Ryan Knutson on J school and optimism

Ryan Knutson on J School and Optimism from Daniel Bachhuber on Vimeo.

I had the opportunity to get lunch today with Ryan Knutson (@UOknutson), a former colleague at the Daily Emerald that I respect and consider a friend. He’s several weeks away from graduating with a double major at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Given the current state of the newspaper industry, and thus the education industry that feeds it, I thought it might be interesting to ask him about his perspective on the situation, where his felt his J school was successful and where it needs to improve, and why he’s optimistic about the future of news.

When he discusses the journalism school, I think there’s an important note to be made: most of the value in the education he obtained was from the skills he learned, not necessarily the academic side of journalism. As the tools and methods needed to do journalism change at a greater and greater pace, the four year approach of the university becomes an inappropriate and ineffective mechanism for delivering knowledge. I think this is a large root cause reason for why J schools are having such difficulty in trying to figure out what to teach. They have an idea of what will be applicable today, but not four years down the road. On the plus side, though, there will be more and more demand for weekend or short-term workshops to learn special skills such as Flash, database design, Final Cut Pro, and the basics of editing audio.


Matt Petryni April 23, 2009 Reply

I enjoyed this interview, but I must admit it was frustrating to find myself agreeing with one of more former editors more than I’d usually like to publicly admit. Nonetheless, Ryan did have some good points about how the school is working.

As a non-J school but still University-educated writer, one thing I am somewhat frustrated about is indeed the interaction between our classes and technical skills. In the Planning school, we learned very little by way of GIS, a technology of which mastery is nearly essential to work in that field. Classes are offered, more and more, but not yet required or even encouraged, and in my case almost always overlapped with the core cirricula.

That being said, I just want to add to the discussion an important perspective from the flip-side: a fear of the “death of theory.” We could easily bemoan such a concern as mere inability to adapt, but I do know from a planning angle (and from a historical standpoint), many of the ecological, economic, and social problems we today face are in many ways rooted in a materialist rejection of traditional teachings by architectural – technically-oriented – modernists.

In other words, I think it is at least somewhat legitimate to worry that if we pursue proficiency in technical skills too much, we can sometimes become a kind of conceptual “tools of our tools,” as Thoreau might say, and forget why it is exactly we’re using these tools in the first place. In many cases, we learn those conceptual ideas from the traditional, more-or-less slow to adapt, lecture-type environment. The problem I often see is when those using the older “lecture technology” get wrapped up in trying to use the educational format of the Ancient Greeks while trying to teach us how to use Facebook to cover news stories, for example. It not only ends up not really teaching us the practical skills we need, it also can water down the otherwise worthwhile theory with meaningless platitudes and transparent attempts to “update” basic human teachings that haven’t really changed.

This is also why I think your question, “what is journalism?” is an extremely valuable one one. It grounds the discussion in the right place, rather than maybe asking “how do we make money on the internet?” which, while also an important question, forgets the theory behind why we’re doing what we’re doing. We needn’t to beat that horse to death, but I really value the perspective of taking an ancient tradition of storytelling – one that dates back, even, before the technology of written language – and using new technical skills to better serve, rather than replace, that tradition.

Anyway, thanks for the post, as always, and interesting interview!

Daniel April 23, 2009 Reply

Thanks for the well-thought comment, Matt.

To quickly clarify on one vision I have for the future of J school, I think the university could be better structured to address both issues. I’m a big fan of experiential education, something I acquired while doing pragmatic, yet intellectual work with Whitman Direct Action. I think a lot of journalism schools are in a really good position to offer work experience to students. I mean, it would be pretty darn cool if the university took it upon itself to establish an editorially independent news organization for the community it was in. The community would get better journalism from low-wage students, and those students would get the experience they need to hone their application of journalism (as well as learn the current tools of the trade). Ideally, the university would then couple this work in the day with academic discussions about the different philosophies behind journalism in the evening. Or, similarly, the news organization itself could sponsor evening academic discussions about the different broader topics, but place those within the context of the community.

To bring this in the real world, I don’t think topics like how water access issues affect the City of Tualatin are discussed all too often by my community. It would be sweet if they did.

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