CU Journalism School, good riddance

Categories: Media

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The University of Colorado at Boulder decided to shut down its journalism school and is looking to reboot the program, with President Bruce Benson seeking feedback from media-industry pros. It's a peculiar question in the Westword office, since many past and present writers never went to any journalism school, let alone CU's.

I attended CU Boulder as an undergraduate in the early 2000's, but I was never allowed to take a single class at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I was an English major in the Creative Writing department.

Alhough supremely confident that my free verse poetry would propel me into a future of fame and financial security, I still wanted to take entry-level reporting and magazine writing courses to round out my skills. But each time I tried to sign up for classes, I was declined. They said only full-fledged students of the J-school were allowed in the door. It seemed there was an academic wall built around the school that permitted only the lucky few inside to learn the secrets of AP style and the upside-down pyramid.

In the years that I've paid the bills through writing, I've met just as many professional reporters and media producers who earned degrees in things like anthropology, film and economics as ones who emerged from a formal journalism program.

In retrospect, the CU J-school's ridiculous policy was just one indicator of the backward-facing thinking that led the institution down a path of increasing irrelevancy in the digital era. It's not news to anyone that the journalists who are most successful at getting gigs in this ever-shifting industry possess the ability to adapt stylistically, intellectually and technologically. A program with an underlying structure still based in 1985 just couldn't do that. It had to die.

One of the recommendations being offered by the committee tasked with envisioning a new type of school for media students is that "the campus should create a double major -- in journalism and a liberal arts subject of the student's choosing."

That, I think, is a good start.

More from our Education archive: "CU journalism school possible-closure headlines went from premature to inaccurate, dean says."


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11 comments
Connie
Connie

I guess things changed at the J-school since I was there (early 70s). I took the bulk of my journalism classes before I even applied for admission to the J-school. It was those classes that changed me from an English major to News-Editorial (that and a little thing called Watergate). In any case, I knew things had changed and I heard rumblings of an academic wall, but I am sad to see the J-school go. I think the decline started when they vacated Macky as their base - sharing space with music kept it real - I used to love listening in on some of the practice rooms. Yes, they were in one wing and we were in another - but I think the isolation of the J-school to the Armory helped in its demise.

jrichardstevens
jrichardstevens

Jared,

First of all, thank you for weighing in on these events with your personal perspective. I presume your words to be intended in a spirit of fairness. However, allow me to dispel a few erroneous assumptions you appear to hold regarding the SJMC program:

In all of the processes and discourse surrounding the discontinuance process, the ICT exploratory process, the journalism-plus documentation, etc., not once has it been suggested that a lack of technical proficiency is driving these processes. These review processes have been officially justified by the CU administration as a broadening of the SJMC's contribution to the campus (an issue you raise), a method to restructure a resource-limited administrative structure, an attempt to resolve personnel issues, and finally, an attempt to pool communication and platform resources into a more comprehensive university structure (hence the ICT exploratory process). In fact, within the recent document granting SJMC provisional ACEJMC accreditation, a lack of digital skills was NOT found in that visiting team's assessment of the program. Rather, the SJMC was praised for its digital skills training and particularly for the innovative development work performed through enterprises like the SJMC Digital Test Kitchen.

I understand that critics of the SJMC program (and even members of the SJMC advisory board) have made assertions about a lack of digital proficiency in recent months, but they remain just that: baseless assertions, easily disproven with a few phone calls or a survey of recent assessment documents. I happen to be one of the faculty that teach some of the digital-only courses within the SJMC curriculum (and one whose students have been honored in national new media contests), so you can understand why I might take exception to your implication that my job does not exist.

I do understand your frustration at the walled nature of the SJMC program while you attended CU. However, I think you misunderstood the curricular purpose of restricting enrollment in intermediate and advanced courses to majors who have completed the necessary prerequisite courses. Even before students enter our Public Affairs Reporting course (the course that focuses on writing, fact-checking, research and AP style, or as you so aptly put, "the secrets of AP style and the upside-down pyramid"), our students learn the basic principles of journalism (its history, institutional structures, role in civic discourse, models of ethical consideration, etc.). Before our students are equipped with skills, the SJMC program stresses responsibility and the contextual understanding of a journalist's role in a democracy that is so crucial to shouldering the trust placed upon them by our society.

Though I have no doubt that you might consider yourself an exception, it is the rare student who can skip 4-5 core courses to drop into an advanced course like Magazine and Feature Writing without dragging down the pace of the class and/or creating a tremendous burden for the faculty member in charge of it. In short, before the SJMC educates students to produce and design media for particular platforms, be they television stations, magazines, newspapers, the Web, etc., its mission and policies ensures that students have the best opportunity to understand the tremendous power they possess and how that power should be used to benefit the society in which we all live.

I do not think such "walls" (to use your terminology) are necessarily inappropriate. One cannot take an intermediate or advance course in sociology, business, or even English without passing the prerequisites, so I'm not sure why you would single out the SJMC for a practice widely utilized at CU. Perhaps had you double-majored in English and one of the SJMC programs (as many of our current and past students have done) you would have not only gained access to the courses you sought, but also understood why others outside the program could not simply cull skills they want from our upper division courses without the education needed for their responsible use.

