my faculty experience

Training Student Journalists

Professor Donna Berghorn's Communication Studies students arrived for class armed with notebooks, tape recorders and carefully prepared questions, eager to begin their first press conference. Professor Hester Fuller and Network Manager Mike Franklin, who were invited to class to answer questions about the college radio station's recent return to Internet broadcasting, took seats at the front of the class and smiled down at more than a dozen rolling tape recorders lined across their table.

Professor Berghorn, sitting quietly in a corner of the classroom, waited for the students in her Writing for Public Communications class to take charge. The students' assignment, for which they'd prepared over the past several weeks, was to write a news article based on their research and this press conference.

“Please tell us your names and titles,” the first student said on cue, showing his firm grasp on a basic tenet of journalism that had been drilled into him: get the names in your story right. The students then launched into one question after another about technology, federal broadcast regulations, radio programming and the numbers of potential Internet listeners. They'd done their homework and asked smart, relevant questions.

By the end of the hour, the visitors departed, and some students found to their dismay that the length of the press conference had exceeded the length of their cassette tapes. “I noticed that some of you weren't taking notes and were depending on your tapes,” Professor Berghorn noted archly. It was a hard lesson for a few students, but better for them to learn it in the classroom than later in life in an interview with the governor.

“What's Wrong with this Question?”

The previous week, the students e-mailed their draft interview questions to Professor Berghorn, which she displayed, without names, on a large screen in class. Through the process of reviewing their own anonymous work, the students felt free to critique and improve on each other's questions.

In one question, a student asked whether the college officials “felt as though college radio stations were being attacked by ridiculously high fees” from the music industry. “What's wrong with this question?” Professor Berghorn asked.

“It's opinionated, and we're trying to be as unbiased as we can,” responded a student. To the onscreen question, “What concerns do you have about putting the radio station back online?” Professor Berghorn piped up with, “Good question!,” pointing out that open-ended questions tend to draw more in-depth answers. “You want them to give you anecdotes, to tell a story.”

“You know when and how to push them”

Professor Berghorn came to Colby-Sawyer in 1991, compelled by the chance to teach writing and journalism and to form close bonds with her students. In her own undergraduate years at Canisius College, she recalls the tight sense of community among students and faculty, with semesters punctuated by barn parties at her professors' homes.

“Even before I took the job, I knew Colby-Sawyer was a place where I could develop similarly good relationships with students. Students were on the search committee, and when I came to campus for my interview, I had lunch with several of them. That didn't happen at any of the other institutions where I interviewed. I knew Colby-Sawyer was right for me from the beginning.”

If she sought close relationships with students, Professor Berghorn found even more than she bargained for at Colby- Sawyer. She teaches three or four classes each semester and serves as advisor to the student newspaper, where she spends every other Monday night overseeing students as they edit and design the paper. She serves as an academic advisor to dozens of students each semester.

For spring break each year she takes communication studies students to New York City for a college media convention. She often volunteers to present workshops for students in the college's Emerging Leaders Program. In her free time, she makes costumes for student theater productions and serves as the radio host for “Celtic Crossroads” on the student-run radio station, WSCS-FM.

“I know these students very well, and they know me,” she says with a laugh. “It gives me the opportunity to reach the entire student. You know when and how to push them. I think that's what Colby-Sawyer does particularly well—helps students reach beyond where they've been to discover their own potential.”

“That's When You have to Dig Deeper”

In their four years at Colby-Sawyer, senior communication studies majors Stephanie Hicks and Lauren Kovach have taken nearly every course Professor Berghorn teaches, from Introduction to Journalism and Investigative Reporting to Mass Media in America and Desktop Publishing. Professor Berghorn has been their academic advisor, mentored them through their stints on The Colby-Sawyer Courier's editorial staff and overseen their internships at newspapers.

“I started out as a plain writer; I didn't use a lot of adjectives or strong verbs,” admits Hicks, who plans to pursue a career in newspaper journalism. “Donna makes us write our pieces over and over again, until at the end, you have a piece of writing that you didn't know you were capable of.”

In the Investigative Reporting class, Kovach and the other students pursued a controversial story about New London, New Hampshire's recent real estate reassessment, in which waterfront property owners saw their taxes skyrocket. The students often felt frustrated in their quest to get to the bottom of the story, but Professor Berghorn encouraged them to keep digging. “She taught us that it's good when we have questions. When things don't add up or something seems suspicious, that's when you have to dig deeper,” says Kovach.

What's different about Professor Berghorn's teaching, and what Hicks and Kovach like most about their professor, is her willingness to communicate with students at their level. “One day in desktop publishing, she physically got down on the floor with a camera and showed us how to get a photo of the whole class,” Hicks recalls. “She could have just shown us a Power Point presentation.”

Reviving the Student Newspaper

One of Professor Berghorn's first responsibilities was to revive the student newspaper, The Colby-Sawyer Courier, which hadn't been published regularly since the early 1970s. Today the Courier is published twice each month during the academic year, and it's become an edgy reflection of campus life and a must-read for most members of the campus community.

“It's a role that evolved over the years. Initially, I taught them the basics because no one knew how to put a paper together,” Professor Berghorn explains. “Eventually I helped them develop editorial policies and figure out how to live with them.” Several years of transition ensued during the planning and construction of the Baker Communications Center, but now the Communication Studies Program and the Courier have “top-notch facilities and equipment” to work with.

“Now that we have everything in place, we've developed a tradition where the older students work with the younger ones,” Professor Berghorn continues. “I take care of all the behind-the-scenes stuff—the budget, the technology, and I also spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas and helping out the writers. I critique the paper every week and give the students feedback on how to make it better next time.”

“Be Accurate and Always Question…” Kovach served as the Courier's news editor for two years under Professor Berghorn's tutelage. She found it a challenge to manage a staff of students, to harangue them about their deadlines and to cope with their many differing opinions, and she appreciated Professor Berghorn's support.

“Donna tries not to say yes or no; she's there to let students decide how to run the paper. She always stressed the basics of journalism—to be accurate and to always question to get to the truth. She's always willing to offer constructive criticism without sugarcoating it,” Kovach said.

Kovach also looks to Professor Berghorn as a mentor in the profession. “She gives us different perspectives as a woman and tells us about her past experiences, good and bad, in the communications world.”

On most days, Professor Berghorn revels in her roles as mentor, advisor, friend and teacher, and as one who tells, and also shows her students how to act as communications professionals. How she teaches has evolved over time because technology has given her new tools that save time and make her communications more interactive and visual. Yet the substance of what she teaches is much the same as it was a decade ago.

“What do I enjoy about teaching?” she asks rhetorically, emphatically. “Everything! I enjoy interacting with students, exposing them to new ideas. I love the fact that they learn things they didn't know about, and that they teach me. I love watching them get excited about ideas. I love seeing their work improve. I love talking to them—all of it!”