(Editor’s Note: Dawkins in Professor in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, Hampton University, the author of several books, and a former print and online journalist.)
I believe I have a duty to make American Media History relevant to students who are aspiring journalists, communicators, and, consumers of information who should be civically engaged. I set out to accomplish my goal by meeting students on shared ground: I require of them effort, reading comprehension, narrative writing and participation, whether it is team projects or classroom discussion. Meanwhile, the students should appreciate me if I use technology, including digital media and video in order to bring history to life.
Early in each semester I make the case that the Colonial Era reveals the DNA of journalists and communicators. Benjamin Franklin was a printer, a gifted and playful writer who as a teenage apprentice wrote under a pseudonym, Silence Dogood. Samuel Adams, first cousin of future president John Adams, was a celebrated brewer, and, a journalist. Thomas Jefferson perhaps wrote the greatest editorial of all time, the Declaration of Independence. I play the National Public Radio dramatic reading of that document in class. Thirteen British colonies defeated a superpower, not only with firearms, but largely with ink and paper. Indeed, journalism matters.
My attempts to engage and influence students moves on to the 19th century and the Penny Press era. New York’s most recognized landmarks, Times and Herald squares, are the hallowed grounds of dynamic, visionary newspapers, the New York Times and the New York Herald [the latter which by the next century merged with an equally significant competitor, the New York Tribune]. Also during the early 1800s in New York, Freedom’s Journal was remarkable because black people could not vote, own property in most places, and were not citizens, nevertheless they could create their media and demonstrate for freedom and equality.
Indeed, journalism matters.
After getting to know the students for a few weeks, I make it their turns to share what they have learned, and, believe. I task them to read about and then write essays about Colonial-era media makers, whether they are well known – Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Thomas Paine and, New York Post founder Alexander Hamilton – or are important and deserving wider recognition, i.e. Anna Zenger, wife of printer John Peter Zenger, who continued to publish the New York newspaper while her husband was in jail, and Sarah Updike Goddard, a Rhode Island publisher.
The next round of essays are assigned about the time class will focus of the startups of electronic media – radio, film and television at the start of the 20th century. This task is to write about modern-day journalists, people they see on cable news or read online. A recent trend has been that about a dozen notable African-American journalists have written memoirs or narrative non-fiction books. I have used this opportunity to craft a list of authors for the students to write about. Examples include Michele Norris of NPR and author of The Grace of Silence; Don Lemon of CNN, author of Transparent, and BTW a student favorite because of his relative youth and visibility, and Gwen Ifill of PBS author of The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. [Ifill, 61, an iconic Washington correspondent turned anchor, died in November].
Philosophically, this assignment is crucial because I teach mass media at a historically black university. It is important that students truly understand and appreciate the contemporary journalists who came before them.
Usually by the midterm, the students are fully immersed in the class and the routines: lectures integrated with multimedia, discussions, weekly quizzes and writing assignments. At this point I task students to choose their three-member teams in order to work together to produce 10-minute end-of-semester multimedia projects on topics that mostly relate to television, film or digital media since that trio of topics is our focus in the second half of the semester.
I remind the students that for most of the semester I have dictated what I believe they must learn and know in a survey of 325 years of American Media History from 1690 and the publication of Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestic, to the utility of 21st century social media networks. Now I say, it’s their turns to show me and their peers what media is relatable and important in their lives.
I will also get to assess students’ varied talents as I observe them present in teams: Some are bookish scholars, others are showmen and women, and still others are behind-the-scenes producers and directors.
In the end the variety makes for what I believe is a shared learning experience.