Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Charles Scott, Jr

Chapter 3 | Mapping Critical Connections:
Exploring the Co-development of Vernacular Journalism and College Writing

“A thousand words about a tree”: Writing the News and Writing for Introductory Journalism

In the previous narratives, we emphasized the continuities between Charles’s vernacular journalism and the writing tasks he encountered in his First-Year Rhetoric and Kinesiology classes. Yet, over the course of analyzing the data from this research we also identified instances that underscored the discontinuities between Charles’s vernacular journalism and his curricular writing. This final narrative focuses on one of the most striking and surprising of these instances by tracing how the practices that figured prominently as Charles wrote stories for newspapers conflicted with the key practices involved in writing stories for an undergraduate journalism course he took during the fall of his sophomore year.

Charles enrolled in Introductory Journalism during the fall term of his second year at the university. In addition to serving as an introduction to the history, freedom, technologies, ethics, and functions of the news media, the course also provided rigorous training in clear, descriptive writing techniques using a variety of journalistic models. Students were required to complete a range of timed writing tasks such as crafting brief news stories from an assemblage of facts compiled by the instructor as well as researching and writing a series of more lengthy stories focusing on topics such as the university, the community, and nature.

By the time Charles enrolled in Introductory Journalism, he had accumulated a great deal of experience writing for several newspapers: two years writing stories for his high school newspaper and New Expression and one year writing for the university’s student paper, which he continued to do as he began his sophomore year. We would have predicted that these literate activities would mix harmoniously with writing stories for Introductory Journalism, and to some extent, they did. During an interview we conducted in the early weeks of the course, Charles indicated that he was able to draw on some of the practices from his extensive experience with vernacular journalism, stating that he already knew “about the inverted pyramid, and what a nut graf was and all that,” and he mentioned that he thought this prior knowledge helped him with the stories he was writing for this course.

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Yet, tension among key elements prevented these practices from being linked as successfully as they might have. His comment during the interview that he envisioned journalism as offering him opportunities to write, to have his voice heard, and to be publicly recognized highlights what would emerge from later talks with Charles as three important aspects of his engagement with vernacular journalism. To “write” for the university’s paper, for example, involved Charles in an extensive and collaborative editing process during which drafts of his stories would undergo multiple revisions, with both local and more global changes being made by Charles and/or the series of editors through which his stories passed. While he was often nonplussed about some of the changes the editors made to his stories, Charles described the editing process in complimentary terms: “They’ll go through [a draft of a story] first, and then they’ll ask you, like ‘What’s wrong with this?’, or ‘What do you think about this sentence?’ They’ll talk about it with you, and sometimes I’m like ‘Even I thought there was something wrong there’ or ‘I thought something was missing there.’ They’ll like guide you along.”

His second point about “being heard” suggested that Charles understands the literate activity of journalists like himself as “a force in the world … that imparts power to all who wield it,” a force enabling people “to fully participate in the world in which they live” (Fishman, 1990, p. 96). During the same interview, Charles had offered that “journalists, they have, like, more power. They like, they’re powerful people. Like, they’re like politicians, philosophers, and they can, like, you can make a difference with your story. […] And like, with um, making a difference, like, you can, like, you can change stuff by what you write." His stories for New Expression, for example, had dealt with racism, school funding, and Chicago teens’ treatment by the police. His stories for the university paper while enrolled in Introductory Journalism addressed incidents of tampering with fire detection equipment in the university’s residence halls, outlined the potential harmful side effects of caffeine, explored the rich variety of religious organizations on campus, questioned the effectiveness of the university’s educational program for rape prevention, and called for a greater awareness of foodborne illnesses.

His third point about “seeing [his] name in the paper” emphasized the importance Charles placed on publication. During the interview sessions that Charles and Kevin spent looking through files of the many news stories he’d written and published, including the most recent ones from the pages of the university’s paper, the deep sense of accomplishment that Charles felt in seeing his stories published was abundantly clear. According to Charles, “When I see one of my stories, even if it’s not that good of a story, when I see it in the newspaper I’ll look in the newspaper and be like [nodding his head and smiling] ‘I’m proud of myself’.” That same sense of pride and accomplishment is apparent in Charles’s comments about having his essay published in the Chicago Defender when he won the contest in tenth grade (see Figure 1 in the opening section of this chapter). In addition to the pride of accomplishment, having his stories appear in the newspaper provided Charles with “clips,” published stories that he used when he applied for summer journalism internship positions each spring. As Chin (1994) noted in her study of MA students enrolled in a professional journalism program, “clips are the currency of exchange in the world of journalism. Students learn to value clips highly because they are proof to would-be employers that students are capable of reporting and writing the news” (p. 475). Charles's concern for his “clip file” heightened each fall as he prepared to apply for summer journalism internships, when he continuously organized and reorganized it according to the number of clips the applications requested and the kind of position he was applying for. “Seeing [his] name in the paper,” then, both enhanced Charles’s sense of himself as a writer and supplied him with crucial evidence of his abilities as a journalist.

