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Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Education Toolbox

Loading curriculum revision into the starting gate

By Mac Mckerral

I've learned through the years that thoroughbreds for the most part run to form.

If you study a horse’s past performances in the horse gambler’s bible, the Daily Racing Form, odds are the horse will produce similar results.

But horse players often face the dreaded maiden race — an affair for non-winners in which starters have a minimal number of starts or none at all.

Smart gamblers avoid them. But if they play them, gamblers usually focus on pedigree.

Many journalism programs right now are betting on a horse named Curriculum Revision. They have little to go on because of the constantly changing track ahead.

I think the best chance for Curriculum Revision to win lies with pedigree — the “genes” that have served quality journalism well for decades.

In summer 2009, I attended a “Diversity Across the Curriculum” workshop at the Poynter Institute. Someone offered this idea: “Imagine walking into the classroom and knowing that it contained the last people in the world who wanted to be journalists. What would you want them to know?”

I would focus on journalism’s pedigree.

AN INCREASED EMPHASIS ON ETHICS

I hear a lot of talk about what journalism is and who journalists are. Let the debate rage on. But there is no room for debate about whether the best journalism produced utilizes a strong ethical compass. The next generation of journalists arrives in our programs with a very different view of how to go about finding things and passing them along to others and “the truth.” More focus on ethics and ethical decision-making will help them succeed as the apostles of journalism.

A STRONGER WRITING COMPONENT

In his article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Writing Is Not Just a Basic Skill,” published in November 2008, Mark Richardson lays out some key points that remain valuable today. The Curriculum Revision discussion often focuses almost entirely on using technology. Certainly it cannot be ignored, but not at the expense of command of the language. Discussions on improving writing should not be an afterthought. The vast majority of the “content” available to news consumers remains words.

INCREASED EMPHASIS ON UNDERSTANDING AUDIENCES

This ties closely to the writing but also links to decisions about the best way to tell a story. Back in the day, the industry provided news and assumed people used it.Checking to see whether they did use it was an expensive proposition. And why check? The money from advertisers poured over the transom. And following the dictates of “readership surveys” was “pandering.” Not so anymore. All students, not just those in advertising and public relations programs, need to understand much more about news and information consumption.

COURSES IN CRITICAL THINKING

Back in 1996, I worked on the Jane Pauley Task Force on Mass Communication Education, a Pauley/SPJ endeavor that identified ways to make journalism curriculums better. If you read a copy of the task force recommendations, the adage “the more things change, the more they remain the same” comes to mind. But one recommendation that did not make the report and that I pushed for was courses in critical thinking. Quality journalism has always required its practitioners to know how to connect the dots, to be able to see the real story that often becomes lost — the equivalent of those Magic Eye Images. They look like one thing but with closer scrutiny reveal something else. Many, including me, wrongly assumed that students were born (or not) with critical thinking skills. They could not learn them. They can and should.

UP THE FOREIGN LANGUAGE REQUIREMENT

I do not speak a foreign language. But the graduates of our programs should. I encourage the students I advise my students to consider a language minor or second major, and it often is an easy sell.

STORYTELLING

“The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity,” written by Arlene Notoro Morgan, Alice Irene Pifer and Keith Woods, builds the “excellent story” foundation with three parts: voice, context and complexity. We must de-program aspiring journalists and make them tellers of true stories, genuine stories that move people. Dedicated courses in reading, watching and listening to compelling stories would serve students well.

And one more thing: put a goat in Curriculum Revision’s stall. Thoroughbreds are fractious. It doesn’t take much to get them cranked up in the wrong ways. They like a security blanket, and in many cases, that’s a goat in the stall.

The next generation of aspiring journalists is a fractious lot. They need assurances — maybe a special class — where they learn that producing quality journalism comes with great personal benefit and a produces a tremendous service to the public, and that journalism remains an honorable and necessary profession.

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