The Place of Critical Self-Reflection In Journalism Education:

An Inquiry Into Student Responses To The Theoretical And Practical Components Of The Undergraduate Curriculum

This is a paper that Jane prepared alongside Fotini Papatheodorou for the second International Conference of the Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art & Design, 2004.

 

 

The Place of Critical Self-Reflection In Journalsim Education: An Inquiry Into Student Responses To The Theoretical And Practical Components Of The Undergraduate Curriculum 

Dr Jane Chapman, School of Journalism, Lincoln University and Dr Fotini Papatheodorou ,Media School, London College of Communication

 

1. INTRODUCTION
Most journalism educators within Higher Education declare that they want their students to become 'reflective practitioners', agreeing that the development of critical abilities is one of the main advantages of academic study for future journalists. Many also identify as a key issue in seeking to achieve such a goal the lack of integration between the theoretical and practical components of relevant curricula both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Indeed, evidence we collected in the course of previous research into the selection and organization of knowledge in BAs in Journalism suggested that while highly appreciative of academic study, students were unable to establish connections between theoretical knowledge and their practical training.
The current project is therefore informed firstly, by the findings of previous extensive research into the first two British undergraduate degree programmes in journalism, both introduced in 1991; secondly, by teaching on both the theoretical and practical components of journalism programmes at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. Both experiences have led to the recognition of a need for further research into students' cognitive processes as an important first step towards overcoming the theory-practice divide in the journalism and more generally, in any practice-based curriculum. Therefore this project aimed to measure more systematically: a) the students' own perception of journalistic practice and b) the implications of the current organization of practice-based and academic knowledge upon student learning. Furthermore, based on the gathered evidence, the study explores the potential of theoretical knowledge to inform -and ultimately transform- practice. The research involves the analysis of questionnaires, self-reflexive reports, assignment briefs and tutor feedback from an extensive sample of the BA Journalism at the London College of Communication. The undergraduates surveyed were in year two and were selected because they were at the point where they were experiencing projects that exemplified the theory-practice divide: a work placement, an academic 'research (long) essay, and a forthcoming 10,000 word dissertation. They were also studying feature writing, an area of practice that reveals potential for curriculum development aimed at integrating long form journalism with traditional academic writing. Furthermore, they were the only cohort at LCC to experience the 'Guardian Project': a pilot aimed at integrating theory and practice.
Drawing on Shirley Grundy's (1987) book 'Curriculum: Product or Praxis?' we discuss the need to reconsider the content and place of academic study in journalism education, arguing that the missing link between theory and practice is to be found in the act of critical reflection. In her work, Grundy applies Habermas'(1978) theory of knowledge-constitutive interests to the study of curriculum policy, exploring the possibilities for a curriculum that not only encourages critical thinking, but also leads to autonomous action in the world. While the emancipatory potential of higher education is a commonplace claim, Grundy's study of the curriculum identifies types of knowledge and methods through which educators may seek to realise such an objective. Along with Habermas, she stresses the significance of critical self-reflection for an emancipatory education. We, too, intend to argue that by learning to exercise self-reflection, practitioners of every kind may acquire significant insights into the nature of their own practice and be able to act in more autonomous ways in the workplace as well as in the world at large.
2. SELECTION OF KNOWLEDGE IN THE UNDERGRADUATE JOURNALISM CURRICULUM
The term curriculum is an elusive one. Borrowing from R. Williams, Apple (1990) offers two useful conceptual tools: selection and social and cultural reproduction, for an investigation into the interplay of social interests and ideologies structuring higher education curricula. In view of the current shift of emphasis towards practical competencies and vocational training, Apple's study raises questions which are crucial to the present investigation into the educational aims of BAJ programmes: Who controls the selection of knowledge? According to what criteria? 
With regard to the principles guiding selection, an interesting finding of our previous research back in the late 1990s was that in both degree programmes examined , the practical and theoretical components had been treated as two separate domains of study.
a. The practical component
