So why do I need to take this class?

I had asked the class what questions they had about the course.

It was the first day of class. I’d given an overview to Writing for Mass Communication. I’d  talked about some of the challenges and concerns about careers in the media — from advertising on mobile devices to reading on a Kindle. I had asked the students to introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know and gave them a few minutes to talk about major, hometown and career plans. I then distributed the course syllabus and asked them what quesions they had about the course.

I’ve found that typically the students ask the questions that address the very issues I would want to discuss.

  • “What books do we really need to have — and do we need to bring them to class?”
  • “What  will our grade be based on?”
  • “Will you post your slides online?”
  • “Will we have any extra credit opportunities?”
  • “What are your tests like, and how can we study for them?

I have two lecture sections of Writing for Mass Communication — one at 12:50 and one at 3. In the first lecture, the questions asked were the ones I listed above, and I answered them. By asking questions, the students felt more involved and, I hope, will be more likely to continue asking questions as the semester continues. Getting students to talk, especially in a big class, can be a challenge.

But when you open it up to questions, you may get some that weren’t what you had expected.

In the second lecture, the first question was about textbooks. Then a hand went up. Not just a calm raising of the hand but an urgent hand raising. I called on him.

“I’m about to lose my mind,” he said in an intense voice. The whole class turned in their seats to look at him.

“I don’t know what I want to do as a career. So why do I need to take this class?” He leaned forward waiting for my answer. He clearly was sincere — and anxious.

“Why do I need to take this course” is the #1 question that we as teachers should be ready to answer and should be answering throughout the course with the readings and projects we assign, the tests we give, and the examples we use. And the answer shouldn’t be: “Because this is a required course for students in our college.” Even though that’s true with my course and often is for many courses that we teach.

“Being able to write clearly, concisely and accurately will help you in any career,” I said. “And that’s what you’ll be learning to do this semester.”

I asked how many in the class hoped to attend law school. About 15 percent. Law school stresses writing skills, I said. The skills the students develop by interviewing for stories they will write will be valuable whether they interview clients in law, advertising or public relations, I said.

I asked how many had changed majors at least once. About three-fourths.

At least twice? About half.

Three times or more? About a third.

More than three times? Quite a few — and this fellow as one of them.

“This course can help you decide if a career in the media is for you,” I said, looking at him but scanning the room.  “Every semester, some students take this course and then change majors. And that’s OK, too. One reason I enjoy teaching this course is because learning to be a better writer is a valuable whatever your career.”

After class, my lecture assistant Paige and I discussed his question and my answer. She said that she thought I’d answered well and that she makes a similiar statement when she talks to the students in her writing labs about the value of the course.

In the next lecture, we addressed those nuts-and-bolts questions about test structure and grading scale. I looked for that student to follow up with him, but he wasn’t in class.

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