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Journalism: The Most Useful Humanities Course?

Posted by on in Teaching Strategies
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I love teaching history, but I love teaching journalism even more.

I’m not one for making sweeping statements, but in this case, I feel that I’m on safe ground. No other humanities-based class caters as well to teaching so many relevant, real-world skills—from writing, to interviewing, data gathering, synthesizing, marketing, editing, and just about anything else that has anything to do with communication.

I dare you to disagree.

More schools should offer and invest in quality journalism programs, hire the best teachers, purchase the best equipment, and require that students enroll in at least an introductory course. After all, the study of journalism isn’t only for students wanting to go into the field (though that can certainly be the case). Any decent journalism instructor imparts skills that are transferable and useful for almost anybody—and for virtually any profession.

In fact, I recently received a heartfelt email from a former student who served as my 2012 yearbook editor-in-chief. “Although I will most likely not end up in publishing, the knowledge I learned from you is immeasurable,” she writes. ”I will continue to read your updates online and follow your articles. I wish you the best of luck with everything.

To further my conviction, however biased, that journalism is the “most valuable” humanities-based course, I recently reached out to Mark Briggs, author of Journalism Next: A Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing.

“If you can produce students that command a very diverse set of skills, who can also present themselves and create ideas and get behind them, and even sell those ideas—that’s the entrepreneurial spirit that we need with journalists, whether they’re starting their own companies or going to work for bigger companies, more established companies,” says Briggs, who also runs a much-lauded blog, Journalism 2.0. “To me, that’s kind of the Holy Grail right now for journalism education.”

Briggs also says that journalism students are in a better position than ever to hit the job market. “You could go to ad agencies, you could go to Microsoft or Amazon, do content marketing. There are so many different avenues that if your first pick of journalism didn’t work out, you’ve certainly got a lot to fall back on, which you didn’t have 10, 20, 30 years ago.”

At Brandeis University, for three years, I served in various editorial positions for The Justice, the student newspaper. I also did some freelancing for the Boston Globe, and for a long while, I really wanted to become a reporter. Reality eventually set in, when newspaper layoffs continued to mount and graduation day loomed. I could afford to be poorly paid, but I couldn’t go without benefits.

Before tossing the tassel, I decided to follow in the footsteps of three-time Pulitzer-Prize winner Thomas Friedman, a fellow Brandeis graduate, who also received an advanced degree in history. Fortunately, my master’s made me an ideal candidate for a high school teaching position, which I had always considered pursuing as an alternative to newspaper reporting. Eight years later, I still rely on my journalism background to teach not just writing, but also everything else Briggs mentions—including entrepreneurialism.

I never regret my hard-news reporting days, and I still keep my reporting hand in shape through my continued education blogging. It should come as little surprise that I also teach history in a newsroom-like environment. As a college student, I learned more useful, lasting skills inside Justice headquarters than inside any Brandeis classroom. That’s saying a lot.

I asked Briggs what advice he gives to journalism teachers, and I’m comforted and validated by his remarks. “I encourage professors, teachers, anybody who can help to create an environment where it’s more of a laboratory than a lecture hall, so that there’s real experimentation and real hands‑on learning that’s taking place,” he says.

Briggs isn’t the only one who lauds the benefits of journalism instruction. In February, I exchanged emails with Tom Rosenstiel, among our nation’s most revered authors, journalists, and media critics. In 1997, he founded the Project for Excellence in Journalism, while also co-founding the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He is also president of the American Press Institute, as well as author of The New Ethics of Journalism for the 21st Century.

“I’d say first students should know how to distinguish information that is well sourced and vetted from information that is less reliable,” he writes. “Being a smart consumer is the first step to being a good producer. And these students will be lifetime media consumers. The next skill is to be able to write, to distill ideas clearly so that you communicate, regardless of what medium you are working in, including data visualization. Third, you should develop your curiosity. Journalism in the end is the skill of having a keen curiosity about what other people want to know and being able to anticipate and answer those questions.”

What teacher wouldn’t want students to master those skills?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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Guest Monday, 24 October 2016