Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The view from the campus

Vin Crosbie has just completed a year teaching at the Syracuse University journalism school and doesn't much like what he's found.

What I found were faculties resistant to change and students whose insights and mastery of new media were being eroded by the authoritative resistance to change of so many professors.
Crosbie buried the lede, though:
I've also discovered that media academics follow, rather than lead, their industries. Though schools of medicine, law, or engineering lead their industries, developing the new techniques and doctrines their industries use, this isn't so with media and media schools. I realize that there are exceptions, but most schools of media still inculcate students to hew to the past, rather than sow the present or future.
There are lots of reasons for this, and please, do not take this as a defense of academe (see an earlier post about the ivy walls). There are some institutional reasons he doesn't mention, but since I've now done this for seven years after leaving industry (and a couple of years earlier at another major school), let me add some context (consumer warning, as with all broad statements, your results may vary):
  • Institutional inertia: Despite all the innovation preached on campuses, you will at the same time find no more hidebound institutions anywhere. Process is often prized over (or mistaken for) progress. Pomp and circumstance, and a caste system, are inherently the result. Exhibit: Take a close look at graduate education and you will find, in many ways, it has not really changed in decades.
  • Inferiority complex: This seems endemic to communications programs.
    • In too many institutions, this is reinforced from above. For instance, the consultant who came to our school several years ago on behalf of the university president and said, in so many words, "Why should a prestigious university be teaching journalism?" Why, of course ... after 9/11 you got all your news from the International Hemorrhoid Review, did you?
    • Too often the communications programs are not looked on as full academic partners but as "service bureaus" -- oh, we need a "communications" component to this or that project. Or, oh, do you have someone who can write/design/edit this?
    • There is valid debate whether "communications" as a discipline really has any organic theories of its own. Yes, we have gatekeeping and framing and agenda setting and the like, but when you look closely, a serious argument can be made that most of those really have roots that go back deeper into psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. Our basis is really more that of applied theory. That can be a tough sell when other disciplines on campus feel they have a more organic tradition. (And never forget, every professor is at some point going to have to be reviewed by those "others" for tenure and promotion.)
  • Shooting ourselves in the foot. We have some strange shibboleths in this branch of academe:
    • Deprecation of textbooks and similar works when it comes to tenure and promotion (as if writing a textbook is something you dash off in your spare time). This contrasts with some other disciplines that expect their faculty to write a book or two every few years.
    • Emphasis on single-author papers. The powers that be can deny it all they want, but every young academic in journalism/communications has been told that to be the second author on a paper is worth, essentially, squat. This contrasts with some of the hard and biological sciences where "et al." gets as much credit as the lead author (good old "Al"; hope to meet him sometime).
    • Less recognition for getting published in "secondary" journals. Again, in the "hard" sciences (of which I have some acquaintance, having been an astrophysics major early in my career), there certainly are the prestigious journals like Nature, Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, etc. But there also seems to be more recognition given to "lesser" but specialized journals - think of the ol' Hemorrhoid Review. In communications, we have a problem -- many of our lesser specialized journals (such as Newspaper Research Journal, Journalism Educator, etc.) don't really count. The result of which is ...
    • Researchers get lousy citation scores. Why, you say, you certainly can't reduce a body of academic work down to a few numbers, like a FICO score. Think again. It's done all the time and can be determinative of a faculty member's future (rumors abound on many campuses of this or that administrator or tenure committee member being a "score jockey"):
      • A researcher's H score, basically a measure of how widely his or her work is cited by others.
      • A little outfit called ISI (the Institute for Scientific Information) and its journal impact factor. If your journals are not accepted by ISI into this ranking (many of the secondary communications ones, as opposed to those in other fields, are not), woe is you.
      • This has immediate and potentially devastating consequences over the next few years. For the first time, communications doctoral programs are being included in the National Research Council's decennial review of graduate programs. Tons of prestige not just nationally but inside your own university ride on this (not to mention tenure, promotion, etc.) Part of this involves the ISI journals. Woe is us.
