Almost a decade ago, Diane Nottle made a career change: her employer, The New York Times, was looking to reduce staff, and she took a buyout offer. She had already trained for a second career as a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, Now she has transformed her teaching career by using her journalism experience to specialize in teaching English for the media.
She has taught English and journalism in Poland, China and Canada, but her home base is the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where she coaches international students. In November, CUNY Journalism Press published her book “American English for World Media.” The CUNY Journalism Press (CJP) sat down to talk to Nottle about her experience teaching, what this unique book offers as a resource and how other journalists can transition into second careers.
CJP: If you see three things that your book does a better job of addressing than other resources out there, what would they be?
DN: Some other books meant to teach English to foreign journalists were too stuffy. It’s the old-fashioned English-teacher language. I try to be really reader-friendly and not to takes things too seriously when approaching students person to person. I like to work with people as if we were in a professional newsroom — which we practically are — and talk to them the way their editors would talk to them.
What I wanted to do in my blog (“English for Journalists,” taken from Nottle’s experience at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism coaching international students) was to explain these grammar points that people have trouble with without scaring them off. Because with writing – and I’ve had this experience myself — bad teachers, people who are too pompous and too prescriptive about things, really scare people off from writing by trying to overcorrect them. That’s one reason writers get blocked — and journalists can’t afford to be blocked because we have to do things quickly and on deadline. So one of the things I think this does better is, it takes a less serious, more friendly – I hope it’s friendly — approach to grammar and the English language.
Whenever I’m meeting with a new student, I say, “I’m trying not to take this too seriously. I hope we’re going to have fun, and I hope we’re going to laugh when we do this. I don’t want this to be scary.” When you’ve got an international student coming from another country to New York – which is a scary enough prospect — to do graduate school in a foreign language, first of all, it’s really brave. Second, it’s really scary. They’ve got enough to worry about.
When I explain the history of how the English language developed, and why that makes it such a difficult language, that’s storytelling. We also have chapters that are glossaries; we have chapters that are step by step. We have one chapter called “Working in English” that tells people things like how you set up an interview, how you write a pitch. People from some cultures aren’t used to working on very strict timetables like Americans. So there are chapters that give advice like that.
These are some of the things that make this book different. And of course 90 percent of it is based on what we do at CUNY. It’s based on my blog, which is based on student work. It’s based on my meetings with students. It’s based on how classes are conceived and taught at CUNY. So it’s not just my book; I feel very strongly it belongs to the whole school.
CJP: I love your blog. It’s great it helps me – I’m not an international student but I still feel there are things…
DN: And that’s a really important point. We feel that both the blog and the book should not be just for international students, international journalists. Both cover a lot of grammar points that journalists may or may not have been taught. (CUNY Journalism writing coach) Deb Stead and I are very old-school; when we were coming up in elementary school and high school, grammar and vocabulary were considered very important. English is not taught the same way these days. Teachers say, “Be creative. Express yourself.” And there’s something to be said for that; you know, English teachers who focus too much on what’s correct really stifle a lot of people and make them uncomfortable with writing and expressing themselves. We find that younger journalists and students weren’t taught the same way; therefore they don’t know these grammar points. In the book, I try to bring them up to speed on some of these grammar points.
CJP: What are the top three common mistakes that you see?
DN: There’s a very long chapter on the 20 most common problems I see in writing – it’s Chapter 10. Those are the grammatical issues, really. Idiom is huge for international journalists because idiom is so much a part of the English, especially the American language. It’s important because you have to understand idioms when you’re doing an interview. If someone says something and you know all the words but have no idea what they mean together, that’s an example. If you’re going to use an idiom – as a speaker or a writer — you have to get it exactly right, or you’ll confuse the native speakers in your audience or make them laugh.
