Assistant Professor of Journalism
School of Social Sciences
By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—It’s a fairly typical session in Journalism C 327: Writing for the Media. The instructor is Adam Maksl, assistant professor of journalism. Most students are either multimedia journalism majors or minors. All of them work as writers or editors on The Horizon, IU Southeast’s multi-platform student news organization.
Fittingly, the class begins with a “spot the mistake” exercise in AP Style. This is a craft, after all, and it has its painstaking, time-honored devotions.
After that, Maksl pulls up the Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists on the screen. He hands out copies of an article on the media’s role in currently unfolding events. There are photos of the women’s march on Washington, D.C., references to journalists who have been arrested for covering protests, examples of news organizations, such as National Public Radio, that prohibit even off-duty reporters from demonstrating for or against a policy, party or person.
Reflecting on current events in light of the Code, the class dives into discussion. A question emerges that is both fundamental and topical.
“Should journalists protest?”
One student offers a categorical “No,” because attending a rally could be interpreted as an endorsement of the event by one’s news organization. Another argues that journalists should not be deprived of their rights as citizens, merely because of their occupation. A third, speaking from experience, notes that it is impossible not to be associated with one’s employer, especially when linked to a certain beat.
The discussion is animated and the question is reframed several times: “Where does the journalist stop and the citizen begin?” to “Does objectivity exist?” to “What is a journalist?”
For Maksl, this journey is the destination: a process of self-questioning that challenges students to examine their own biases and motivations, and trust in their own judgment. There is no right or wrong answer, but a situation that requires students to make a choice they can justify within the guidelines of their profession, and live with it.
A career of theory and practice
Maksl teaches digital journalism and social media classes, advises the multiplatform student news laboratory and researches news and media literacy. His research has been published in top-rated journals including Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator and the Journal of Media Literacy Education, among others.
Maksl’s teaching focuses on multimedia storytelling, reporting, and communications law. While at IU Southeast, Maksl has led a redesign of the journalism program’s curriculum to focus on digital journalism. As part of these changes, he developed new courses in online journalism, multimedia storytelling and social media strategies.
Maksl has consulted with the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) for more than five years in its annual newsroom diversity survey, which works to measure gender and racial diversity in America’s newsrooms. His teaching has twice been recognized with the Indiana University Southeast Trustees’ Teaching Award. His research record has been recognized with the campus Distinguished Research Award for Junior Faculty.
If you ask Maksl about innovation, you may get a somewhat puzzled look. Because, well, it’s complicated.
On one hand, journalism is like a breeder reactor of innovation, rapidly expanding to emerging platforms and rewarding risk-taking ventures. Yet journalism is also very conservative, resting on a bedrock of established traditions, practices and values that are pivotal to its identity and moral center.
The teaching of journalism embraces both polarities, insisting on rigorous dedication to the x’s and o’s of AP Style while challenging students to learn how to function and flourish in a career in which the only constants are changes and choices. Each of them will navigate the profession in a different way. This is not a path for people who require a template. It’s for those who revel in doing something nobody else has done or can do. It’s the world of the scoop, the video that goes viral, the tenacious pursuit of truth, the explosive expose, the courage to protect a source, the power to change hearts and minds with a photo or a handful of words.
With all that in mind, Maksl’s teaching philosophy is driven by his desire to nurture independent thought and motivation.
“I want students to be self-directed,” Maksl said.
Self-direction has something to do with budgeting time and prioritizing assignments—both important contributors to accountability and confidence—but on a deeper level it has more to do with cultivating a habit of mind and a vision of self that are indissolubly linked to lifelong learning.
He has derived inspiration from several sources. The most fundamental is self-determination theory, which he first encountered in college and has adapted to his particular needs.
Self-determination theory provides a framework for understanding the link between motivation and behavior. In the educational context, it marshals evidence to demonstrate that learning achieved through intrinsic motivation lasts longer and fosters further discovery.
“Students are more likely to develop intrinsic motivation for learning if their learning environment supports their psychological need for competence, relatedness, autonomy,” Maksl said.
His classes foster competence through constructive feedback, relatedness through collaborative projects and autonomy through constantly presenting students which choices and options.
“Over time, in exercising those choices, students become more deeply invested in their own education,” Maksl said. “They’re not doing the class because of the grade or because their parents want them to, but because they want to, and because doing whatever they are doing in that class is part of their self-concept of who they are.”
Maksl believes that experiential learning is the best way to help students become lifelong learners.
