Teaching Critical Thinking: Smith's New Journalism Class

Award-winning journalist Nancy Cohen (center) is teaching Smith's new journalism class. Photo by Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen '19

In teaching Smith’s new journalism course, reporter Nancy Cohen brings front-line experience—as well as big-picture questions—to the classroom.

Her “Journalism: Principles and Practice” course focuses on some of the fundamental issues journalists face, including the critical role that reporters play in a democracy, and how journalistic writing differs from academic writing.

Cohen, a lecturer in English language and literature at Smith, hopes her course will help students see journalism in a different light as they develop the tools needed to reflect critically on current events.

“I think the course is sparking with relevance because of what’s going on in our country,” says Cohen, an award-winning journalist with decades of experience in public radio. “There is a lot to cover, and I hope that students will be inspired to dig deeper into their skills.”

Journalist Nancy Cohen during a 1992 stint as a member of an ABC News crew in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.

Julio Alves, director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning—who proposed the new course—said the college’s decision to offer a class in journalism is grounded in Smith’s liberal arts curriculum, which values research, writing and critical thinking.

“Liberal arts institutions are well poised to teach students to communicate complex ideas to a general audience—which is a central goal of journalism,” Alves explains. “Especially in a time when beliefs are often presented as facts in the public realm, and what passes for news in some outlets is so biased and inaccurate, it’s important to have strong, well informed public voices.”

(The Statistics and Data Sciences Department is offering a course in data journalism next semester.)

Cohen was a natural choice to teach Smith’s first journalism course, Alves says, given her experience covering such major news events as the Newtown shooting, the BP oil spill and Tropical Storm Irene.

Cohen says students her have responded enthusiastically to the challenge of learning to report news stories.

Students in Smith’s new journalism class visit the Sophia Smith Archives to research the work of women journalists.

“They have been very courageous,” she says. “One reported on a march against racism in Holyoke. Another drove to Worcester to cover a public hearing. The students at Smith are very hard working, very engaged.”

While parts of the course have drawn on larger national conversations about the obligations of journalists to society, others have focused on specific aspects of journalistic writing—including the conventions of AP style, the importance of keeping jargon out of a news article and how to interview victims of trauma.

An upcoming class session will feature a Skype interview with Meradith Hoddinott ’12, a radio and podcast producer in California.

Rebecca Grossman ’20, a student in this semester’s class, says the course has helped her become a more critical consumer of news.

“When I read news now, I think more about how it is structured and what it means for the story,” Grossman says. “I find myself a lot more focused because I know what work is going on behind it. It makes me appreciate journalists a lot more.”