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A Provost's Advice on Bollinger's Quest
By G. Stuart Adam

I think the challenges arising out of President Lee Bollinger's declaration and decisions are demanding but not impossible. They call not only for adjustments in the conceptual framework of journalism education at Columbia, but they likely call for restructuring a number of hoary financial and administrative practices. So the ambition is high and the inertia and resistance are correspondingly powerful. The force of such inertia is reflected in part in the published attacks on programs in the research-based study of media and statements expressing loyalty to newsroom/workshop training venues — as if the former would be truly contemplated and the latter foolishly discarded.

My advice to the President and to the Task Force is on the conceptual, not the administrative and financial, side of the equation. Here is what I advise:

  1. Trust your instincts, which originate in a belief that apprentice journalists should benefit from continuing contact with university disciplines. Think broadly from a rich conception of the relationship between journalism and the university and then edit to manageable tasks. Speaking broadly, the desire to blend journalism and university disciplines and immerse journalism students in them follows from a practical understanding. Moral philosophy is the parent of journalism ethics; from political theory comes the judgment and understandings appropriate to democratic life; and from literature comes a superior sense of language and a love of the methods of story-telling. Each of these contributes to journalism's methodology. Similarly the study of issues in such areas as domestic and foreign policy, the economy, international relations and trade, art and culture, and democratic institutions and processes enlarges the expressive range of working journalists.
  2. Recognize that much of what already exists is strong and should be preserved.
  3. As curricular re-thinking begins, encourage your colleagues to postpone using, if there is any residual temptation to deploy them, the terms "media" and "mass communication." These terms (and subjects) belong naturally to the curriculum, but are inappropriate foundations from which to begin imaging the architecture of a curriculum in journalism. As starting points, they promote the further bureaucratization of both the practice and the study of journalism because they refer to the settings within which journalism occurs rather than the activity itself. Journalism is a specific and complex form of thinking and expression. It is a cousin of literature and history, not sociology. Stick initially with journalism and insist, as all other disciplines do, on a detailed conception of what it is.

  4. Journalism is a specific and complex form of thinking and expression. It is a cousin of literature and history, not sociology.

  5. Remember that the coordinates of a good education for journalism comprise, like the practice of journalism, a fundamental concern with news, and a corresponding concern with the acquisition of complex methods of knowing, representation, and analysis. An education for journalism should promote a thoughtful understanding and capacity for news judgment, a solid grounding in methods of evidence-gathering and fact assessment, a strong capacity for literary and/or visual forms of representation, and the ability to apply the forms of understanding born in the academy to the problems of the here and now.
  6. To put the matter a little differently, a university program in journalism should be constructed to prepare individuals for work as reporters, writers, and critics. The reporter in the journalist is concerned fundamentally with the news as it is discovered, breaks, and unfolds and the gathering of facts to support its description; the writer in the journalist creates faithful documents and narrates - eloquently - with superior literary skill and with the collaboration of visual journalists engaged in parallel representational tasks; the critic in the journalist judges the significance of things and adds layers of meaning to their description.
  7. So in re-designing or amending the curriculum, continue to think of the city desk and the activities it sets in motion. But think also of the forensic skills that mark the reporting of Seymour Hersh, the narrative abilities of Joan Didion, the linguistic marks of the journalism of Pete Hamill, the political criticism of E.J. Dionne, the social criticism of Lewis Lapham, and the language of musical criticism spoken by Billie Taylor. Think also of the graphic and design achievements of such professionals as Nigel Holmes and Mario Garcia. Think of the best documentaries produced by America's best film-makers and the work of the best photographers.

  8. Remember also that journalism can encourage the university disciplines themselves to be disciplined.

  9. Having imagined these capacities and achievements and expanded the vision of journalism, thicken the core program by incorporating into it strong literary, moral, and methodological elements. Imagine at the same time the scholarship or formalized knowledge that supports such teaching as the "Editor's Lexicon"-- the language, in short, that captures and expresses the experience of making, knowing, and judging journalistic work and reflects a sense of responsibility and stewardship for its quality, standards, and best practices.
  10. To promote the formation of critics, set up options in other university disciplines at the graduate level. Incorporate as electives--a graduate student would have to study at least one--such subjects as literature, fine arts, law, politics, media, sociology, statistics, and economics.
  11. Remember also that journalism can encourage the university disciplines themselves to be disciplined. By that I mean, if advanced disciplinary education is tailored to the empirical, public, and democratic requirements of journalism, then professors in collaborating disciplines will be called upon to clarify their knowledge in a manner consistent with the practical requirements of journalism. In the meantime, be reminded that all is not well in the intellectual culture within which journalists should collaborate. A successful project of curriculum building in the Graduate School of Journalism could strengthen the intellectual life of the University as a whole.

G. Stuart Adam is the former Director of the School of Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa and the University's current Vice-President (Academic) and Provost. He is author of Notes Towards a Definition of Journalism and "The Education of Journalists", which appeared in the December 2001 edition of Journalism: Theory, Practice, and Criticism, from which much of the above is derived. e-mail: stuart_adam@carleton.ca

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