Tuesday, January 03, 2006

When education trumps experience

This is discouraging. It's an account by David W. Johnson, a professional journalist who is trying to make it in higher education as a professor of journalism. He can't get traction because he lacks a PhD:
Recently I mentioned to a couple of friends who have forged distinguished journalistic careers that, in my two most recent teaching positions, I have been replaced by a 25-year-old woman with no professional journalism experience and a 24-year-old man with a similar lack of experience. Each is primarily responsible for the journalism program at her and his educational institution.

A Ph.D. from the least rigorous of academic institutions -- including online -- trumps not only my master's degree in communication but a combined 28 years of experience in journalism and public relations. Though I have a withdrawal-in-good-standing card from the Newspaper Guild, I do not have a doctorate.

This says a lot about higher education in certain fields in which experience would seem to be highly desirable, but in the eyes of administrators (at some institutions) is secondary to degree qualifications. Besides journalism, business is also an academic discipline that sometimes draws fire for putting theory ahead of practice, and promoting MBA classes taught by scholars with little or no experience running real businesses.

However, this glosses over a couple of issues.

Yes, it is possible to be a great reporter or great businessman without attending college or university. It's also possible for a veteran journalist/businessman with no advanced degrees to educate students in these fields.

That being said, understanding the intracacies of theoretical aspects of journalism and business -- for instance, relating to economics or mass communications -- is not something you can learn on the job. In these theory-oriented areas, professors do need high-level degrees and experience critically evaluating the research of others (and conducting their own research) to be effective instructors and contributors to their fields.

To be a journalist do you need to be professionally schooled? I would say no, but it certainly helps.

At Boston University, I had to take several classes on theory. They opened my eyes to certain issues and ideas, such as audience manipulation by the news and entertainment media, and the debate over the effect of television upon society. But these and other theorectical lessons have not played any role in developing my journalism career. The "practical" classes -- newswriting and reporting, documentary scriptwriting, classes on film and video editing, etc -- were very helpful, especially when I was first getting started in TV news. Most of these classes were taught by practioners, and only a few had PhDs -- in fact, I believe the crusty old Boston Globe reporter who taught the newswriting class didn't have any degree beyond high school and the school of hard knocks.

But even though "magic bullet theory" and other theorectical tidbits were filed away in a dormant corner of my brain in the late '80s, they came back last year when I started conducting research for my thesis at the Extension School, and learning about the development of the New China News Agency as it relates to Marxist propaganda theory.

No comments: