Meet Kate Elliott, lecturer of Journalism and the coordinator for the Department of Journalism’s Magazine Media concentration. She also serves as the chair to CCIM’s Engagement task force and as faculty fellow to the Muncie Community Schools-Ball State Academic Innovation Council. Inside and outside of her department, Kate is the epitome of commitment. In this interview, she shares her story and perspectives as an educator, storyteller and community advocate.
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Could you share the personal journey that led you to become a faculty?
I love stories — telling them, hearing them and encouraging others to share them. Stories connect and inspires us. They provide meaning and transmit cultural values. They challenge us to understand worlds, lifestyles and experiences we might never know otherwise. Ultimately, stories add value to our world through understanding, empathy and action.
I’ve been tracking down and telling stories since I was a kid, when I would follow family members and neighbors around with my Rainbow Brite microphone and tape recorder. It was an honor to write and share their lives and perspectives with others.
I upgraded equipment but continued to tell stories as a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where I graduated with a degree in magazine journalism. I then journeyed to London, England, where I reported global humanitarian news for Reuters AlertNet before returning to the United States to become a feature writer and columnist for several newspapers in Missouri, Texas and Georgia.
I remained in Georgia as Valdosta State University’s alumni magazine editor and communications specialist from 2006-11. While in the Peach State, I earned a master’s degree in higher education leadership. In May 2011, my husband, Michael, was named coordinator of the musical theatre program at Ball State, where I became a communications manager and alumni magazine editor. I spent the next six years writing and strategizing for Ball State until August 2016, when I transitioned to freelance full time as a writer, editor and communications strategist.
I taught as an adjunct instructor for Ball State’s Department of Journalism since 2014, and with each new class, I fell more in love with role. In 2017, I accepted a full-time teaching position and began coordinating the Magazine Media concentration a year later.
It is a great privilege and joy to guide the next generation of storytellers and strategists. Each day, I strive to equip them with the confidence, connections and expertise to excel in our dynamic, in-demand field. I continue to freelance to maintain my skills and push myself to do the work I ask of my students. They see me working, as they do, to seek out stories that matter.
This is important work.
Thomas Jefferson said, “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” The soul and character of our world depends on our work to empower and lead students to become journalists who operate with integrity and heart.
What is your teaching philosophy?
Among the greatest lessons I’ve learned are from trees: to cultivate a strong foundation, to stand independent and tall but to remain rooted in community; to collaborate with others for better outcomes; to grow around obstacles when you must; to embrace disturbances as part of the climb; and to commit your existence to nurturing a more vibrant, connected world.
I often imagine my students as trees. No, I don’t refer to them as oaks or weeping willows but thinking of them as such encourages me to embrace their wonderfully distinct characteristics, much like I embrace the diversity of the woods. It reminds me to consider their previous access to nutrients and the climates they’ve weathered, which outfit some with thick, scarred skin and others with the thinnest of exteriors. Regardless of their divergent trajectories and capacities, students share a common climate during this accelerated period of growth, as they work to establish themselves in a new environment. They are eager to foster connections and expand their reach; but depending on their variety, condition and placement, students may emerge during our time together or flower long after we nourish their roots.
The metaphor helps me realize that although I may pour myself into students, I may never see them reach their full potential; but I pour anyway, because I know it matters. Because I once benefitted from the shade and support of others, even when I wasn’t ready to sprout.
To foster their growth, I strive to build lasting relationships within an affirmative, industry-driven environment. I continue to freelance as a writer, editor and strategist to maintain my skills and push myself to do the work I ask of my students. As a result, they see me still learning, course-correcting and emerging alongside them. I push critical thinking and resilience as they confront challenges, and I encourage humility so they grow through their mistakes.
My expectations are high, and I review writing, photography and design with the eye of an eagle, marking drafts with the ferocity of professional standards; but my grading reflects the touch of a butterfly, as I reward honest efforts based on individual progress. Good writing emerges during the editing process, and students must grow comfortable with feedback, rewrites, feedback and more rewrites until all parties are satisfied. As such, I invite students to rework assignments until their writing would be ready for a professional editor — and that is when I assign a grade. Tests and quizzes are open book, because journalism is about one’s ability to find an answer or solution, rather than memorizing and repeating what others deem as truth. I don’t expect any of us to know all the answers, but I do expect us to adopt the critical thinking skills, grit and resources to find and interpret them.
When I find myself saying things like, “kids these days,” I push even harder to listen to, be present with and open to students’ energy and passions. They are hybrids of previous generations, built stronger and wired to solve tomorrow’s challenges through emerging technologies and trends. Educators who minimize students’ knowledge and perspective miss out.
Students often hear me say, “You get out of life what you put into it.” I push students to be active in their learning and to consider education as the act of saying “yes,” again and again, to enriching experiences that fashion students into “the most interesting person you can be.” Trees that stand immovable when new construction crowds out their sunlight wither as much as professionals who resist change, fear creative risk or do not want to put in the time.