The idea guiding much of the provision in media-related practice is that ofprofessionalism. The aim of the practical training of the two Journalism BAs, first introduced in 1991, was to provide a broad range of skills in print journalism often including some training to the techniques of radio and television. Our previous research identified that teachers of journalism saw 'professionalism' as the development of the skills and competences defined by the news industry, to the standard that this industry required1. Standards are still set and monitored by the various accrediting bodies in which major industrial groups and interests were represented. Concern with keeping up with the standards set by employers has led curriculum planners in both courses to reflect continuously on the methods of teaching and assessment of practice, constantly updating the taught skills and the necessary technology .
Our research showed a broad agreement on the core skills around which both of the two practice-based curricula under examination have been organized.
b. The Selection of Theoretical Knowledge
Historically, the lack of a body of knowledge underpinning journalism presented curriculum planners with the double problem of identifying types of knowledge that could both:
lend academic legitimacy to journalism as an undergraduate subject of study and
- be of relevance to the practice.
To address the first of these issues, the BAJ curriculum had to be based, or at least draw, "from coherent bodies of knowledge which go beyond mere skill and are capable of being explicated and taught at a high level"(Squires, 1990:45). As a case in point, the academic component studied by the present year two cohort at LCP consists of journalism history and contemporary issues within the remit of 'journalism studies'. The latter issue, however, was more difficult to tackle, as there is not a body of theory that could be seen as directly relevant to the practice. Relevance was, as a consequence, defined in both institutions not on the basis of knowledge content, but of the critical and analytical abilities associated with academic study.
The main question, that persists however, is how higher order contemplative skills such as analysis, synthesis, and generalization, as well as a questioning approach to prevailing assumptions might be relevant to a practice that is always seen, in Britain at least, as incompatible with the very idea of critical reflection.
3. CRITICAL SELF-REFLECTION: BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THEORY AND PRACTICE
As a result of the way in which the two areas of knowledge have been organized in the BAJ curriculum, 'learning to think' and 'learning to do'have remained so far two separate processes, with distinctive aims and objectives. Students have been expected to identify for themselves the relevance of academic knowledge for the practices they engage into as trainee journalists.
This tends to result from the existence of two separate agendas (one defined by the media industry, the other by the academic community) and two resultant kinds of ethos underlying the curriculum structure:
Firstly, that of the practitioner, which is oriented towards correct action, guided by feedback and characterized by an unquestioning approach to set rules.
Second, the academic ethos, arguably subjugated to the former, which seeks to encourage students "not only to learn, but to think about what they are learning, to challenge the assumptions, to question the questions, to consider the alternatives" (Squires, 1990: 57).The two aspects of the BAJ curriculum correspond to two different models of higher education, as these are identified by Barnett (1997).The practical component represents thecompetence model, where emphasis is placed on effective performance. It is characterized by fixed objectives, teaching methods and content. "It implies that the educator will produce an educant who will behave according to the image which we already have of a person who has learnt what we set out to teach" (Grundy op cit: 29). In such a learning situation both knowledge and the learner are objectified. Knowledge is used as a means to a pre-determined end, while the educatee is treated as an object for the teacher to act upon. Skinner et.al. ( 2001:345) have similarly argued that the rote learning involved in the craft based approach to journalism news practice 'denies any relation to epistemology'. They propose not only the development of critical thinking and reflexivity but also an emphasis on the social construction of ' facts' within practice education.
The theory-based areas of the two degree programmes, on the other hand, relate most clearly to the academic model. This focuses on "critical thinking towards formalized knowledge"(Barnett, 1997:105) and on a greater interaction between teachers and students with the aim of developing and deepening understanding. It places a high premium upon the ability of all participants in the educational process to apply personal judgment and as such to encourage greater intellectual independence.
Heavily concentrating on performance, the competence model allows very little room for reflection. To the extent that this is possible, reflection may be no more than a reconsideration of how better to apply the rules guiding journalistic practice in order to achieve pre-specified objectives.
