Degrees in the Past

For the past year, I’ve been taking a professional sabbatical. After 12 years of consulting full-time about new media with news industry executives, I accepted a one-year assignment to teach graduate school courses about new media business and experimental new media.

The reason I accepted the teaching assignment was certainly not for the money but because the majority of media company executives I’ve encountered during the past 12 years seemed incapable of grasping the fundamental changes underway in media. Even the newer ones, fresh out of school, seemed largely incapable of dealing with the changes underway. I wanted to travel upstream in their career path to see what could be done to train a new generation of media executives capable of comprehending and leading the future.

I expected to find university media school faculties to be full of people who want to upgrade their curricula for the 21st century; professors who needed some consulting help, much as media executives do. I expected to find university students who were avid users of new media and were confident of their mastery of those technologies.

What I found were faculties resistant to change and students whose insights and mastery of new media were being eroded by the authoritative resistance to change of so many professors.

It’s no secret where I’ve been teaching, and I’m not disparaging my school’s entire faculty. Perhaps a quarter of them are ardently trying to update media curricula to the 21st century.

But another quarter of the faculty is just as ardently trying to prevent any change. They’re obstructionists because they either deny things are changing (for example, one still thinks the Internet is a fad that will disappear) or they’ve grown too comfortable teaching the same curricula year after year for 20 or more years. They are tenured and so can’t be fired, and the doctrine of academic freedom allows them to teach whatever they see fit.

Meanwhile, the remaining half of the faculty would like to change and be up to date, but they resist taking steps to change, mainly because they don’t have the new skills and fear losing face before students or peers. Add those obstructionists to their number, and even basic changes can be voted down.

I initially suspected that most of the elder professors would be obstructionists, but I was surprised to find age isn’t that much of a factor. Although the youngest professors are for change, so are a great many of the oldest. It’s those aged in between who are most obstructive, those who worked in the media industries during the 1990s before entering academia.

During full-time consulting, I found that same obstructionist demographic to be true. The eldest in the media industries were often the most open to change, perhaps because they had a greater perspective than their peers. Executives in their 30s and 40s were most resistant to change. They wanted to continue doing what they’d learned in their 20s, what they’d mastered then, even if times had already changed.

Also, I’d initially suspected that the professors whose specialties were most affected by the Internet would be those most amenable to any change. I discovered otherwise. Although their department heads are avid for change, the majority of professors in the newspaper, magazine, and broadcast curricula are resistant or passively resistant.

Incoming students who are avid users of new media and confident of their mastery of those technologies have their confidence eroded by obstructionist professors who commandingly tell them new media skills aren’t important; that learning new technologies isn’t as important as learning the old theories and concepts, outdated concepts such as mass media theory, media companies as the gatekeepers of information, media companies as the agenda setters for communities, or that “content is king” (despite our living in digital republics).

I’ve lectured at dozens of media schools and I know that mine, despite what I’ve written here, is more progressive than most. However, I’ve discovered that the more prestigious the school, the more resistant it can be to change. Smaller, less prestigious schools adapt more quickly.

I’ve also discovered that media academics follow, rather than lead, their industries. Though schools of medicine, law, or engineering lead their industries, developing the new techniques and doctrines their industries use, this isn’t so with media and media schools. I realize that there are exceptions, but most schools of media still inculcate students to hew to the past, rather than sow the present or future.

Ultimately, to change our media industries, we’ve got to change what media schools teach.

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