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J-school: Still Eating Brains?

New York magazine's Daily Intel had a piece yesterday on Columbia J-School's fitful efforts to keep its curriculum current in light of the rapidly evolving contours of American media:

Beginning in August, Columbia will offer a revamped, digitally focused curriculum designed to make all students as capable of creating an interactive graphic as they are of pounding out 600 words on a community-board meeting....

But the push for modernization has also raised the ire of some professors, particularly those closely tied to Columbia’s crown jewel, RW1 [i.e., "Reporting and Writing 1"]. “Fuck new media,” the coordinator of the RW1 program, Ari Goldman, said to his RW1 students on their first day of class, according to one student. Goldman, a former Times reporter and sixteen-year veteran RW1 professor, described new-media training as “playing with toys,” according to another student, and characterized the digital movement as “an experimentation in gadgetry.”

Look, I'm as unhappy about the decline of print as anyone, but for someone who is paid to teach students the skills they will need as future journalists to adopt this attitude is gross professional malfeasance. Sending those kids onto the job market unprepared for what it holds isn't going to turn back the clock.

In any case, like any mention of Columbia J-School--and especially any that suggests it's hidebound and generally unhelpful--this news reminded me of Michael Lewis's classic 1993 TNR takedown (coverline: "J-School Ate My Brain"). A few choice excerpts:

"Those of you who don't own spell checkers, get one," [associate dean for academic affairs Steven] Isaacs bellowed. "Those nits! Those nits are what make the total. That's what journalism is! It's getting the details right. Get everything right! Precisely, 100 percent right. If you can't get everything right, you better question whether this is the right place for you. As Flaubert said, God is in the details."

Actually, he didn't. Mies van der Rohe did. Flaubert, if he said anything close, said God is in the good details, although even that never has been verified. Isaacs went uncorrected, however, which is one of the advantages of being a dean instead of a journalist....

Last fall Columbia's placement director boasted to students that 45 percent of the class of 1992 had found jobs or internships in journalism. Perhaps, but to appreciate that figure fully you must know that 50 percent of the class came to the school from full-time jobs in journalism. Another 20 percent had internships. Assuming the numbers provided by Columbia students and faculty are accurate, the journalism school redirected 25 percent of the class of 1992 into other occupations....

"C'mon," said the other professor, "tell us your nut graph."

I gave up and dropped the pad. "What's a nut graph?" I asked.

"He doesn't know what a nut graph is!" someone shouted.

The adjunct professor took pity. He tried again, gently. "In the article you are writing about the school," he said. "What's your null hypothesis?"

My null hypothesis?

My null hypothesis! My angle. My bias. My take. My. . .point. . .of. . .view!

"My null hypothesis," I said, "is that the Columbia Journalism School is all bullshit."

They paused. "That's a good null hypothesis," said one, finally.

Those who've read the piece probably remember it. Those who haven't, enjoy.

Update: Nick Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, called to request that I add a bit of context, none of which conflicts with what I wrote: first, that Ari Goldman's outburst in no way represents school policy; second, that to the best of his knowledge Columbia offers more new-media instruction than any other J-School; and third, that a great deal has changed in the 16 years since Lewis's piece, in particular with regard to the employment numbers for graduates.

--Christopher Orr