Journalism: Unrest and progress in IC’s journalism department

February 21st, 2007

By Rosemarie Zonetti

Kristy Mitchell once called herself a journalism major. After the second semester of her sophomore year, however, Mitchell transferred into the department of integrated marketing communications. Many students switch majors in the middle of their college careers because of changing interests or career goals. But Mitchell enrolled in a different major not because she disliked the subject matter but because of her discontent with the structure of the program and the organization of the department.

“I was really dissatisfied with the journalism program here,” Mitchell, who is now a junior, said. “It has a really great reputation, but when it comes down to the classes and the way in which the major is run, there are so many problems.”

Ithaca College’s journalism program has existed for six years, having emerged from the television-radio department. Dianne Lynch has held her position as dean of the Park School for two and a half years while Mead Loop has been the department chair for two years. Essentially the program is still relatively new, and, as Dean Lynch said, “Whenever you’re building a new program, you’re always confronted with basic problems.” Many students feel, however, that the program’s youth is not an excuse for the problems they have faced as journalism majors.

Mitchell took several lower-level classes before deciding to major in integrated marketing communications and minor in journalism instead. She decided to take advantage of the credits she had earned and complete a minor, even though she says she completed these introductory courses without ample practice in writing articles, without adequate assistance from professors and without a fundamental knowledge of the mass media.

As all journalism minors must, Mitchell took the course Issues and the News last semester with former adjunct professor Alan Wright. The course, which consists of mostly seniors and a few juniors, typically focuses on analyzing the news from various sources, examining media trends and critiquing coverage of current issues. However, Wright, who was in his last semester at the Park School, and his students added a personal twist to the course: examining and criticizing the Journalism Department at Ithaca College.

The idea for the project arose during a class discussion about what is taught in journalism schools, how schools often perpetuate a certain notion of what a journalist should be and how this ultimately affects the journalism industry. Wright witnessed an intense and immediate reaction from students during the discussion.

“It proved to be a hot button issue,” he said. “As soon as I mentioned it, I was deluged with really, really hot-felt, deeply felt opinions about how journalism is taught, especially here within Park.”

Wright suggested that the class produce a report to present to Lynch and Loop about students’ experiences within the journalism program.

“If you want to leave a legacy to Park, it should be about your observations,” Wright told his class.

For the remainder of the semester, Wright’s class was devoted to this project. The result was a 12-page report describing students’ frustrations and recommending a number of changes. Specifically, the report mentioned staffing issues, standardization of the curriculum, course rigor and use of class time.

For its part, the administration acknowledges there are problems with the journalism program and says it is working to address them. But Lynch takes issue with aspects of the report, saying it was “significantly out of context.”

“I’m always happy to get feedback from students, but we had had things in place,” she said. “We had already addressed many of the things that had been raised [in the report].”

She and Loop held a meeting on Dec. 21 to address student concerns and present the plans they had been working on to improve the journalism program.

Lynch also questioned whether there was a true consensus within Wright’s class concerning the report. She said that some students approached her saying they objected to the project.

But the Issues and the News report was not the only criticism of the department that has surfaced recently. Current and former journalism students say that many of their classmates are dissatisfied with the program.

One of the most prevalent issues, according to students and faculty, deals with long-term staffing. Currently the journalism department consists of nine employees, six of whom are full-time and three of whom are adjuncts. Recent progress has been made in terms of hiring faculty. Included in this tally are two new full-time professors who began this fall. Additionally, Lynch said up to three professors could be hired to begin next fall.

A number of reasons have been suggested to explain the difficulty in hiring full-time faculty. Some believe that Ithaca College’s isolated location deters potential professors. These candidates may have spouses who, if they relocated to Ithaca, would also need to find employment. Prospective faculty may also find it challenging to continue their careers as journalists while teaching in Ithaca, especially since most professors are required to teach four courses per semester as opposed to the two courses per semester that are required at many other schools. Finally, some professors say salaries in the journalism department are not always competitive.

Some ask whether other journalism departments experience similar difficulties. The Issues and the News report addresses this: “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.”

But Lynch disputes the idea that there has been recent difficulty in hiring professors. Most of the original faculty members who established the journalism department were visiting faculty; therefore, the years just after the founding of the program saw the departure of these professors.

“In order to hire well you need a coherent program in place. You need to know what you need. You need to look at what are the strengths of your current faculty, and what are the gaps that you have, and how do you hire to those particular strengths,” said Lynch. She added that the administration has started attending national conferences to recruit faculty, a practice that was not in place until two years ago. Lynch predicts that this will make a difference over time.

Though the administration has made hiring faculty one of the department’s priorities, some worry that the quality of new professors has been and will be overlooked in the rush to hire a sufficient number of professors.

Rob Schroeder is a junior journalism major who has had complaints about the program since his freshman year. Not having a professor for his Introduction to Journalism class on the first day of his first semester “set a tone for [his] time here,” he said. He remains dissatisfied with the department, especially after last semester.

