Teaching for Tomorrow: Professor Mango Curtis Gives Her Students “Eyes to See”

How to teach digital media with a side of creative problem solving and real-world collaboration.

Teaching for Tomorrow: Professor Mango Curtis Gives Her Students “Eyes to See”
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“You never stop learning. It’s an everyday process — every day for the rest of your life,” says Susan Mango Curtis (“Mango,” as she’s commonly known), associate professor of digital publishing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. And given her background and approach to lifelong learning and creative collaboration, it’s clear this “don’t stop” approach has helped create the next generation of leading media professionals.

“My goal is to prepare students to create content for a visually stimulated audience who demands storytelling with impact,” she says. “My classes provide students with the knowledge and tools needed to design publications of the future that focus on the audience at all times.”

Despite the critical nature of her coursework, Mango’s digital media class tends to be an island within an undergrad or graduate student’s course load. “There aren’t any art classes after me, so I have to give my students experiences that move from beginner to advanced,” she says. “And it all needs to happen within ten weeks.”

Teaching technology to a broad audience of learners

Teaching at a global university like Northwestern means bringing together students with diverse skill sets, cultural frameworks, and expectations. “I have students who are highly skilled and know basic design and how to use certain software,” Mango says. “I have others who have never touched any design software ever. And they’re all in one class. And I need to teach all of them at the same time.”

To bridge the gap, Mango pushed herself to reimagine the in-class experience, drilling down on how people learn and, specifically, how this can and should steer her lessons. “I had to sit back and think about how people learn,” she says. “I realized there were four different methods for learning — video, step-by-step video, paper instructions, and one-on-one interaction. Everyone prefers one of those methods, including my students — and I had to respect my students’ preferences to help them succeed.”

Mango immediately took this realization to her class, polling students on how they learn best. “Different hands went up for different methods,” she recalls. “I knew I was on to something, So I said, ‘I’m going to provide you with all of those resources. When it’s time for you to work, you won’t have to worry. You can decide which resources work best for your learning style.’”

It’s an approach Mango still leverages today — and the added effort has paid off. “Few instructors are as willing to guide and truly instruct as Mango does,” says current graduate student Louis Oh. “Mango is outstanding. She adapts to new technologies, has an expansive vision… and is truly in-tune with her diversifying student cohort. Few are quite as undaunted by pressures not to ‘rock the boat,’ and few truly exemplify determination and impact through action like Mango.”

Coming back to collaboration

Also core to her approach is a deep focus on collaboration. While journalism can feel like a solo endeavor, Mango knows the opposite is true. She also knows she’s responsible for arming them with the ability to think, work, and act collaboratively. “I absolutely want my students to help each other, and to understand we work in a world of collaboration — not in a world of isolation,” she says. “I’m trying to prepare them for the workforce where they will be part of a sharing environment, creating and negotiating.”

A big part of this process, she adds, is a major project. For her undergrads, it’s a poster project. “We pick a topic, like empathy, and collect stories,” she says. “We talk about how to portray the stories through art. Once students have their idea, they’ll sketch it out then they’ll bring it to me to review together. We’ll even go over the best tools to create what they want to portray, like Adobe InDesign.”

This project also helps students identify and articulate their design philosophy, she says. “They have to explain it, and they have to think about what they’re doing.”

During these projects students also have to tap into key software and technology during the design and development stages. “This gives us the opportunity to play with InDesign and use Photoshop and Illustrator to combine our ideas,” says graduate student Margarita Landeros. “Her class gives me an edge over other students who do not understand design concepts. I can speak with graphic designers with knowledge and design something myself if need be.”

That, Mango, adds, is another goal of her course. “I want my students to apply creative tools so well that technology becomes completely ingrained — they’ll use it without even thinking twice,” she says. “Adobe software has made it much easier for this generation to be able to tell the world their story.” As the semester progresses, she says, collaboration continues to take center stage.

It’s about more than just technology

Through these experiences and through ongoing skills development, collaboration, and hands-on support, Mango helps her students find their path in this competitive global field. From which software to use, to lessons in typography, she’s continuously focused on improving their skill sets and inspiring them to lean on the best resource they have: each other. “If one student knows how to do something that another student needs to learn, they can go over and sit together and learn from each other,” she says. “Again, it’s all about collaboration.”

That’s just the beginning, though — at least from a professional perspective. Mango is laser-focused on helping her students lock down those first — and next — positions. Many take her class with the goal of landing a design internship or, ultimately, becoming an editor for a major magazine or newspaper.

“They want me to give them eyes to see,” she explains, “and I’m trying to develop that talent and drive. My undergrads will graduate with five internships by the time they leave my class and go on to positions at places like The New York Times, CNN, and ESPN.”

Louis is no exception. “Mango connected me with a freelance job and short-term work while I’m pursuing my master’s degree,” he says. “She connects us with opportunities and ideas. She’s incredibly in tune, and shapes opportunities around our interests and talents. She’s critical but always constructive and intensely supportive.” Overall, he says, “There is a reason people gravitate to her and seek her guidance.”

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