By the end of the fall semester of his sophomore year at the university, the extensive and collaborative editing process built into the writing process at the university’s paper afforded Charles the chance to have 12 stories published, including five that had been published in that semester alone. His voice had been heard repeatedly by the 20,000 people who read the paper each day. In addition, his clip file, which now contained over 60 stories published over the past three-and-a-half years, boasted a story that had landed firmly on the front page of a college newspaper. This story, titled “Treatment no cure for graduate student,” assumed a prominent place in the clip file he would eventually submit as he applied to a variety of internships over the next two years.

These practices, which proved so important to Charles as he wrote the news, were not, however, part of writing stories for Introductory Journalism. “Writing” stories for the course, for example, did not include participating in an extensive and collaborative editing process; instead, this activity involved Charles in a process of writing a story, submitting it for an initial grade, getting it back some weeks later with corrections and comments from his instructor, revising the story, and submitting it again for a second grade. From the comments on Charles’s stories for the class, it is clear that his instructor emphasized the use of correct standard written edited English in both versions of each story the students submitted. The instructor’s comments on the first draft of a story (see Figure 10 below) titled “The Fruits of Nature: The University’s Chicken Farm,” the story Charles wrote in response to the assignment he described as “writing something about nature,” for example, focused heavily on Charles’s problems with the more mechanical aspects of his prose, especially his sentence construction, punctuation, and spelling.

Figure 10
Excerpt From Charles's Introduction to Journalism Assignment
(Click to Enlarge)

Excerpt from the first draft of a story titled “The Fruits of Nature: The University’s Chicken Farm” that Charles wrote in response to an assignment to write a story about nature

While the instructor’s marginal comments asked Charles to “check this” where these problems arose in the text, the end comments offered more direct critique: “Before you rewrite this, you need to do some careful thinking and rereading. There are a lot of simple errors in here that you need to correct.” Further, in calculating the grade for this story, the instructor subtracted four points for numerous spelling errors in the text, leaving Charles with a 73 out of 100 points. Comments on the revised draft, on which Charles received a grade of 81, also focused heavily on the mechanical aspects of his prose. The marginal comments suggest that the instructor worked carefully through the revised draft to point out further difficulties with grammar, verb tense, and spelling.

Second, the stories he wrote for Introductory Journalism seemed quite unlike those he had written for newspapers. Whereas writing for the magazine and the paper involved identifying and exploring a topic or issue that readers would find worthy of reading, this crucial component of writing the news was not foregrounded in the journalism course. Discussing the story assignments from the course, Charles stated: “They were like, they weren’t journalism stories. It’s like a different type of writing. One is on a place, an event, a person, and nature, and then there was one on something else, I can’t remember what it was. But like you have to write a story about like a tree or something. You have to sit there and write a story about, come up with, say, eight hundred, a thousand words about a tree.” From Charles’s perspective, it was difficult to regard such writing as carrying the same “force in the world” as his published stories.

Third, the stories Charles wrote for his journalism classes did not have the potential to be published in a newspaper. Indeed, they functioned more as tests, a way to evaluate his performance. Discussing how he negotiated the tension between earning grades in Introductory Journalism and amassing clips, Charles stated, “I like to get good grades but publishing is more important …. If I get a good grade I’m happy, but seeing your story and your name appear in the newspaper is more important than grades, because that’s what’s more important in the long run. Grades are not going to matter when you go get the job; it’s going to be the stories in the paper.” This view is not unusual. Chin’s (1994) study of students in an MA journalism program learning to write news stories also documented their sense that acquiring clips was “real writing,” whereas writing stories for their graduate school courses was just a series of exercises relevant only for school.

Linking a journalism writing class to vernacular journalistic writing experience would seem to be straightforward. However, the instructor was primarily interested in students producing standard, written, edited language and in achieving a certain journalistic style. These features, however, were not Charles’s strengths, and for his part, he struggled to link what would appear to be closely aligned practices, resulting in a negative effect on his school performance. Charles’s overall grade for the course was mediocre, which we assume did not help and probably hurt his chances of being admitted to the journalism program when he applied later in his sophomore year.

We focus heavily on the disjunctures Charles experienced, but this is not to say that he did not learn anything from the course. Reflecting on the newspaper stories he wrote after his semester in Introductory Journalism, Charles remarked how he frequently drew on what he took away from the class: “[Introductory Journalism] really got my attention about spelling and stuff like that. I spend more time trying to catch my mistakes on my own before I get [my stories] to the editors. My eye for detail got a lot better.” Both vernacular and school experiences, then, contributed to Charles’s growth as a journalist: through his experiences at the newspapers, he learned how to productively participate in the distributed editorial process, and through the journalism course, he learned to appreciate the importance of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Still, these linkages were eclipsed by the larger frictions he encountered, frictions generated by the “linked but disruptive” (Scollon, 2001a, p. 82) nature of the practices we have outlined above, and he was unable to accomplish the social trick of overcoming the disruption. In sum, then, what might appear to be nearly identical journalistic practices turned out, in this narrative, to differ in fundamental ways, creating significant tensions between writing the news for each setting. These differences meant that in many ways Charles had to struggle against the wealth of journalistic experience he brought to the course. While the writing he did for the university’s paper during this semester resulted in five published stories, including one that landed on the front page, the stories he wrote in response to the assignments in Introductory Journalism resulted in negative feedback and poor grades both in his stories and the course overall. And, eventually, he ended up not getting accepted into the university’s journalism program when he applied at the end of his sophomore year.

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