A CONTROVERSIAL SUGGESTION: Improving Journalism Educators
October 2000 Community College Journalist
Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2001
I have been immersed in higher education in one way or another for more years than I sometimes like to admit. Adding the 30 years I have spent in the classroom as a journalism/mass communication teacher to my days as an undergraduate and graduate student, and one will perhaps forgive him if I feel compelled to offer some specific--perhaps controversial--advice as to how good community college journalism/mass communication teachers can become even better in the classroom.
My advice may be somewhat controversial because it flies in the face of what, at least in some quarters, has reached the level of "conventional wisdom." More specifically, I am suggesting that community college journalism/mass communication teachers can improved their classroom performance if they become active in some level of academic/professional research/creative activity.
I know this advice flies in the face of much of the conventional wisdom because I began my teaching career at a brand new community college in Minnesota and later taught at what had been a traditional teacher training college in Missouri. In both instances I was hired in large part because administrators were impressed when I made it clear that my heart was in teaching not research--and, perhaps not coincidentally, did not raise objections in either case to the 15 credit-hour-per-term teaching hold!
In fact, the suspicion of researchers was so deep in the Minnesota Community College System at the time that there was a reluctance to hire people with a Ph.D. because of a concern that such persons would be "more interested in research than teaching." (I once became involved in something of a verbal confrontation with the chancellor of the system over the Ph.D. issue--although at the time by no stretch of the imagination could I have been called a committed researcher.)
That is not to suggest that any institution is "immune" from the "distrust of research syndrome"--particularly in the case of departments/schools of journalism/mass communication where many faculty members are recruited from the media industries. The importance of faculty being involved in some area of research and/or creative activity at university where I currently teach, for example, is made clear to candidates who apply for tenure-track positions. That was why I was somewhat taken back when I read the otherwise very inspiring statement a colleague attached to her application for a substantial--in monetary terms--teaching award. That statement, which recounted why she had become a teacher, read in part:
As a student in high school and junior college I loathed science; it bored me, and I couldn't decipher the relevance igneous rocks had to the future I had chosen as a newspaper reporter. But the state mandated that I had to endure a semester of biology, so I begrudgingly registered for the class and showed up on the first day prepared to nap and doodle and balance my checkbook. Mr. Billings was the teacher--I'll never forget him -- and he stood before the class pacing and gesturing and lecturing. He talked about endoplasmic reticulum and phylum and single-celled amoebae with such genuine enthusiasm that I began to pay attention just to see what all the fuss was about. His obvious fondness for biology was contagious; it sparked me to open my mind, to risk, to try. I made an A in the class and registered for Biology II the following semester.(1)
My colleague suggested that she hoped to be as successful as Mr. Billings when confronted by a student coming to her classroom with a mind sealed shut and the hunger to be heard unsated. She said, "a reporter I know once said a good opener is like a flashlight that shines its beam down onto the rest of the story. That's how I feel about good teaching: It shines a light and encourages students to see what they haven't before and to illuminate parts of themselves and the world that have until then remained in the dark."
Even before I read her statement, I knew my colleague was successful in the classroom. She consistently received student evaluation mean scores that were near--frequently at the top--of those tabulated for faculty members in the SJMC. Further, the area leading into to her office often resembled a line being formed by young people waiting to buy rock-concert tickets.
There was, however, one section of her statement of teaching philosophy that I found disturbing. She said that she felt "as if I am an imposter in the traditional academy." Why? In part because, she asserted, she was "woefully clumsy at the art of politics...(f)frustrated by red tape...(b)esieged by meetings." That, of course, would aptly describe the frustrations of many in the academic community, particularly among the ranks of younger faculty members. The part of her statement that I found particularly troubling, however, was her reference to research. She stated, unequivocally and without apology, that she was "unskilled and uninterested in research."
That was a statement that I might well have made when I began my teaching career. It is a statement that I now believe needs to be vigorously refuted--particularly when it is uttered out of what in traditional theology would be called vincible ignorance. Those who make such "pronouncements" too often simply do not understand the necessary linkage between some form of research/creative activity and good teaching in higher education--including journalism/mass communication programs at the community college level.
Opening One's Mind
I believe that some level of research/creative activity can make good teachers even better. I also believe an important first step in the process of integrating research into what takes place in the undergraduate classroom must center around the reduction of a certain level of prejudice that too many faculty--including those in programs of journalism and mass communication at the community college level--bring with them regarding the relevant relationship of research/creative activity to the undergraduate educational experience. (Anyone who has been in higher education for more than a minimal number of years has most likely been confronted by the "teaching teacher" who proudly announces that he or she does not have time to publish articles in obscure academic journals that no one ever reads.)
More specifically, to overcome the initial opposition that many "teaching" faculties have to "academic" research, I believe the following points need to be addressed:
1. All faculty need to "open their minds" and at least acknowledge the potential value that some appropriate level of research/creative activity can have to good teaching.
2. It is important that those faculty who view themselves primarily as "teachers" in the narrow sense of that word be genuinely and collegially encouraged to become involved in some level of research/creative activity.
3. Community college administrators must overcome their own prejudices and be willing to encourage--and fund--appropriate faculty research/creative activity.
Direct Value to Teaching
Sometimes it appears--and too frequently that appearance is reflective of reality--that much academic research is conducted for reasons other than the advancement of knowledge or the improvement of teaching. Too often "doing research" becomes an end in itself--or a means of achieving tenure and promotion. That is why so many disconnected and seemingly trivial studies are produced.
My own appreciation for how research could make me a better teacher evolved out of my annual evaluations over a number of years where it was suggested I needed to develop a "sharper research focus." In looking back, that was some of the most valuable teaching advice I received during the often times tedious and laborious annual evaluation process.
