1 Million Story Ideas Special: Does Your School Offer a ‘Death Class’?

Over the past decade, digital tools and mobile platforms have rocketed journalism to a universe of innovation, interactivity and immediacy once unimaginable. Yet, without stellar content, journalism 2.0 is not worth the effort to read, watch, click on, scroll through, contribute to or connect with. Everything journalism was, is and will be rests on our ability to tell a story. And every story starts with an idea.

So let’s brainstorm.

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To help get you started, I have set up and regularly update the special page 1 Million Story Ideas for Student Journalists on my blog College Media Matters. It is aimed at inspiring student journalists to localize, adapt and reinvent a range of stories — quirky and mainstream, text-based and visual, interactive and investigatory.

Here is one example.

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The University Death Class

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Talk to convicted murderers. See dead bodies in a morgue. Interact with dying hospice patients. Map out a bucket list, a living will and even your own eulogy. These are a few of the assignments and field trips involved in what is known as the “death class,” the most popular course at Kean University. Led by Kean professor and registered nurse Norma Bowe, Death in Perspective boasts a three-year waiting list, a spin-off community service group and growing media attention.

According to veteran journalist and journalism professor Erika Hayasaki, “[Y]ear after year, students crowd into [Bowe’s] classroom and the reason why is clear: Norma’s ‘death class’ is really about how to make the most of what poet Mary Oliver famously called our ‘one wild and precious life.’ Under the guise of discussions about last wills and last breaths and visits to cemeteries and crematoriums, Norma teaches her students to find grace in one another.”

In her book The Death Class: A True Story About Life, Hayasaki teaches us about Bowe, some of her students and the transformative course that has brought them together. Published earlier this year by Simon & Schuster, The Death Class also touches on a larger cultural demystifying of death that is drawing in students, scholars and the public at-large.

As the headline of a piece Hayasaki wrote for The Atlantic declares simply, “Death is Having a Moment.” As she similarly tells me, “There are thousands of death classes now in the U.S. Believe it or not, a lot of them have waiting lists. It’s obviously something that’s very intriguing to students.”

Examine the level of popularity and intrigue death is achieving on your own campus. Is there a class or set of classes exploring various facets of it? Does a professor conduct related research? And what connections do students have to the idea or reality of death — possibly through the passing of a loved one, their own near-death experiences or an internship or extracurricular activity that has opened their eyes to it in a lasting way?

For a regular series or a more creative or in-depth report, consider utilizing or adapting some of the assignments Bowe has students in her “death class” at Kean complete. Along with creating a bucket list, living will and eulogy, students are required to write a goodbye letter at the start of each semester to someone close to them who they have lost.

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For more ideas, check out 1 Million Story Ideas for Student Journalists, a quick-hit, unending, hopefully indispensable, fun, fun, fun digital story ideas fountain.

Also order a copy of my book Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age. Dubbed “the next new mandatory text for college journalists,” it features advice from hundreds of contributors, lots of digital storytelling tips, tons of story ideas and more than 300 games aimed at sparking you to come up with endless ideas of your own.

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