On the other hand, since the sole purpose of the academic model is the critique of knowledge, critical thinking may have few, if any, implications for action. For instance, journalism undergraduates may engage through essay work in a Marxist critique of social relations, while in a practical assignment, such as the coverage of an industrial dispute, they may privilege dominant interests(e.g. corporate management) through the routine use of what are regarded by their profession as authoritative sources. A critical understanding of social structures may thus not lead necessarily to the interrogation of the cultural assumptions underlying journalists' definitions of 'source credibility'.
Such an understanding of the world emerging out of academic study can only be relevant to human action if authenticated through the act of self-reflection. Thus, theoretical statements cannot be true in general, but true for individuals or groups of people asking themselves such questions as:
"How relevant is this to my experience"?
"What implications could this have for my own actions"? 
In the case of journalism education, critical self-reflection could be exercised at three different domains, or levels (see also table 1): firstly, at the level of personal action; second, in the domain of the overall field of practice - that is, journalism as an occupation, as well as the context of the media industry within which it is practiced - that is , to question the core practices and values upon which journalism is based; and, finally, in the wider context of the social phenomena which provide the subjects for journalistic practice and, thus, on the conceptual frameworks which journalists are utilising to make sense of the surrounding world. The academic fields of history, politics, social sciences (sociology, psychology), media and cultural studies as well as linguistics and discourse analysis could contribute theories that generate critical insights into journalistic practice. The exploration of journalism as an invented and hence susceptible to change, set of practices, or the identification of institutional constraints and the possibilities for alternative kinds of action in the workplace , can prove empowering learning experiences.
The responses in our surveys suggested that although students appreciate the significance of broader critical awareness and understanding of the media and their social context, they were unable to link this to practice in any more than the most general way. None of the respondents attempted a definition of their understanding of journalism and how this might have changed as a result of relevant academic study. Moreover, it appeared that students had difficulty in identifying more explicitly the implications that a critical understanding of journalism could have upon their future actions as practitioners.
Overall, the questionnaire results revealed the need for further improvement in curriculum design and delivery, as was exemplified by the student response to the 'Guardian Project'. Visiting the Guardian Newsroom archive centre, students were required to use historical sources in order to produce a front page dated 1921, as a commemorate issue of the newspaper's 100th anniversary. Most students failed to identify positive learning outcomes such as the introduction to on-screen techniques of layout and design, accuracy and working in pairs. Although some recognised the benefits to feature writing of interrogating and editing source material, the cross curricula aspects of the project would have emerged more clearly if the learning outcomes had been stressed at an early stage. A more effective reorganisation of teaching methods and teamwork is clearly required.
4. ENCOURAGING STUDENT SELF REFLECTION: A FIRST STEP TOWARDS THE DEVELOPMENT OF A CRITICAL BAJ CURRICULUM
When addressing the selection and delivery of content, significant similarities between academic study and journalism emerge. So far, there has been no attempt at the systematic comparison between the constitutive elements of the two practices. Both are mainly sense-making activities,relying on language and conceptual frameworks in order to approach and give meaning to the experienced world. In our most recent survey, some respondents referred to their ability 'to relate theory to everyday practice' and to the grounding it provided 'for making existential decisions'. They also identified as particularly useful, themes such as globalisation, that are capable of further cross curricula exploitation.
Thus, in an attempt to establish a greater connection between theoretical analysis and practical work, we are now planning an exercise during which students will be invited to write an academic essay (of around 2,000 words) and a 1,000-word feature article on the subject of globalisation for a broadsheet paper observing this publication's deadlines. They will be subsequently asked to identify for themselves any differences or similarities in the writing of the two assignments:
  • How far can critical thinking, developed in the process of essay preparation, feed into the newspaper article?
  • How limiting are the conventions of journalistic discourse for a more analytical approach to a complex issue?
