Center, The Media Center at the American Press Institute, and The Poynter Institute all offer training opportunities for journalism educators. The Poynter Institute’s News University offers free and low-cost online courses in everything from Telling Stories with Sound and Writing Headlines for the Web to Handling Race and Ethnicity and Math for Journalists.
• Watch your colleagues teach. We all get into ruts, teaching the same things the same way, semester after semester. To break out of that groove, go see how someone else teaches. Make arrangements to spend a day or two shadowing a colleague at another school. Watch how that person teaches classes, critiques the paper, meets with students. Ask for copies of contracts, employment forms, assessment forms and other materials. Chances are, you’ll come back brimming with new ideas.
• Make time to read. Ever feel like those stacks of student papers to grade mean you can’t do more than scan the morning newspaper and flip through the latest issue of People magazine while you’re on the treadmill at the gym? Resist! Make sure you always have a book for fun, whether it’s the latest Sue Grafton mystery or a 19th century Russian novel. It may take two months to finish, but you should always have a book on your bedside table.
• Keep a feedback file. Jane Pope, director of student publications at the University of Tennessee, keeps files of thank-you notes and letters she receives from students and alumni who worked on student publications. When she’s feeling down, she rereads some of the letters. “Hearing feedback in the students' ‘voices’ and knowing they took time out of their schedules to express gratitude for their experience always gives me a great lift,” says Pope, now in her 35th year at the university and her 22nd advising student publications.
• Don’t just teach journalism, do it. Sure, you’re busy, but try to find time to work as a journalist, even if it’s just during summer and winter breaks. Peddle your services as a freelance writer, photographer, editor or online producer. See if you can write a regular column or occasional op-ed piece for your local newspaper. Offer to work a night or weekend shift at a newspaper, television station or news Web site or see if you can line up a summer “internship.” Working in the field will not only keep you fresh, it will give you entertaining stories to tell your students.
• Take a break. One of the great things about working in academia is the opportunities for getting out of it for awhile. See if you can arrange a professional exchange with a professor in another state or country. Look into taking a sabbatical or leave. Apply for a Fulbright. Taking a vacation from the job you once loved may be the best way of rekindling that romance.
This piece was originally published in The Community College Journalist, the magazine of the Community College Journalism Association.