The debate of the college major is an endless uphill battle; you can ponder and argue and make all the decisions you want without ever truly knowing if you’re making the right choice. It is impossible for a major to guarantee personal success, yet choosing one can feel like closing yourself off to only a select few career paths. The majors that are most valued by academic institutions constantly change as society shifts its priorities and goals.
If I had known what I wanted to do before entering college, there is a good chance I would not have ended up at the University of Michigan. I have always been a writer and wanted to pursue that in some form, but my work with The Daily opened up my love for journalism. Since realizing what I wanted to pursue, I have buried myself in deciding what major and classes are the “next best thing.” History, communications, sociology and psychology are only a few of the phases I’ve gone through just in this past semester. The University’s lack of a journalism major has made me wonder whether or not I necessarily need to major in it at all.
For students interested in journalism like myself, the debate of practicality versus academic value for undergraduate majors becomes even more concentrated. A major in journalism can offer plenty of benefits: direct writing and reporting training, a specialized curriculum and access to professors who have had work experience in the news sphere. However, a journalism degree could be too specific and prevent students from experiencing a more theoretical, well-rounded education.
In a report from the Knight Foundation, a non-profit committed to keeping journalism alive through investment and grants, Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian puts it bluntly:
“Journalism schools are teaching journalistic techniques rather than subject matter. Journalists should be cultured people who know about history, economics, science. Instead they are learning what is called nuts and bolts. Like schools of education, journalism schools should either be reintegrated intellectually into the university or they should be abolished.”
Here at the University, they have chosen the latter. After a complicated, century-long revamping of what is now the Department of Communication and Media, the original journalism program at the University was eradicated. Although it’s unclear why this choice was made, many opponents of the decision saw it as an elitist way of weeding out students interested in a vocational education.
Professor Derek Vaillant, who is also associate chair of undergraduate studies within the Communications and Media department, explained the combination of numerous extinct programs (Journalism, Speech, Theater, Cultural Studies, etc.) into the department we know today.
The committee that chose to shut down the journalism program, Vaillant says, was charged by many faculty and students for being elitist and condescending. Many argued that the University’s journalism program “lacked national impact.”
“(Saying ‘lacked national impact’) is a sort of a way of saying: it’s not very prestigious, it’s not very good,” Vaillant said. “Was it not very good for training professional journalists? I’m not sure. Was it not very good in the way that it seemed kind of vocational and like something that state schools do to pay the bills? Maybe that’s closer to the truth.”
In an attempt to stay true to being the “leaders and best,” the University removed a program with consistent student and faculty interest. Prioritizing the liberal arts and academic thought over vocational training is a staple in America’s most selective universities, such as those in the Ivy League. Other highly ranked public schools such as the University of California, Los Angeles, University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia also utilize this liberal arts approach. By abolishing our journalism program, the University is seemingly leaning into the identity of an elite institution rather than the large public university that it is.
Beyond the fact that few journalism courses exist here to begin with, many of them reside under aliases such as “immersion writing,” “creative nonfiction” and “public writing.” The word “journalism” has become somewhat of a four-letter word to academics who prioritize abstract ideas over practical skill training. We hear very little of what Peabody award winner and visiting professor in the Department of Communication and Media, Robert Yoon, refers to as the “J word” within U-M academics.
Undergraduate journalism degrees, with a few possible exceptions from top-tier universities such as Northwestern University and the University of Southern California, seem to be associated with lucrative job training rather than academic thought. By diluting these journalism courses into the English and Communication and Media departments, the University strives to associate itself with top-tier academia rather than career preparation.
“Especially if you look at the English department, there are all these kinds of creative writing programs and (the euphemism “long form reporting”) is one of the genres,” Vaillant said. “I think (the English department) has incorporated some of this form of education, but it’s done very carefully because they don’t want a perception of overemphasizing vocation at the expense of this more idealized life of the mind, humanities sort of ideal, which is the ideal of the modern university.”
Although I understand the University’s desire to remain a place of higher learning rather than of vocational training, this sentiment represents faculties’ disregard for students’ interests. The decision to eradicate the journalism program was made by faculty even though hundreds of students continue to be involved in student publications. Instead of focusing on teaching what students are most passionate about, this decision seems to have been made in order to ensure that every U-M program was deemed better than the rest.
