By Jennifer Martin
When Deakin University’s Associate Professor of Communication, Lisa Waller, asked me if I’d be interested in helping a group of journalism students write feature stories about graduates from the Bachelor of Creative Arts to be published in a special edition of NiTRO, I paused. For about a second. I think I let her finish her sentence. If that magical combination of ‘publish’ and ‘student’ wasn’t enough, there was the added glitter of ‘artist’. I’d joined the Deakin teaching team in journalism at the start of the year, after a decade at the University of Melbourne, and a career as a reporter for a couple of decades prior to that. What this means is that this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d done enough laps around both the teaching and news-desk track long to know that after my giddy acceptance, there would be the inevitable knotty reality of coaxing readable copy from people fairly new to the business of writing ‘a good yarn’.
The authors of the seven articles in this edition’s special feature are students from Deakin University’s second year subject of ‘Feature Writing’, part of the Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) degree. They tell the seven stories of artists who paint, who take photos, who create art on social media or in innovative theatrical contexts. These stories showcase the talent of some of our newest, brightest and most creative artists. But first they had to be written. By some of our newest and brightest creative journalists.
So, after some quick brainstorming between Lisa Waller and Angela Blakston, the ever-patient subject co-ordinator of ‘ALJ216’, a way was found to work this opportunity into the assessment criteria. We offset the lower word count with the demands of students having to write multiple drafts, which extended well beyond the submission date. I called this the ‘putting up with Jen’ criteria and made it clear this assignment was not for the faint hearted. Students had to apply in writing and, if not taught by me, they needed to have their application supported by their tutor. That’s how I came to work alongside Shay Beck, Mitch Clarke, Sam Dimitrieska, Jo French, Erica Brady, Zoe Duggan and the first-year student, Amellia Wood. I assigned them each an artist, provided through a list from NiTRO editor, Jenny Wilson. It’s a credit to Jenny’s vision that she was able to herd the creative cats of artists, supervisors, students and me into some kind of a pen.
And so the process began – the emailing, the ringing, the arranging to meet in a café or on campus or in a studio or a theatre. There were the missed communications and the juggling of time, distance and mutual study and performance deadlines. There were emails sent from stressed students– worried that they couldn’t track down their artist or wondering how many people they should interview and what kinds of photos they should take.
There were fascinating discussions about the artworks as the students explained the motivations of newly emerging artists working on stages, on canvas, on social media or with photography. This was the moment when they stopped being students and began the transformation into writers – or ‘wordlings’ – which is what I call them when I think they’ve earned the term. This perfect phrase is from a Kenneth Burke poem written in the middle of the last century describing what it means to be human. But the first time I heard it used was by Dr Carolyne Lee, my PhD supervisor when she gave a lecture in media writing at the University of Melbourne where I was a tutor. For me, the term ‘wordling’ encapsulates beautifully that remarkable journey from student to media practitioner. It begins with the desire to tell a story, it propels them unceremoniously towards their ‘talent’ and then, after the dance of the interview the real work begins, the writing. And the re-writing.
As a great champion of the ‘dreadful first draft’ as a writer’s inalienable right (and if there were awards for such things I would certainly have a trophy) I braced myself for the landing of the fledging features in my inbox. And yes, there were the usual suspects: the lofty descriptions, the flowery prose and of course the inevitable looming presence of the interviewer describing every shift of expression or change of light. But there was, in every story, the nugget of truth of why it was that this artist had chosen to create. And why and how a degree at Deakin University had been essential to their path in realising they were indeed an artist.
I was both impressed and relieved as I began to grasp, albeit belatedly, just how much marking I had to do and how many students I was teaching and what this extra project had the potential to balloon out into. A good beginning. But I then steeled myself for the reaction to my lashings of red tracked changes and what I imagined would be ‘spirited’ debates about the writer’s right to express his or her opinion. This was when they would loathe me and give it all up as a bad joke. But these students just got on and did the work. Every edit was attended to, every phrase cut back within an inch of its life and as the second drafts landed I could tell the writers were beginning to ‘trust the talent’ of their graduate. How did I know? Because I could see who the artists were and why they did what they did. I began to entertain the hope that we could really get this done. Because it doesn’t matter how much you believe in students to do the work, anyone in journalism education will tell you if they can’t learn to let go of their story then no deadline will persuade them to relinquish their prose.
But relinquish they did – again and again – as I fired emails back to them asking them to clarify fact after fact, or cut back prose so heady with the perfume of adjectives that I’d come down with hay fever at my desk. They took my every increasingly mad feedback with humour and stoicism. Which shows me more than anything that we have some serious reporters on our hands. And because of their efforts we can learn about the exhilarating talent possessed by Deakin University’s newest graduates of the Bachelor of Creative Arts. Of Suf St James and her Snapchat portraits that challenge the patriarchy; or Jessica Schweintek who set up a photographic studio for artists so that they can ‘create in a safe place’. There is the conviction of Louise Richardson who chose her artistic path following her father’s death from cancer, and the courage of Maddison Newman who used her talent to let her audience know what it is like to live every day in physical pain. All young artists who credit Deakin University as playing an integral role in helping them follow their passion. All written about by Deakin journalism students. I hope the students and artists found the process as rewarding as I did. And I also hope that this NiTRO pilot gets a season contract, giving the opportunity for talented newly graduated creative artists from across Australia’s universities to be written up by equally talented emerging wordlings from our j-schools.