The J-school debate: the theory of practical teaching

I don’t think we’ll ever get over this one, but that’s not stopping anyone from getting into it.

Some updates from various places:

Dave Lee’s jblog The best route to success

Tuck’r’s last word – I doubt it somehow

There’s one thing though that I need to get straight.

I do not advocate a “media studies” approach to journalism education and so when Jim suggests that the alternatives are “media studies” versus a “practical” approach, that’s not how I see the debate.

My position is that journalism is a discipline in its own right, it is not a branch of media studies, or cultural studies, or communication studies. These are sister disciplines, but in fact journalism is the oldest. Journalism has been taught for 100 years at the Missouri School of Journalism (which is part of Missouri University). In fact I’m on my way there for the celebrations, next week.

Journalism was first taught in Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s – again within universities. In those days it was considered good for a journalist to get a broad liberal arts education; some Latin and maybe some political science.

There is a jaundiced view that being in a university is somehow impractical and airy-fairy Ivory Tower-ish. This is far from the case at every journalism programme I’ve ever taught in a university setting and every one I’ve known about. it was the case to when I did my journalism degree at the NSW Institute of Technology in Sydney. NSWIT is now UTS and has a very successful journalism degree programme.

Students in university courses do as much “practical” journalism as they do at Whitieria or any other polytech/trade-style course. At AUT we produce a 16 to 20 page newspaper five times a year, we produce our own websites and contribute to many others, such as the Pacific Media Centre. Our students also write for a variety of other new publications around Auckland and New Zealand. Many also work in journalism jobs at TVNZ, various radio stations, TV3, the NZ Herald, ACP Magazines, etc.

There is no way that you can teach journalism and be as successful as AUt and other universities are at getting their graduates hired, if you’re not actually teaching and doing “practical” journalism.

But, there’s more to journalism than the inverted pyramid and shorthand. There’s a whole culture to be explored; debates (such as this one) to join in and argue over and tons of good intellectual brainfood to nourish the journalistic mind.

I’m not defending my course to the letter here. I know, my colleagues know, my critics know and my students know, we can do it better. The point is that we’re working on this. We want to do it better. We need to be at the leading edge of convergence and training. We need to engage with industry (we do in many ways) and we need to engage in research.

At a university we have postgraduate courses, we have PhD students and we have a research culture. This feeds into our teaching too in both “practical” and “theoretical” ways. We have a theory-informed approach to teaching. This is so we don’t repeat mistakes (too often) and so we can stay on top of the latest trends in journalism and in pedagogy.

This semester alone we’ve made huge changes in some of our papers. Some experiments are more successful than others, but we are moving with the times and looking for the best ways to interact with our students; not to teach them, but so that they learn.

Journalism belongs in a university setting (and I’m not saying only here), but it has a place because there needs to be scholarship around journalism. You only have to take a look in newsrooms today and read the literature to understand that globally the news industry is facing serious challenges and problems that some even characterise as a crisis.

How are we going to solve this? Not without some serious thinking and engagement between the practical journalists in the newsroom and the academic community that has a “big picture” approach. Don’t forget that most journalism academics – at least the good ones – have a strong background in journalism and editorial. We’ve made the transition from the newsroom to the classroom, not because as the whoary old cliche goes “those that can do, those that can’t teach”, but because we care deeply about the craft, the profession, the past and the future of journalism.

Good journalism is a measure of the social, political and cultural health of a nation, in fact of the world. When you’re sick, you bring in the doctor.

I’m going to catch up with Dave Lee for at least one beer in the next few weeks. While I’m in London if any EM readers want to catch up, drop me a line


One Response to The J-school debate: the theory of practical teaching

  1. […] The session I spoke in was focused on the curriculum and convergence – I guess it was about practical journalism education. […]

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