Q & A
News Writing: Teaching the Fundamentals
by Kate Yingling Hector, photo by Trace Thomas
Robert Wernsman has been teaching in the College of Mass Communications for nearly 20 years, most of that time has been spent teaching one of the college’s most famous courses, News Writing. The course is required of most majors who have to pass before they can move onto the rest of their course work, but before even entering the class each student must pass the equally famous Grammar Spelling and Punctuation test. Wernsman recently was recognized for his excellence in teaching with two awards. The first award is the University Student Housing Professing Excellence Award, nominated and chosen by students. The second is the President’s Excellence in Teaching Award, which came from a nomination within the college.
I sat down with Wernsman to discuss his awards and his experience teaching News Writing all these years.
Q: You see just about every student that goes through the college of mass comm, what is that like?
A: Very nearly, and once they get through News Writing they seem to like me pretty well.
Q: How does it feel to have such a, you could say famous, reputation for news writing? People are a little scared of it.
Past News Writing Instructors
* remains active in teaching the class
- Brandon Bouchillon
- Kris Boyle
- Mary Ann Edwards*
- Howard Fisher
- Jerod Foster
- Josh Grimm
- Doug Hensley*
- Kippra Hopper
- Rachel Lehman
- Yunjuan "Lily" Luo
- Kelli Brown Lyons
- Tim McAlavy
- Patrick Merle
- Phil Poe
- Aleesa Ross
- Bob Schaller
- Kim Sizemore
- Jeff Stoughton
- Cam Stone
- Paul Watson
A: I try to look upon it as an advantage. Students typically don’t come in laggardly. They know, they are on notice from the start. One of the things I have noticed however, is part of its reputation is the timing in the program. Because a great number of PR students then will go into PR campaigns before they graduate. And then advertising people would go into ad campaigns. Journalism students go into reporting and advanced reporting. What I hear is that students find the campaigns classes to be far more challenging than News Writing. But, once they are done with campaigns they leave. They graduate and they are gone, they aren’t around to tell everyone the horror stories about the campaigns class. But they are always around to tell people about News Writing. But it adds to students’ satisfaction, if they know from the beginning this is one tough class, and they escape with success. Then suddenly it elevates their confidence even more.
Q: I think one of the reasons students are so nervous about it, is because of the really scary low grades at first. News Writing has a unique grading structure, how does the chance to resubmit and improve affect the class?
A: Well, I don’t even know where that came about originally. When I began teaching this class, nearly 20 years ago, one thing I always realized was that the learning occurs when you revise, and correct what was wrong, and see what positive results should be. And then you have something to emulate with the next one. I believe that this class would be hugely unfair if assignments from the beginning were at the same value level as the assignments at the end. I don’t think it would account for the learning curve that has to occur. I am really pretty proud of the way it is set up because students can stumble and fall at first, and we expect them to. By the end of the semester, how many crutches do they need? And if they still need to be propped up at the end, then probably best for them to come on back and try it again.
We have tweaked this class over the years. We didn’t always have two non-counting papers at the beginning. At one point it was one, and it was much more massive and way too big of a job to tackle for the initial students. Having the two pieces seems a little more manageable, approachable and conquerable.
Q: How has the class changed over the years? Technology and journalism have changed, how has that been reflected in the class?
A: Probably the least change in this class has been technology, because it is still really about word usage, punctuation, clarity and accuracy. It has changed by some assignments that started out as an option, but once we saw how beneficial they were, became a requirement.
The whole notion of the thematic final project is part of the evolution of this class. It used to be that final projects were topics nominated by the students and then we gave approval, and therefore we had students scattered in what they were covering. There was a real range of quality as a result. Of course we know that it is very demanding, one of the things we realized was that if we were to bring in a key person to help set the tone, then they would have at least one expert. And then they would have at least one expert. A final project that is just a bunch of student opinion that may not be intelligent in the first place really isn’t productive. So by bringing those two key people to interview for News 4 and then News 5, it makes it easier for students because we give them a source. That gives them a starting point, some students will interview the expert we bring in, and then interview other people and decide not to even use the expert, which is fine with us, if what they have is quality enough to surpass what we bring to them.
There is also something very distinctive about students who make those choices, because they don’t have to have that one-on-one. Generally what happens, there will be a handful who chose not to meet with us. They just put in the box and run. There is a reason for that; usually there is a reason that they don’t want to face us, because they haven’t devoted the time it takes.
Q: Since the implementation of the thematic final project, how are the themes chosen each semester?
A: Just the past couple years have been health and wellness related. The themes are far, far ranging. We began because of the connection with the Texas Tech Vietnam Archive. The very first semester we did this, I believe there were 120 students, they had to find and profile a Vietnam veteran. Then it went to personal finance and student credit card debt; we did adoption one semester. Every student either profiled someone who had been adopted or had adopted, or worked with an agency. Really it is less a pattern of the subject and more of how can we find a relevant topic that would help educate our students in areas well beyond areas of punctuation and grammar.
It is the social benefits of it, we did disabilities last semester. Of course that is pretty wide ranging, students becoming familiar with and dealing with wheelchairs or crutches or blindness, any number of things. I like to think it makes our students more humanistic, but I don’t tell them that. I don’t tell them there is an ulterior motive here. In the future we are planning on doing bullying, issues that have relevance in their life one way or another.
