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Patti Wolter

Fall 2023 Interview

Patti Wolter is the Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Clinical Professor and Helen Gurley Brown Magazine Professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Wolter is a 2020 recipient of a University Teaching Award. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Medill.

Patti Wolter
Patti Wolter
Charles Deering McCormick
Distinguished Clinical Professor
Helen Gurley Brown
Magazine Professor
Medill School of Journalism,
Media & Integrated
Marketing Communications

What sparked your interest in your first career, journalism?

I was on my high school newspaper, and somebody said to me, “You should apply to Northwestern. They have a good journalism school.” I have no recollection of checking “Medill” on the application. I thought I was premed and called my parents from a pay phone outside Fisk and said, “Guess what? I'm a Journalism Major.”

At the time, Medill required you to work at a newspaper for a quarter. My junior year, I went to a daily in Boulder, Colorado. Everything I wrote they put on the front page. The copy editors were like, “Wow! You're good at this!” That was not my experience at Medill. I was not one of the super driven kids at the time, and I thought that I wasn't good at it. 

I came back senior year and said to my advisor, “Turns out, I really like this!” He said, “You did it. You got the fire in the belly,” and then he spun me into the master's program. 

For a quarter I went to DC where the editor of the Shreveport Louisiana Journal wanted me to do something deep–a whole story on the sugar industry and the sugar lobby. I loved writing something where I was really learning about all sides of an issue, and that editor really helped me turn it into a long piece.

My first job was with a small nonprofit magazine in Chicago. There were just two and a half of us working on this tiny nonprofit magazine, writing about community organizing in Chicago. I was reporting. I was coming up with story ideas. I was assigning. I was editing. We needed to do a marketing survey, and I was just naive enough to call the head of the marketing department at Kellogg and ask for help. And he did. In that context, I thought, “I am an editor.”

What sparked your interest in teaching?

When I was a kid, my family sat around the dinner table one night and we all wrote down what we thought we would be doing in the year 2000. I wrote down “teacher” I think because my mom had been a substitute teacher.

By the turn of the century, I was actively working in magazines, and I had a lot of different roles–managing editor, senior editor. I always stayed in contact with Medill, bringing students in to intern or mentor.

Two jobs came up in the magazine department at Medill. And I thought, “Yeah, I kind of always have wanted to teach.” I looked at what I had been doing and realized I was more excited about my assistant’s successes journalistically than I was mine. I thought maybe it is time for me to make that flip. 

You’ve implemented ungrading into your teaching. Why did you decide to experiment with ungrading? How is it going? 

It’s been a slow process of experimentation and then an epiphany and some really conscious experiments. I'm a true believer in decoupling learning from grades. 

I have a master's program class that I've taught forever where the only thing I need them to do every week is the reading. We come into class, talk, deconstruct, and run around the room drawing pictures on the wall, representing all of these stories we’ve read. I realized really early on that a letter grade was useless in evaluating whether or not they did the reading. I just needed something so they did the reading in advance, and then class took care of itself. So for 12 years I've done that entire class on a pass/fail basis.

I did not ever think about how it might work in my other classes. Then, separately, I started teaching this STEM+ PhD class, and it was not for credit, which meant it was automatically pass/fail. We never put grades on anything. We just helped the students become better writers, and that was so freeing. 

I didn't know to call it “ungrading.” I started reading about ungrading and read Grading for Equity, which really changed my thinking. I was like, “This is exactly proof that it works!” So then, right before classes started in Fall 22, I spent three full days analyzing all my assignments. Are they summative? Are they formative? Which values am I teaching ? Which skills am I teaching? Do they hit? Should I get rid of any? I made all these new rules and charts for myself: a summative assignment has to hit at least 3 [values and skills]. Then I was able to say none of these formative things should be graded because they're all about learning these other skills. Talking to the students about assignments that way was really a huge shift. 

In my writing class I'd always tried to emphasize revision. So in Winter 2023 I had this reason for doing it as labor-based grading. And the student feedback on that class was so interesting. The students talked about how I’d given them so much more feedback, but I knew I wasn't giving more feedback. They read the feedback differently when there's not a letter grade on top of it. 