Experiential learning can be something of a buzzword in higher education, as more and more fields design course-related internships and practica to drive interest and enrollment. In the IU Southeast journalism program, it’s not a pedagogical choice or a marketing ploy, it’s in the DNA of the field. It also a necessity—many students in the program have full-time jobs that prevent them from doing multiple internships.
“So we have figured out ways for students to get the experiential learning they need to be able to start careers, in the classroom,”Maksl said.
Two years ago, Maksl’s class, supported by a Regional Research and Creativity Award, built a web site to promote the spirit of Southern Indiana. This year, they are engaged in a multimedia storytelling project focused on food traditions in Kentuckiana. Both teach real world skills, both have real world applications, both are alive in the real world.
In building a curriculum that delivers both theory and practice, Maksl draws on ideas such as the “four C’s” of the Partnership for 21th Century Education―collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, communication. The result is an experience that moves students to a different plane of expectation.
“Students often come into school thinking there’s a right or wrong answer to everything, such as school or career,” Maksl said. “In the long term, education has more value to the students if we break that.”
Teaching transferable skills
With Maksl’s coaching, The Horizon has become a perennial winner of collegiate journalism awards, including a 2015 Pacemaker Award, widely considered to be the Pulitzer Prize of college journalism. It has become known for independence, courage, substance and accuracy in tackling stories such as student homelessness.
The awards are gratifying, and so is the fact that so many of Maksl’s students find rewarding positions in the media following and even before graduation, at local stations such as WDRB and news organizations such as Gannett’s Courier Journal and the News and Tribune.
Maksl knows that he is enabling students to find jobs. But he draws a distinction between the professional and vocational aspects of his role.
“There’s a difference between teaching and training,” Maksl said. “We should be focused on teaching, but we can do that in ways that make the connection to what graduates do in their careers more explicit. I want them to be prepared to do other things.”
Those other things might not have anything to do with journalism. But that doesn’t mean their skills won’t matter or that they won’t have an impact.
“All companies are media companies today,” Maksl said. “There’s an opportunity in many businesses and other organizations, like nonprofits and government, to use journalism and media communication skills.”
This is especially important in a world in which people interact with media more than they do anything else on a daily basis, and in which they will have numerous jobs, perhaps even careers, in the course of their working lives.
“It’s important for students to understand the business side of organizations because it helps them understand just how immensely valuable their skills are,” Maksl said.
Stoking the fire inside
In 1993, while visiting the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, Maksl caught sight of the offices of Children’s Express.
Children’s Express was a news organization run entirely by young people, and reported the news from a kid’s perspective. It was founded in New York City in 1976 and eventually had offices in several U.S. cities, including Indianapolis.
It had become renowned for having scooped one of the biggest stories of 1976, revealing that Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was selecting Walter Mondale to be his vice-presidential running mate. The organization quickly established a reputation for solid, respectable and fearless journalism.
Maksl successfully applied for a position as a reporter. He was 12 years old.
For a boy who had already caught the journalism bug in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, where he had worked for a radio show at a public radio station, the Children’s Express gig was heaven. As a reporter, Maksl interviewed Japanese survivors of Second World War internment camps, the U.S. Secretary of Education and the youngest woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
The assignments drilled the importance of deadlines, factual accuracy and crafting a hook, but they also taught him about the larger mission of the field.
“Those stories influenced me to become more altruistic about journalism, to see that it can have a social impact,” Maksl said.
Years later, that awareness led him into teaching. As the first of his family to graduate college, he had experienced the transformative effect of higher education on his personal perspectives and professional outlook, and dedicated himself to sharing that with others.
Unlike many colleagues, Maksl hasn’t changed his central focus much since his youth. Amid the constant effort to help students polish the four C’s that will help them succeed as professionals, he remains attentive to a fifth C, curiosity, the fire inside that enchanted him and that he sees burning in others.
The most visible sign of this is his dedication to youth journalism. Working with a handful of volunteers, he has through the High School Press Day brought high school media staffs from across Kentuckiana to IU Southeast for a day of workshops and recognition. It’s the beginning of an arc that hopefully leads to a journalism degree, and beyond that, to a personal transformation.
His Horizon classes learn very quickly that Maksl not only expects professional quality and dedication. He also expects them to value what they do, and to recognize in their own skills the same merit and responsibilities that accrue to the work of professionals.
“You’re not student journalists,” Maksl tells his students. “You’re real journalists who happen to be students.”