The Evolution of a Classroom Approach to MC 208
By Claudia Brown
Harford Community College
In nearly 15 years of teaching at the college level, I have developed a successful formula for most of my classes that may be adjusted based on the student population, current events and a variety of other factors. However, MC 208, a class I began teaching in 2010 at Harford Community College, near Bel Air, Maryland, has proven the exception.
I have taught this course 10 different ways and plan for a new approach next semester.
Changing trends in the field have mandated these modifications, which have proven successful with students and led to national recognition for our college’s publication.
I started teaching MC 208: Writing for the College Newspaper in the spring semester of 2010. I had just taken over the position of newspaper adviser to “The Harford Owl,” a monthly newspaper at Harford Community College. Students wrote articles, took photos and sketched out newspaper design on paper. About half of the newspaper’s content was generated by faculty and staff contributions and the other half produced by students with the adviser/course professor writing headlines, taking photos and designing the publication in InDesign.
When I began teaching MC 208, I intended to make the publication entirely student-produced.
The newspaper had previously been college-focused and considered somewhat of a press release for the college. I was part of a student-run newspaper staff at the University of Maryland Baltimore College, and I knew what a valuable learning opportunity that could be. And what better college promotion than a showcase of student work?
The class was originally designed to focus on every aspect of newspaper production, including distribution and marketing along with writing, photography and design. However, the transient nature of the community college student had always provided a great challenge in meeting press deadlines, as a completion of assignments can be a major challenge of the community college population.
With this in mind, I arranged to have the course taught in a computer lab. Having computer access during class time assisted the students with the completion of their writing assignments. Later, I moved the class to a graphic arts lab so students could also assist with the design process. Students were assessed on completion of assignments, attention to deadlines, class participation and adherence to assignment guidelines.
John Morin was a student in MC 208 in 2010, the first semester I began teaching the course. He recalled, “The class offered me great guidance in story selection, proper writing techniques, editing, and the interview process.” When John was enrolled in the class, all enrolled students were assigned specific positions, such as writer, photographer, editor; John’s position was Features Editor and he became well-known among the staff for his feature photography and writing skill.
“I wanted to do more engaging, feature type stories and I was given the freedom to do so,” he said.
In the fall of 2011, the “The Harford Owl” monthly newspaper became “Owl Magazine, a thematic features magazine published twice a semester. The course title also changed to “College Magazine Production.”
The format change came in response to the decline of the newspaper industry and growing student interest in magazine production. While there were still class assignments related to design, the majority of the magazine’s design came from a handful of art students who volunteered on staff, and the class became more writing and management focused.
While some of the assignments changed, the nature of assessment remained focused on completion of assignments, attention to deadlines, class participation and adherence to assignment guidelines.
Jay Green, now a producer/reporter/digital content editor at KKCO 11 News/KJCT News 8 in Colorado, was enrolled in MC 208 in 2013.
“I remember the assignments were very similar to what you would face in a real newsroom or publication…everything from pitching story ideas, to writing, to publishing…. everything,” Green said. “The course teaches you to be well-rounded so you’re flexible in any situation. I would say that’s helped me the most! You just learn to have a hand in everything. I got work with a relatively small team, so quickly learned it’s good to know how to do a little bit of everything.”
Georgina Cammayo, a former Education major at HCC, also took MC 208 in 2013. She recalled, “MC 208 was the only class I took at HCC that wasn’t towards my degree and yet, it ended up being the most rewarding one. I learned that I prefer writing articles that inspire, that journalism brings out the persistent side of me, and that it’s important to be open to constructive criticism because that’s what it takes to produce a great piece.”
While the magazine began to win national recognition, I also began hearing feedback that the course title was confusing and possibly misleading.
I asked for input from members of Owl Magazine’s Alumni Advisory Board, an organization I set in place to create mentoring connections and advisory feedback. Multimedia Journalism was suggested as a possible course name due to the variety of skills introduced in the course and the increased emphasis on skill diversity in the field.
The name change coincided with the launch of our Facebook page, initiated due to student interest in social media platforms and used to showcase “bonus” photography and articles and student-produced videos relating to articles in the print magazine. Jay Greene was one of the alums that provided input during the modification process. “The course has definitively grown to meet the demands of the field,” Green said.. “It’s nice to see the publication tackling the video side of things, along with social media.”
With the addition of social media and videos, the magazine scaled back to publication once a semester. The class became focused on the production of a multimedia project.
Students wrote an article, provided photography, designed the magazine spread and created a video relating to the article topic. Students worked independently or in small groups. Publication continued to be the goal, with the Facebook page used as an alternative for work not published in the print magazine. Completion of assignments, attention to deadlines, class participation and adherence to assignment guidelines continued as class assessment measures.
