Journalism Students Enter Foreign Territory

Monday, November 5, 2007

If given the chance to travel into a foreign war zone to see how a western journalist effectively covers the chaotic events of warfare, would you? Assistant professor of English Jenny Spinner, Ph.D., provides her students with a similar opportunity, but without the danger.  As a part of her current literary journalism class, Spinner has taken her students to local seminaries, cloistered convents, and most recently, a conservative Mennonite school in Honey Brook, Pa., and an Old Order Amish schoolhouse and pig farm in Narvon, Pa., to simulate a foreign correspondent's experience without putting her students at risk.

"Some of the greatest moments of learning don't happen in the classroom," said Spinner. "So the idea is to get students into the real world so they can find a story to tell, even with limitations."

She explained that in many ways, these trips turn her students into reporters entering a foreign experience where they must try to forget their own customs to better understand and interpret the practices they encounter. And just as many western reporters require "fixers" to set up the experience, explain traditions, and translate conversation, so too the literary journalism class required a link to the Amish and Mennonite people.

SJU professor emeritus of German Richard Kiphorn served as the students' liaison to the communities. Because he has led many cultural immersion trips to Amish communities in the past and because he lives in the area, he has many long-established relationships with the people of the area. Without Kiphorn's assistance, Spinner's class trip wouldn't have been possible.

"With the help of a fixer, a journalist can gain access to societies that are usually closed to outsiders," student Peter Ferrarone explained.

Prior to their trip, Spinner and her class researched traditional Amish customs, practices, and even key vocabulary of Pennsylvania Dutch. They also examined how journalists have customarily represented Amish communities in past media coverage and used the 2006 shooting at Georgetown School in Paradise, Pa., as a primary example.

Spinner asks her students, "How do we tell the story of the Amish accurately, fairly, without letting our own backgrounds get in the way? Our observations are colored by our own ideas and upbringings. We're trying to find out, as writers and journalists, how we affect the story, and we need to force ourselves to try to view things objectively."

"It was difficult for me to take my own opinions out of the story, and yet still convey what I wanted the reader to notice. But I enjoyed the challenge of writing the story and the overall experience," said student Cortney Britton.

--Sarah Whelehon '07 (M.A.)

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