Today, just over 100 UW students are going to start something obnoxious, uninspiring, rushed and unfocused.
It’s called “Journalism 202: Mass Communication Practices,” when a more apt title would be “Journalism 202: Skimming the Top 4 Percent off of Everything in the Field, Leaving You With a Confused and Hollow Feeling.”
Sure, it’s less catchy, but it’s certainly more accurate.
These poor kids, having already endured “Journalism 201: Weeding Out People From the Major Through Forced Debates on Neil Postman,” are about to go through one of the most frustrating experiences of their academic careers.
For those of you unfamiliar with the course, allow me to briefly describe it, having just completed the 6-credit-but-really-8-or-9-credit monster myself.
You’ve got a 90-minute lecture one day a week and a three-hour lab two days a week. For the first few weeks, you write leads (or ledes as snobs say) for various mediums, including advertising, broadcast, newspaper and so on. Then you do deadline stories in lab for the same mediums. No matter how much experience you’ve had in news writing, it’s practically impossible to get above an 80 on these.
A few weeks in, you start software training. The main program you spend time on is Dreamweaver, which is all done through podcasts outside of class. You learn InDesign, SoundStudio, Audacity, Soundslides, iMovie and Excel in lab. After that, you do some group projects with audio and video, design a website with your entire lab for about a month, do some more audio and video projects and boom, you’re done.
Thrilling, right? To add a bit of spice to it all, some TAs don’t know the programs as well as their students, so these students end up teaching the rest of the class. Coupled with the two major and scrupulous writing assignments, weekly current events quizzes on whatever instructor Katy Culver decides is important and a communication struggle between Culver and the TAs, you’re stuck right in the middle of a convoluted mess.
I asked myself many times, “Why am I spending hours learning Dreamweaver, Audacity, InDesign, etc. when these are some of the most intuitive programs in existence and could be self-learned in a matter of days if they were necessary for a job? Aren’t there more important things we could be focusing on?” or “Why aren’t we, you know, writing more?”
The answer is simple: Culver and friends squeeze too much information into this one course.
See, UW was the first major university to ditch the old-fashioned model of the journalism major. Back in the day, you would choose among tracks based on what type of journalism you wanted to go into — print, radio, television and so on.
UW’s idea was a good one: Since the field is changing, students should be required to have knowledge of all facets of the industry — a concept dubbed “convergence journalism.” It was from this concept that J202 was born, and many of the nation’s best journalism schools have followed in UW’s footsteps.
But the School of Journalism has not changed much since 2000, and it’s in need of some serious reform if it is to remain among the best.
No school does it quite like UW does. For example, take the well-respected Indiana University School of Journalism. There are four classes of required introductory courses at three credits each — one class dedicated to foundation and theory (? la mode of UW’s J201), one dedicated to doing research, one dedicated to reporting and one dedicated to new media.
The last three courses there — research, reporting and new media — are essentially what make up 202. At IU, it’s nine credits of information spread out over two or three semesters. At UW, it’s six credits thrown at you in 14 nauseating weeks.
The problem isn’t the content or the instructor. A look at the reviews of Culver’s course over a six-year period shows she is seen as an effective teacher by a vast majority of her students. Yet even among those who like Culver’s class, many still criticize it for being rushed.
“Too broad of topics are covered. I wasn’t able to master one skill (or two), instead I learned how to generally do too many things, which is unhelpful,” wrote a student in Fall 2006.
And therein lies the problem. If you want to be one of the best journalism schools in the country, students need to be given the opportunity for a strong base in all facets of the field — not just the top 4 percent.
You need to dedicate three credits to making videos, editing audio for online and building websites. You need a writing-intensive three credits of research and reporting. You need three credits of strategic communication. And you need to make all students take all of them over two or three semesters, before or immediately upon entering the J-School.
After this, students can go their own ways and focus on what interests them most. It may make double majoring a little more difficult, but so long as at least one of these courses is offered before entrance into the school, it’s very doable.
A big problem with implementing a plan like this is a lack of funding. Culver doesn’t hide her frustrations about this, and rightfully so. Like many departments, the School of Journalism is seeking money from the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates. But J-School Director Greg Downey’s plan would add new TAs and instructors to offer certain 100- and 400-level courses, not alter the core of the major.
To actually fix J202 would require a much bigger monetary commitment from UW or, dare I say it, a differential tuition akin to the School of Business or the School of Engineering.
For now, those of us in the school are left with what we’ve got, and we hope the minimal multimedia experience, coupled with some internships, will land us a job in the field.
And if that doesn’t happen, at least we’ll be able to design a website for our cousin’s bar mitzvah.
Kevin Bargnes ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism.