Wanted: Resident Butt-Kicker (Thoughts on journalism education)

Lately, I have been doing a lot of thinking about journalism schools and what journalism students are not learning.

One of the problems is that there’s too much talk. Educators have known about the Internet, multimedia storytelling and convergence for years.

No more excuses.

I realize that this post constitutes talk, but I would like to think of it more as a call to action. To make sure change happens at J-schools, I propose hiring a Resident Butt-Kicker.

I plan to expand on these in future posts, but here’s where we need to start:

1. Online first, print second: Print is not dead, but the idea of a purely “print” major should be thrown out the window. Who wants to pay money to be taught in preparation for the last century?

Start with the essential concepts of writing, reporting, editing, critical thinking, law and ethics, but don’t limit it to merely one form of storytelling. Also, online journalism should not be some 400- or 500-level class that only some students take – it should be drilled into everyone’s head early.

2. Think outside the classroom: How can you teach journalism without practical experience?
Ideas: Structure your class like a newsroom and provide an outlet for publication (e.g. class Web site); require students to work on campus media; require an internship and help place them; etc.

3. Old dogs, learn new tricks
: There’s a disconnect among different classes, depending on the professor, as well as an even greater disconnect between professors who have been out of the newsroom for years and those who just came from the newsroom.

The journalism world is moving quickly and schools need to keep pace with their local news outlets so students may be viable job and internship candidates. Just like journalists in the professional world, professors need to be able to adapt and learn new concepts and skills.

Also, why are we being taught in a strict, limited mindset (i.e. print) that we will need to unlearn later? Don’t teach me for today, or even tomorrow.

A journalism school should look ahead, being innovative and proactive in its approach, not reactive. Professors need to be a part of that.

4. Selecting J-students: There should be a multi-dimensional, more personalized interview process for students applying to an academic journalism program. Program directors should ask students about their specific interests in the field, evaluating if the candidate is open minded and willing to evolve.

5. Grades are failing: The grading process needs to change. It seems as if more students worry about getting good grades than actually learning. Grades aren’t worthless, but learning – and getting good experience – matters more.

Unintended, entrepreneurial failure (i.e. not because of laziness) should be embraced and utilized as a teaching tool it is part of the learning process. Thus, students should be encouraged to go out and make mistakes while they are still in school.

6. Establish mentor programs: I hit on this general concept in my Top Ten List of Tips for Journalism Students (No. 7).

Upperclassmen should be paired with underclassmen in a formal, voluntary peer counseling system. Furthermore, every student should meet with a faculty adviser or mentor from time to time and not just to discuss next semester’s schedule.

SPJ recently started a mentor program for members, which is great. Nevertheless, it can’t replace the local insight of a student or professor at your own J-school.

Weigh in: What do you think of these ideas? Students, what else do you want to see done at your school?

Note: The original time stamp on this post was incorrect. It has since been corrected.

7 thoughts on “Wanted: Resident Butt-Kicker (Thoughts on journalism education)”

  1. Greg- thoughtful post. Not too much of a rant, nicely done. :)

    I’m with you on everything but the interview process. Don’t forget that many people (like myself) go into college not really knowing what they want to do. It’s sort of hard to commit to such a rigorous review process before deciding if journalism is what you want to study.

    I hear what you’re saying – we need quality people. But… I’d be a bigger fan of weeding out the deadwood. Make the program rigorous. Demand internships, demand experience. Demand an online brand. etc…

    I’m in the photo program at Syracuse University, and I can tell you that there are fellow seniors of mine that don’t know how to light. They simply have no concept of how to use anything but natural light. Studios, but more importantly, flash and multiple flash *scares* them.

    This is the sort of thing that represents a failure in the education system. Syracuse’s Newhouse school is supposed to represent the top of the field in jschools and we’ve only got one class that focuses on video in the photo program. Ridiculous.

    On grades: you’re right. Grades are a poor way of evaluating work. It goes to the lack of understanding of the way the internet works. There is no final draft.

    A blog post is the start of a conversation. The traditional newspaper article won’t be used in just a few years, teach us what to do about that. Further… we need to be learning about crowdsourcing instead of sourcing articles. The former is important, but it’s now a specialized skill, not the nature of the trade. Meaning that the ‘final’ product is constantly evolving; grades are too final. We need a *program,* not just classes that go semester to semester. I’m thinking about the way our architecture school works – they’ve got a 5 year, intensive program. Professors all work together to ensure that the program is an *experience,* not just a compilation of skills and thoughts gleaned from different profs in different classes.

    To your point about old dogs: We’re kind of screwed. Ultimately what we need is a bunch of people who are academics who spend their whole time studying the trends and the future. It’s not longer relevant to have a grizzled old veteran who’s been around the newsroom for 30 years teaching. They’re already 3 generations out of date.

    We need profs. who have industry contacts, and who have seen the ‘real world,’ but who spend their whole day reading blogs, tweeting, talking to other forward thinkers, holding conferences, shooting video, running a website, making money online, etc.

    In many respects, the job of the jschool is much harder now. Students need to be taught how to do good journalism, but:
    a) the definition of journalism has changed… this still has to be recognized by the industry/jschools
    b) journalism isn’t all they have to teach anymore. They’ve got to address the internet as well. That’s a whole lot more learning crammed into the same amount of time

    And perhaps the biggest impediment: many of the students know the internet intrinsically. Jschool professors don’t have that advantage. In many cases, the students can teach the teachers.

    BTW… I wrote a blog post that touches on some of these points (though from a different angle) a little while ago:

    Wow, I’m long-winded. :)

  2. Excellent thoughts here. I am planning on becoming a volunteer Resident Butt-Kicker until the day I can get paid for doing it. Which will probably be never.

    My school is in the heart of Silicon Valley, and I am shocked by how little both teachers and students know about technology’s usefulness in the journalism world. Some are fine, most are not.

    The one thing I don’t think will ever really happen, except at the most competitive schools, is the interview process. Look, schools still gotta make money. And there will always be those that wander and not know what they want to do. But they pay tuition.

    Those without the real drive for journalism will graduate with a near-useless degree. The real world will sort out the flotsam from the jetsam. For now, the rest of us have to put up with them on our staffs and make it work. It’s their learning experience, and you gotta respect that.

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