What do students want out of j-school?

Me, as an intern, a week after graduating (in red). I am still grateful for the skills I learned in j-school.

Convocations around town have me thinking back … way, way back to my own graduation from journalism school – and what I was hoping the experience would give me.

Recently I received the anonymous student evaluations from the ‘Fundamentals of Reporting’ (boot camp) course I taught last year at Carleton University. I took a version of the course when I was a Master’s student at Carleton.

The course emphasizes basic interview skills, preparing a background file, investigating sources and an emphasis on Canadian Press style  – with weekly assignments and a major feature at the end of the term. While it’s not their only journalism course, it is one where second-year students get to stretch their legs the most and get out there and do some writing.

As important as the grading system is  (I presume if your evaluation marks are astonishingly awful, you won’t be asked back as an instructor), I place as much importance on the comments on the back.

No, this isn’t a blog post to puff up my ego with ‘you’re amazing!’ comments from students – but there were a couple of remarks that got me thinking about what it is students want from their degree:

‘I felt like a lot of the assignments were ‘new experiences’ and the marking was a bit too harsh.’

Okay, I’m not bothered by this, and when I grade them,  I will always give students explanations as to where they might have done things differently, and/or things they might have overlooked.

Note: I also tell students at the beginning of our class that they’d rather great a mark they didn’t like from me, and then be fully prepared for life in a newsroom, then sail through our course, only to fail miserably as an intern.

Also to note: Does anyone ever complain that the marking was too easy?

What’s interesting is that a few of comments echoed this sentiment:

‘One of the best profs I’ve had at this school (sorry, had to include that)… Thanks for all your feedback.  So professoinal… It was helpful that you are a current journalist.

I got thinking to my own profs, and the ones I enjoyed learning from the most. There’s a lot to be said for a practicing journalist, who can provide insight into how things are done in the ‘real world’ of a newsroom.

At the same time, while I was hoping to learn the skills of the field when I entered Carleton’s journalism program, I also knew I was taking a Master’s degree… and was going to be expected to think about why journalists cover the news the way we do. I wanted to get a job (hey, the coveted anchor desk at the National would have been fine), but I also wanted to learn.

As such, some of the most interesting classes were ones where we debated the role of a journalist in democracy, the ethical issues that arise (do you take that free ticket to the hockey game? Do you pay for your own dinner if you’re meeting a politician for an interview?), and the judgment calls that were made (Should the national newscast really have led with a major snowstorm in Toronto?)

Of course, there’s one thing these academics and ‘recent journalist-turned-professors’ had in common: they loved the craft, and loved to teach the craft.

Ben Mullin, Features Editor at Chico State’s The Orion, puts it nicely in a column titled Deadbeat Professor (and we’ve all had one):

This university has given me direction, inspiration and something to work for. It’s a beautiful place filled with energetic people who contribute to a thriving community…. But until this semester, I didn’t fully understand how important an enthusiastic professor is to my education.

Jeff Jarvis writes of Disrupting journalism education, and put forth his own ideas for doing things differently. “… We need to see more journalism schools both creating and partnering with new kinds of news ventures to not only teach but make more journalism.”

What I’m also trying to do is imagine scaling journalism education so that much, or most, of it could be taught to some — no, to many more — people online, including not just undergrad and graduate students but also professionals who obviously need to learn new skills as their industry convulses around them. I want to have the means to bring training in journalism, media skills, and business to the entrepreneurs and hyperlocal, hyperinterest journalists — and technologists — I continue to hope will populate a growing news ecosystem. I hope that helping people make stuff and make it better in public will encourage more of them to share more in public. I want to expand journalism’s role and possibilities.

I agree with Jarvis – but I also think that journalism schools provide a wonderful environment for trying new things, and by this I don’t just mean just how to cover news, but also potential business models for news organizations.  I think there is a definite need to partner with newsrooms, and ‘working journalists.’

There’s a delicate balance between professional and academic in journalism schools – students are expected to be intellectual enough to think about the motives of sources, the bigger picture… but they also need to hit the ground running.

Recently, a journalism professor asked me about the importance of a degree when it comes to hiring interns.

“It’s extremely important,” I said, “Then I know they’ve got the skills to hit the ground running.” He was surprised to hear that I wasn’t looking for ‘a big thinker that he has been cultivating over the years’.

“Oh, I am,” I said. “I’m also looking for someone who knows how to go to a major car crash and cover the scene. It’s the reality of the newsroom. “

1 thought on “What do students want out of j-school?

  1. very interesting post. i am currently interning at a national newspaper and have found myself putting into action the things i have learned from my two years of j-school.

    also for assignments: useful suggestion/comments/criticism > grades.

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