I understand that it is en vogue at the moment to claim that anyone can be a journalist. No doubt many hold that view because in a society that increasingly values bombast over integrity and style over substance, it does often appear (as you point out) that sometimes the worst among media practitioners (the least ethical, the least humble, the least responsible) command the greatest amount of attention and often higher salaries than those who struggle every day to meet the informational needs of our society. And from a fickle citizenry that has demonstrated in recent years a preference for believing what one wants to believe over the inconvenience of facts, what can we expect?

In that assessment, you are hardly alone. But regarding your contribution here, including

A) your lack of research to support your erroneous thesis,

B) your bald assertions regarding the "thinking" of a faculty to whom you admit you've had little or no contact,

to say nothing of the fact that you

C) published an obvious grammatical error in your original opening sentence:

"The University of Colorado at Boulder decided to shut down its journalism school and is looking to reboot the program, with President Bruce Benson is seeking feedback from media-industry pros"

before you

D) apparently corrected this error without notation, and without amending the publication timestamp (a practice that any of our most recent undergrads would consider unethical for the potential damage to your trustworthiness with your audience).

<img src="http://coloradodjlabs.org/images/ScreenShot2011-03-04.png"> (Original version screen shot at http://coloradodjlabs.org/imag...

For all of these reasons, forgive me for saying that I am relieved you are not one of our graduates. I have no doubt that you possess the skills needed to make a living. The fact that you posit that economic success is the measure of a good journalist demonstrates just how unfamiliar you are with the CU SJMC or its mission.

J. Richard Stevens, Ph.D.Assistant Professor of JournalismUniversity of Colorado at Boulder

CJ Powell
CJ Powell

While I agree with your take - that you don't need to have a degree relevant to your career - I think I disagree with the tone you're using. The J-School's "ridiculous" policy is pretty much standard for any school within a college. I wasn't allowed to take business classes at CU because I wasn't a business major, and I wasn't allowed to take upper division science classes because I wasn't a science major.

The J-School - like the other schools at CU - offered an array of introductory level classes for people that were in your situation, and the "academic wall built around the school" was present at all the schools within the college. If you wanted to take more advanced journalism classes, you had every opportunity to apply to the school and enroll in those courses. (Just like if I really wanted to take advanced business classes, I could simply apply for admittance into the business school.)

I can't help but feel like your opinion stems from a frustration with the higher education system in general, and it doesn't seem fair to single out the J-School for adhering to policies that all schools at CU have. I also think your "good riddance" tone is pretty callous given the school's uncertain future, and the negative commentary feels misdirected entirely.

Like I said, I agree with you that you don't necessarily need to study in the field you would like to work, and the J-School certainly had its flaws. Still, its admission policy was not the reason it failed, and I hope the decision makers at CU guide the curriculum in a new direction to better educate aspiring journalists.

Eric_A_Anderson
Eric_A_Anderson

But folks got to take classes like journalism ethics. Only later did they learn that their editor wasn't interested in deep ethical conversations and they could basically follow orders or find a new job. I think the Commonwealth countries have it right -- there aspiring reporters go to a trade school where they learn useful skills like shorthand (which U.S. journalism schools rarely if ever actually taught).

Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts

Interesting observation, Connie. Thanks for sharing your memories with us.

Jared Jacangmaher
Jared Jacangmaher

I appreciate your thoughtful and detailed response Professor. But I was unaware that removing an errant "is" from a blog posting these days warrants a full time stamp change and an "UPDATE"-type notification. Suppose I do need to go back to school.

Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts

Professor Stevens, thanks for sharing your thoughts about this issue in such detail. Regarding the grammatical error, I, as editor of the piece, should have caught that. My apologies.

jrichardstevens
jrichardstevens

And just to point out what I think should be obvious: the lack of fact-checking in your post was the truly disturbing affront. I appreciate your right to your opinion, and I think exchanging ideas and opinions to be incredibly important. But you didn't appear to be particularly informed about the details of this topic, certainly not to support some of the stronger statements you made.

I notice this point is not addressed in your responses.

jrichardstevens
jrichardstevens

Yes, in fact. In 2002-2003, the blogosphere was the site of a large debate about how to make changes in the event of misspellings and grammatical mistakes.

There are several different ways one can amend text: striking through the original and replacing with a visual denotation, making a disclaimer content at the top of the post, changing the time stamp to reflect an update (so users can see that comments preceded a change), etc.

When one blogs with comments turned on, it is irresponsible to make changes after publication without some kind of notation.

In this example, if I pointed out your grammar mistake in the morning, and then you change the text without comment in the afternoon, I wind up looking foolish, since later readers will not see the post as I saw it when I made my comment. Because you can edit your post and I cannot (as easily, particularly without rss subscriptions to let me know something's changed) edit my comment, you have a responsibility to note any changes you choose to make to your text.

And yes, my students get these concerns and solutions presented to them during the first week of class, before they start blogging.

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