About two-thirds of the way through the Fall semester, I read the following passage to my Issues and the News Class.
“Education in journalistic practice that many students have already learnt while editing college newspapers is unnecessary. Instead, journalism students need practical training in intellectual and substantive fields, particularly economic and other social sciences, and to sharpen their analytical and explanatory skills, so that they can fully understand the contexts in which events and statements they cover are embedded. Otherwise journalism students will be replaced by liberal arts graduates who can write for the news media.”
Herbert Gans - Professor of Sociology, Columbia University
These words provoked a vigorous and surprisingly cohesive response from the class. There was a universal sense of frustration and disappointment that as Journalism majors, the Park School had failed to fulfill their expectations. As emerging adults, groomed to assume positions of responsibility, they felt justified in offering their opinions for serious consideration to those empowered to listen and implement change.
A Plan for Overhaul: Blueprints for a New Journalism Program
The Roy H. Park School of Communications has a well-deserved reputation for excellence. It has been a springboard for thousands of talented students to take on some of the most demanding jobs in one of our country’s fastest paced industries. Many alumni who now thrive in their dream careers of reporting for a newspaper, magazine or television station can attribute their success to the Journalism Department in the Park School. For prospective students looking at journalism programs in the northeast, Park has been a tough competitor with Syracuse’s Newhouse School in attracting the some of the best and brightest communicators. This institution has built quite a name for itself, and rightfully so.
However, all great things require reassessment, innovation and adaptation in order to remain cutting edge. As upperclassmen in the Park School’s journalism program, our academic experiences show enormous discrepancies. Our insights are shared here with the aim to improve what are seen as weaknesses in the current journalism program. We believe it is critical that the department’s problematic infrastructure be reexamined from the inside out. These grievances are not limited to a certain class or organization but are part of everyday dissatisfactions shared by journalism majors. If the journalism department is to continue to attract and retain great journalism students, it needs more than just a good public relations campaign. To keep these students challenged and motivated the department also needs to attract and retain faculty that are well-suited for the job. Syracuse University’s Newhouse School is Park’s biggest area competitor.
Newhouse seems to have the ability to attract qualified, experienced professors and keep them on staff for significant periods of time. For example, Emmy-award winning television producer Dow Smith teaches at Newhouse; one of his books is used to teach journalism courses at universities around the country. In order to stay competitive with programs like Newhouse’s, Park needs more journalism professors with real world experience. It would benefit the program twofold: it would help professors to better prepare their students for life after college, and enhance the teaching process by allowing professors to exemplify journalistic theory through actual, personal examples. Ultimately, the goal is to maximize both the theoretical and practical education of each student. To accomplish this, entry-level courses must become a more consistent foundation upon which to build. Consistency in this would require each student to receive the same fundamental instruction in any entry-level course, regardless of the professor. Clearly, each instructor has his or her own teaching style, but there needs to be more uniformity in terms of what basic material is to be covered and how much emphasis is placed on crucial topics.
Consistency in basic courses will create continuity in more advanced courses. When students have been exposed to various means of communication and have each learned the same set of foundation material, they will have greater capacity to develop their talents individually and in teams. Instituting a broadcast concentration and a print concentration will allow students with similar pursuits to pool their strengths and produce the best possible and most beneficial work. It is evident that in a class split between print-oriented and broadcast-oriented students, half the class often feels unenthusiastic. That sentiment is too often apparent in the class’s finished group work. We feel strongly that allowing students to choose a concentration after their first or second year would enhance their overall academic experience.
Cracking the Foundation
The Ithaca College Web site reads “Journalism majors are required to take courses designed to help them think critically about journalism, media, and culture.” What actual journalism majors say about their department and classes, however, is considerably different.
