Thursday, October 4, 2012

New PHO245 beat system inspires critical thinking and fear

   In education we hear a lot about the term ‘critical thinking.’
   What does it really mean?  I know we journalism educators are expected to inspire students to be critical thinkers, but there isn’t a manual for that, is there? This expectation is always in the back of my mind. How do I get students to be critical thinkers in a class packed with so much dogmatic information, like learning camera controls and caption writing?
   Well, I think I’ve found an answer.  It’s called the beat system, and it’s a powerful way for photojournalism students to become critical thinkers.   
   The beat system is a common way for journalists to cover particular topics on a long-term basis. Popular newspaper beats are cops, health and fitness, politics, local school systems, etc. The main intent is for journalists assigned to beats to become familiar with the people of those beats.
   For the past several years I’ve been struggling on how to get the Intro to PJ students to care about what they are shooting. Typically, I’ll teach them what feature or portrait photography is about and then send them out into the wild blue yonder of Northwest Ohio to stumble upon something interesting. It was frustrating for them and for me. There was little focus or allegiance. I struggled with how to make it better.
   Then late this summer it occurred to me to use the beat system. I talked to a dean in the technology school, a professor in the culinary school, and an adjunct in the Emergency Management School. I asked them what they thought about students covering their schools for the semester. They loved the idea, and so did I.
   I finally introduced the beat system to the students yesterday. I supplied them with an explanation letter to share with their contacts, and told them to go to their assigned beats and make initial contact. You would have thought I told them to go jump off the big O on top of the Health Technologies Hall building! Many of them seemed fearful to make that first step on their own. Approaching deans and instructors can be pretty intimidating to students, but that's the point. It's time to shed those shells!
  Each photojournalist was assigned a beat they were interested in.
   This is where the critical thinking comes in: I told them their beats are their responsibilities. They should be the ones to introduce themselves to the deans, instructors and students, and then dig for interesting visual stories within their own beats.  
   This strategy forces them to step out of the comfort zone of Classroom 206. They will have to be critical of whom they meet and what they find. Will they settle with the first opportunity that comes their way? Will they know when to say yes and no when offered a good or bad idea? How aggressive will they be to find a good story? Can they get past their panic attacks? Will a budding photojournalist or two discover that this career is actually meant for them?
   This is a pilot program I'm anxious to see grow through time, and one I hope they appreciate it some day.

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