Register is also really important. That’s knowing when you need to use more formal verses less formal language. When, in your writing, it’s appropriate to use slang. When it may be appropriate to use curse words or obscenities – which even The New Yorker will publish now. Word choice is very important, and what that boils down to is building vocabulary. There’s a big chunk of the book on how to build vocabulary – partly by reading, by listening– but also I talk about building word families using and recognizing roots of words that can help you build up your vocabulary. As macro things, those are maybe three of the most important, and the chapter on the top 20 trouble spots is really more focused on very specific grammar points.
CJP: Do you see people using the book and the blog together?
DN: I hadn’t thought about that. Yes, I think they can because much of the book– though less than I expected — is based on the blog. I finished the book around this time last year, and since I was teaching in China then, I hadn’t written in the blog for a year. So parts of the blog that are in the book are two years old now. And since then I’ve been back to CUNY and I’m been blogging again. The blog always has new things that come out of the student writing.
When I’m going through a story with a student and something addresses a grammar point, I say “OK, I’m going to harvest that sentence,” and I put it aside in a special file for for when I’m ready to write about that. When I see students having the same problems, that’s when a blog post comes to mind on a particular subject. And also sometimes students will ask questions, and it’s a really good point that everybody should know about. One of our students from South America, Carlos Serrano, asked me a couple of questions this past semester that led to blog posts, and they were very good questions.
CJP: What do you hope it would accomplish, if you’re able to do everything you’re setting out? What is that you want international students or young journalists to get out of this?
DN: I want them to become more comfortable and confident when they need to work in English. And many of them, as they start and go on in their careers, will be working with the English language media. So you want them to be comfortable. It’s not that they’re not going to make mistakes; of course they’re going to make mistakes! That’s why there are editors. But I want to demystify the language for them. And especially the media terms. Every profession has its own jargon. We have our jargon; part of the fun of being a journalist is, you can throw words out and show you belong to this fraternity. I really want to help them make their English better.
Say you’re an editor of an English-language publication of any kind, and you’re getting queries from a new freelancer. And you think, ”You know, this is a good idea, but this pitch, I don’t know. The writing isn’t that good.” What it boils down to is, is this story and this reporter going to be more trouble to work with than the story is worth? If we can help reporters bring communication skills up to a good enough level that’s going to help them in the beginning – pursuing their careers, making contacts, really building working relationships with the media.
I know from my experience as an editor, if someone is too difficult to edit – for whatever reason, either attitude or writing — we tend not to use that person. Even with professional, native-speaker reporters, some people are really good reporters and not great writers. Some people are better using language than they are at reporting – I’m in the latter quality. I’m much more of an editor personality than a reporter personality. Even at, The New York Times, I could think of two veteran reporters people said weren’t great writers, but they were really good at cultivating sources and getting facts and we (the editors) could fix that (the writing). What I want to do with this book is reach these journalists all over the world who have ambition to work with English-language publications; and that contributes to the diversity of both viewpoint and coverage in our media. And bring them up to the level where our busy, overstressed editors feel that they can work productively with them. That’s the win-win.
CJP: What advice do you have for journalists looking to transition into teaching?
DN: I’d make a firm assessment of your skills and how they would translate. I would say get teacher training. One thing I learned from my experience: my training program was in teaching English, but you can use those same techniques to teach anything. I was assigned to teach a course in English-speaking cultures. It was about the US, UK, Canada and Australia. I thought, “I’ve lived there. I can do that.” As a career-changer, make the most of your professional background — and if you have a specialty, market yourself as a specialist in that. Also, especially for older people, if you’re a career-changer in your 40s or 50s, chances are you are not going to be offered a full-time teaching job in a school or university. Age discrimination does exist; even in a country where it’s illegal, of course it exists. You may have to create your own job, which is pretty much what I’ve done. It’s taken me a while. I left The Times nine years ago this spring. There were maybe two or three years when I just decompressed and didn’t throw myself into it all that seriously, and now I have. And the thing I always say when I’m asked to speak is, when I started my training in 2005, 2006, I could never have imagined the things I’m doing today. I didn’t see CUNY down the road. I didn’t see writing a book down the road. I did see traveling abroad. I didn’t see making a specialty out of English for the media; that all just kind of happened. But when it did happen, it was very natural.