To the students interviewed for this report, the journalism program is seen as poorly structured and only mildly challenging. Strong words such as “worthless” and “meaningless” were dropped freely during these interviews. The only praise that came from students was directed wholly to a single professor (rarely two), many of whom are no longer at this college. Critical thinking is an aspect absent from many classrooms, complain the interviewed students. Assignments usually aren’t challenging, and if they are, it is due to vague expectations or guidelines set by professors rather than the actual weight of the assignment. In short, students with talent and ambition say they can coast through the major. At no college - big, small, private or public - should this be the case.
In a major advertised to prepare students for a world of converging media, experiences among students are inconsistent. Professors with broadcast background are teaching basic writing and reporting classes with cameras and tape-to-tape editing in mind, not fundamental interviewing or judgment skills. Other professors with extensive experience in magazine writing and editing teach digital journalism workshops without knowing how to place a hyperlink into a Powerpoint presentation.
One senior editor at The Ithacan said when the major wasn’t challenging her, she found a second major outside of Park to broaden her academic range and make her education more worthwhile. When asked if a greater number of assignments would make classes more demanding, she responded that more “meaningful assignments” would do so. Journalism theory is something lacking at this school, she argues, and case studies out of a textbook do nothing to stimulate critical thinking. She coasted through the program because most of her professors were temporary with no commitment to the program or its direction. The student argued for a more classical approach to journalism in the lecture courses that would compliment the hands-on classes more so than the current “theory” courses.
Experiences in technical classes are just as unfulfilling, argues a junior journalism major with extensive experience with professional and collegiate media. His time in the program’s digital journalism workshop has left him with the same level of technical knowledge of the Internet he had before taking the class - about the same as any other college student. A professor “amazed with podcasts” should teach how best to utilize the technology and not merely tell the class how innovative and impressive it is, he argues.
After a semester, the student says he is no more skilled in html, web design or multimedia production as he was before the class. In short, the student is not prepared to enter any kind of online newsroom for an internship or job after four months in a four-credit workshop.
Another student with a similar experience says the digital workshop has taught her nothing new, as well. Only two or three of the students in her section have been actively involved in the Web site’s online presence (i.e. Flash programming, html design and posting the finishing product) while the rest have been executing assignments they have done in other classes and student media many times over (i.e. 700- 1000 word features, video and audio packages). The fact that these assignments now appear online does nothing to offer any type of practical knowledge of media convergence to the majority of the students (student media at Ithaca College already has an award-winning online presence). Only those two or three students may come away with any semblance of a working knowledge of how online journalism is conducted. The rest have merely spent a semester doing more of the same. What’s more, students aren’t forced to leave their comfort zones. At the very least, students in a digital workshop should be assigned work more in line with actual convergence trends (i.e. a print reporter producing a video package, and vice versa). This student likened her experience to other journalism courses, saying it is “poorly structured with little guidelines and unclear expectations.”A sophomore journalism student says the difficulty and direction of her courses varies from professor to professor. She says she is pleased with her news reporting and writing class because the instructor makes an effort to provide line-by-line editing, something missing from most classes, according to many of the interviewed students.
Receiving a letter grade on an assignment isn’t realistic or challenging, she says. At internships and student media, going through a story line-by-line with an editor is the norm, not A’s and B’s. One-on-one interaction with professors, who act as editors in the classroom, is a practice missing from most courses at the college. Many students find the college’s student media, where line-by-line editing is a necessary process, to be where they are challenged the most. A senior journalism major with experience in professional and student television news says while her background allowed her to produce a solid 10-minute package in her television workshop, her group project was utterly embarrassing. This happened because of the group’s relative inexperience with not only video cameras, but editing software as well. Out of an original 30-minute clip, the student says the group would be lucky if two minutes were finished by the initial deadline. This student learned broadcast reporting in her News I and News I1 classes. The print-oriented students learned print style in News I and II, and then were thrown into a 400-level television class. This student calls for a concentration system in which students would be able to choose the medium (1.e. print, online and broadcast) they would like to work in. While that approach may not fall into convergence trends, it would solve the problem that this student had in her television workshop: the overt lack of parity among journalism majors that is bogging down technical classes like the one under scrutiny.
