Monday, November 28, 2005

Teaching media versus researching media

The weekend prior to Thanksgiving I was part of a SUNY Geneseo contingent that attended the annual Lilly Conference on Higher Education, at Miami University of Ohio. (It was great fun, and kudos to Becky Glass at our Teaching and Learning Center for doing such a magnificent job organizing the whole thing). This was a long weekend full of interesting and engaging (well, most of the time) presentations and interactive sessions on how to make teaching and learning more effective in the college setting. Shortly after I got back I happened to read a piece by Scott McLemee ("Meet the Press") in Inside Higher Ed -- a piece that clicked with how I see college teaching and learning evolving, particularly in the field of communication and media studies. McLemee's central argument is that, in the broader public debate about journalism's role in society, academic media analysis "plays no part at all, at least in its theoretically articulated variants" in influencing that debate. In other words, most of the academic research in the field of communication and media studies has little direct impact on journalists and their bosses as they go about their work. The problem, as he sees it, is that even the best academic analyses in the field of media studies don't have "traction" within newsrooms. Or, in McLemee's own words: "The most subtle and cogent analysis by a rhetorician of how The Times or CNN frames its stories has all the pertinence to a reporter or editor that a spectrographic analysis of jalapeno powder would to someone cooking chili."

Up to a point I'd agree with that, though I'd contend that academic media studies do have a palpable influence on journalism, though it's slow, indirect and often hard to find--apart from anything else, working journalists who have already entered the field would hate to admit to being directly influenced by academic studies. And that brings me to teaching and learning in higher ed. Because I think that professors in communication are best served by striving to show comm students (actually, all students) how to be more critically aware media producers and media consumers while they're still at college. This is especially important in the U.S., which has such a woefully inadequate record of teaching media literacy in high school (in sharp contrast to countries such as Canada, Australia, and England). I could write a dozen peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles analyzing the media's role in society. Yes, it'd be great to have that sort of publishing record behind me. And yes, I believe that sort of scholarly activity still has worth (for one thing, it shows that published professors do have real expertise in their field of inquiry; and some of the ideas and findings from all this research does eventually seep through into the professional press and even into the newsrooms). But ultimately, for me, it's more important to have some direct impact on my students -- to help them become better critical thinkers. Part of that direct impact comes from my ability to engage in meaningful and publishable research. But it's also important to encourage them to conduct some original analysis and research of their own (in class or outside class). The extent to which I can facilitate that is the extent to which I'll be an effective educator.

In that spirit, McLemee concludes his piece as follows:

    It is now much easier to publish and broadcast than ever before. In other words, the power to cover and event or a topic has increased. But the skills necessary to foster meaningful discussion are not programmed into the software. They have to be cultivated.

    That’s where people from academe come in. The most substantial interventions in shaping mass media probably won’t come from conference papers and journal articles, but in the classroom — by giving the future citizen journalist access, not just to technology, but to cognitive tools.

So research does have an important and ongoing role to play--as long as it stays closely connected to student learning. That applies whether it's me doing the research or the students.

Hope you all had a happy--and safe--Thanksgiving.

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