It is undeniable that there is a demand for journalism education at this school regardless of the administration’s decision. The Michigan Daily is one of the largest student-run newspapers in the country, with hundreds of current staffers and an impressive array of alumni involved in the journalism field. Students majoring in anything from German to Biology have discovered a passion for uncovering truths about our campus.
And this may be a good thing; a diverse academic background could widen the scope of news stories and ensure the inclusion of a range of voices. Nonetheless, a lack of formal training leaves students to their own devices. Developing journalistic skills in an academic context requires the all-too-familiar scouring of the LSA Course Guide for the few journalism-related courses that are offered. Finding internships and connecting with relevant alumni is also often left largely up to the student, whereas other established departments typically provide at least some major-specific resources for their students.
It seems that attempting to obtain any sort of journalism education at the University is an investigative project in itself.
I still have no idea what I’m going to study, which stressfully contradicts my strong desire to pursue journalism. Although my chronic indecisiveness and obsessive tendencies may cause a totally different career choice down the road, I know that if there was a journalism program available to me, I would want to be in it. There would be no “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” — my nerves could finally settle — and the LSA Course Guide would no longer be my most visited website. But I know that just because it would be an easy choice doesn’t necessarily mean it would be the right one.
Because I have been able to take a wide range of classes through the natural leniency of LSA, my writing feels somewhat more informed. Rather than learning formulaic writing, I have had the chance to explore numerous disciplines and gain perspective on the world beyond writing itself. Topics I’ve learned about in class have sparked ideas for pieces, which is definitely a plus to the liberal arts experience. Combining majors and minors to create a unique concoction of my interests, while stressful, is an encompassing display of the flexibility LSA provides. Although I am always on the lookout for journalism-adjacent courses, there is definitely some beauty to never feeling locked into a specialized program.
Professor Robert Yoon understood the difficulty of identifying journalism-related campus resources without a formal program.
“It takes kind of an entrepreneurial spirit or initiative on the part of the student to go out and find the specific classes or find resources available on campus,” Yoon said. “That alone, you could argue, is part of developing the skill of a journalist: going out and finding the information that’s relevant to you.”
Although they are more difficult to seek out than other disciplines, there are numerous journalistic resources on campus. The Michigan Daily, of course, provides real-time training to student reporters and editors. There is an array of communications and English classes available that enhance students’ understanding of the news in terms of its societal implications and its literary production. Other opportunities such as Knight-Wallace fellowships, journalism internships funded by the English department and the Great Lakes Writing Corps assist students in gaining legitimate journalism experience.
Being a good journalist is a learned skill; the controversy begins when we discuss where that skill should be developed. The issue of whether journalists should hone their craft in college or on the job persistently impacts the availability of high-quality journalism education programs.
Yoon also added that the argument against journalism degrees is not necessarily only driven by elitist desires.
“There is a school of thought that a journalism degree is not necessary to become a journalist, and that you’re just as well off studying whatever it is you’re interested in,” Yoon said. “And that knowledge base is something that you could build on to enter into a career in journalism.”
As an incoming sophomore at the University, it frustrates me that I know exactly what I want to do but have to wait three more years to actually learn how to do it. I do know that I chose this school for good reasons and I trust that it, at least partially, has my best interest at heart. I also know that the University sees journalism as a legitimate profession. Although it is daunting to imagine entering a profession with little to no undergraduate training for it, I trust that the University will get me to where I want to go.
The University is always praised simply for just being itself. Attending this school, regardless of your major, is portrayed to give you a leg up in the professional world on its own. As strange as it is to tell people that my intended career path and major are notably different, the chance to explore the liberal arts and its big ideas will likely never be available to me again after college. Beyond writing, learning is another love of mine that I am extremely thankful to be enjoying every day of my college experience, journalism major or not.
No matter how confident they are in their beliefs, nobody can really tell you what’s right and wrong in the complicated world of job searches and higher education. All we can do is try our best to find something we’re passionate about and run with it. Maybe my love for writing and passion for fighting rampant disinformation will propel me into a career I find fulfilling and appropriate for whatever circumstances my life will hold. Maybe what I major in won’t matter at all, and I’ll be glad to have avoided a practical academic experience. I guess I’ll get back to you in about 20 years.
Statement correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.