Office Hours with Joanne Silberner

Joanne Silberner is a freelance print and radio reporter and a journalism instructor at the University of Washington, where she teaches diversity reporting, global health, narrative journalism, public health, radio storytelling and production, and podcasting. Silberner has worked for Science News, U.S. News and World Report, and NPR, where she worked for 18 years. “Throughout my journalism career,” Silberner says, “any time I complained to my sister about feeling tired or overworked or underappreciated, she’d tell me to teach. It would be a nice, easy life, she said, and the students would adore me. Little did she know how hard teaching is!”

Joanne Silberner

What single concept or skill do you feel is most important for your students to learn, and what is your approach to teaching it?

It’s hard to take it down to a single concept. Maybe evaluating evidence—but Sharon Dunwoody made that case so well I’m not even going to try. And there’s interviewing—but Pat Thomas nailed that one.

So I’ll opt for making sure my students know how to do a story when I’m not there as a cheerleader/editor/hand-holder. They need to stop and think at the start of the story about what they don’t know—both the factual background they’ll need to begin, and the skills they’ll need to proceed. They need to know what to do to get that knowledge. Most importantly, they need to know that there are very few fatal errors. In many of my classes I’ve played the interview that Fresh Air’s Terry Gross did with Gene Simmons of KISS in 2002. Simmons was a complete and total pig, suggesting at one point that Gross consider opening up her legs to him. It’s a really cringe-worthy interview. But Gross stuck it out, and aired it (she could have chosen not to). My class gets the point immediately—it wasn’t a failed interview. Gross’s goal with every interview is get the interviewees to reveal themselves. Listeners learned who Gene Simmons was.

As for my approach to teaching students how to find, report, and produce stories: Broadly, I want them to learn to be confident and effective in their interviewing abilities and their technological capabilities.

In end-of-term evaluations, students say with remarkable consistency that their favorite parts of the class have been my recounting of challenges I’ve faced. Their favorites are story failures. So while it seems too self-referential (and embarrassing!), I talk about stories I’m working on at the moment, as well as problems I’ve had with editors (their favorite—a story that once went through 21 edits). They like hearing about a story I lost because of a malfunctioning tape recorder, or the time I was almost grounded with visa problems, or when I misidentified an aircraft in a story caption and got an inordinate amount of reader comment. I show them some really nasty comments on the web about my radio voice.

One joy I get from teaching is that I can turn past pains and anxieties into teaching tools. Always remember the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen: “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”

What specific skills-related experiences outside the classroom do you think are most important for students to have in their training?

Talking to real people. Maybe it’s because I teach in the Pacific Northwest, as opposed to New York City where I went to school, or maybe it’s a generational thing, or maybe it’s both, but most of my students are a lot more reserved than my classmates were. So I start them off in the classroom interviewing each other, then they move on to people in their own communities, and once they’re on a roll I assign them to find communities other than their own to report about. I’ve had students do projects on people living in houseboats, on a dodgeball league for blind people, on deaf Nepali-Bhutanese immigrants in Seattle (who knew?), a Hispanic soccer league, and a whole lot of stories on homeless people. One of my favorite students, upon graduation, spent 10 months working at a mortuary, honing his observation skills.

Always remember the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen: “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”

What have you learned in your own career that you most hope to convey to your students?

That every assignment—every one—can be done, and done on time, and done creatively and well with whatever resources are available. Most of all, I want to convey that reporting, whether it be with a notebook, radio or camera, is a whole lot of fun, and sometimes writing can be too.

What textbooks and other reading do you use in your teaching?  

As few as possible. Soon after I got to the U, the school lost more than half its state funding (I don’t blame myself), resulting in some double-digit rises in tuition. I regularly have one or two students who are working 30–40 hours a week. I’m guessing about half work ten hours or so a week. Many are coming out into an uncertain job market with debt. And textbooks are shockingly pricey—some of the texts I’ve considered are $100 to $125. I figure that it’s my job to teach what’s in the text, and illustrate with examples they can find on the internet. So the only textbooks I’ve ever used are inexpensive ones (Sound Reporting, by Jonathan Kern, about the NPR way of doing things; and Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, by John Biewen). Instead they read, watch or listen to stories from The New York Times, Esquire, NPR, BuzzFeed, Vice, anything by Jon Franklin, a whole lot of stories on transom.org … and the list goes on.

I also teach about marketing, and rely on TON’s pitch database page as well as pitch advice from the Association of Independents in Radio.

What resources do you wish were more readily available for students?

First and foremost, time! Many of my students work, and I’ve had a few varsity athletes who’ve had to spend enormous amounts of time training. My department has a great IT team that’s been able to get some pretty decent recording equipment, though I’m still waiting on a recording studio that should be finished soon.

What is a science story that you admire, and why?

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. This is a book about epilepsy in a Hmong family living in central California, and the miscommunication that occurs between the family and the medical system. There’s anthropology and medicine and psychology, and an incredible narrative. Every sentence shines but it’s the level of reporting that makes me pick this one. Fadiman spent many years reporting and writing the book. That kind of time is something that neither I nor my students are ever likely to get. Still, I’ve made it required reading in several classes because she is such an incredible observer, and she did such a phenomenal job of keeping the story focused.

Bonus! Joanne Silberner’s Tricks for Teaching

I teach juniors and seniors, usually about 18 to a class. I walk into the classroom and they sit and stare at me and decide within 10 seconds whether they are going to pay much attention. Most decide not to, so I’ve developed a bag of tricks:

  • I play funny videos at the beginning of class (my very favorite: Charlie Brooker on how to tell a news story). That way I’ve drawn them in, and I don’t have to repeat any of the crucial bookkeeping details for latecomers.
  • I have each of them teach for 10 to 15 minutes sometime during the term. They pick something they love or hate related to the class topic, and present it and lead a discussion. My all-time favorite—the Wilhelm scream, the story of a sound effect used in more than 225 movies and TV shows (says Wikipedia). A theater major in my radio class presented it.
  • I call on them a lot. This being the ultra-polite Pacific Northwest, they’re pretty reticent, and they have to be encouraged to be critical of their classmates’ comments. Forty percent of their grade is class participation.

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  1. Pingback: The Open Notebook – Storygram: George Johnson’s “Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer”

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