Up Front and Personal

A New College Experience For Faculty and Students

By Michael Rizzo

As the current semester drew to a close at St. John’s University, green grass bloomed under blue skies on the Great Lawn of the school’s Jamaica, N.Y. campus. All that seemed to be missing were the typical throngs of students enjoying that kind of day.

The students weren’t there because COVID-19 caused many of them to continue to take courses remotely.

The pandemic affected my teaching at St. John’s in March 2020. Like my fellow professors, I pivoted from meeting students in classrooms one day to gathering them online the next. That continued in fall 2020; then some professors, including me, returned to campus this semester.

I was glad to be back. St. John’s took ample precautions to protect everyone and it was great connecting with my students in person for what I teach.

Journalism works best when journalists are in contact with the people they are reporting on. We get the most facts, context, and feel of our stories by being there. During the pandemic, journalists have done interviews online but they also deserve credit for going out into the field where stories are happening, despite the risks.

But will the traditional style of teaching rebound for everyone, or is online learning the wave we need to be riding?

An online seminar held May 3 by St. John’s Institute for International Communication had some observations about the future for colleges and universities. Some employers devaluing traditional four-year degrees, changes in how courses are offered, and non-academic organizations conferring certificates and degrees are all items we need to be aware of.  Re-thinking how courses are taught may be the first step towards a positive investment in our universities and colleges. That starts with the most basic of options: in-person instruction versus remote learning.

I’m not alone in thinking there is room for both.

In my courses on how modern journalists do their work, I include training in doing online interviews. It’s no longer just about learning to ask good questions, but students who want to practice writing great journalism must also make sure they know good lighting, audio, camera operations, and stage direction.   

At the same time, students also practice covering in-person events safely.

There, real-world distractions, unexpected twists and turns, getting your question heard when everyone is shouting their own, and using your powers of observation are skills they learn in order to bring readers, viewers, and listeners to the scene.

Being in a classroom also allows me to interact with students in a three-dimensional way on issues like journalism ethics and journalism’s future. Impromptu questions and comments seem to percolate more freely that way.

But online is the future and the future is now.

The ease to apply online resources offers more opportunities for learning. When I recently asked a St. John’s graduate working as a television reporter in Green Bay, Wis., to speak to my class, she didn’t need to travel any further than her own home as we connected on Zoom.

If I want to show my students a video, posting the link means they can watch it at their convenience. Even advising students is easier now when meetings don’t need to be set at a particular place, but simply at a time, we can connect online.

Both teaching methods matter. If we never are in person with one another, we lose interaction skills and something goes missing in our professional and personal lives.

At the same time, using our creative hats to embrace what online and new technologies offer, applying new ways to tell the information I want my students to know, and re-inventing my courses through the online presence so many of us have is invigorating.

So, what will next semester look like at St. John’s?

More in-person classes are scheduled as well as more online courses than what was typical just a few years ago. Those are experiences students want and that’s a good development to reflect the changing environment we teach in.

And on the Great Lawn?

I hope there are plenty of students attending things like activity fairs, relaxing with friends, and even on their computers participating in a class under blue skies. That’s part of the college experience of the future too.

Michael Rizzo is the Director of the Journalism Program at St. John’s University in Queens and a freelance reporter for The Tablet.