September 30, 2003

You may cringe at the idea of teaching diversity because you think you’re not good at it. But I have some good news for you. If you’re worried about becoming an overnight expert in diversity, stop worrying. You can make a big difference in your teaching by taking a few small steps at a time.

That’s right. You don’t have to do everything at once. If you’re a journalism professor, you can start by taking a new look at your old course syllabus. The syllabus offers what I like to call “points of entry” — places where you can infuse principles of diversity. Some of those points of entry include course title (and subtitle), course description, course objectives, readings, selection of guest lecturers, assignments, and grading criteria.

One professor, for example, used the course title as a point of entry.

Professor Darryl Smith’s course used to be called “Media Ethics.” Now, his course at the University of West Florida is called “Media Ethics: Ethical Decision-Making in a Diverse Society.”

Smith added the subtitle after participating in a recent “Diversity Across the Curriculum” seminar here at Poynter. He said that he had always felt strongly about including principles of diversity and issues related to people of color and women. But, he hadn’t always allowed the syllabus to reflect his convictions.

Now it does.

Each student who reads the title will know that Smith sees inclusion as essential to ethical journalism. But, your course needn’t be about ethics, or be focused on ethnic or under-covered groups. A Northwestern University professor examined her course syllabus on covering politics and found that she had left out a very important stakeholder — the people.

Professor Sharon Kornely at the Medill News Service in Washington, D.C., teaches a course called “Politics and Government.” Her original course objective read, “The seminar will identify and examine the wellsprings of political power in Washington from sharply different points of view.” She described two points of view: the constitutional structure, with the Congress, its committee structure, the presidency, cabinet departments; and the federal budgeting process.

Her new course objective added a third point of view: “Third is ordinary people who are often left out of the law making process, but whose stories must be told with sensitivity and respect because everyone must live with the consequences of laws made on Capitol Hill.”

The change in language increased the chance of getting well-written stories. Kornely saw how reporters could miss important angles by not including ordinary people in their coverage.

That revelation led to another addition. For the first time, Kornely assigned students to cover the Congressional Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus. Specifically, students were assigned to discover who the members were and what issues were important to them.

Smith and Kornely both searched their syllabi for places that could benefit from additional information and perspectives. This is a basic principle of our “Diversity Across the Curriculum approach. We believe excellence in journalism means inclusion of diverse perspectives because it speaks to accuracy and completeness.

Dr. Kim Golombisky at the University of South Florida also attended the Poynter seminar. She tackled the accuracy and completeness of her design course by using several points of entry. Students in her course will know with their first reading of the syllabus that Golombisky is committed to diversity and sees it as synonymous with professional excellence.

In her old syllabus, the course objectives promised the learning of important lessons in design:

1. Learn basic design, typography, and color theory.
2. Acquire hands-on experience with both manual and desktop page layout.
3. Practice constructive design criticism.
4. Familiarize yourself with basic concepting, layout, and prepress processes.
5. Produce some work for your portfolio.

The revised version includes new numbers 4 and 5:

4. Appreciate visual aesthetics as historically and culturally contingent.
5. Make a habit of considering the ways visual and symbolic communication can be inclusive, cover the undercovered and mitigate bias and prejudice.

Like Smith, Golombisky embraced the idea of diversity, but had not always placed her convictions on the page alongside objectives such as “learn basic design, typography, and color theory.” When students looked at last year’s syllabus, they knew how she felt about design. Now they’ll also know how she feels about diversity in design.

They can read about her feelings on the second page of the syllabus just below the course objectives where she included a statement she called ”

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Golombisky’s Commitment.” It summarizes her belief that excellence is not possible without diversity.

She doesn’t profess to be an expert in diversity, only that she will define excellence in terms of diversity. Under the heading “How I Grade Your Work,” Golombisky has added: “evidence of an appreciation for and sensitivity to relevant diversity issues.”

Golombisky’s design syllabus also asks students

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to develop a poster to be displayed for the entire school. The instructions read: “The purpose of this assignment is to get you practicing very basic page layout incorporating typography and graphics.” The poster assignment for the Fall term will focus on covering the under-covered.

When I asked why she made the assignment, she responded by e-mail, “I decided to put in print what I always say in class about this assignment, i.e. seek out alternative and minority choices to expose students to different points of view and aesthetics.”

The syllabus offers what I like to call “points of entry” — places where you can infuse principles of diversity. Sometimes students voice their fear that assignments about minorities won’t provide the serious examples or clips they’ll need to attract good jobs in journalism. Golombisky and others show clearly how the assignment may be about or include people traditionally left out of coverage, but still have a clear journalistic purpose.

Displaying the posters might encourage other faculty members to try new assignments that stress diversity. Then, instead of one assignment, there could be more. Instead of one professor taking a new look at one course, there could be many more.

I’d like to learn more about some of the approaches that professors have used to incorporate diversity into their courses in journalism. If you have some tips to share, please pass them along.

Remember, you don’t have to be an expert to include diversity. Your syllabus has lots of points of entry. Find the ones that fit your style, your students, your subject matter. Then make a difference.

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