Reflecting on the 3rd year Writing and Editing Course

In engaging and critically reflecting on my experience of this semester, it would be prudent to refer to the intended outcomes of the course. The course outcomes listed on the JMS3 WordPress page aimed to:

  1. Familiarise you with the wide range of journalism in its myriad forms, formats, and approaches and show you the repertoire of how journalists operate and perform in the world;
  2. Familiarise and equip you to function with the new technologies which now pervade the media environment;
  3. Focus on writing and editing as the core activity of journalism – as the thinking, conceptualising, editing and structuring aspect of communicating important ideas;
  4. Give you skills and practice in writing in a wide variety of formats and styles and enable you to choose form and style to suit the purpose and audience of the article;
  5. Help you think about the public dimensions of the work you do and for what purpose and for what audiences your stories are being written and published; and
  6. Help you formulate an ethics, a politics and an identity as a journalist

The focuses outlined above, to the credit of our lecturers, were well integrated into the coursework and required assignments. We were exposed to a wide range of journalism and cases of how journalists operate in the world. The inclusion of guest lecturers such as Jodi Bieber reflect how this focus was emphasised and creatively presented in the course. Having to use WordPress, Twitter and other interrelated and complimentary technologies to such a degree in our personal blogs, and particularly our beat blogs, equipped me with a technical literacy that I would not have developed by myself. The focus on writing and editing as ‘the core activity of journalism’ was clearly achieved in the dominance of writing assignments in the course.

The one criticism I would make in this regard has more to do with the handling of the non-writing assignments than their quantity or weight in the course. I felt that the non-writing assignments, such as the photo stories, videos and audio pieces, were not skill-intensive or even educational. They relied on the application of knowledge gained in first and second year, and were only useful as a form of practicing techniques and knowledge we already had. Apart from developing these skills as part of the course work, the creative application of these techniques and knowledge in ways that require the incorporation of skills developed throughout the third year course would have been more beneficial and educational.

The fourth aim of the course was something that I did not achieve to the degree I would have liked, but I feel that this was a result of my own lack of diligence rather than a failure on the part of the lecturers. While I gained skills and practiced writing in a variety of formats and styles, I did not successfully suit my form and style to different purposes and audiences.

I will explore this shortcoming later when I engage with other elements of the course I felt I did not succeed in.

The course aim to assist us in thinking about the public dimensions of the work we do and for what purpose and audiences our stories are being written were strongly and consistently emphasised in the beat blogs and for our required assignments. This was one way I believe my writing excelled remarkably this year. My personal blog particularly exhibited a clear consideration of the public dimensions of the work I intended to produce;

‘Conceived as an exhibition of the social landscape of South Africa, The Social Sphere is an attempt to consolidate the historical, social and political elements of South African society.’

‘..the themes explored in the Sphere are foregrounded in the history of South Africa, South Africa’s place in a dynamic global context and the place of the individual in South African society.’

‘At the heart of The Social Sphere are two acknowledgements. Firstly, that a country built by violence and domination, still maimed by the symptoms of unresolved social ills and the perpetuation of the mechanisms responsible for them, demands to be interrogated by those who were raised and formed in that society. Secondly, that this is not a burden. The social and psychological legacy of Apartheid, our status as one of the newest democracies in the world and a unique and diverse citizenry make South African society one of  the most interesting  and unique social case studies in the world.’

‘The Social Sphere is an expression of these two beliefs, and a conscious attempt by this South African to fulfil both a social obligation and a commitment to the recording, analysing and interrogating of the South African story.’

‘More than anything, it is a commitment to an appreciation of one of the most interesting and complex social landscapes in the world; an expression of the responsibility of the modern South African and the privilege of the South African Journalist.’

I spend a lot of space here quoting the ‘About’ page of my own blog because I feel it represents the biggest success of my academic year; a clear identity as a writer, a sharp focus of what I want to achieve as a practicing journalist and a commitment to an ideal that acts as a thread connecting my interests in social justice, South African history and the social sciences of politics, sociology and philosophy. The impact of this on my identity and material as a writer, in my opinion, has been greater than all the skill development and personal growth I have acquired this year. It was this impact that informed and characterised my involvement and representation of the student protest against University fees and the xenophobic riots that took place in October. My focus and identity as a writer formalised in my ‘About’ page was the lens through which I perceived the gatherings, photographed protestors and victims, analysed political relationships, focused my opinions and represented the movement and the xenophobic riots and their implications for South African society. The focus and depth of my engagement with these protests and riots was the clearest indication of my growth as a writer this year, and in these regards I feel pleased in my progress.

Student Protests in October. Image by Johann Harmse
Student Protests in October. Image by Johann Harmse

In reflecting on my combined portfolio however, I am less satisfied. I did not produce as much as I would have liked to, and the work I was proud of was few and far between. Apart from these pieces, there was little evidence of an identity in my writing. My pieces were attempts to accurately and comprehensively reflect the content I was reporting on, but I rarely went above and beyond to produce remarkable writing. I see this as a failure on my part to consider my writing this year as an extension of my identity as a writer and a part of my development into a better journalist. The first piece of writing I published on my personal blog, an opinion piece criticising Cape Town youth culture (‘You Can’t Sit With Us; Ibiza in the Third World’), was one of my favourite pieces of writing I had produced to date. It set a benchmark that I feel I did not reach again in my writing this year. The good writing I produced this year were small successes, all related to my potential as a writer in my mind set by this Cape Town piece. In May, I found what I was believed was a way to resolve this lack of focus and good writing; Diary writing.

