Monday, April 20, 2009

Are Journalism Students "Mediocre"?

A recent debate between Prof. Andrew Cohen of Carleton University in Ottawa
and almost everyone else who teaches journalism has revealed an interesting fault line among the professoriat.

Cohen wrote in his usually provocative style lamenting what he considered to be the abysmal state of Canadian journalism students in an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen which he entitled "Students of Mediocrity."

Among other things, he laments today's students with "their erratic work ethic, their shallow research, their lack of intellectual depth, their sense of entitlement."

Cohen goes on to admit that they aren't all without some redeeming qualities. Indeed, he says that "there are always students who are sophisticated, conscientious and cosmopolitan, a joy to teach."

The op-ed provoked a small but intense debate.

Dave Tait who also teaches journalism at Carleton, responded to Cohen in the Ottawa Citizen as an unabashed elitist.

"I’m not sure where Andrew Cohen is teaching these days," writes Tait, "because it sure doesn’t sound like the same school I’m at."

Tait attacks Cohen for invoking the qualities of sophistication, conscientiousness and cosmopolitanism, claiming that he only values the second of those three qualities when it comes to teaching. "My concern as a teacher," adds Tait, "isn’t what my students can do as they come into my hands; it’s what they’ll be able to do once they leave me."

Full disclosure: Andrew Cohen is a friend of mine who I met in the late 90's when he was the Toronto Globe and Mail's Washington correspondent and I was VP of News at NPR. I admired (and still do) his fearless intellectualism and his first class mind. We would plumb the depth of our journalistic condition every few weeks at a mediocre Chinese restaurant on 7th Street NW. But like the food back then, student attitudes today are beside the point.

At Ryerson University where I now teach, I have been both surprised and delighted by my students. Surprised that - even though the students are smart, eager and charming - they may not always have the breadth of knowledge that they should. For that, I blame the Ontario public school system and its concentration on molding social attitudes more than instilling a body of knowledge. Never mind. The kids can and will catch up.

(In one of my undergraduate classes, I was explaining that Pope Alexander VI insisted that all printed material be approved by the Church before publishing under threat of excommunication. A student asked what is excommunication).

But delighted too. In a class of graduate students, I asked them to design a coverage plan for the recent attacks in Mumbai, India that would involved all platforms - audio, video, text, UGC, wikis, blogs, accountability and links of all kinds. Plus, I asked them to come up with a business plan. The results were stunningly brilliant. Not perfect, but darned close. I can't claim too much credit; my fellow faculty had their hooks into these kids long before I got to Ryerson. Even so, I am more optimistic about the future of journalism after teaching this class than I was when we began back in January.

I believe these students (perhaps not all, but a lot of them) are bound to save journalism and the democracy that it serves. So we can't give up on them just because they may not know what we do. But in many instances, they know more, so for better or for worse, our future is in their hands.

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