Story By Caitlin Drott; Photos by Kim Leeson
During a virtual class held on Zoom, a new normal for SMU Meadows students and professors, Associate Professor Jake Batsell held up The Dallas Morning News business section and pointed to each headline that spilled across the pages; every article discussed the economic effects of COVID-19.
Batsell launched an hour-long discussion where students virtually raised their hands and pulled from personal experience to ask poignant questions.
“I tried to convey to the class that they are living in a historic time,” said Batsell, who also is the William O’Neil Chair in Business Journalism. “It was probably the most engaged class discussion of the semester. This is the biggest business story of my lifetime and may be the biggest business story of their lifetimes.”
Prior to class, students were required to watch a short documentary about the 2008 financial crisis. Batsell built this assignment into the syllabus prior to the coronavirus outbreak so students could understand the country’s economic history.
“Then when all this happened, it gave me the chance to modify the assignment and discussion to compare the 2008 financial crisis to what we’re going through now,” Batsell said. “The comparison was staggering. The students talked about all the parallels: the panic buying and the layoffs, and the role of the government with stimulus packages. They also saw the differences. The 2008 financial crisis was an economic crisis at its core. The coronavirus is a public health crisis with enormous economic implications.”
Batsell also changed his writing assignments so students could document the pandemic from different angles. They researched how publicly traded companies have navigated the crisis and how local businesses and college students are responding. Batsell believes these assignments will teach students crucial journalistic skills and enrich their portfolios.
“I hope it’s infusing their work with more of a sense of purpose because it’s not just going through the motions of a homework assignment, but it’s responding to a moment in time,” Batsell said. “It’s a fascinating time to explain and humanize what we’re going through.”
The students’ similar experiences – responding to the coronavirus and taking classes online – have created a sense of camaraderie in Batsell’s Business and Journalism class, the core course for the O’Neil Program in Business Journalism. The students are not physically in a shared space, but they have a shared experience that reaches past the walls of a classroom.
“There is a sense across the board that we are all in this together,” Batsell said. “They are just as engaged as before we transitioned to online classes, if not more so. I hope in addition to the content of the class, they come away knowing that we care about them and we care about their success.”
Amber Benson, executive-in-residence in the Temerlin Advertising Institute, says the pandemic created a laboratory for students to practice the concepts she’s taught in her Healthcare Advertising class.
“Healthcare messaging is so pervasive and ubiquitous in our society that we are almost immune to it,” Benson said. “Now they can see very clearly how messages about public health impact our lives. It made it very real.”
From her extensive career in healthcare advertising, Benson knows the importance of creating a sense of empathy in messages. Through class discussions and assignments, Benson encourages her students to imagine themselves as patients while crafting advertising messages.
“As a healthcare advertiser, I have to find shortcuts to empathy,” Benson said. “This is one of the reasons I love teaching advertising in Meadows. In my opinion, art is one of those shortcuts. It allows us to step into the world of someone else.”
Unlike other health issues, each student knows what it’s like to live in the uncertainty and fear surrounding the coronavirus. They can pull from their own experience to inform their work in the Healthcare Advertising class.
“They have to wash their hands, they wear the masks, and they feel the effects of physical distancing,” Benson said. “It allows them to create from a place of connection and meaning. They can connect the dots, which, for me, is the point of teaching.”
Soon after the pandemic was announced, Benson changed her final project assignment. She asked students to use the United Nations’ open brief on the coronavirus to create a health campaign. The brief includes six messages the U.N. wants to communicate to a variety of audiences and invites the creative community worldwide to assist. The key messages include coronavirus symptoms, myth-busting, and more. Students used this brief to create a message for a target audience.
“One of the reasons I decided to change the assignment is I want students to understand that they are capable, with their current level of learning and knowledge, to be of use in the world right now,” Benson said. “This is exactly what we trained them for: opportunities where they need to communicate effectively.”
Benson, like Batsell, also wants her students to know she cares about them and serves as a source of comfort and consistency during this challenging time.
“This semester has been really deep. A lot of students have reached out to us to tell us about real things going on in their lives,” Benson said. “My goal is to be something consistent in their lives in a world where everything feels out of control. Also, I want them to be able look at a world that feels broken and messy and be able to say to themselves, ‘I have the skills to bring healing to this world.’”
In confronting the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it is more important than ever to build and sustain our community connections. With SMU Meadows Keep Going, we’ll share faculty, alumni and student works, stories and more reflecting how the Meadows community is responding to this unprecedented event. Follow #keepgoingmeadows on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for more.