Save the old or start new?

For the discussion about journalism education with the #collegejourn folks, I’d like to add a few thoughts to the fire.

First, the assumption is incorrect. There’s no way professors are going to be able to “catch up,” but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just another characteristic of the indicative paradigm shift that’s happening right now. We’ve got to move from a “one-to-many” style of top-down education to a “many-to-many” style of networked education. What we’re doing right now, having a lateral conversation that is independent of geography, is just one example of this transition happening organically. If anything, it’s going to be us (i.e. the students) getting professors caught up. In doing so, however, the question will be raised of what exactly the role of journalism professors is. I don’t necessarily have an answer.

Journalism schools, furthermore, need to become catalysts for innovation. “Innovation” is becoming a buzzword these days, but there has been less discussion on what is needed to inspire it. I’m of the opinion, though, that schools are excellent ground for experimentation. Students should be afforded the opportunity and encouraged to test new things out because the school can be an environment where it doesn’t hurt to fail, pick up the pieces, and try again.

It’s critical to drop multiple choice testing. Standardized tests and rote memorization are one of the worst excuses for learning, and do even less in an era of rapid technological transformation. One of my classes this fall was J204 Visual Communications. In my opinion, 90% of the tests we took were based on how well you could memorize the book. I did quite well but honestly couldn’t tell you what I learned four months later. Grading is subjective, and should instead be based on an interpretation of merit.

Furthermore, there need to be multiple tracks of learning. Classes now are held for the lowest common denominator, but the gradient of skill aptitude is increasing. There needs to be better rapid certification for “self-learners,” and the class needs to be better structured such that those who learn at a quicker pace are incentivized to teach their fellow students.

What if class was an unconference? What if, at the beginning of every semester, the students came together and collaborated on their syllabus for the next semester? Instead of the professor teaching what he or she thinks the students should learn, the educational process needs to be driven by what students want to learn and, more importantly, by the questions they want to answer. Education through creation instead of education through systemization.

I challenge any school to be this radical. It might even motivate me to re-enroll.


Jeremy February 16, 2009 Reply

The journalism education at Guilford College, which doesn’t have a journalism department, has a few features similar to what you’re describing. There’s a communications minor, but only one classroom-based class in journalism. The main text in that class is written by past senior staffers at the school’s newspaper as part of the only other academic credit you can earn for journalism: the newspaper practicum. In this practicum, students pursue what ever specialty they see fit (as they redefine at the beginning of each semester), and regularly cross-pollinate. The professor of the class regularly relies on the practicum students to direct group discussions, and on senior staff to deliver substantial portions of the class. After the journalism class, the professor acts more as a facilitator than as a teacher. The Guilfordian was recently named “best of show” for weekly tabloids at 4-year colleges at the ACP Kansas City convention, so we must be doing something right.

Joey Baker February 16, 2009 Reply

Multiple choice tests! What an atrocious idea! That is all.

Suzi Steffen February 18, 2009 Reply

Hey Daniel,
Interesting post from you. A few responses from me:

1. Those J201-204 courses are weed-out classes, right? And the SOJC is changing them into Gateway I and Gateway II (Do you follow Michael Werner [mwerner1] on Twitter or in any other form? He would have more info). I don’t know what they’ll be like, but I hear there’s more about online and visual training.

You might also have experienced problems that occur in large state schools with large intro classes versus private schools with small classes, as Jeremy mentions in comment 1.

2. I asked all of my Reporting 1 students last term and Mag 1 students this term if anyone was on Twitter, and no one knew what it was. So in that case — OK, I’m a part-time adjunct and full-time journalist, not really “a professor” — I know more than some of them.

I can’t address the multiple-choice test issue, but I do know that I want my reporting students to understand newsfeeds and on-line reporting and real-time blogging or Tweeting but ALSO to know how to write a news story or an editorial or a profile. Cluelessness about constructing a narrative will trip an aspiring reporter up way faster than ignorance about how to use Twitter. The latter is much easier to learn.

Meanwhile, I do wonder how it would be if everything students were doing in Reporting had a real-life component. I didn’t major in journalism but did do my undergrad at the U of Missouri, and J-students there write the daily paper. That means classes have much more of a real-time response. (The UO J-school’s News Lab is kind of like that, but it’s not quite the same.) On the other hand, when you’re just learning, it might be a bit easier to have a protected space where you can screw up without having it blared all over the print/online world.

3. On your unconference and planning the syllabus together: There’s a great book called “A Year in School: What the Teacher Learned” by Jane Tompkins that recounts her attempts to do the very thing you ask for. She talks about the implications for various sorts of students. However: The model of creating the syllabus together might work for you, but not for others … and you’d have to be able to deal with that without thinking they’re less smart or capable than you.

In that vein, you write here as if J-school professors know nothing about what students will need to know — which is as patently ridiculous as a professor telling students they should just trust the prof because the students don’t know anything. Good ideas can get lost in that kind of rhetoric from either side. I think we can encourage more of a good working relationship with a different approach.

I have before and will again think about trying syllabus collaboration. It’s easier a. in a 16-week semester b. in a small class c. with students who have self-selected to know that it’s an experimental class. Still, I see room for it in Reporting 1 this spring. Interesting as I plan the syllabus.

Would love to talk with you about more of the issues you raise. I’ll be at a play and can’t be on #collegejourn chat Sunday, but I’ll definitely try for March 1. Meanwhile, see you on Twitter.

Thanks for sparking some thoughts about teaching in a J-school,

Suzi Steffen
Performing/Viz Arts Editor @ the Eugene Weekly
Adjunct instructor @ the UO’s SOJC

Matt Petryni February 20, 2009 Reply

This is an excellent post, Daniel.

It reminded me of a study they did recently that used statistical regression to determine what factors (in the school environment) had the greatest effect on student outcomes. The researchers basically concluded after controlling for “home environment factors” that the biggest contributor to student success was not teacher aptitude nor the quality of school facilities but actually “peer effect” – learning that takes place between students. To me, this seems to suggest that a more effective approach to improving education might be to try classroom “designs” that enhance the peer effect rather than focusing more narrowly on teacher “quality.”

I’ll get you a link, if you haven’t heard of this research already. It seems somewhat relevant here. Anyway, thanks for the ideas, I’m interested in learning more about this.

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