Thursday, November 25, 2010

A rose by any other name ...

"What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked in the intro to the quote in that headline. Journalism programs around the country are trying to figure that out, and ours may be among them.

Two developments on this front over the past week have been getting a lot of attention.

In one of them, faculty at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University voted by a wide margin -- 38-5 -- to change the name to "The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications." The vote, which took place earlier this month according to a report in Northwestern's student newspaper, sparked a lot of criticism among alumni and Chicagoland observers.

In the other, a panel at the University of Colorado Boulder on Nov. 17 recommended "discontinuance" of the School of Journalism at the institution. In reality, the term "discontinuance" is a piece of bureaucratic jargon within the UC system that doesn't mean journalism instruction will cease, but rather that the organizational framework of the program will change. Nevertheless, when the proposal was first floated during the summer it drew a lot of outcry from both proponents and opponents. (As an aside, the dean who is at the center of that particular firestorm, Paul Voakes, is a good friend.)

Colorado's action is more substantial than merely re-labeling a program, of course, but is rooted in the same phenomenon: that upheaval in the legacy journalism industry means colleges that prepare students for journalism careers need to re-think their approaches, including how they label and present themselves to the outside world.

I'm following these situations with particular interest because of a similar discussion happening within my own department, which is the "Communication/Journalism Department." Some faculty members believe, fairly adamantly, that having "Journalism" as part of the program's name is a serious impediment to student recruitment efforts.

As a journalist or journalism teacher for all of my adult life, I bristle at the suggestion, of course. Throw journalism under the bus? Yikes!

But in truth, it's hard to argue with their logic. In the public mind, journalism = newspapers, and newspapers are dying, ergo, why in the world would someone go to school to study in a Journalism program?

I can't predict where the discussion will end up, either at Fisher or in the larger academy. But the fact that the conversations are happening so earnestly says something about the state of journalism and journalism instruction today.

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