Halfway through the year I was given a blank writing notebook. I hadn’t kept a diary since 2008, but I profoundly enjoy being able to look back at my thought process and gain insight into past attitudes, understandings and beliefs. I considered that keeping a diary that I actively used to record my thoughts would assist me in identifying what was inherently true to me in the hopes that it would inspire authentic thought, develop confidence and highlight my interests. The result was a double edged-sword.

Keeping a diary for a few months helped me produce more, which was a primary goal at that time. What I only realised in October was that it also made my work more sentimental. My writing became self-absorbed. I became focused on representing my potential, rather than on the actual work I was producing, it’s intention, how it was engaged with by a reader or how it reflected my identity as a writer. I just wanted to produce subjectively relevant work, and I found a way to do that by producing sentimental and self-indulgent writing. I only realised this element of my writing when I began to read the work of my fellow writers in the course, particularly the reflection on Jodi Bieber’s lecture by Nadim Nyker entitled ‘Jodie Bieber talks Moses Sithole, drug lords and where it all began.’

High School rugby photography. Image by Johann Harmse
High School rugby photography. Image by Johann Harmse

Whereas my piece had explored how Bieber’s lecture made me consider how little photography I had practiced since high-school and how it inspired me to continue taking photographs, Nadim explained who Bieber was, described the actual events of the lecture, included links to her work and photographs of her giving the lecture. It was informative, it was a report. My piece, sentimental and self-absorbed, was neither of these. Reading the work of Chelsea Haith and Leila Stein, which was grounded in the intent to inform, educate and relate to broader concerns or themes, further evidenced the degree to which I had not considered the experience of my reader or the intention of my piece beyond being subjectively relevant. I only realised this once all my assignments had been completed, and so my combined portfolio doesn’t reflect this awareness of my sentimentality, even in the final assignments and posts.

Over this course, much has changed about how I view the future. When I began the course, I believed I would do my honours course in 2016 and then spend a year moving between Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, working for small media companies for brief periods. I felt that these were spaces I could do the most work, influencing public opinion and acting as a communicative intermediary between private and state institutions and the citizens of small communities in Southern Africa. Then, after speaking to a former Rhodes graduate at City Press during my intern period, I decided that I would spend a year in Kenya, both as a time away I could afford because of my young age and as a working period. I felt I could better achieve my goals as a journalist in Southern Africa by staying in one country, and it was also a far more realistic option. I conceived of the year as a time for growth, direction and focus for my identity as a writer, as well as an unlucrative working gap year. Nothing in this course dramatically altered that goal. I was learning skills and gaining insights that did not challenge the appeal of my year in Kenya, and up until the protests in October I still saw that as my clear direction after finishing honours. The national and now international FeesMustFall movement radically altered my perception of the work I could do in South Africa. While I may have more clout and potential for affecting change in Kenya than in South Africa, for the first time since the Marikana Massacre I felt that South Africa was a country where I could do amazing work as a journalist. A country where I could do historical work, influencing public opinion and facilitating a constructive, robust dialogue between the needs of South Africans and the responsibilities of government .

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In regards to the role of the course in shaping this change, I feel it is no slight on the journalism department when I say that the profound events of this year were far more influential on my future as a journalist than the course itself. That being said, the beat blogs very successfully simulated what an online blog run by 6 people would require to function, and the responsibility, freedom and processes of these blogs were great preparation for the working world. I saw many similarities between our beat blogs meetings and the meetings held at City Press during my internship. In all honesty, I took nothing from the Grocotts experience. While I can attribute much of this to my half-hearted engagement with the experience, I felt the process was unguided and poorly organised and purposed. I also did not take very much form the course in regards to my future as a working journalist because I planned to do honours in 2016 and so did not consider being prepared for the working world a concern. As a result, I did not engage with the course as preparation for being an employable journalist

I enjoyed how the course was assessed. Individual writing responses gave direct and subjectively relevant feedback, and allowing our processes and research to be our own prerogative was empowering and helped develop skills of independent writing I believe I will need as a professional journalist. I found the one-on-one couching to be invaluable. It benefitted my identity as a writer immensely and assisted me in achieving high marks by addressing my writing directly. Being able to frame the final assessment made it much more subjectively relevant to my own strengths, which I believe will improve my marks for this assignment. It further allowed me the space to engage with my year, which was personally beneficial, and granted me the space to achieve maximum marks through its personal subjectivity.

Largely because of how separate they were in my own mind, I felt that my two blogs were very distinct projects and I did not conceive of them in a way that they would have informed each other. They played distinct roles in my evolution as a writer, the beat blog in expanding my skillset and interests and the personal blog in focusing my identity and focus as a writer. The greatest lesson I learned from this year was discovering the sentimentality that pervaded my writing and the importance of considering the purpose of my writing to inform others and the experience of my reader. Had I read the work of other writers, both within and outside my writing class, I would have come to this knowledge sooner. With different writing intentions came different needs, and when I realised this I understood why my marks were lower than what I thought they ought to have been. I also regret not putting in the amount of effort I believe I ought to this year. I do however believe that this year, my identity as a writer has matured immensely. I believe that next year, having reflected deeply on my engagement with journalism this year, will be the year in which I produce my best work to date and firmly establish my identity as a South African journalist.

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