What’s a journalism professor to do when his students miss class to cover March Madness?

This is a story about a journalism instructor dealing with journalism students missing journalism classes so that they can do journalism. Two undergraduates skipped my classes in Milwaukee — as well as those of their other professors — so they could report on Marquette University men’s basketball games at major postseason tournaments.

March Madness is a balancing act every year for college instructors and students nationwide. It’s a given that student athletes, cheerleaders, team managers, pep band members, etc., will miss classes as their schools make magical runs, hopefully, to the Final Four. University administrators ask faculty to be understanding and accommodating regarding make-up work.

What about student media, though? The NCAA sponsors commercials seeking to remind us that almost all of its 400,000 student athletes will go pro in something other than sports. Presumably, that’s the same for all those other students behind the benches or on the sidelines. It is more likely that a far greater percentage of college journalists lucky enough to cover such major sporting events will actually turn pro in newsrooms or media-related fields.

So why was I – a professional in residence at my alma mater, with 22 years experience as a newspaper reporter and many years of helping aspirants as a past president of the National Association of Black Journalists – questioning my students for seizing real-life experience?

Senior Mark Strotman, a sports reporter for The Marquette Tribune, missed one of my classes so he could cover the Golden Eagles at the Big East Championship in New York, and two more as he traveled to Phoenix for the team’s Sweet 16 game in the NCAA West regional. He spent his spring break covering Marquette’s two second-round NCAA wins in Louisville.

“It’s not a good thing that I miss class – but I think it’s the closest reason to a good reason to miss class, if that makes sense,” Strotman, 21, a journalism major from Deerfield, Ill., told me when I called him in Phoenix. He said he much appreciates that Marquette funds his trips. “It’s real-like experience from the second we get to the airport to the second we come home.”

Sophomore Tess Quinlan missed two classes to cover the Big East tournament as co-sports director for MUTVSports.com. She also reported from Louisville, but didn’t go to Phoenix because she had exhausted her department’s travel budget. That’s because she covered road games at the Jimmy V Classic in New York before finals week in December, at Georgetown and Syracuse during winter break, and at Villanova in February.

“For the rest of the year, I’m not missing class,” Quinlan, 19, a broadcasting and electronic communication major from Montclair, N.J., assured me this week. “I’m at every class.”

That’s easy to say now. Both students would have missed two more classes each had the stars aligned right and the Golden Eagles reached the Final Four next week in New Orleans. Regrettably, the season ended after our third-seeded team lost to seven-seeded Florida last night.

Honestly, March Madness is helping me to become a better instructor. (This is only my fifth semester teaching.) Before this week, my absence policy was simple – no distinctions between excused and unexcused and more than three missed classes results in severe grade penalties.

And, OK, while it’s bad enough that the Big East tournament also always seems to come during midterms week, I knew that Strotman would miss two great speakers I had secured for our seminar on how media cover elections and campaigns; and worried that Quinlan might not be concentrating on her multimedia projects in our digital journalism course.

That is, it was about me. Not them. Thinking about this further, and talking about it with mentors and colleagues, and yes, even the students, I can find ways to more proactively help them to use their road trips to not only keep up with their assignments, but also enhance the great networking and job-searching opportunities that present themselves during March Madness.

Blogging is an essential aspect of both classes. Strotman and Quinlan are each required to blog about a news media website each week this semester. He is assigned the Kansas City Star’s website, but could have blogged about news coverage of politics in Arizona this week. Both could have written about their experiences covering the NCAA tournament or their dealings with professional media. Quinlan is assigned NPR’s website, so she could have interviewed the NPR correspondent she sat beside in Louisville. “I didn’t make the connection until just now,” she told me. “That’s because I didn’t hold you accountable,” I replied.

Both students are wonderful young people destined for great careers in journalism. The Diederich College of Communication honored Quinlan with a sports journalism scholarship moments before Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Enberg lectured at Marquette in February. Last semester, Strotman conceived and helped create the extraordinary blog “Paint Touches,” in which he and other sports reporters and editors for The Tribune spent the season offering game recaps, news and feature stories, and columns about the Marquette men’s basketball team.

I called Michael Anastasi, a managing editor at the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah and president of Associated Press Sports Editors, an organization representing 500 news agencies, for his opinion on the matter of student journalists missing classes so they get that real-life experience.

Just like for student athletes, Anastasi told me, “You understand that they have this unique opportunity to go do it, but it’s incumbent upon them to work with you to meet their academic obligations.” He added: “There’s no substitute for academic experience and there’s no substitute for professional experience, and so I think the whole object of education holistically is to prepare the student to become gainfully employed.”

But doesn’t real-life experience help them get hired? “That’s not going to matter to me,” Anastasi said. “I’m going to look much more broadly. I may very well hire someone who’s never worked at a tournament if they demonstrate other types of skills and experiences.”

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