Do you ever worry that students will take advantage of ungrading?

I was just having a conversation with someone the other day about this fear we have that students are taking advantage of us if we're not somehow laying down the law, which is what traditional grading feels like.

And sure enough, there was a student that I felt like was taking advantage of it, and I was watching them not turning stories in, taking advantage of every possible contingency and my general trust that students are going to do the work. They came through in the eleventh hour with a really good piece of writing, and I had very mixed feelings about it.

In the self-reflection I asked, “What grade would you give yourself. And what did this class teach you? And how did you feel about the grading?” I had promised everybody an A- if they did a certain amount of work. But this person said, “I deserve a B.” They mentioned all the things they did not do and said that if it had not been for this grading system, they would have dropped the class. They reflected, “ And while I should have learned more, that's on me. The things I pulled off at the end, I'm really proud of having learned.”

That really surprised me because that's what you talk about with ungrading. It’s giving them permission to learn what they need to learn in a class and creating systems where they can do it. But it's such a reminder that there's so many different ways of learning and so many different things students need in any given quarter. With upgrading, I think about the whole student while still centering what I want them to learn in my class and giving them permission to be who they are and what they're dealing with.

How do you think about and approach inclusive teaching?

I have to praise Searle, NUIT, and all of the practicums. It feels like this attention to teaching has really exponentially increased. I think some of the thinking that I do is because I've engaged in all of this training. So that's one answer.

The other answer is the degree that I'm trying to figure out how any given student learns. Whistling Vivaldi had a big impact on me. Learning about stereotype threat, I changed my approach to students who were struggling in class. So my line became, “You're not doing the work. I know you're capable of it. You got into Northwestern. You've done this. You've done that. I know you can do this work. What else is going on?” Usually, when you ask that question, the flood gates open and you learn about all the other things that students are dealing with, whether it's anxiety, mental health issues, or problems at home. 

It’s recognizing the whole person and what they're bringing to class, or what they can't possibly bring to class because of all that stuff going on. If this person is having problems learning the way I'm teaching, what do I need to change about my teaching? And what do we need to help them be able to learn better? And sometimes that's systemic, sometimes it's something I can do in my classroom, and sometimes it's about harnessing other resources for them. But that flexibility is ultimately going to help them to graduate with confidence. 

So much learning happens post-college. Certainly the other thing in journalism is we're super tied to industry. I do as much advising to my students the first 2 years they're out of school as I do their senior year job hunting. And so I'm really aware of how much of the growth and training they get is actually happening once they're out of here. So I need to know they have the confidence to go there, and that is a much different thing than just teaching a set of skills.

Especially for journalism students, how are you addressing generative AI in the classroom? What do you see as the role of generative AI in their future careers?

What I'm telling students is none of us fully understand it. There's a lot of risk of factual error and plagiarism, which are huge. There are journalistic institutions that don't allow use of AI right now, which is pretty short-sighted. And there are jobs where you're expected to use it.

We are going to experiment as a class this fall on that very question. They will do a set of handwritten brainstorming exercises. Then I'm going to  make them all plug them into ChatGPT and we’ll see what happens. I'm definitely going to work some fact-checking and verification all the way through.

What has been your favorite Searle Center experience?

My very first class I taught went unbelievably well. When I came back from maternity leave, I thought, “I'm totally set. I'm going to teach the class the exact same way,” And it bombed–a big lesson in intentionality every quarter. 

That year, I looked to see what sessions Searle was offering and I signed up for every single one, many of which were not remotely relevant to what I teach. But that year was so important for me to position myself as someone who needed to keep learning about teaching, and Searle was my resource for that. 

Then, years later, a student of mine who became faculty asked me to be her Searle Fellow faculty mentor. I loved that year. I learned so much by being part of these conversations about critical thinking and cross-discipline training at a very engaging level.

How do you balance the demands of teaching and self-care?

I kayak and paddle board all summer long. In January, I walk. I get up early and usually do 3 to 4 miles. My only rule is I won't do ice. So those days I end up on the treadmill. Walking keeps me sane.