Back Story

Sue Ellen Christian

Professor of Communication Western Michigan University

In a world of immediate news — it happens and it’s on the Internet in the blink of an eye — the craft of the journalist is more important than ever, says WMU professor Sue Ellen Christian. And despite technological advances, she says old school reporting is still critical for today’s journalists.

“While the medium and the format of journalism have changed, the foundational skills haven’t changed,” says Christian, who was one of three recipients of the 2016 Michigan Professor of the Year award given by the Michigan Association of State Universities. Christian says teaching journalism is about more than instilling the skills of a reporter. It is also about teaching students how to engage in the civic affairs of their communities.

“The thing I like about teaching journalism is it’s also helping students to learn to be citizens and think about being involved in your community in a civic way,” she says.

How did you get where you are today?

The graduate program at the University of Michigan launched me into journalism. I had a great experience as an intern at the Kalamazoo Gazette, writing for all parts of the paper, from the front page to back page to obituaries. I worked as a stringer for the Detroit News, covering the University of Michigan, and for the Los Angeles Times in Washington, D.C., for a few months when a job came open at the Chicago Tribune. I stayed at the Tribune for 10 years, covering government, politics, public health and a lot in between.

My husband’s work — he’s a physician — brought him here, and it was a really good fit for both of us. WMU had a position open for a professor to teach journalism. I interviewed for it and had no idea what academia would be like. My scholarly presentation to faculty was on what it was like to be a reporter covering a presidential campaign. I still wonder what my now-colleagues were thinking then — probably, “Oh, she’s going to be toast.”

It was hard to leave daily journalism. I love journalism and think of myself first as a journalist, which helps my teaching. So many of the skills of journalism apply to being a teacher: thinking about audience, thinking about what you really want the audience to know, and doing the research so that you can be an authority on a topic. The skills are really transferrable.

How have things changed since you started teaching journalism?

Journalism has changed. It is one of the handful of disciplines, in my mind, at the university that you really cannot reuse a syllabus from a class you taught last year. It is changing constantly.

I try to go back to a newsroom every five years as an intern — and that isn’t often enough — to learn what’s important and what my students need to know because it changes so fast. It’s important to help students understand that using technology doesn’t mean journalism is easier. It still requires what we call “shoe-leather reporting.” You still have to pick up the phone or wait outside someone’s office and get the interview as they walk to their car — those things that have been done since the beginning of journalism and still need to be done.

As media outlets contract and staffs shrink, does journalism have a future as a profession?

I think journalism is far from being dead. It’s just different. I try to teach students how to be a journalist: what kind of mindset you need to have, that you need to be inclusive, think broadly, be open-minded and think about credibility and accuracy. I believe these are portable skills that can take them in so many different directions. Journalism teaches you critical thinking, excellent writing and research skills and the ability to synthesize and present information — skills that employers all want.

In May you were honored with a Michigan Professor of the Year award. How did that come about?

I was nominated without my knowledge by my colleagues Jane Baas and Carla Koretsky at the Lee Honors College. The nomination went to the university’s provost, and then he put it forward to the state. I think I am the first faculty member from WMU to receive it.

Eventually they had to tell me about the nomination because I had to write my teaching philosophy for it. I had just turned 50, and writing that philosophy was like writing a manifesto. It gave me an opportunity to say, “This is who I am and what I believe.” I felt happy and pleased that I had to do that exercise because I was mid-career and it was an affirmation of what I do.

Can you sum up your teaching philosophy?

I try to model what it is to be a lifelong learner, and I believe that teaching is about teaching students how to think, so I try very hard to create a classroom environment that is about discovery. It might be my own discovery along with the students, so I try to create circumstances that are going to be the most rich for discovery.

What do you do when you aren’t teaching?

Help my husband Bob raise three kids.

Also, I am pretty active in issues of diversity in our community. I put my efforts in the community toward diversity and inclusion.

I am involved with the Society for History and Racial Equality (SHARE) and am working with its executive director, Donna Odom, on a project to create opportunities for two citizens that are not like each other to sit together in a public space for 10 to 15 minutes and just talk to each other. (SHARE is the former Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society and has an expanded mission to foster connections and conversations on race and to raise awareness of racism and the benefits of its elimination.)

What’s on your bucket list?

I am writing a book on media literacy, working with Ryan Lewis, a WMU graphic design professor, on it. It’s an “un-textbook” that’s highly accessible and well-researched, not academic-sounding. It is for students and people who use media and who want to use it better.

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