As students and I explore and adapt to our emerging field, I encourage an embrace of new interpretations of journalism and communications. For years, I felt the profession required me to check my humanity at the office door. No more. I now jump at most any opportunity to practice “community or justice journalism” because in all that journalism is and can be, I believe there is space for a participatory variety that transforms writers and photographers from observers into storytellers, driven to recapture the hearts of their communities.
Rather than trying to stamp out bias, I acknowledge that preferences are embedded in the people, culture and language on which we report. I strive for fairness instead of “objectivity” and manage bias as narrative texture that presents more relevant, compelling stories. A Journalist’s work can inspire empathy, understanding and action, but journalists do not need to stop there. They can also take action — working alongside neighbors to engage in productive conversations and work toward solutions.
I hope my students struggle because writing and creating isn’t easy, but I hope they lean into these agitations as “productive struggles” that ignite a gritty determination to tell stories that matter. And I hope they know I will always be there to commiserate with and encourage them in the brightest and darkest of days.
You serve as the chair of the CCIM Engagement task force. Why did you accept this role?
Life is about relationships — with ourselves, with each other and with our community. It’s an honor to work alongside passionate, expert committee members to connect with and give back to the CCIM and Muncie communities in meaningful ways.
What did the CCIM Engagement task force focus on this past academic year? What’s next?
In Spring 2020, CCIM announced it would pilot the university’s first Immersive Learning Collaborative — a two- to three-year, college-wide partnership with one community partner. The CCIM Engagement Task Force is leading this long-term, multi-phased effort that expands the existing immersive model to better address persistent problems facing Indiana communities.
After an exhaustive review of potential partners, the CCIM Engagement Task Force identified the 8twelve Coalition. This team of more than 20 organizations and neighborhood associations works to improve the quality of life in some of Muncie’s urban core neighborhoods. Together, they focus on neighborhood revitalization, community building, food insecurity and education.
The 8twelve has been a longstanding and rewarding partner for the university. Since 2016, CCIM has engaged in more than 50 projects with coalition partners. The IL Collaborative will provide these and other projects with structure and a shared mission to address the community’s greatest needs.
Coalition chair Jena Ashby said the 8twelve has a sound strategic plan to tackle Muncie’s interconnected challenges, and many of the coalition’s needs align with CCIM’s strengths. She said the coalition looks forward to this more strategic, long-term approach to guide the group’s work with the university.
As a show of support for the partnership, hundreds of faculty, staff, students and alumni participated in CCIM’s Community Service Day in March 2019. The college community dug into work at Habitat for Humanity properties, tackled garden and indoor cleanup at Maring-Hunt Library, prepped meals and sorted donations at Muncie Mission, and took family photos at the Ross Community Center.
This fall, our task force is gathering a team of faculty — one from each CCIM department — to engage students in an immersive class to tackle the 8twelve’s most pressing problem. The classes will collaborate to address the challenge, and they will transfer work and knowledge to the following semester’s cohort of students, and so on, throughout the life of the partnership.
This is exciting work. We look forward to continuing to work alongside the 8twelve Coalition as we learn about, rally behind and dig into a community problem through coordinated projects, programs, research and volunteer efforts.
What has been the proudest moment in your career so far?
This question is impossible, but I guess it’s a good thing that I have had proud moments at each juncture of my life. I remember every story I have written and nearly every student I have mentored. I am proud of them all, and each has enriched my life beyond measure.
Well, now wait a minute. Maybe I do have a proudest moment, but it’s sad.
I interview people for a living, but I never interviewed my dad before he died. Our life together was one big interview, but still, I wish I would have sat down with him with intention.
I dislike speaking to crowds, but I told the pastor of my father’s church that I felt called to deliver the eulogy. He cautioned me against it, saying “you will cry and make people feel uncomfortable.” Looking back, I am grateful for his aloof advice because I am as stubborn as a summer day is long. Had that pastor encouraged me with tender words, I would have melted into a pool of tears. But his lack of faith fueled me as I wrote late into the night. I got up the next morning and spoke to hundreds about my dad’s life and legacy, and I didn’t cry (well, until I sat down, and my dad’s stoic older brother read, “… My help cometh from THE LORD,” in his booming voice.
I am proud of this writing, however flawed, and my dad would have been proud of his stubborn “Missou-rah” girl.
Can you share one thing that people don’t typically know about you?
I grew up fly fishing in Missouri, and I love to camp and explore state and national parks. I love ’80s action movies and consider “Die Hard” a holiday movie. I have a closet of random supplies, which I like making into crafts, party supplies and gifts (e.g., my dad gave me a giant Sam’s pretzel container full of corks, and the kids and I transformed them into painted pumpkins for fall décor). I was a lifeguard for seven years, and I played basketball, volleyball, among other sports. I try to walk each day, then treat myself to ice cream and/or chocolate, which I consider food groups.
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