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Journalism Professor John W. Fountain

Journalism professor John Fountain on Transformational Learning

Posted: 08/30/2013

By Professor John Fountain

Published in the Chicago Sun-Times August 21, 2013

Murder was the case for six students enrolled in a “special topics” course I taught at Roosevelt University last spring.

The task: to humanize “murder,” to report and to tell those stories in a compelling way as written narrative and also using multimedia. The agenda: to hone their journalistic skills and to engage in a transformative learning experience.

Sending students out to immerse themselves in a story, in real-life big-city reporting, is one thing. But predicting whether the experience will in some way be transforming is tricky business. Perhaps one measuring stick may be the words of students themselves.

“Homicides stink,” one student wrote in an essay for class. “Covering them stinks too, especially when doing so in a city that you’re born and raised in. . . . So when I covered my first story on a homicide, I felt uneasy. This isn’t my forte.”


I’m not so sure, unless, that is, we succeeded in ensuring that this student likely will avoid like the plague in his future journalism career any story even remotely having to do with murder.

Writes another student who profiled a mother: “I couldn’t imagine being a mother and having two of my children shot, and then having to bury one of them.”

The student adds that seeing the “strength” and “passion” of the mother and her daughter, who was left blind and with a bullet lodged in her brain, “is bittersweet for me.”

“Our streets run red with the blood of all of these young people, and we are doing, in my opinion, a half-ass job to stop it.”

Impactful, yes. But transformative?

Maybe transformation — in the way we think or in how students see the world and themselves in it — is too lofty an expectation. Maybe the development of professional skills, gaining knowledge and a sound education, coupled with the experience of examining the world, are more realistic, attainable goals.

But isn’t having a transformative learning experience — whether inside or outside the classroom and moving beyond one’s comfort zone — really what education is all about? Might there be a lesson for us all — even beyond our formal education — about being open to exploration and engagement?

My students’ words make me a believer.

“Nothing else in my life has made me feel this much empathy,” writes another student. “I’ve never covered a story like this before this point. Stories I had written previously were full of fluff and filler, pieced together right before deadlines. I convinced myself that they were as good as they could get and that they would do their job. They would fill space.

“This is not the same.”

Another student writes, “Upon entering this course, I was afraid. I was afraid of talking to those who had been affected by murder, whose sons or daughters were brutally killed, something that seemed so far away from my life at the time.

“In this, upon my further research and reporting within the class, I am somehow less afraid of murder, which does not make much sense to me,” the student continues. “I am closer than ever to murder. I think and read about it every day. And yet, I view it in such a different light.”

Transformative? You betcha.

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