The Re-Education of Me: Prelude to My Sabbatical

With the commencement of the school year, I am officially on sabbatical to write about the research I’ve been doing to help bring together computing and journalism education. I have a proposal that lists the academic work I will complete. However, underneath the project is a cry of the heart that is aching for expression, and that will likely determine the form of the work I ultimately create.

This project is really about understanding how we foster constructive and inclusive conversation and problem-solving in an age where the craft of articulate writing and argument has lost much of its currency in public discourse and popular culture. We live in an age dominated by manufactured controversies, where propagandists like Andrew Breitbart get called journalists.

I could go on with all the examples of sour discourse out there, the full breadth of what Al Gore correctly called, The Assault on Reason, but I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the essential duties of journalism to democracy is to keep us talking so we don’t kill each other. My studies of other diverse cultures leads me to think that  a robust public square is what keeps a pluralistic democracy together. Our traditional fealty to uncovering verifiable truths is one of the important ways of fulfilling that obligation, but in the cacophony that our contemporary media landscape has become, it’s not enough. We have to facilitate democratic civic discourse even as the libertarian and utilitarian foundations of our belief in a free press buckle under the weight of the evidence that human beings are not rational actors, that it’s not always good that almost anyone can be a publisher these days, and that the tools that let us customize our news also allow us to ignore contrary views and evidence that we may need to understand for the sake of our own survival.

Also, we have to earn a living. To paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, I’ve seen some of the best newsroom minds of my generation completely buffaloed by the destruction of the business model for creating and disseminating the content that informs and entertains us. My job is to figure out what aspiring journalists and professional communicators need to know in order to be effective and ethical practitioners. I went into the classroom to serve people who are as I was – a young lover of words whose  dream was to earn a living weaving them together.

In 1990, when I took my magazine writing and public relations experience into the classroom full-time, we knew what that meant: reporting, writing, copy-editing.  A broad familiarity with literary forms and genres that could serve as writing models. A solid liberal arts education for the sake of cultural literacy, and as the foundation for developing expertise on a beat.  A little experience with a camera, enough graphics and production knowledge to be able to re-size a photo or write to a designer’s specs, and there was nothing wrong with some marketing and communications theory. Add campus media experience, some internships and you had the makings of a cub reporter, editorial assistant or PR staffer.

When I trained for my Master’s degree in journalism in the early 1980s, that approach to journalism education seemed natural. In fact, formal journalism education only began about a century ago, and this model of journalism instruction took a few decades to form. In other words, the academic discipline of journalism has always been in flux. Its place in the academy has always been suspect. The newspaper barons who endowed the first journalism schools believed that college educated men would create a superior product. Subsequent generations of journalism educators sought to define and instill certain professional norms through accreditation standards, ethics codes and other markers of profsssionalization. In this, they consciously mirrored such fields as law, engineering, education and medicine. However, unlike those other professions, there can be no licensing restriction on the practice of journalism, because that would violate the First Amendment.

Besides journalism education occupies a marginal place in both the Academy and industry because of the myopic view that journalism is primarily a set of skills and not an intellectually rigorous endeavor with its own approach to knowledge formation.   The media owners who were to be the primary employers of journalism graduates wanted to know that our students could report accurately, write grammatically and meet deadlines. That made them suitable raw material that could only be molded into a journalist after some real-world experience. They wanted faculty members who were steeped in newsroom culture, not some ivory-tower Ph.D. On the other hand, the attributes that employers valued were precisely the ones that led other scholars to disdain the intellectual value of formal journalism education and educators. There were a handful of journalism Ph.D. programs when I was pursuing my MA at NYU. My professors, all decorated veterans of the nation’s most prominent news organizations, were openly dismissive of them.

In any event, that world is long gone, and people who built their careers on that gospel either struggle to stay relevant or they have abandoned the game. We all have had to re-invent ourselves and examine our assumptions about the way civic discourse works, and the means by which one earns a living supporting it.

When you make a fundamental change in course, it’s good to reflect on how you got to be where you are. And so, the first part of this investigation will be a bit of auto-ethnography. I’m going to explore the roots and evolution of my approach to teaching and learning journalism and professional writing. Then I’m going to explore the shift from journalism to civic media, drawing heavily on my  teaching and formal research experiences. Then, I’m going to strive for some kind of coherent conclusion about how we meet the challenges of democratizing civic media.  Expect extensive explorations of seminal texts, such as Jay Rosen’s “What Are Jouranlists For?” Also I hope to record conversations with everyone from the retired principal of my middle school to my research partners, students and some of the leading lights in the contemporary media landscape. I’m also hoping for advice from you along the way.

In calling this entry the Re-Education of Me, I am paying homage to two unlikely sources of inspiration. The first is The Education of Henry Adams, an early 20th-century call for a shift away from the traditional 19th-century educational emphases on philosophy and classics in favor of  education in science and the professions. The second is Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro, a blistering and still sadly-relevant expose of the ways in which our education system perpetuates false notions of human difference that warp the social fabric.  With that, I begin.