Q: What is the most beneficial part of News Writing for students?
A: Probably the greatest part of this class that is so quiet and understated is the benefit students get from learning to interview strangers. Life is full of that, and once you are able to arrange and sit down for an interview with someone you have never met, carry on a conversation and have them want you to come back and talk some more, they have progressed. I don’t know what other class you can get that sort of experience in this college. And I would very much wish that every student in the college had this experience even though not everyone is required to take News Writing anymore.
I’m not an academic by my education, but it has always befuddled me that anyone would be teaching a writing class that follows this writing class, who would not be aware of what this class offers and demands. Every department does things their own way, but I sure wish that the interviewing of live sources would continue.
I once had a very good English major take News Writing, and he enjoyed it very much. And then he came back the next semester, just to ask me, ‘why doesn’t English teach writing how you teach writing?’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about how English teaches writing, and I can’t judge, but this is what we find works the best.’
Q: What are some stories of students that stick out in all the semesters you have taught News Writing?
A: I had quite a student situation not too long ago where a student just made no progress throughout the semester. Grading News 4 was like grading News A, all the same stupid mistakes it was a waste of my time and we were all spinning wheels, it was very frustrating. Then, when he nearly lost his life and went into rehab for his addictions, he came back and took the class the very next semester. And succeeded and did very well and got an A. He sent me an e-mail and said, ‘The first semester I took this class, I came to your class with vomit on my shirt and it was mine. The second semester I took this class, I came to class with vomit on my shirt, but it was my daughters. Everything had changed.’
He went from being an addict, alcoholic, user to now 18 months clean and has a child, and has his life. Actually he was a guest for our class this semester, because we were dealing with alcoholism and addiction. He was a real live prospect for that.
Then speaking of stories, we had a student here named Faith Penn. That sheet there, was her list for the spelling test. She is blind, and she said, ‘Yes, Mr. Wernsman. You can tell them, even a blind woman can pass this test.’ She studied this list of words, and she took the GSP with someone reading the questions and choices to her. And she did very well. It was the first time I had ever dealt with someone who was blind. That was really satisfactory for me, and she was thrilled. I did have help from a previous student who had taken News Writing the semester before. She was a student employee here in this building. I would grade all the papers the same, I didn’t know which one was Faith’s, so when I would finish, I would realize, ‘Okay, all these marks I’ve written on here, she can’t read.’ But then our student worker would sit down with her with what I had written and what had to be changed, and Faith would change it on her computer. So the whole process worked out very well.
Faith graduated a couple years ago, and so last semester we did disabilities. And one of our students was slightly sight impaired, but just slightly. Because of her familiarity, she chose blindness as the subject of her project and she went over to the office in the library. She asked a woman about a copy of such and such book. And Faith says, ‘Chancy, is that you?’ And Faith Penn happened to be there. Faith was Chancy's camp counselor six years before, and that is where you start to see all these connections coming around. And that is just a microcosm of what Bill Dean knows, because he’s got generations of students that he has taught.
Q: All the years you have been here and you have stuck with News Writing for a long time, why is that?
A: I have to say, I consider myself the luckiest person on this campus, to get to do what I get to do. And have a minimum of interference from anyone. I don’t know that anyone in this building really wants to teach this class. I don’t know that they want to take this load.
Early, early on, I taught Advanced Reporting for a couple of semesters, but that wasn’t my fit. And there are students who say, I wish you taught other classes. But of course, you can only teach so many. If I am going to teach something else, I’m going to have to give up News Writing. And I one time, I only taught News Writing and I taught four sections. Then when Principles of Journalism came into my picture in 2004, I was reduced in the number of labs I had. There has been the opportunity to teach a more advanced reporting, but frankly, I was never personally an advanced reporter. I was a reporter, but I became an editor before I got years and years of reporting experience. And that is why, in my estimation, not that I get to make these decisions, someone like Pete Brewton, who is far more advanced as an investigative reporter is much better at those higher levels. You almost have to be an editor to teach News Writing. It is a lot of editing, and you really have to teach the nuances and the little stuff.
What it all comes down to, I think, is weed pulling. When you look at a weedy yard, generally there will be a big old weed and you just ignore it and ignore it. Finally, you pull it out and you realize, it wasn’t as big as you thought. Because when you pulled it out, there are four more, smaller weeds, and when you pull those you realize each of those has four. And when you pull those out, suddenly, your flowers can blossom.
Q: How does it feel to have your time here recognized by these awards?
A: I am indebted to Jerry Hudson and others in this college who have allowed me to do this. I wouldn’t have won any awards if they didn’t employ me here. I would be remiss not to mention my wife’s support, because I always know that’s there. And for someone who doesn’t have a Ph.D. to carve out a 20-year teaching career at a major university is not typical. That is why I think I’m blessed. I told three students yesterday, and I will carry this to my grave: The awards are fine, but yesterday three students stopped by, who are no longer in my classes. They were just touching base, they didn’t know anything about this award. They were just telling me about where they were and where they’ve gone, and where they are going. And I thought, I’ll probably lose that medallion, but I am not going to forget those interactions with the students. That is the award. mc
Kate Yingling Hector is a May 2012 public relations graduate from Harker Heights, Texas.
Trace Thomas is a senior public relations major from Levelland, Texas.