New Media Skills: Not Just For Monkeys

I gotta share something here that is bothering me here in the journalism Ivory Tower, and that is the tendency among some academics to view “new” media skills – anything from Web programming to social media to data crunching to Flash – as something that is wholly separate from the intellectual endeavor. While viewed as increasingly necessary, these are things seen as lacking an academic heft, especially at the graduate level.

For example, I’ve heard impassioned arguments for why it is critical for every graduate student to take courses in law and history (as well as theory, research methods, and administrative methods here in Memphis), because the knowledge and perspective gained is absolutely critical to becoming intellectually well-rounded and a thoughtful practitioner . Skills courses are pooh-poohed as something students could take as electives or maybe even just on their own in a workshop in the summer; the idea that social media could be considered part of course content is laughed at (literally – “if you come to graduate school to learn how to Twitter, well that is just sad.”)

Now, I have nothing against courses like law and history. Nothing at all. Yes, they are certainly valuable. But very few of our students are here because they are considering a PhD. They are here, basically, because they want to get a job, or a better job. I question why any editor on earth would care if a student got a Master’s degree if that didn’t include some sophisticated new journalism skills.

Sure, anybody can write a line of code, and there’s a purely technical aspect to a lot of Web-related skills. But a journalist has to bring to bear news values, ethics, and an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the audience to bear when coding for a news related Web site. Even less technical things like blogging and Twitter have taught me about as much as any course I ever took by forcing me to take what I have learned and make it clear, understandable, and attractive to an audience.

I think every skills course should be taught in a way that encourages critical thinking, analysis, and applied theory. For example, students creating any kind of multimedia project should have to consider explicitly how they are bringing our core values to life and/or how they’ve used the media choice model or uses & gratifications theory (etc.) to create an appealing Web site.

If you create a kind of skills ghetto and teach the “high-minded” stuff in a separate class, you are encouraging students to see theory and practice as being somehow totally separate things – and the whole point is that they shouldn’t be.

If anything, it’s the undergraduates that I think deserve to get some kind of broad intellectual base, and since in their case we are just desperately trying to get them to be able to write one clear sentence, the focus for them can be a little bit more on the very basic journalism skills. But a graduate student to me MUST come out with some strong new media skills in order to succeed in the job market.

When I look at friends with Master’s degrees who managed to get the job they wanted in the current media environment – well, it’s almost ALWAYS the ones who went the “more technical” route and learned a lot about data, Web programming, coding, or multimedia.

I don’t know, maybe I’m off base here with this little rant. Let me know in the comments.

5 Comments

Filed under Journalism Education

5 responses to “New Media Skills: Not Just For Monkeys

  1. I wouldn’t even bother with a graduate course that treated social/new media with second-class citizen status. It’s unfortunate that this kind of thing is “laughed at,” but I don’t find it all that surprising—the Old Guard is still largely “in charge” of journalism (newsrooms, universities, front offices, etc.). It’s too bad, too, because the upshot is that young journalists—those who can’t afford to fund their own start-ups, at least—are forced to adopt these anachronistic skill sets just to get a degree and (hopefully) get hired.

  2. Thanks, Paul. Glad to know I’m not the only one thinking this🙂

  3. John Boor

    ANYbody can write a line of code? Really? Hmmm…

  4. A belated thought on another great post: I agree wholeheartedly with your point. Our challenge in academia is finding ways to weave theory and skills together in our classrooms. Teach the critical thinking while developing the coding and social-media skill-sets. Help students draw the connections between the abstract and the application. I think each informs the other.

    A great paper on this topic appeared last year in the journal Convergence: “Teaching button-pushing versus teaching thinking: The state of new media education in U.S. universities” by Edgar Huang, Indiana University-Purdue University.

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