It was a Thursday night, 20 years ago, when Allan Richards got a call from a university named FIU. A journalist for the Sun-Sentinel and PBS at the time, Richards was asked if he would like to teach a writing course – starting Monday.
Today, Richards is an associate professor at the School of Communication+Journalism (SCJ), under the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts (CARTA). For his numerous contributions to journalism education, Richards has earned the prestigious Scripps Howard Foundation 2016 Teacher of the Year Award.
The national competition sought an educator who displayed excellence in their work, such as innovative teaching practices, influence on curriculum, mentoring of students and faculty, and leadership in on-going industry engagement and educational activities.
“It’s the honor of my professional career,” Richards says. “For one year to be recognized for my innovation, my work and my industry partnerships, it’s enormous.”
Among his contributions to SCJ, Richards helped start a digital journalism program and has created numerous industry-education partnerships and opportunities for students to learn experientially.
In 2009, he co-founded a partnership with editors from the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post – The South Florida News Service (SFNS). The service allowed students to work in a newsroom environment and to write stories that would run in the local papers and their websites.
“It was the first example of a news service partnership between a journalism school and three other media organizations,” Richards explains. He recalls the project garnered national and international attention.
One particularly sweet memory: The then-dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism reached out to Richards and met with him to learn more about the project. SFNS still runs today as a digital news site, with Associate Professor Dan Evans as news director and content chief.
A more recent example of how Richards encourages his students to experience journalism while doing course work: For their capstone class this semester, his students are working on a project called DiarioforCuba, an independent student-run news site to connect with Cuban millennials.
“Basically, I create a newsroom, and it works both virtually and in class,” Richards explains. “What happens if the story comes out on a Saturday? We work on classroom time and communicate all the time on chats and What’s App. What’s really incredible is that the students love the freedom. They take on the responsibility of running a virtual newsroom. I’m really proud of them.”
Richards says the enthusiasm and dedication of FIU students fuel his motivation for teaching.
“I feel very grateful that I was given the opportunity to teach at FIU,” he says. “Anyone who teaches at FIU knows that these students work hard. They’re on a mission.”
His teaching philosophy is all about training students to combine enduring skills of writing and ethical behavior as well as the digital know-how that often changes quickly.
“I think the digital era is one that requires risk-taking, even in the classroom,” Richards says. “In order to prepare students for the working world, I believe in the fundamentals including writing and grammar and integrating that with the digital tools that have been developed and are constantly being developed.”
Richards will be honored this August at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) 2017 Conference in Chicago.