Justifying J-school

Orville Schell, dean of UC-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism defends the J-school choice.

By Orville Schell
January 23, 1999 1:51AM (UTC)
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In her recent Salon piece, "Advice from a J-school dropout," Lea Aschkenas has a point. Journalism schools are not for everyone -- evidently, at least, not for her. Indeed, whether I myself was cut out for a journalism school was also a question I wrestled with before becoming dean at the University of California at Berkeley two years ago. I had not gone to journalism school and yet still managed to make my way. Of course, there are a great variety of journalism schools. But much of what I knew of their mélange of mass communications, advertising, public relations and journalism had not always impressed me as creating the optimal environment for some smart, energetic and able person who wanted to become a first-rate journalist, especially someone not attracted to newspaper reporting. So what am I doing here at Berkeley?

I was intrigued by the idea of trying to reshape a school that did justify itself by being in the real world of journalism, intellectually exciting and capable of passing on some of the best aspects of the craft from one generation to another. The question I was left to ponder in thinking about taking my present job was: How would one best accomplish this goal?


My answer was to try to create a collegium of working journalists in photography, magazine writing, newspaper reporting, documentary film, television, radio and new media who would teach at Berkeley by doing as much as by pedagogically holding forth. After all, I thought, hadn't I begun to learn the craft as a graduate student by being asked to work on a three-volume book by a senior professor, and then by being let in the door at the New Yorker as a neophyte and getting to work with several truly great editors? Alas, this is no longer the kind of environment that most media outlets present young aficionados of the craft. So, in becoming dean at the Graduate School of Journalism, my challenge was to try to replicate such an environment by putting together a collegium of great journalists who would come to Berkeley to continue working on their own projects, teach and hopefully enjoy and profit from each other's company.

Crucial to doing this was an inspiring faculty, people like former New York Times Latin America bureau chief Lydia Chavez; NPR reporter William Drummond; former Washington Post Africa bureau chief Neil Henry; former Mother Jones editor Doug Foster; ABC television producer Paul Mason; MacArthur Foundation "genius award"-winning documentary filmmaker Jon Else; and author and Wall Street Journal columnist David Littlejohn, who spent a year with his students going back and forth to Las Vegas putting together a collectively written book that Oxford University Press is about to publish. And while we're at it, let's not forget those Berkeley faculty who at school expense will take their students to Nicaragua and El Salvador, Hong Kong and South Africa this spring on international reporting trips.

Another way to help create this "different kind of school" was to bring to Berkeley what we call "teaching fellows," practicing journalists who come from around the world for a semester or a full year to be in-residence, work on their own projects and teach a class. We have been graced with people like New Yorker staff writer Mark Danner, who is just completing a monumental 10-part series on Bosnia for the New York Review of Books; author, Time magazine essayist and Harper's contributor Barbara Ehrenreich; PBS "Frontline" correspondent and "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergmann; Los Angeles Times investigative team leader Tim Reiterman; Vogue writer Kennedy Fraser; Vanity Fair and Nation staff writer (and Salon contributor) Christopher Hitchens; former St. Louis Post Dispatch editor Bill Woo; Fortune Hong Kong bureau chief Jeffery Bartholet; Los Angeles Times film critic Ken Turan; Newsday science writer Laurie Garrett; and syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, among others. They come not to preach, but to get matched up with 10 or so students in what usually end up being tutorials more than classes. The job of teaching fellows is to roll up their sleeves and help students work on pieces and then get them out into the real world.


Do we go for what Aschkenas describes as "big-name visiting professors"? You bet. I want the very best people in the world at Berkeley. But just because they have "big names" does not mean that we don't expect them to be attentive, to work hard with students and to be part of life at the school. Of course, teaching fellows also have their own projects to do. After all, the reason we want them is because they are in the real world. (Our object is to get the real world running through our doorway and our students out into the real world.) I've seen teaching fellows work out to miraculous good effect. Nonetheless, the chemistry doesn't always work. To work out at our kind of school, a student must be proactive in building relationships with these senior people. Here, as everywhere else in life, the squeaking hinge gets the most oil. After all, the relationship between students and faculty at Berkeley is not so dissimilar from that which exists between journalists and editors and producers in the "real world." It's a two-way street. It takes two to fail -- or to succeed. Sometimes the chemistry works, and sometimes it doesn't. When it does work and students get published someplace good like Harper's, the Los Angeles Times or Wired, or get jobs at the New York Times, CNN or Salon, it's wonderful.

So what happened to Aschkenas? Hard to say. Her manifold internships may have made school seem redundant. I had three or four talks with her while she was still at Berkeley and even ended up spending most of a New York to San Francisco flight editing a piece of writing she'd done set in Latin America. My impression was that she seemed more inclined to fiction than nonfiction. It's an honorable calling, but one that is likely to be frustrated at a journalism school.

In any event, I hope Aschkenas finds the kind of mentoring in the "real world" that seems to have eluded her at Berkeley. She writes that "I left journalism school to do journalism." She got it just right. After all, journalism school is hardly an end in itself. Indeed, for some the end may come before it begins. Some may go only halfway through before exiting. Most, however, do finish our two-year program. (We even have students who stay on an extra year before taking the plunge into a full-time job because there are still people they want to work with.)


Nonetheless, journalism schools are not ends in themselves. As Zen masters have been fond of pointing out, one must never mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.

Orville Schell

Orville Schell, author of numerous books and articles on China, is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

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