  • Lack of industry support. It is one of the delicious ironies of Crosbie's post that he cites a slavishness to following an industry that by and large does not support its academic branch particularly well.
    • The anti-intellectualism of journalists/journalism is long and well-thrashed out. And if I read one more post decrying the value of a journalism education, I think I'll go mad (not that it isn't a valid point for debate -- just enough already). I recommend this excellent retrospective by James Carey. And if you want more, here's a Google search. Knock yourself out. (I fear this estrangement will only grow as most communications/journalism programs are now requiring the Ph.D. for faculty and deprecating professional experience with the master's. I think there probably needs to be a balance, but having a bunch of MAs on your staff doesn't get you power points. The antidote to this, in a bit of irony, may be all the layoffs in the industry. Some of those folks are likely to go back and get their doctorates and bring some significant experience along with them.)
    • Journalists/communicators rarely read the research that applies to their business. Come on, admit it. When was the last time you read Newspaper Research Journal or some of the others focusing on the industry? But, as a for instance, I have an NRJ article from the 1990s, a decade before the recent implosion, basically calling BS on the long-voiced shibboleth that as people got older they read newspapers. So you were taken by surprise why? (I can't speak for other professions, but some, at least, have continuing education requirements that force their practitioners to keep up. Of course, we can't do that in journalism, nor should we. There's that little First Amendment thing.)
    • Industry funding of the academic side pales when compared with other branches of the university. Most funding comes from foundations. So let's compare:
      • Typical foundation grant: four, five, maybe six figures. Few will pay "overhead" or "equipment," etc. Might fund part of researcher's salary and provide GA support. (Now remember, this is in an industry suddenly screaming for R&D to help it get out of this mess.)
      • Typical federal grant (think hard sciences here, the "communication" component of these as opposed to "journalism." Other humanities have access to federal funding, too, but admittedly usually at much lower levels than the sciences.): Five, six, even seven or eight figures. Often fund lab, researcher's salary, research assistants. Oh, and 40 to 50 percent comes right off the top and goes into the university's general coffers for "overhead."
      • So now for the lightning round. You are a top state university administrator. You can choose between the folks bringing in big grants with big overhead funding or those bringing in relative dribs and drabs from foundations. Quickly now -- the legislature's about to cut your state support again.
  • From the miscellaneous pile:
    • Journalism is one of the few professional programs that does not have a license at the end. Again, a good thing, but a bit complicating in the ivy halls. Those other programs have a measurable, rather standard course of study. Journalism has what? In an age when the rage is about measurement and accountability, this complicates things.
      • If you don't look at journalism/communications as a professional program but as an academic one, then, like many of the social sciences and humanities, the gold standard becomes preparing as many for graduate study as possible. That's one of the measures for the more traditional academic tracks -- how many of your students went on and got advanced degrees. But for journalism/communications, see the discussion of anti-intellectualism above. (A further complication is that a good chunk of our students seek out "professional" master's degrees, not the traditional M.A. with an eye toward the Ph.D. This gets a bit muddy, however, because there is no absolute standard nomenclature. Some schools may give an M.A. that is more professionally oriented without a thesis, while others, such as ours, have an MMC track for that.)
    • Journalism/Communications have a Janus problem. Journalism tends to want to be (and the industry virtually demands it) the more professionally oriented program. Communications wants to be the more academically oriented one. That makes for some interesting debates inside the ivied walls.
    • Journalism/communications faculty exist within larger institutions that may have vastly different priorities. You simply have to acknowledge that in any discussion. These are people's livelihoods you are talking about (it's no fun to go through what a tenure-track faculty member has to endure just to find out he or she has diminished chances of tenure because of these external factors). You can rail for or against tenure all you want; that's not the issue here. Peripatetic journalists probably don't see a problem in this -- just find another job. But once turned down for tenure, that complicates things for academics. Let me put it from the academic perspective: I doubt most journalists would survive a six-year "tryout." (Disclosure: I am not tenure-track. I can be fired at any time.)
None of this is by way of excuse. But Crosbie's post, while useful, is incomplete, as are many of the writings about journalism education. I thought it useful to pull back the curtains a bit from Oz and discuss all the other things going on, sometimes at cross-purposes.

