|Woodside’s environmental journalism students conducting a field interview at Swan Lake on the UConn campus. Photo: Courtesy Chris Woodside. Click to enlarge.|
EJ Academy: Teaching Environmental Journalism. For the First Time. In a Pandemic.
By Christine Woodside
Three weeks before the first meeting of my new environmental journalism class at the University of Connecticut last fall, one of the students who had enrolled emailed me. She was wondering about the professor I was replacing that year.
“Do you know if Scott Wallace will teach this course at another time again?” she asked.
“You’re asking me that?” I thought.
Looking at this from her point of view, Wallace, who was going on a fellowship, has traveled the world. He has covered isolated indigenous South Americans.
My last book had taken me to … Iowa and South Dakota.
But she stayed in the class.
When I finished my master’s degree and started adjunct college teaching in 2019, I was elated to discover that universities trust professors to set up courses any way you want.
The students accept that you know what you’re doing.
Which I realized I do.
First assignment — with masks on
Last spring, UConn suddenly needed a visiting professor and so offered me a contract for the 2020-21 academic year. Two faculty members were taking leave to write books.
I knew I wanted students in the environmental journalism class to write four stories. If they could accomplish that, they could launch an environment beat. I would fill in with lectures on the practical side of science reporting.
Their first assignment would be a water pollution story, a classic. We would report it as a class. A system of brooks and ponds on campus had become polluted from too much asphalt on campus.
UConn had made regulatory history by negotiating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to correct the contamination just by tracking how many absorbent walkways they built.
I scheduled the field interview for the
second class because I feared an
outbreak would send us all online.
I scheduled the field interview for the second class of the fall semester because I feared a COVID-19 outbreak would send us all online.
We met that day on the grassy shore of Swan Lake — with our masks on (required everywhere on campus). Avoiding marauding wasps, we listened while Michael Dietz, the Connecticut Sea Grant scientist who monitors UConn’s compliance, explained the national import of the runoff problem. Dietz was wonderful, and a few called him back and interviewed him for other stories later.
The water stories came flowing in. One student set it up as a question: Was the university doing enough? Others wrote about why a brook diverted through an underground culvert, about road salt, about what impervious pavement is.
One tried to summarize several unrelated studies he’d found about ponds on campus. His first draft was chaotic. He later joked about how he’d stuck in a bunch of studies one after the other with no focus. He was learning.
Reporting under quarantine
Their next assignment was a story about climate change through the lens of one animal in Connecticut.
Some students chose struggling creatures, like shorebirds losing their nesting grounds, or those setting off disorder like South American mosquitoes. A few chose animals I didn’t think they could do a whole story about. One chose dairy cows, which actually suffer terribly in the heat. Another picked sharks, which troll the coasts snacking on harbor seals — but probably not because of warmer water.
Several students struggled to write narrative openings, which I wanted. I pushed them to get into the mind of the animal and what the animal’s life was like. I did a lot of circling of sentences way down in the story and writing, “This is actually your nut graf.”
Story three was another classic: the sprawl/development story. Except by now, quarantines had closed some dorms, and other students had been tending to sick relatives. More of them were joining the class via their screens.
During a pandemic, I couldn’t just say,
‘Get out there and visit that construction site.’
They had to do their reporting remotely.
I felt for them. During a pandemic, I couldn’t just say, “Get out there and visit that construction site.” They had to find sources and do their reporting remotely.
I kept telling them that the first draft could be full of holes. One student worked from home on a story about a green high school in her town. Another dove into a complicated story about why Connecticut’s governor wanted to build a natural gas power plant. She couldn’t get the governor’s spokesman to respond. But she found other people to talk to.
Another labored on a story about Yale-New Haven Hospital’s new neuroscience center and announced to me that he had received zero responses from his sources. I pushed him to call again and find alternatives. He found public documents and letters from worried neighbors.
“Note,” one student wrote at the top of her first draft about Tractor Supply Co.’s building site near protected wetlands in a rural Connecticut town. “I haven’t yet been able to get any quotes from anyone.” Yet she’d drafted an evocative beginning about the future commercial complex across the street from acres of reeds blowing in the wind. She, too, ultimately got some of the players to comment.
The fourth story was the longest and one of their choosing. They wrote about invasive beetles, why snakes are necessary, whether veggie burgers are good, why society must teach all children about the environment.
They seemed now to get how and where to seek sources, but I still had to push them to contact people multiple times. If no one called back, they knew they could quote peer-reviewed studies. You can’t pull off these stories in an all-nighter.
Teaching through a screen
I had my own failures. I could not get a sustained class discussion going. They often would look at me blankly.
Once, I required them to give the class workshop-like summaries of how they were doing with their stories. But they tended to direct the comments just to me. I’d walk around the classroom, swooping in and out of their distanced chairs, hoping I could hear everything through their masks. No one else would say anything.
Now, I believe they learned from listening to my advice in class, but I worried that someone must have had a question or a comment — but didn’t ask it.
At the urging of my journalism department colleague, Marie Shanahan, I set up a Slack channel, and occasionally asked them to text their ideas while in class. I’d then read out their comments.
It sounds crazy. But it meant we could stay far apart from each other and still talk. That piqued their interest.
I also used technology to bring in speakers. Jane Braxton Little and Sharon Guynup, fellow members of the Society of Environmental Journalists, both came in via Webex on my laptop screen. Their talks started with their work origin and told of how to persist with difficult stories. Students questioned them about starting a freelance career.
Masked though we were, and shy though they seemed, I ended the semester certain that my students had learned how to report and draft an environment story.
One day about halfway through, I projected on the screen three students’ exemplary first drafts of the climate change stories. They all started with narrative openings, solid nut grafs and multiple sources, including scientists’ comments and data.
That was the first day I realized how much they were improving. They might have cursed me a bit in the process. Which was OK with me. The results were good.
Christine Woodside is an environment and history writer. She edits Appalachia journal and is a visiting professor at the University of Connecticut for 2020-21. Woodside has been a member of SEJ since the late 1990s, and writes occasionally for the SEJournal. Her latest contribution was about how an SEJ grant gave her time to immerse in a local sewage story. She lives in Deep River, Conn. with her husband.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 9. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.