“I’m very frustrated,” he said. “I was really hoping that things this year would be different. I took two [journalism] classes this year – one a sophomore-level and one a senior-level – and I got nothing out of those classes; I really felt like things were going in a positive direction, because there had been some changes in the department, but right away it became apparent that things were much worse than before. It seemed like the professors who were teaching these classes were not qualified or able to teach the content of the class.”

Despite complaints from students, the administration defends their hiring decisions. At the December 21 meeting, Lynch reiterated her confidence in the professors that were hired last year and the capability of the faculty in general.

She adds that the department has planned a series of workshops to train faculty in using technology and telling stories through multimedia. Professors’ inexperience with technology was another complaint cited in the Issues and the News report.

Though a major problem, long-term staffing is not the only issue facing the journalism department. Lack of standardization of journalism courses, particularly at the introductory level, has also been cited as a concern. Faculty and students have voiced concern about the lack of consistency apparent in introductory level courses in terms of structure and content. Students enter upper-level classes with varied levels of preparation, making it difficult for professors to create a course that meets the needs of each student. The Issues and the News report states, “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.”

Standardization was an issue brought up in an external review of the journalism department, completed last year by Janice Castro, the senior director of graduate education and teaching excellence of the Medill Journalism School at Northwestern University. Castro’s report also criticized the journalism program for requiring too little writing. This, says Lynch, is the concern she hears most often. At the Dec. 21 meeting, Lynch and Loop announced that the faculty had agreed to double the writing requirements in all journalism classes beginning this semester. They also said that the revamped journalism curriculum would address concerns about standardization.

Two key aspects of improving the curriculum include syllabi review and competency mapping. According to Lynch, the syllabi review will ensure consistency throughout the program and eliminate redundancies. It will also make courses consistent across different sections so that students develop the same skills regardless of their professor. The competency mapping analyzes the curriculum in light of the goals of a journalism education.

Another issue in terms of the structure of courses, particularly at the introductory level, deals with their duration. Introduction to Journalism, for example, totals three hours and twenty minutes a week and about fifty hours for the entire semester. Alan Wright thinks this is too much time. “Combined with the fact that there’s no standardization within the department, there are lecturers who are really stretching out their lecture to fill up time, and I think that’s inexcusable. One of the students said you turn up to lectures to rest.”

Mitchell felt this way about her Journalism Research class. “My professor cancelled so many classes (at least one or two a month) because there was just nothing to teach. The classes we were forced to sit there, she just filled up time with busywork… case studies, re-learning how to organize sources, having mock-interviews with another student on unrelated, irrelevant topics.”

Some students feel that the class time could be more beneficial if used for one-on-one conferences between professors and students.

“There’s no excuse for the professors not offering practical advice on a student’s writing for every student on a one-on-one basis,” Schroeder said. “We have these classes for an hour and a half and that’s far too long to be taken up with a lecture—we’re not getting this from most of our professors.”

This complaint was echoed in the Issues and the News report, which pointed out that students often get better feedback at internships or in student media than they do from professors in classes. “One-on-one interaction with professors, who act as editors in the classroom, is a practice missing from most courses at the college,” said a sophomore journalism major in the report.

Beyond the practical considerations of staffing, course rigor and standardization, some believe the curriculum presents the field of journalism insufficiently. The Issues and the News report states that a stronger balance of theoretical and practical education is needed in the curriculum. “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.”

Lynch said that competency mapping would help address this issue. In addition, discussing developments in the field has and will continue to be a part of faculty workshops.

While a number of students have voiced concerns recently, Loop and Lynch dispute the idea that students are universally unhappy. “I occasionally have students come and express concerns about their teacher or concern over the class—I don’t get many, however,” Loop said.

Lynch agrees. “Prior to meeting with students, I sat down and read all the course evaluations for this semester. What I found was that, in fact, it was a real mix, and as many as 85 percent of the comments were positive or at worst neutral.”

Lynch and Loop say the department has been improving and continues to improve. At the Dec. 21 meeting Lynch announced that the Park School will house a new Center for Independent Media beginning next fall. According to Lynch the Center will be “a national leader in the exploration, development of and curricular presentation of independent media forms.” The administration hopes this will help to distinguish Park from other communication schools and thus attract more faculty and students.

To ensure that the concerns of students are being addressed, the administration is in the process of creating a board of student volunteers, which will meet with the administration on a regular basis to discuss issues and changes within the department.
Though there have been changes, some upperclassmen feel that problems have been addressed too late for them to benefit. So far, the administration has not announced a time frame for changes to the curriculum. New and incoming students must decide for themselves whether majoring in journalism at Ithaca College is worth the risk—will these students experience the same problems that some current upperclassmen have faced, or will they find a new, reformed journalism program that meets, or perhaps even exceeds, their expectations?

Rosemarie Zonetti is a freshman journalism major who next issue is only going to be writing about puppies. Email her at rzonett1[at]ithaca.edu.

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