And not everything is quite as flawed as Crosbie paints it. Jeff Jarvis, who has joined the faculty of City University of New York, has a much more upbeat view.

(If you want to read more -- and well -- on the crosscurrents and history of journalism education, you can do no better than read all the documents, including Carey's, from the 1996 Siegenthaler Chair course at Middle Tennessee State: Journalism Education, the First Amendment Imperative, and the Changing Media Marketplace. I also recommend Mindy McAdams' The Slow Crawl of Journalism Education from this past November. Her description of how an industry advisory board essentially kept Florida from making major advances into new media instruction for many years puts some further meat on Crosbie's observations about the relationship with industry.)



At 5/7/08, 8:34 AM, Blogger Mindy McAdams said...

Wow, Doug, that's a very thorough post! I think you've hit everything pretty squarely and fairly -- well done.

On the subject of our higher degrees not leading to industry jobs: I wonder whether it would be useful to compare sociology to mass comm.? For example, some people go out to become practitioners -- social workers -- while others become social science researchers (equivalent to mass comm. scholars). Are the hardworking social workers reading the scholarly journals in their field?

At 5/7/08, 11:04 AM, Blogger Doug said...

Thanks for the kind words.

My daughter-in-law just so happens to be in social work/counseling. I'm not going to tell you she's got the latest journals sitting on her table (nor, probably do most architects, accountants, etc.). But the licensing and continuing ed requirements serve the purpose of making sure there is a transmission channel. In addition, I think if you look at the readings professionals tend to do in those areas, their "popular" publications (as opposed to strictly academic journals) are more inclined to transmit and translate the cutting-edge work.

We're just not as good at doing that through whatever channels, be it our conferences or our general-interest professional publications.

Interestingly enough, one of the best and most well-attended sessions at ACES for a couple of years was one that discussed what research was out there that applied to copy editors. I wish it were a permanent part of the program.

At 5/7/08, 11:03 PM, Blogger Brian B said...

I liked this comment to the Jeff Jarvis post you linked to:

Tenure is, I suspect, a sizable part of the problem. When I was an undergrad, in the early 70’s, there was an electrical engineering prof at my school who was infamous for using strictly vacuum tube-based circuitry examples in his classes. Tenure.

I've been in a Ph.D. program for almost two semesters (I'll remove the "almost" when I finish these two term papers by Friday), and nothing in your list was a surprise; I've seen examples of just about every bullet point. Most distressing has been the denial of tenure to a leading new-media scholar, apparently because of, yes, publication in the "wrong" (non-favored) journals.

I hope to land somewhere like the CUNY that Jeff Jarvis describes when I graduate.

At 5/8/08, 12:09 AM, Blogger Doug said...

Tenure itself is not the evil. Even tenured profs are supposed to be reviewed every six years to see if they are keeping current. So the system broke down somewhere.

Sad to hear about the new-media scholar. Eventually, however, academe is going to have to face some of these issues, including what is "publication" in a social media, digitized world where information is not hoarded but shared. It's going to have to face them because, just as with other institutions, the generation that is growing up with different expectations (now there's an idea for your framing paper - how are those likely to change media framing and are we seeing it already) will eventually be large enough to demand or effect change.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the Internet time and time again kills middlemen. Education, as it's now done, is one of the biggest "middlemen" in the world.

Good luck getting the paper accepted at AEJMC. Maybe we'll see each other in Chicago.

At 5/8/08, 3:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, to be honest, I'm not surprised that this sort of attitude is coming out of Syracuse. I attended a (public) j-school not too far from 'Cuse and our students competed with them for internships -- needless to say that they got in because of the name, we excelled because our school is hands-on with learning. Sure we were a public school with very little money, but I have not been impressed with many of my peers coming out of Newhouse.


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