Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) Feature: News Stories with Susan Jaret McKinstry

15 April 2022

ACES Associate Director Emily Seru recently sat down with Carleton English faculty member Susan Jaret McKinstry to reflect on her experience introducing an applied ACE component to her existing English course: News Stories, ENGL 265.  This journalism course explores the process of moving from event to news story. Students study and explore different forms of journalism (including news, reviews, features, interviews, investigative pieces, and images), critique one another’s writing, and revise their pieces for a final portfolio of professional work.  McKinstry worked with Carleton’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement to partner with three community organizations for the ACE components of the course: The League of Women Voters of Northfield and Cannon Falls, Ruth’s House of Hope, and the Lower Phalen Creek Project. 

This interview highlights some of the ways that the structure of the course lent itself well to the addition of an applied ACE component; McKinstry’s reflections on student learning, challenges and highlights of the ACE partnerships; and advice she has for faculty members considering how to add an ACE applied component to an existing course.

Susan Jaret McKinstry

Seru: I am so curious about your experience with this course. What made you decide to add an ACE component? What was it like beforehand and how did you decide to change it up this term?

Jaret McKinstry: It’s a pretty new course—this is only the third time I’ve taught it. Because it’s a journalism course, it’s already public facing. It’s already got a sense of readership and audience outside of Carleton. Increasingly, students in the course have either written for the Carletonian or are current editors. The public piece felt to me like something I really wanted to build. I also taught the course in part because I wanted students to think about news broadly; I wanted them to become newspaper readers, and adding this component felt like a way to give them a sense of local news that wasn’t campus focused. 

Seru: What were you hoping that they would experience in doing the ACE component of this course? 

Jaret McKinstry: Students are so accustomed to writing to their faculty members. It is so important that they think about how writing is appealing, engaging and compelling. And how you get someone to want to read something that they don’t necessarily know about and don’t necessarily even know that they’re interested in. So that was one part of it—the very surface aspect of thinking about writing as a kind of information and entertainment, and how you can compel people to be curious about something with headlines and images. The other piece of it was to get them to think about researching a topic. Again, outside of the way the campus usually works, because they’re talking to people who are deeply invested in a community group. Then they are translating that information back to both the campus but also more broadly, to the public beyond that organization. They learn how to be respectful and positive on all those levels. That was the piece that was the most exciting to watch. And that’s the piece that’s the trickiest, I think.

Seru: What was most challenging about that, for students?

Jaret McKinstry: What was brutally predictable, is that at Carleton, the schedule is so different than in the outside world. They were warned many times, and I think in a positive way, not to expect people to respond to an email within 24 hours, not to assume that you are top of their priority list. With the faculty, they are at the top of our priority list, so they’re very accustomed to getting immediate feedback and responses and help. I wanted them to navigate that audience and try to think about how to write a professional and respectful email. What was challenging is that [some students] experienced dead silence [from community partners] and in a couple of cases I really didn’t know quite how to handle it. I wasn’t exactly sure since I didn’t always know when to step in or when to ask the CCCE staff for support. 

What I did that I thought was really helpful was stretching the assignment out a lot. They write [and] read a news piece every week in this class, and then they workshop it in small groups, because it’s a creative writing class. So an enormous amount of constant writing, in a variety of forms, are the first pieces of the news component of the course. That allowed them to research the organization which was really helpful. And then two weeks later, they were supposed to contact the partner. And two weeks later, they wrote a Q & A with the community partner. So I felt like I had built in a really nice amount of time.

Seru: You were helping the students think about the process, slowing it down. Sometimes these projects with community partners, when they’re just seen as an assignment, can get squished and are perceived as just one point in time. But all those steps that you walk them through probably developed a lot of different skills, as well as background knowledge that helped them develop questions and ultimately informed the final news piece. 

Jaret McKinstry: And they had to divide up tasks. So I said, all five of you can’t interview somebody—that’s intimidating, so you might want to think: who wants to be part of the interview? Who wants to help write the interview questions? Who wants to transcribe it? How do you want to organize [the process]? That actually felt like a teamwork thing for them to sort through. And I also took one of the Friday workshop days, and we didn’t have a workshop. So that morning, they could definitely interview someone during that class time, and then three or four weeks later their piece was due. In two of the groups, that worked beautifully and by the time that came to the final piece that they were doing, they did very different things and have done them with a real sense of partnership. 

Seru: So it sounds like you really were building on an existing structure that you had in terms of the peer reviews, the Q & A format, and the workshops within the class. Is there anything that you had to give up or change significantly in order to add the ACE component to the course?

Jaret McKinstry: You know, I was really lucky. It just dictated their topic for those two assignments. I cut back on some of the things that they would have otherwise done, but they still were doing the same kinds of writing. So that felt really natural and very exciting because no matter how much I say to them, I want you to imagine writing this for [an audience]and pretend you’re a writer for the New York Times – this writing project really did have another audience. So it just felt seamless that way. I feel like it was such a natural fit.

Seru: Do you feel like it changed the quality of the writing?

Jaret McKinstry: For the two groups that it really worked, I think it made them much more aware of the visual design of a piece, and about the readers’ experience. In this course, I’m going to be pushing [students to] try using a one sentence paragraph, try a one word sentence. I want to push their syntax and diction, and push them to make it really compelling. All of a sudden, [with the ACE component], they were much more aware that somebody wouldn’t read if they didn’t want to be engaged with what you’re doing. And that felt really exciting. The final project for the Lower Phalen Creek project took the form of a timeline for their website, which is what they wanted. And it’s beautifully designed. All of them understood that if it wasn’t well designed, that somebody wouldn’t keep going. And they actually looked at the partner’s website, and made the product fit their colors and designs that also stand out in a way. And they knew that they couldn’t use a lot of words, but it had to be sort of crisply informative. They had to be really thoughtful about saying things the way the community partner would say it. Another group, who was studying redistricting, got so excited about redistricting, reporting to the class with just this massive excitement. That’s part of what I think they began to understand about writing: you have to do a lot of research and you have to be sure that whatever words you’ve used, you could back it up. That’s an aspect of writing that I don’t think Carleton students or probably any college students have to think about that much. And in this class, it was just front and center but in a really positive way. 

Seru: Is there anything that you would do differently next time you teach this ACE course?

I think the products worked really well. If you can help [the students] understand what they’re doing this for, they really throw themselves into things. They’re willing to try things they’ve never tried before. I think that I would be much clearer about some of the goals—even some of the ones that I’m expressing to you—because [this time] I wasn’t sure how they would work out. I would want them to go into the course with both a better sense of what could happen, but also a better sense of the kind of creative problem solving we might have to do when things go awry. 

Seru: Is there advice you would give to other Faculty members who might want to try adding an ACE component to a course?

Jaret McKinstry: Consult with the CCCE office right away and a lot! I wish I had done so sooner. Learn from other faculty members and think about ways it could fit with your course sooner. It was a lot of work putting it together at the last minute. Use the resources and staff with CCCE throughout the course and know it is here for faculty to use. The idea of collaborations across offices and with the community has been damped with the pandemic—people are hungry for it, but we have a lot of rebuilding to do.

Cover of the visual timeline students created for the Lower Phalen Creek project