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J-students have it both ways (sort of): don't make it an either/or question.

I served five summers as writing coach in the Pulliam Fellowship program, teaching and mentoring ten new college graduates each year. The Fellows worked as reporters at either The Arizona Republic or the Phoenix Gazette. We had "class" every Monday night, and I conducted individual writing sessions with each one at least weekly.

In each of the five groups, about half had attended journalism school and about half had not. The same scenario unfolded every summer. The J-school grads got off to a faster start than their non-J-school colleagues. Most of the journalism graduates could report and write at least acceptable, and often excellent, stories. They knew the terminology of the newsroom, the importance of deadlines, and something about the laws of libel.

The Fellows who hadn't attended journalism school but had concentrated on liberal arts instead lagged behind at the start. But only briefly. By mid-summer, they caught up with, and frequently surpassed, the J-schoolers.

It's a small sample but I feel safe in offering this experience as evidence that a good liberal education, patient on-the-job instruction in the newsroom, and basic intelligence and motivation are as good a foundation for a beginning journalist as a journalism education.

The problem with this conclusion--indeed, with the whole discussion of journalism education vs. liberal arts--is that there's no reason for it to be framed in either/ or fashion. Provided students enroll in one of the one hundred ten or so accredited schools journalism, they're required to take a huge majority of their classes in the liberal arts. A strict lid is kept on the number of journalism credits they may take.

Thus, students at such schools have it both ways. Sort of.

Journalism is a small major at such schools. At the University of Arizona, from which I recently retired, only twenty-six credits (of the one hundred twenty needed to graduate) must be in journalism. Still, one could argue, and I do, that even that might be too much. Every journalism class taken is a Shakespeare course not taken. Every journalism class taken is a history course not taken.

Still, a journalism major provides some benefits that other majors do not. Many journalism schools require a formal ethics class, and all journalism classes of any substance address ad hoc ethical issues. A plagiarism case in a live reporting situation beats a lecture about plagiarism any day.

And virtually all journalism majors require a course in media law. A newcomer to the newsroom with no background in what constitutes libel is a time bomb waiting to go off. The non-J-school Pulliam Fellows, for example, frequently were shocked to learn that attributing a libelous statement to a source is no protection against a successful lawsuit.

So what's the answer to Rod Dreher's question of whether a journalist-in-the-making should major in journalism, minor in journalism, or major in "something like economics, biology, political science, history etc."?

One possible answer is all of the above. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Students who pursue a journalism major, supplemented by work at the student newspaper or broadcast station, solid internships, and the beginnings of a personal network, can get off to a good start in finding a job.

But is finding a job the goal of a college education? Is preparing graduates for a job the goal? Or is it preparing them for a life of curiosity and continued learning? I believe it's the latter.

One of the knocks on journalism education is that too much emphasis is placed on preparation for jobs. Some journalism educators believe this is the first and most important reason for a college education. I disagree and suggest that that sort of thinking is one of the reasons journalism programs are frequently disrespected on campus.

A scaled-down program--the minor option--has worked for many graduates and in some ways is my preferred solution. But some schools don't permit minors (after all, there's no minor in medical school). And some schools reserve for majors access to scholarships, school-initiated internships, honor societies, and formal job placement help. Potential students should find out before enrolling.

An overlooked though difficult approach is to earn two degrees. In this plan, the first would be a major from the "something like economics, biology, political science, history, etc." list.

The second would be a professionally oriented master's program, perhaps of the one-year variety as offered by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism or the excellent two-year program at the University of California Berkeley. Either way, the emphasis should be on professional skills.

If the two-degree option is impractical, students can always finish a liberal arts undergraduate degree, then stay on and pick up, say, a year's worth of journalism classes as a non-degree student.

I have two journalism degrees, a B.A. from Nebraska and an M.S. from Iowa State. It's no knock against Iowa State, which has a fine journalism program, but if I had to do it over I'd pick a liberal arts subject for my master's. No one needs two journalism degrees.

A huge consideration for potential students trying to decide on whether to take a journalism major is the quality of the journalism faculty. They do vary. They're not all prize-winners. Some get tenure and coast. Some think all there is to teaching is telling war stories. (I was once introduced to a Washington reporter who, upon hearing that I was a journalism professor, announced that he hoped to teach when he retired. Teaching's not a retirement job. It's hard work.)

But some professors, a treasured few, can set their students ablaze with fervor for journalism, sending them into the world with their heads on straight, their values in order, their goals high.

For me, that teacher was Neale Copple, the late dean of the then-University of Nebraska College of Journalism. I would be hard put to name any fact about journalism or any journalistic technique that Neale taught me. But he inspired me, gave me confidence, valued my ideas, and watched with obvious pleasure as I blossomed under him.

In the liberal arts vs. journalism debate, the years have found my thinking moving sharply toward the former and away from the latter. But it's hard to imagine a would-be journalist findIng a professional mentor like Neale Copple in "something like economics, biology, political science, history, etc."

Jim Patten recently retired as head of the journalism department at the University of Arizona. E-mail husker112@comcast.net
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Title Annotation:Symposium: to J or not to J? A question of career preparation
Author:Patten, Jim
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:1071
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