June 7, 2005

Teaching journalism…

Perhaps it’s a good thing that I don’t know what I’m doing.

I left journalism in 1995 to go to graduate school. I intended to return as a better journalist. But I ended up liking academia better. Further, I ended up liking a discipline that’s not generally associated with journalism (although it ought to be): rhetoric. I figured I’d end up as an English professor somewhere.

For seven years, I taught comp/rhet courses such as freshman English, advanced composition, technical writing, advanced expository writing, rhetoric, and various introductory classes in the arts and humanities. I was able to accomplish all of this because, most semesters, I was teaching a 4/4 load between UMKC and Park University.

So now I’m teaching journalism.

I no longer find this at all strange. In fact, I think it’s rather appropriate. Rhetoric scholars are typically found wandering alone through the halls of academia waiting for the day when our 2,500-year-old discipline will once again be master of its own destiny (and again be central to the concept of liberal education). Until that day comes, we wander the halls as members of various departments.

I don’t know how many rhetoric scholars there are teaching journalism in America, but I’ll bet if we all got together we’d have a difficult time forming a softball team. We might not even be able to play doubles tennis.

So that’s my long-winded introduction to what I really want to say following some of the interesting discussion on PressThink regarding the religion of journalism and the interesting intersection between Watergate and journalism education. Okay, so here it is:

I haven’t been teaching the religion.

Now, you can take a look at my syllabi for JRN270 and JRN371 and say: “Yo, dude! You’re totally invested in the religion.”

Yeah, but…

SCENE: A bar in mid-town Kansas City circa spring 2004. Two boomer academics drinking beer.
CAST: Andy (new prof. preparing to start his first job); Steve (English prof. who worked with Andy)

Andy: This is going to be weird.

Steve: No no no…it’s right up your alley. I mean, it’s really perfect in a way.

Andy: But I don’t believe that stuff anymore.

Steve: [chuckles] You could call it critical journalism.

Andy: [smiling] Oh, it’ll be critical alright.

Steve: No, but really…you could do a lot of good.

Andy: The whole professional attitude about language would have to change. I’d have to attack nearly every foundational principle. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Steve: You do that now.

Andy: Yeah, but this is different. Teaching the conflicts isn’t just broadening the curriculum. As far as journalism is concerned there are no conflicts. There’s one way–one way to know, one way to tell, one way to understand. Geez.

Steve: {chuckles] No…this is perfect.

I know journalism. What I am unwilling to do is teach it uncritically. So my syllabus reflects all of the skills of the craft–all of the religion as handed down from on high. And my students learn these skills. I have some evidence already that I’m doing a pretty good job of it. But I present everything critically in the way of my academic discipline. No student leaves my classroom thinking, for example, that the inverted pyramid structure is just an innocent little writing convention they have to master to get a job. They master it fully by understanding its historical, social, and technological context. They master it fully by understanding that it represents choices that have real consequences for civic communication. They master it fully by understanding that as a convention it is a human construct and can be reconstructed based on a re-examination of (professional, social) values. They master it fully by understanding there is just no way in hell to represent a news situation in an artificial hierarchy of “facts” without pissing someone off.

I promised myself I would not be a “war stories” professor–the kind who teaches little more than the romance of the craft of journalism.

There are a few of the old religious incantations that I use, e.g. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That’s a good lesson to learn. In fact, it’s a critical lesson. But it cannot be taught or understood by homily. It must be taught and understood contextually and critically.

One Response

  1. rgrafton 

    Two things here:

    I don’t know much about academia, but your stance on journalistic religion seems provocative, considering you don’t have tenure.

    We’ve been through this before, but in my view, journalism is pure rhetoric, if you believe that “where there’s choice, there’s rhetoric.” So I agree with Steve—-you’ll be perfect as a j-school prof, but in an edgy, counter-culture sort of way.

  2. acline 

    R- I promised myself going in that I would not kiss ass to get tenure.

  3. JPEarl 

    I’ll vouch for his not kissing ass. If he was an ass kisser he would be teaching English at Park U.

  4. Vlady Nicolov 


    I just fell on you entry by accident. Myself, I ma a journalist who is desperately trying to finish a PhD at the Sorbonne to be able to teach afterwards. If this link is still actif, I’d love to chat and exchange with you…