One junior editor at The Ithacan has never stepped one foot inside a Park classroom and came to the college without the intention to do so. The guidance and direction he learned from student editors landed him an internship at The Poughkepsie Journal this past summer and more than a dozen professional clips. A sport media major and writing minor, the student now instructs, edits and helps to manage a 25-person staff, the majority of whom are junior journalism majors who the student passed on the way to his editorship.
A publication produced by students seems to be a more challenging and worthwhile place than a classroom run by professors. The truth is, most students are not convinced that they are learning as much as they could in the classroom. Many feel that the most worthwhile aspects of their journalism education are being learned through extracurricular activities and internships. A greater emphasis on real world training in the classroom would help students understand the benefits of classical journalism training. On the journalism program’s Web site, it reads “classroom experience is only half the story.” That’s true if the story is half-convoluted, misdirected and, to some students, a waste of time.
Revamping the Freshman Year
The fundamental skills that students will use for the rest of their careers are established in the classroom during the first critical year of education. This is of particular importance in journalism, due to the fact freshmen need to learn the basics of the craft before they can perfect their style and tone. In many ways, the Park School does an admirable job of this: students are required to produce well-researched and reported print and broadcast pieces regularly for class, and the school also has several renowned student media outlets, such as the Ithacan, Buzzsaw Haircut, Imprint and Newswatch 16, that give journalism majors a chance to get hands-on experience outside the classroom. However, it is generally agreed upon by students that there is a lack of teaching consistency between classes, a lack of attention paid to editing and encouraging young journalists, and a shortage of professors with the skills necessary to impart good journalistic practices on their students. While it is understood that the department is still relatively new, the problems detailed here need to be recognized and addressed.
The first major issue is the absence of a core set of requirements. Although each course presents its goals for what students should have accomplished after taking it, there is no uniform set of requirements for students to follow. Often, the aims are lost when are incorporated into a professor’s personal teaching preference. While it is important that professors have the freedom to design the structure of their own courses, too much freedom can lead to inconsistency. A standard set of requirements needs to be implemented to ensure that all student journalists learn the same basic material by the end of their freshman year. To accomplish this, first-year courses need to be designed to provide each student with a solid groundwork for good reporting. Students should be proficient in the Associated Press style of writing and should know how to effectively construct a story with a lead, nut graf and concise writing. In many cases, however, professors assume students already possess these skills and do not appropriately cover them in class. Freshman journalism majors often come into the Park School with very little practical writing experience. Requiring professors to teach these skills early on would ensure that students have the necessary skills to advance in the journalism program.
Students cannot polish their writing abilities unless they are required to write frequently. As previously mentioned, most students believe that they learn the most about how to produce good journalism by participating extracurricular media. However, it should be the responsibility of freshman journalism courses to take the initiative in teaching students how to write well. These classes should expose students to many different writing assignments, beginning with Associated Press writing drills and basic scriptwriting procedures, then progressing to more advanced styles throughout the semester. Producing a wide range of print and broadcast pieces needs to be part of the freshman course core requirements. Getting students to write is simply not enough: professors must give constructive feedback on the assignments. Students need extensive comments on what they need to improve. Professors need to assume a more active role as editors, not only as instructors.
One-on-one time between students and professors is integral for instilling confidence in young journalists. Not only will it allow them to receive a more beneficial critique of their work, it will establish a better writer/editor relationship, helping the student become more comfortable with their work.
Still Journalism is much more than merely writing well. A good print journalist must also have a comprehensive understanding of how to conduct an interview and effectively research. These are skills that should to be covered in introductory classes and developed more fully in advanced courses. Students who are interested in broadcast journalism should have an opportunity to learn print techniques, but should have the option of taking a course like “Introduction to Broadcast Journalism” instead. While it is clear that the world of journalism today is more complicated than just broadcast and print, there is still quite a differentiation between the two specialized fields, and the department needs to reflect this.
