A week or so ago, I was trying to describe to a friend the kind of student I was in college. I said, “I wasn’t a student; I was a learner.” I meant that I liked to learn stuff — to read, to listen, to watch and experience — but I didn’t care to recite it back or answer a bunch of true/false questions. I was a B-/C+ student in a family of straight-A brilliance. I was a learner; my siblings just called me dumb. (That’s what brothers and sisters do.)
I think that “learning chip” is partly why I became a journalist. I got paid to observe, to ask questions about things I didn’t understand, and then write what I found out. Yes, I ended up “reciting” what I learned, but I wasn’t overtly given an A or a B. People either read me or they didn’t. If I found an interesting story and I didn’t get in its way in the telling, I passed. If I put a dull finish on a story, I failed.
And then I got to go out the next day and try to do a better job on something else. I got to keep learning something new every day, and it was my job! For a learner, how awesome is that? So what that it didn’t pay much.
When I became an editor, I had to adjust my reward and recognition system. I found stories, but I wasn’t writing them. (Except, of course, when I had to rewrite someone’s sloppy reporting/writing job.) I needed to find another outlet and I discovered the online world. It was new and exciting. It seemed as if it changed every day, with new processes (blogs?) and practices (linking out?) and terms (viral?) and ethics (transparency, how?). It morphed into digital and social and networks and mobile. The learning curve looked sharp, but once I started, I found it was smooth and gradual and easy. It fit my mode of education: observe, read, ask questions, experiment.
The grading system is the same, except it’s faster and, honestly, more fun. If you have something to say, people read you. It might be a story, a blog, a Facebook post, a Tweet, an Instagram, a video. I could go on for awhile on that track. And people would do more than read you. In real time, they would tell you that they enjoyed it or that you sucked or that you got this or that wrong.
You learned something, you told people and they reacted. Not bad for a journalist.
I thought of this when I read Steve Buttry’s excellent “Dear Newsroom Curmudgeon” post. I don’t know that I ever feared being a curmudgeon. I think I just feared getting bored and being left behind. Maybe that’s what happens to B & C students whose siblings are straight A students.