Posted on August 28, 2008
Rethinking the education of journalists
A lot of j-schools are starting, or in the middle of, curriculum reform. Many of these efforts focus solely on integrating the “new” skills that we use to produce journalism for digital media and devices. I meet and talk with other journalism educators at conferences and conventions, and it seems like just about everyone is in motion.
Pat Thornton suggests we look beyond reforming curriculum. Re-examine the whole idea of wrapping journalism education in a four-year degree program, he says. If most of our courses emphasize hands-on skills, why is this program even in a university? Why not move journalism education to a trade school? (Pat’s not saying we need to do this — he’s just asking the question.)
With the turmoil in the journalism business today, you might ask why any students are majoring in journalism. I can tell you, they have a multitude of reasons, and for many of the students, it’s not that they want to be journalists. Some want to be book editors. Others want to go to law school. Many of them want to write about music or travel. I don’t hear a lot of today’s journalism students saying they want to go out and give a voice to the voiceless, expose corruption, act as a watchdog to keep power in check.
Maybe that’s not so different from how it ever was. As I remember it, when I was a print journalism major in 1979-81, a lot of my classmates wanted to be music critics, columnists, magazine editors. (As for me, I thought I’d like to be a film critic, like Pauline Kael.)
Beyond journalism, beyond school
The years spent at university as an undergrad are not meant to be job training. In North America, at least, those years serve as a transition between who you were as a child and who you will become. That has to do with a lot more than the job you will get after graduation.
So, as Pat notes, it would be great if journalism students took a substantial minor. I’ve noticed that a lot of journalism students take a minor in English, i.e. writing or literature. Another very common minor is sociology. These choices are not very wise — they’re not giving the student a background in an area that complements the journalism training. Political science, or area studies (e.g. the Middle East, or Latin America), or environmental science — those would be smart minors for someone who wants to be a journalist.
Why don’t college students pursue smart minors? I think it’s because most of them don’t know what they want to do. That’s not so strange. They’re 19 or 20 or 21 years old. They’ve had a long, peaceful childhood. Many of them have not traveled outside their own country. Many of them don’t know much about the world outside of school. (I think this explains why so many of them just stay in school, getting a master’s degree in something they also probably won’t end up pursuing as a career.)
Why do you major in anything?
Students complain about what we call the general education requirements. They have to accumulate about 60 credits in a broad variety of courses including history, science, and math; then they move on to 60+ credits in “upper level” courses. The general ed courses fulfill the role that a liberal arts education has always fulfilled (or at least, they’re meant to): completing your education. Put another way, the undergraduate journey is supposed to lead to your becoming an educated person.
Why do many employers want someone with a BA, when a journalism certificate would probably suffice? Most journalism is learned on the job. Wouldn’t it make more sense for perspective journalists to take a one to two year certificate program, while getting more professional experience, instead of spending four years studying journalism?
Pat looks at this the way many Americans do. We’re a practical, down-to-earth people. We say, “Why do I have to take all those stupid courses about economics and statistics and philosophy and blah blah blah when I will not need to use any of that stuff in my JOB?” Students do anything they can to expend the least possible effort in courses they do not consider relevant.
What’s rather funny (or maybe tragic) is that some students don’t consider any of their courses to be relevant to anything. They view the university experience as a task to be completed, and that is, at the end you get a bachelor’s degree, which is the whole point for them.
The trade school alternative
A certificate program — completed in two years, or even less — could produce a person who could apply AP style and write a lede and take a decent photo, etc., etc. It wouldn’t produce an educated person.
(I do sometimes wonder whether the university system is producing many educated people nowadays.)
I think the news organizations started requiring a four-year university degree because journalism changed as the world changed. It’s McLuhan’s global village now, and it’s not sufficient to go into journalism with a high school education. On-the-job training (as if there were anyone in today’s newsrooms who would or could train the new kid) is not going to suffice, because today’s journalist actually does need to be well educated.
I would argue against the trade school suggestion. I’m in the crowd that considers journalism a profession (even though we don’t have certification programs or licenses in the United States).
The role of a master’s degree
Pat suggests that a journalist might be better off to MAJOR in an area such as science and MINOR in journalism. I’ll argue that a minor is typically 12 credits, or four 15-week courses, and most students wouldn’t be fit to work in a newsroom after only four courses.
A good alternative might be a professional journalism master’s degree, lasting three or four semesters. This is what Medill is doing with its program to train computer programmers to work as journalists. Take a person who has completed an undergraduate education in a subject area unrelated to journalism and then train him or her to be a journalist. That addresses a number of the issues Pat brought up.
The University of California, Berkeley, has a graduate-only journalism school. There are no undergrads majoring in journalism there.
To me, this makes a lot more sense than the trade school idea. But would anyone suggest that we close down the undergraduate journalism programs? Eliminate them?
I would not, and here’s why: All the students who go through a four-year journalism program and earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism have, at the very least, a good idea of how journalism works, when it fails, and when it reaches noble heights.
If they come out and never, ever take a single job in journalism, they will retain that knowledge.
There are a lot of undergraduate majors that don’t qualify you for a job — they qualify you for a graduate program. Plenty of students graduate from one of those majors and decide they don’t want to continue on in that field — medicine, sociology, economics, fine arts, whatever. Some of them pursue something else in grad school, but some get jobs in other fields, e.g. retail. Or even journalism.
Your undergraduate years are preparing you for life, for future decisions, which include choices about a career. It’s okay if you get a journalism degree and don’t become a journalist, just as it’s okay if you get a sociology degree and don’t become a social worker. (The difference there is, you’d need to go on to grad school to become a social worker.)
As for how well educated you are on completion of a bachelor’s degree in journalism — well, I’d say that has always depended as much on the student as on the faculty and the courses.