In order to teach students career-specific skills, the department needs professors who possess these skills. The college needs to recognize that most professors are strongest teaching in areas specific to their background. A professor with dozens of years of experience in television will not be able to teach a class focused on print joumalism nearly as well as someone who has had a background in newspaper writing. Conversely, professors with a background in reporting should not teach copy editing. Professors who teach classes about digital journalism should have a practical background working at a newspaper’s website, for example. Professors should not be shuffled from course to course and forced to teach outside of their range of expertise. When this happens, the students suffer as the quality of their education decreases.
Without a core curriculum requirement, a “luck of the draw” system has developed where some freshmen end up taking classes with professors who have no clear understanding of the basic skills mentioned. There is nothing first-year students can do to determine which professors they have, but there is something that can be done to set standardized curriculum requirements.
A standard curriculum would eliminate this lottery mentality by putting all professors on the same page. To accomplish this, faculty should meet under the guidance of the department chair before the start of each academic year and formalize curricula. That would set a standard for that academic year, and provide a basis on which the curricula could be modified in the future.
Constructing Concrete Curriculum
In the current system, students are exposed to a spectrum of classes attempting to simulate what the job experience will be like. However, it is apparent that there is a deficit of practical training. Core classes in the freshman year teaching the basics of print and broadcast are at best inconsistent. Many journalism courses are unnecessarily long - there are a number of courses that could be more effective condensed into half semesters, rather than an entire 14 weeks. Many classes focus too much on discussing how things should and could be done, but not enough time actually practicing that skill. These matters become frustrating for students seeking valuable knowledge and experience for the real world. For example, there is only so much discussion that can take place about various “issues in the news” before it all becomes repetitive. Therefore, Issues and the News in addition to Ethical Issues in Mass Communications and History of U.S. Mass Media could all be condensed into half semester classes. This would enable students to take more and varied classes.
There is a serious lack of focus on helping students apply for jobs and prepare for life after the Park School. Many students are at a loss when it comes to preparing their resumes or even searching for what jobs are out there. While places like Career Services do their best to offer support and guidance, often they don’t exactly know how to put together those materials for people going into the journalism field. Most students in their final semester at Ithaca are applying for jobs after college.
This is an important and confusing process, made even more stressful when the job search is tacked on to a full college workload. A class for senior journalism majors offering guidance on how to search for a career would be exceptionally beneficial. Not only would it expose students to expert advice, it would enable them to focus more intently on their search.
The class should be in a workshop-type setting with a small ratio of students to one faculty member. Lasting for only half a semester, the class would provide an opportunity to give the students valuable advice and even more valuable confidence in entering the job market. The faculty member’s expertise should match the particular interests of the students they are grouped with. During the workshop sessions, students would work on resumes, resume tapes, cover letters, interviewing and other skills that resources like Career Services may not be able to offer journalism students. This preparation would greatly increase the likelihood of students getting better jobs upon graduation. These students then gain more credibility for the Park School and are in better positions to later help future Ithaca College graduates.
Aspiring journalists come to Ithaca College with high expectations. Students getting ready to enter the job market will be only as competitive as their training has been effective. In its current state, the classroom experience too often detracts from progress rather than facilitating students’ practical advancement. If students in the journalism department are to thrive in their future journalistic pursuits, the grievances described in this report must be immediately addressed. Consistency and continuity will be the cornerstones in rebuilding a stronger program. Clarity in instruction and expectations will instill a greater sense of commitment from both students and professors. Practicing critical thinking based on real-life situations will help students find meaning in their coursework that will complement internships and extracurricular writing and reporting. When graduates of the journalism program excel in the work force, their success will speak volumes about their beginnings at the Park School.
In light of the changes we have recommended, and to impress upon the school, department, faculty and administration how concerned we are with the state of our education, we encourage the chair and faculty to take initiative and hold an all-department meeting. An open dialogue between students and professors and a chance to discuss our concerns in a public forum would benefit everyone. Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant.