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Waning interest threatens opinion courses.

A greying cadre of advocates needs new energy from inside and outside academia to stay on track.

The editorial and opinion-writing course long has enjoyed a preferred position in the traditional journalism curriculum.

For many of us it was a capstone course, preceded by a series of rudimentary skills and theory courses and taught by a wizened faculty member who dared to teach us to think deeply and write passionately.

No attempt has been made to examine the state of the curriculum, the course, and the relationship between the curriculum and the profession. These were the issues that prompted a survey of deans, department heads, or news editorial sequence coordinators at 194 affiliates of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication. A single mailing of the questionnaire produced 110 usable surveys, a response rate of 57%.

The data were summarized by drawing a composite picture of the problems facing educators and the profession.

The average school enrolls about 450 students, offering editorial and opinion writing only on an occasional basis because of weak student demand and only moderate enthusiasm on the part of faculty. The school expects no improvement in either area, and cites waning interest as the primary factor threatening course offerings in editorial and opinion writing.

The average school's faculty seldom attends meetings of professional organizations representing editorial and opinion writers.

Fewer than 10% of respondents said they offered courses in opinion writing every term, whereas about 35% said such courses were available every year. The remainder said editorial writing is offered only occasionally, seldom, or never.

The typical respondent agrees that opinion-writing courses are important to journalism and mass communication programs, strongly agrees that editorial and opinion pages are essential to a newspaper, and agrees that editorial and opinion pages are important to democracy. However, the survey's average educator is less confident of the commitment of local editorial writers and columnists to support the university, and most rate the "state of the art" at about average.

This composite should be enough to warn of some dangers ahead.

Further statistical analysis of the data indicates that faculty enthusiasm is determined primarily by rank and the faculty member's development of useful resource relationships with local editorial writers and columnists.

Student demand for courses is determined almost equally by local resource people, faculty enthusiasm, and a willingness by administrators to offer the course frequently. Subsequently, the frequency with which courses are offered is most influenced by the rank of the teacher and secondarily by the frequency of attendance at professional meetings and high student demand.

All of this indicates that the various components that make for good teaching - internal and external enthusiasm and support - will generate student interest, which then helps drive more enthusiasm and involvement.

It is obvious, however, that this strong cycle of variables is not in place in all or even a majority of programs. The seasoned veterans still are at the helm, but the perceived trends by survey respondents indicate that this greying cadre may find fewer and fewer parties interested in teaching or learning the craft.

Anecdotal evidence, too, indicates that once the old guard has passed, administrators will be less eager to keep the course on track.

Certainly not all the news is bad in these data, and we have no reason to believe that many of the elements driving the cycle cannot be preserved or reconstituted.

But it will take the commitment of journalism and mass communication educators to create enthusiasm inside and outside the department, to encourage faculty participation in professional meetings devoted to editorial and opinion writing, and to nurture relationships with those who practice the craft locally.

For editorial and opinion writers, the stakes also are high, given the popularity and perceived importance of their roles. They can generate enthusiasm from outside, contributing resource people for courses and inviting educators to participate in their meetings.

Fred Blevens is assistant professor at Texas A&M University.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:editorial writing
Author:Blevens, Fred
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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