Sydney Gaeth, now a Mass Communications major at Towson University, took MC 208 in 2014. She said, “Our curriculum included writing, editing, and designing an article as well as writing the concept for, shooting, and editing a video corresponding to the article. It was also encouraged that we appear on-air in our video to learn reporting.”
“What I liked best about this course was the true introductory nature it had, giving me the opportunity to try everything. Before this class, I never considered my potential ability to work with videos or page design. I always thought I should stick to writing because I didn’t have the talents for creative editing. Since taking this class, I have continued practicing with video and have won two national awards,” Gaeth added.
However, while students like Sydney enjoyed this approach and it was proving successful, the workload was unsustainable. My lack of background in design, photography and video provided challenges as I attempted to get up to speed on new technology. Furthermore, a key member of our staff who was instrumental as both video editor for the Facebook page and art director for the print magazine transferred to a four-year institution. A highly creative, skilled and committed staff member, he also provided mentoring to students in MC 208.
Without his assistance, it was not practical for each student in MC 208 to complete the design of a magazine spread and the production of a video. These skills required instructional time outside of class that simply wasn’t available since the students struggled to learn so many specialized skills in a short time frame.
As the goal of this course has always been publication, I gave students the option to focus on one major project for possible publication or to work in a group with each student taking on a different role in the production process, such as writing, photographer, designer, videographer, on-air reporter. I continued to introduce all skills, but some students designed promotional fliers instead of magazine spreads or focused on on-air reporting instead of video editing.
Although the course was consistently highly rated by students and the student publication was the recipient of multiple awards, I still felt behind the curve. One semester I took a Mass Communications independent study on video, but while I gained valuable skills, I still felt lacking from an instructional standpoint. I could provide constructive feedback and relate basic information but lacked a comprehensive knowledge base and skill, not unsurprising given my English undergraduate degree and Communications master’s degree.
Rather than shortchange the students’ experience I suggested to my dean a new, team-taught approach. I proposed bringing on former standout students who had achieved their degrees and had continued to participate on the staff in mentoring positions.
These students would impart specialized skills while I would oversee everyone’s efforts, using my experience to mentor them on assessment and classroom management. Since we had already been working together for years, I had seen these alums in countless training situations and knew their work ethic and character.
I had heard that team-taught courses could be unpopular with students due to the perceived differences in faculty requirements and assessment so I knew cohesiveness and unity would be crucial.
John Morin was one of the alums brought on for a team-teaching position. Now a professional photographer and travel blogger, John’s instructional focus is photojournalism.
“The new team teaching concept is an excellent idea and a necessary next step in advancing this program. All of these different aspects equip students with more and better qualifications that will serve them well in a highly competitive and saturated field,” Morin said.. “Such experiences are what brought me back as an alumni advisor and also future professor in the Multimedia Journalism classroom.”
The team-taught class premieres in spring of 2017.While there may be some modifications to assignments over time, the basic nature of the team-taught class will stay the same. The class will be split into several week periods, with each period focusing on instruction of either writing, photography, design or video skills. Once students gain acquisition of these skills the final project will be a collaborative effort with mentoring provided by the team teachers.
Staying current in a constantly evolving field requires flexibility and adaptability. While I have high expectations for the team-taught approach, I am also ready to evaluate this new method and adjust as needed.
The former newspaper is now a magazine that is published once a semester. However, it is not published through a class. Students in the class work on assignments that may lead to publication depending on the quality of the work.
Staff members of the magazine meet throughout the week to complete various production tasks. This has also been a change made through the years as originally the newspaper was produced primarily through class efforts. However, the writing/photography/design standards have increased with the transition to the magazine and editors are now more selective in choosing what is published.
Owl Magazine’s Facebook page also publishes student work that is not featured in the magazine, including articles and photography. There is an online page turner of the magazine that is published on Issuu.com with links also accessible through the college’s website and the Owl Magazine’s Facebook page. (Article links are shared each week, as well as “bonus” content relating to the article.)
Readers have been very enthusiastic about this transition.
Despite our best efforts, it was a struggle to attract readers to a newspaper but now our feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Our magazine has also won multiple national awards, including a second-place award for Best Magazine in the CMA Pinnacle Awards for 2014-2015.
The magazine is also available at locations throughout the community, including high schools, restaurants and businesses and there is a growing interest from community locations to feature our magazine. This level of interest was not the case when the publication was a newspaper.
The magazine is a features magazine. While news events are covered, we aim to feature topics that relate to the magazine’s theme and have staying power so the articles do not appear outdated by the end of the semester.
Claudia Brown is an Associate Professor of Mass Communications at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland. She is the Chief Adviser of Owl Magazine, HCC’s multimedia publication. Owl Magazine has won multiple national awards for its print magazine and YouTube channel, including first place in the Pinnacle Award category of Two-Year TV Station of the year for 2015-2016. Claudia enjoys competitive figure skating, coaching and spending time with her children, Tacy and Jeremy.