From David Perkins

Our department has put off –for now—discussing our curriculum and the future of journalism in a formal way, though we obviously talk about it all the time in committees and one-on-one. I was intrigued when I came across this piece, amid the comments on an interesting MediaShift post on entrepreneurship and teaching journalism. It is a summary of a curriculum review at Florida International University, written by Mike McQueen, the former journalism department chair.

The post is a year old, and the faculty discussion was back in 2000—God knows, the world has changed since then.  A LOT.  Still, I thought we (and that includes students) might wish to comment on—or at least reflect on—these pieces as we consider what we do at UMASS in a time of media revolution.  (No other word will do.)

I disagree with some things in McQueen’s statement—the disparagement of internships, for one thing–and the put-down of journalism students in general at the end. It does not even mention multimedia. He seems  to assume that newspapers are still the medium.  At the same time,  I agree with the importance of basic literacy and critical thinking, for example.  (He might have added “watchdog thinking.”)

Are there  “position statements” that other journalism programs have   come up with after similar periods of reflection? They might be worth posting here as well—even if we’re different, and must make our own way.

DP.

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Mike McQueen

January 31, 2008 9:59 AM

This article is right on-point as to what journalism schools should be teaching. I’m a former journalism department chair. In 2000, our faculty sat down and considered all of the changing media landscape, first, and then what it means for journalists second. We held seminars where we got ideas from the leading thinkers in the field of journalism and in journalism education. Then we revamped the school’s curriculum to incorporate all the thoughts we heard.

We did, as a faculty, think that media convergence ought [NOT—from the rest of the argument, that word is clearly left out. DP.] to be the principal thing we teach journalism students, even though convergence is what prompted us to rethink our curriculum.

These are the areas we thought ought to be emphasized, in roughly this order.

1. The old-school skills of grammar, composition and critical thinking. Convergence, business acumen, all of that stuff is nice. But we are teaching people skills so that they can acquire a legitimate four-year college degree. Every college student, particularly journalists, damn well ought to know these three basic things as a condition of getting a degree.

2. Knowledge of the world around us, and knowledge of the principal areas that journalists are likely to encounter. That means required courses in the subjects that make up the Western civilization tradition: history, philosophy, economics, political science, etc. Again, the thinking here was: No one should get a college degree without being properly educated in the Western tradition.

3. We found the biggest challenge facing journalism graduates, after these two areas, was a lack of visual literacy. What makes up a good newspaper page? A good website? What are the visual communication principles at work here? That was a required set of courses totaling 6 credit hours, or about a fifth of their journalism courses. (This also included instruction in videography, video editing and digital photography.)

4. Next, journalism graduates needed the tools to make sound decisions: They need to know the history and traditions of their craft; they need to know the ethical principles that guide it; they need to know the wider world of mass communication and point-to-point communication to make smart business decisions. Inclusive in this area was a course on the business of journalism, as well as your tradition journalism history class, journalism ethics class, press law class and mass communication theory class.

5. Next, we operate in a multicultural world. Far too many journalists understand suburbia, but not urban area, immigration issues, sex and gender issues, etc. This was a separate class.

6. Students needed advanced tools to be better reporters and editors. That meant instruction in computer-assisted reporting, instruction in basic mathematical skills most often encountered by journalists and other social-scientific methods. This course was generally taught by either an experienced computer-assisted reporting expert or by a journalism librarian trained in research and investigative reporting.

7. We instituted an honors sequence for students with advanced skills.

8. Over the objections of some in the industry, we did not require students to get an internship as a condition of graduation. We understand very well the industry’s argument: Students need real-world experience to get a job in a field as competitive as journalism. But there are three considerations that were more persuasive for us: First and foremost, students need get a proper college education. That does not require them to have an internship in their chosen profession, although it would be nice. So, academics trumps the industry in this regard, and faculties are first and foremost training students to be critical thinkers. Second, the best students know they need experience and they either get it outside the university or work for student publications. They don’t need a mandate to do what they know is the right thing. Therefore, who really benefits from a required internship? We believe it is the mediocre or the poor student or the student with no real interest in pursuing journalism as a career. As some of you know, the overwhelming number of students studying journalism are doing so because, in their words, “there’s no math involved.” As the department chair, I did not want my university represented in the work-world by students with such tepid attitudes about the grand profession of journalism.

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