  • What alternatives are there for the students to explore in the process of feature writing?
Moreover, to further develop the journalism curriculum we are in need of a systematic examination and understanding of the nature of the processes and actions that constitute journalistic practice, drawing from a variety of disciplines, including the philosophy of knowledge and studies in professional education. For instance, how similar or how different is journalism as an information gathering process, to similar processes that Eraut(1992) has associated with academic study, and other professional practices?
Thus, in addition to the above questions, students will be asked to compare the information gathering methods they apply to news and feature-writing, to those they apply in the preparation of academic assignments, guided by Eraut's classification (see table below):
INFORMATION GATHERING PROCESSES ASSOCIATED WITH ACADEMIC STUDY
1) Exposure to a body of knowledge 
Formulating questions
Reading
Observing
Listening
Collecting evidence
Discovering principles
2) Meaning extraction 
Analysing
Re-organising
Integrating
3) Affixing significance 
Generalising
Testing validity
Relating to other situations or factors
Such exercises encourage in students a more critical understanding of journalism as a set of invented conventions and possibly a creative consideration of alternatives. Overall, a critical journalism curriculum can only come into being if practitioners are prepared to problematise their own practice, both within the classroom and the work place through the undertaking of research. Action Research, particularly as described in Carr and Kemmis' work (1986), contains aspects that may be especially relevant in the process of re-thinking the teaching of journalism. Both participative and collaborative in nature, action research is the practitioners' own critical inquiry into the problems they identify as inherent in their particular field of practice. Their theoretical model informed the designing of our questionnaires.
Additionally, as part of the effort to enhance the links between theory and practice, we are introducing an evaluative report that will allow students to assess the relevance of theoretical study to their own experience of practice and to engage in a critical inquiry into the problems they identify as inherent in their field of practice. Where evaluative reports are used, they should be accompanied by tutor feedback, providing a flexible vehicle for the further development of teaching and learning. When such features become embedded in to the curriculum, they must not become formulaic. Rather, critical self-reflection should provide an opportunity for a dialogue about the definition of journalist practice, to replace the understanding of such practice as given or 'natural'.
CONCLUSION
Overall, responses to our survey, suggested that students found it difficult to adopt a more questioning stance vis-à-vis journalistic practices in the light of critical theory or to identify more explicitly the implications that a critical understanding of journalism could have upon their future actions as practitioners. Their attitudes towards the relevance of theoretical knowledge to journalism seemed to reflect that of the designers of the course. Thus, while the general theoretical background was seen to be important and useful, the content and form of teaching and assessment seemed to encourage little, if any, critical reflection upon the nature of journalism as a practice. At the same time, the students seemed to draw ideas and inspiration and to recognize the potential for alternatives in terms of style, practice and an overall professional stance, from writings on journalism and especially the work of major figures in the field such as George Orwell and Tom Wolfe. Such works seemed to generate more thinking about the role and agency of journalists. Therefore, there might be significant scope in exploring ways in which the teaching and assessment of relevant subjects can be more directly linked to the practical component of the BAJ. The survey data proved a valuable first step towards reviewing the curriculum in order to combine 'working to rule' where appropriate, with areas of study where practical activity is critically re-examined in the light of theory to allow for an informed exploration of alternatives.
In the longer term, the selection and organisation of content as well as the methods of teaching may require a radical transformation so that a more critical-self reflexive stance towards practice is encouraged throughout the three years of academic study. In view of the current climate in British higher education, the challenge for university educators, is to enable their students to transform practices in their future workplace into praxis. To this end, in the field of journalism- as in all practice-oriented areas of study- it is necessary that the dichotomous conceptualisation of knowledge as theoretical and practical is overcome and that teachers, be they 'practitioners' or 'theoreticians', are brought together into a critical community engaging in an open-ended dialogue, to collectively pursue the future development of journalist education. It is hoped that this paper will make a modest contribution to this debate.
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