Monday, April 15, 2013

Comparing introductory journalism skills courses

I’m a teaching assistant for J202 Mass Communication Practices, the journalism school’s introduction to news writing and strategic communication skills. J202 is an intense experience for students--I know because I took it myself in 2006. Since I completed my undergraduate degree here, I don’t have a very good understanding of how other universities teach introductory journalism skills. So I decided to look at the syllabi of two courses comparable to J202: J315 News Media Writing & Editing at the University of Texas at Austin and Comm 221 Writing and Editing for Media at Ohio State. (To access the UT syllabus, click the link to get to the UT syllabi database, then type "J315" into the search bar. I used David Garlock's syllabus from fall 2011.)

All three courses are designed as intensive introductions to media practices. All three involve various hands on projects and activities related to writing leads, various story structures, interviewing and media ethics.

The differences among these courses stem from their differing credit values. Though the syllabi don’t specify the exact credit numbers, it can be inferred based on the amount of time spent in lectures and lab, as well as homework load, that UW is the largest at six hours, Ohio State is around four hours and UT is either three or four credit hours.

In terms of big picture topics, only the UW course interweaves strategic communication concepts with journalistic ones. The other two courses are streamlined to focus on news writing and journalistic practices. (Continued ...)

Another major topical difference is multimedia. By far, UW’s 202 has the heaviest emphasis on multimedia. Each course has at least one lecture dedicated to it, but only 202 includes lab activities that involve making videos, podcasts and slideshows. J202 is also the only course where students develop websites, though the other two courses do include blogging activities. UT doesn’t mention multimedia until week 11. Ohio State also has its sole multimedia lecture near the end of the semester.

However, in general Ohio State emphasizes web writing and social media use much more so than the other two courses. UW students are expected to engage with the course’s Twitter feed and keep a personal branding blog, but these tasks often fall by the wayside over the course of the semester. Social media is more closely tied to the Ohio State syllabus, with multiple lectures dedicated to journalistic use of social media, optimizing web writing via SEO techniques and blog writing.

UT requires students to develop a digital portfolio over the semester, though it’s not clear whether that portfolio is actually public online. This requirement aims to help students lay the groundwork for keeping a portfolio throughout their time in the journalism school, which is a very useful practice in terms of professional development and preparation for job applications. The UT course is the most focused on building career skills of the three; in addition to the portfolio, the course also includes a lecture dedicated to finding internships and interviewing for communications jobs.

In terms of assignment volume, Ohio State appears to have the fewest number of stories and projects due. The instructor requires two news stories, a story about a public meeting, a profile, a midterm project and a feature story that serves as a final. One of the course’s weekly assignments is a “news budgeting” assignment that requires students to take an article and identify various parts of the story and articulate where they would put the story in a physical newspaper. The assignment feels anachronistic, as most of these students will never work for a traditional newspaper anyway.

The UT course includes a similar list of major writing assignments: two news stories, a story based on a speech, a midterm project, a feature story, a meeting story, a profile and a final project. However, UT has more additional activities. Some of these activities have obvious value, such as writing court news briefs, writing about diverse communities and thinking about public access to the government. Other activities, though, feel like busy work. For example, students have to write a short autobiography and take a math test.

UW’s course has the largest volume of activities since there are two labs as compared to UT’s one weekly lab and Ohio State’s four-lecture and no lab structure. Listing out all of 202’s activities would be overwhelming here, but basically, students put together an individual project with multiple print and multimedia places, write midterm stories, and write multiple stories as part of a class final project. These major projects are in addition to weekly writing assignments of various lengths. One issue with having so many assignments is students often lose track of deadlines and have a lot of trouble prioritizing their work. While this is a learning experience in its own right, it often creates stress and confusion, which can start to take away from the overall value of the assignment.

Overall, the main differences include attention to or lack of attention to strategic communication, multimedia and social media. Additionally, the volume of activities varies widely, which is a product of differing credit values. Bigger is not necessarily better; 202 can become overwhelming at times, but the Ohio State course feels a bit lacking in richness. UT has a good balance, though even that course has some superfluous activities and lacks the skills emphasis that UW provides.

--Sandra Knisely 

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