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A Case For Journalism Classes In Higher Education

Undated photo of Tent City from the Bridgewater State University Website.

In each of the six Novembers I have taught at Bridgewater State University, a small but growing band of students have lived in tents for five nights. It’s part of the International Tent City program, designed to raise awareness of homelessness and simulate the tent cities homeless people live in throughout the world.

Some students spend a night in the tents for extra credit in a class; others spend all five nights (and last week, when this year’s event was held, that was pretty hearty given temperatures that dipped below freezing). The program has become so popular in its six years I heard unconfirmed reports of alumni coming back to spend a night or two in the awareness-raising event.

The timing of this Pete Earley post on his decision to not spend time pretending to be homeless and write a book about the experience contrasts nicely with Tent City at Bridgewater State. Book publishers have loved this idea ever since George Plimpton suited up to train with the Detroit Lions and write Paper Lion. It can be entertaining reading, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the experience.As Earley explains it:

There were several reasons why I decided not to do that.  How could I really understand the despair that a person feels when they have no safe place to call home? Sleeping on the streets for a few nights might teach me about how uncomfortable and dangerous being homeless could be. It could make me more aware of the hardships. But would it really make me truly understand homelessness?

In fairness, Tent City doesn’t claim to be an exercise in helping students truly understand homelessness but, rather, an opportunity to raise awareness. I feel some sort of journalism component in higher education help cut to the problem of awareness when understanding is truly needed to help solve social problems (Earley goes on to explain what he did do, which was essentially exercise what Gay Talese calls “the fine art of hanging out” with a group of homeless people in the rotating shelters in Georgetown; in my opinion, it’s far more effective than playing homeless, although he won’t be able to sell as many books).

Teaching Dead Languages But Not (Allegedly) Dead Professions

In colleges across the country, including the one I teach at, journalism is increasingly being seen as an afterthought. Often relegated to the Communication Studies Department, courses are increasingly about “studying” journalism and its history and less about the actual practice (when I first started teaching Intro to Journalism classes I was called – behind my back – the “vocational skills teacher” because I actually required students to learn how to report and write news stories.

Given that Intro to Journalism is the only lab-based journalism course at the school I teach at, I’m not expecting to train the next Woodward or Bernstein. The worst part of my job is telling talented and dedicated students they just aren’t going to compete in the job market with students from Boston University or Emerson College or even UMass-Amherst, where dedicated journalism departments are churning out entry-level reporters with all the digital media skills needed to thrive.

But there are certain skills students can gain from studying journalism even if they have no intentions of practicing journalism, all of which can – in my humble, un-tenured and non-Ph.D. opinion – can help achieve the university’s goal of creating well-rounded leaders and citizens.

There’s something to be said about increasing media literacy and giving students the confidence to ask for information in an actual, face-to-face interview (instead of emailing a list of questions, which happens far too often when students are told to interview me for assignments in other classes). You can add in the new media skills, the story-telling skills and the critical thinking skills that come by immersing yourself in a topic and trying to understand it well enough to speak of others.

And that’s not even mentioning that a good, hands-on Intro to Journalism class sharpens writing skills when its now possible to graduate college and have those skills regress from where they were after high school graduation.

But, beyond all that, in a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, perhaps the biggest gift an Intro to Journalism class gives college students is the tools to not make assumptions but to get out and collect facts before making judgments. Learning to build an argument with facts instead of assumptions and tired constructions like “many people,” not to mention that politicized dogma that passes as curriculum in many college departments, is probably worth the price of admission at most four-year colleges.

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