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What the J-School will look like this fall

Letter from the RSJ chair
By: Janice Neil
May 29, 2020
Photo of the exterior of the Rogers Communications Centre in the Spring.

When I was a journalism student, one of our instructors was famous for a catchphrase: “Go. Don’t phone.” It was meant to jolt reporters out of their comfortable newsroom chairs, to get to the scene of the action. By going, you would pick up colour. Or perhaps someone would slip you a sensitive document.

When full-time classes resume this fall, the time-proven wisdom of “going” will be turned on its ear for RSJ students. Our reporting toolkit will lean more heavily on phoning (or Facetiming and Zooming) than physically going out on stories. That puts us in the same situation as all the working journalists out there, who continue to produce news and features every day, whether online, in print or for radio, podcasts and TV. Like them, journalism students, staff and instructors always have to be adapting to the circumstances in producing professional work in professional circumstances. It is also a great opportunity to innovate, necessity being the mother of invention.

When Ryerson’s president announced two weeks ago the university would be delivering courses online this fall, the School of Journalism was already in action.Sensing this was likely, we got ahead of the news, planning how we would pivot from what we know about teaching journalism in person (or, what we now call F2F) to the requirements of the new circumstances. For weeks, even as the winter semester was winding down, instructors were discussing which courses could best be delivered remotely, without diluting the core learning. We had already pulled off the remote teaching-in-a--pandemic pirouette. I’m proud of how quickly faculty and staff shifted in a matter of days in March from newsroom-studio-classrooms to coaching-by-Zoom.

Now we’re taking the next step, even while juggling new family pressures and concerns over health and safety. Our dedicated RSJ team has enrolled in its own (remote) classroom as we immerse ourselves in mastering the art of remote teaching. In fact, the day before Ryerson’s announcement, we spent an afternoon talking about this transition with one of the continent’s best journalism trainers, Al Tompkins from the Poynter Institute. For a decade, Tompkins has been bridging newsroom training with journalism education, creating a community of North American journalism instructors and we invited him to share ideas about how we can feel confident about bridging what we know about teaching in the ‘old days’ and now. Our instructors are working with our talented and innovative production and administrative staff (many of them RSJ alumni) to discover the best tools and platforms to produce engaging teaching. We’re attending webinars organized by professional journalism organizations, and, national teaching bodies including Ryerson’s Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

We are determined to retain alignment with the values that have informed the RSJ for more than 70 years with the realities this fall of teaching through a continued emergency pandemic. Nobody wants to sacrifice authenticity to exigency, particularly given how you, our students, have told us you will not be deterred in building the foundations of your journalism careers. I’m also proud of your resiliency; it’s the hallmark of great journalists. 

Here’s a glimpse of the evolving plan. First of all, we intend to offer almost every course we had originally lined up, although we will be postponing a couple of TV studio courses until the winter semester and we have cancelled our international reporting course to Asia. Since the school’s physical premises won’t be open, we are examining the use of equipment. When I became Chair of the School and considered its strategy for a digital age, three principles stood above all others: students were at the centre of what we did; innovation was essential to remaining relevant to audiences and society; the underlying social values of journalism remain constant even in upheaval.  

And so we will do what we do, even if, like journalists covering this pandemic and the world around it, it means creating new modes of communications and tools, like securing a camera to the end of a hockey stick. RSJ’s teaching approach is based on coaching and providing intensive feedback. Our goal remains exactly that while we are all remote, enabled by having even smaller classes for our core, foundational courses and adding more teaching assistants to many of our classes.

We’re also working to take the j-school Venn/Rogers Communications Centre buzz online by connecting students with our community of more than 7,000 alumni. At least once a week, we invite alumni to network with students and share their career experiences as reporters and communications experts. We’re also organizing professional development events. Please get in touch with Jaclyn Mika if you would like to participate or to suggest ideas.

But phone don’t go.