When I began to focus my research on questions relating to communicating truthfully in the mass media, for example, it became evident to me that I was increasingly bringing material from that research into the classroom--at the undergraduate level. I wrote, for instance, a number of articles on what it means to be "truthful" in mass communications. In struggling to define truthfulness in my own mind and for publication, I was required to become familiar with traditional ethical/moral discourse. I had to become acquainted with what theologians and moral philosophers had to say about this subject.
As a result, I am now much better able to respond to the sophomore who, attempting to be provocative, will invariably argue the real goal in mass communications--whether print journalism, broadcast journalism, public relations or advertising--is to make money and that we should not be so concerned about communicating the truth since everyone has a different perspective of what the truth is!
Another area where my undergraduate teaching has been enormously impacted by research I have conducted centers around my efforts to introduce journalism/mass communication students to the concept of the public interest--or common good. That mass communicators should be dedicated to the public interest is something that approaches almost dogmatic status. At the same time, as Downs correctly asserts, "the term public interest is constantly used...but any detailed inquiry about its exact meaning plunges the inquirer into a welter or platitudes, generalities, and philosophic arguments."(2)
I did not fully appreciate the complexity of the concept, however, until an anonymous reviewer, responding to a manuscript I submitted, challenged my to define the public interest. I accepted that challenge by attempting to define the concept as it relates to public relations practitioners. The very effort I put into researching that question has been of value in the classroom. I am now better able to conceptualize the public interest for students and explain to them why I believe Bell and Kristol are correct when they assert "that the term, or one of its synonyms is not to be escaped from.... There has never been a society which was not, in some way, and to some extent, guide by this ideal...no matter how perverse its application."(3)
Importance of a "Motivator"
As noted, an important step in motivating "teaching" colleagues to "do some research"--once they overcome any prejudices in regards to the matter generally--centers around helping them recognize the relevancy of that research/creative activity to specifically what it is they are teaching. A community college teacher with responsibility for teaching an advertising class, for example, might be encouraged to conduct a limited survey of how advertisers in the area respond to the general charge that advertising, as a field, is more concerned about "selling things" than communicating truthfully. Are advertisers in the area even concerned about questions related to truthfulness in communication? Do they strive to be genuinely truthful, and how do they define truthfulness?
Critically important in the motivation process at this stage is having a "motivator." We need persons who are able to motivate us to become enthusiastic about research just as my colleague was motivated by Mr. Billings to become interested in science and enthusiastic about a teaching career.
As noted, when I began my college teaching career, I was not enthusiastic about research. I did just enough research at the graduate level to secure my "union card"--my Ph.D. It wasn't until my sixth year as a teacher that I met my "Mr. Billings"--from a research perspective. My Mr. Billings, who was a faculty colleague, encouraged me to do some rather elementary research. He was there to lend his expertise, but just as important, his encouragement. Little by little I began to see, for the first time, how "doing research" could make me a better teacher.
I have taught, as noted above, at institutions where doing research made one suspect. That such too often remains the case at the community college level is unfortunate. Certainly it is difficult to do meaningful research if one is assigned a five-course per term teaching load--with three of those classes involving a large number of writing assignments.
Part of the answer to this problem must center around educating community college administrators to the central thesis that this article advances--namely, that a relevant level of research/creative activity can result in increased effective performance in the classroom. Too often community college administrators who distrust faculty interested in engaging in appropriate amounts of research are operating from the same erroneous perspective held by those faculty who believe that doing research and being a good teacher are, in someway, inherently contradictory.
Faculties also need to be more aggressive in this regard. A community college teacher in a journalism/mass communication program needs to make sure administrators understand that the communications field is undergoing a revolution, and that one who would "teach" journalism/mass communications must bring with him/her something more than anecdotal experiences that might have been relevant in 1975!
It has been suggested that "certain critical elements are obvious...(to good teaching); substantive knowledge of the field, personal experience with the subject matter, classroom practice, dedication, humor, and inspiration." (4) While research/creative activity will not substitute for classroom practice or improve one's sense of humor, it is critical to building one's knowledge of the field and, perhaps most important, providing personal experience with the subject matter.
That is not to say, it must be emphatically emphasized, that I believe "doing research" will serve as a "magic bullet" in any effort to turn bad teachers into good ones. Certainly there are too many researchers who are bad teachers--too often because they really don't care about teaching. Teaching is more than research and more than knowledge about the subject matter. One of my favorite--and best--professors in graduate school said:
...vital to good teaching is (the ability to convey to students that you care about them.... There are a myriad of ways in which one can demonstrate that affection for students, and they catch it. They understand that you feel good about them.(5)
This outstanding teacher, incidentally, was also one of the nation's outstanding mass communication researchers. I am convinced he would not have been as exceptional in the classroom were it not for his ground breaking research. He demonstrated to me that teaching at the collegiate level will ultimately be measured by the degree to which the professor inculcates in students "a desire for lifelong learning by offering...(him/herself) as a model." (6) Some genuine commitment to research/creative activity is perhaps the best way to show students that one is serious in his/her commitment to a pursuit of "lifelong learning."
(1) "Teaching Statement." All quotations and references to his teaching statement are used with permission of the faculty colleague concerned.
(2) Virginia Held, The Public Interest and Individual Interests (New York: Basic Books, 1970), p.2
(3) Ibid., p.10
(4) Marcy Sherriff and Tracy Schlumpberger, "Professor and Students: Partners in Learning," CLA Today, November 1993, p.7
(5) Ibid., P.5