In 2021, with the help of student collaborators, Ben Wielechowski created the Open Educational Resources (OER) textbook, Introduction to Narrative Journalism. Wielechowski and some of his students are featured in the recent Wolverzine, a campus zine about students as partners envisioned by Hub Affiliate Maya Barak and created by students and faculty.
Below are excerpts from their Wolverzine story, and you can read the whole piece here. I think this project is a great example of both faculty and student experiences with OER and also highlights some of the benefits of collaboration.
Excerpts from: “Creating a Textbook: From Class Projects to Publication”
A collaborative conversation between Ben Wielechowski and students Faith Billinger and Autumn Tashman about their experiences working on the Open Educational text: Introduction to Narrative Journalism
During the spring of 2021, I embarked on a collaborative process with a handful of former students to put together a textbook that catered better to the Narrative Journalism course taught at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. The genesis for this project began with student feedback and recommendations that the current textbooks were “okay,” but students “could have gone without them.” This feedback, added to the fact that there was a price tag attached to them, along with a grant opportunity made possible through the Open Educational Resources (OER) Task Force, I decided to customize a free textbook for future students of Narrative Journalism. This consisted of my instructional material combined with former students’ work.
The OER text is equal parts instruction and example. The instruction within the text is the same material that appears in my lectures, generated by me through much reading and study and collaboration with other instructors. The examples were all provided by former students, examples that were in response to assignment prompts and requirements. Much of the time this feels like a one-way street, all orchestrated by the instructor, for the instructor. When I began to request permission and models from students to be used as learning tools for future students, I noticed a distinct change in attitude towards the assignments. Many students returned to their work for revisions even after the semester concluded. When I requested permission to incorporate student work into the OER textbook, students responded very enthusiastically, and we worked together to get their desired versions into the text, while discussing what ‘open source’ sharing of their work might mean. These partnerships continued through the publication of the book, and they still continue (for example, through this co-authored article about the project). These collaborative efforts have only strengthened by appreciation of students as partners in everything that happens within the classroom.
I’ve never really enjoyed school projects or writing essays. I often find them boring and especially difficult to enjoy completing. I’ve also never come across a class quite like Professor Wielechowski’s Narrative Journalism class, however. Professor Wielechowski shined light on class projects in a completely unique way, and it was one that really sparked my interest in the class and the projects that we worked on.
We had three main projects to complete throughout the course of the semester. While I enjoyed working on all three projects, it was the second and third that allowed me to take a step back and understand the importance of deviating from the norm when it comes to journalism and writing in general. My second project was laid out in a podcast format, and my topic was the dangers of social media and the negative effect it has on its primary audience. I think that Professor Wielechowski’s class was built around thinking outside of the box and moving away from the generic essay that everyone gets bored of writing. Instead, we were given the creative liberty to design a project that we wanted to create, and that’s what really allowed me to enjoy working on my podcast. I’ve never created a podcast before, so the time I’d spent on putting all the pieces together (finding TikTok sounds to incorporate into the background, adding music, and of course, adding the talking points of the podcast) was quite a bit.
While the third and final project was quite different from the first two, it was just as exciting to put together. We were given the requirements of including three forms of media, 2,000 words, and a total of five primary and secondary sources. I decided to create a website on some of Northern Michigan’s best cities to visit (from a possibly slightly-biased opinion). While I figured it would take some time to figure out the features of the website, my thoughts before creating my website were that it wouldn’t take too much time. The further I dove into my project, though, the more features I wanted to include, and I don’t think I even realized how much I’d actually put into it until reviewing the final product. The sole explanation for this is that I was having fun with the project, and as previously mentioned, that’s a very bold statement coming from me. Like the second project, this project took quite a bit of time and effort, but I can confidently say that it was one of the best projects I’ve ever created.
When I first began to generate ideas for this project, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to cover. I had recently begun using TikTok to pass a lot of my time because of Covid and got a chance to see the many different ways that people chose to express themselves.
Originally I wanted to set this project up as a blog, but I instead decided to create an instagram account. To me this idea really went with my theme of how social media has influenced people to express themselves and I thought the best way to showcase that was by using a social media platform.
Interviewing was probably one of the more challenging aspects of this project. Trying to work around other people’s schedules while also taking your own into consideration made it hard for me to go the traditional route of meeting someone, especially with Covid. I instead settled for either interviewing in real time or just sending my list of questions for people to respond to when they were able.
Something that I found across all responses was that by embracing the way they expressed themselves, everyone had gained a sense of confidence since beginning their journeys. It was important to me to get across the point that a person doesn’t have to do anything a specific way as long as it makes them happy and feel good about themselves. Being able to dress and create in ways that allows an individual to express themselves is the most important takeaway from this project and that there is no wrong way to do so.
After Professor Wielechowski reached out to me asking if I’d like my work to be featured in the textbook he was creating, I was ecstatic. My work has never been used as an example for a writing class before, let alone a feature in an entire textbook. As a math major, I often find myself spiraling into a never-ending pit of numbers, and Narrative Journalism gave me a healthy break from that. The class was fun and engaging, and though we were in the heart of the pandemic when I’d taken the course, Professor Wielechowski was always more than willing to help answer any questions we may have had about any of the projects. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to take this course and learn more about how to apply narrative journalism to different aspects of everyday life.
Working so closely with students outside of the student/teacher framework, outside of the grades and the classroom and all of the constraints that exist because of that framework, I was impressed and inspired by the care and thought each student put into their projects. These weren’t just assignments for grades to these students. Rather, they were forms of expression, storytelling opportunities, and passion projects. Through this process both student and teacher were developing, me as a student, and students as teachers, as leaders. This shared responsibility is crucial to a dynamic and fulfilling classroom experience, and through this collaborative project of putting together an OER textbook for future students by former students, my understanding and appreciation of students as partners has only deepened and will continue to do so.
Featured photo: Wolverzine Vol. 3 CoverArt “The ZBoard,” with special thanks to Josh Olsen