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Sept. 24, 2012, 11 a.m.
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Robert Hernandez: Reboot journalism school? Take control of your education instead

USC’s Hernandez says students should bypass the normal route and “hijack your school’s assets to selfishly improve your skills.”

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Here’s Robert Hernandez, journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, with ideas on how students can make the resources of the j-school, and the web, better work for them.

“J-schools aren’t changing fast enough.”

“J-schools need new blood in academia.”

“J-schools need to be more like teaching hospitals.”

All these are true, but… there are some people who don’t wait. Students, if you are waiting for the curriculum to be the cutting edge journalism that will guarantee you a high paying job, you are wasting your time.

Yes, I said that. Because if you think a school’s curriculum or teaching structure determines your education, you are mistaken. That era is over. The era of textbooks being the authority is over. The era of professors having all the answers is over.

The reality of our current era is disruption. And it’s extremely exciting.

That means you can bypass the j-school debates and take control over your education by taking the most important step: Be actively involved in your education. This is even more important that deciding what school you’ll attend. Don’t wait for academia to determine what you need to know for modern journalism. Be proactive and find out by using digital media to help you learn those skills.

Think DIY. Think horizontal loyalty. Think of ways to hijack your school’s assets to selfishly improve your skills.

This means more than just attending the required classes. This means more work than is assigned. This means more than a letter grade or GPA. This means meeting and engaging with more than your classmates and professors at your school.

This means using the power of the web and social media to augment your education and introduce yourself to more than just the curriculum outlined by your individual school.

This means realizing that an older professor you have written off as “irrelevant” has so much more to teach you about life and journalism than you think.

This means working weekends on projects you are passionate about with friends who share that passion.

As you’ve heard time and time again, the journalism game has changed. So has the education game. And the biggest change is that you have the power to shape your own destiny — far more than just deciding which school you’ll attend. (Also, go to USC Annenberg.)

When I taught my first Intro to Online class, I introduced my students to the term “Google it.” At first, they thought I didn’t know the answers and I was using the search engine to cover up my shortcomings. (For the record, I don’t have all the answers. And, yes, I do use the search engine to find some…usually many different answers to the same question.) But those who have truly embraced the web know what that simple phrase really means: Empower yourself.

It’s the modern version of teaching someone how to fish. But why wait for someone to teach you how to fish when you can teach yourself? Since you are in an incredible learning environment, you can use the expertise and context from your j-school to make sure you are fishing correctly (and ethically). Make the effort — and it is extremely easy today — to find a diverse set of answers to your current question.

OBLIGATORY NOTE: When exploring the web, be a smart information consumer and consider the source. There is bad info out there. There is occasionally an echo chamber. But there is gold for you to mine. Be a journalist and treat “Googling” as reporting. I know I’m stating the obvious, but there are always people who need a reminder.

Teach yourself something new, like I taught myself CSS many years ago, and am now teaching myself JavaScript, Python, Ruby, and more today. (Here’s just a list of resources to start with: Codecademy, Learn Python The Hard Way, and The Bastards Book of Ruby.)

Go crash/audit a class. And make sure some of them aren’t about journalism.

Look, you can sit back with your arms folded expecting someone to teach you something, or you can do more. Go out and hunt for knowledge. And, while I said be selfish to find it, don’t be selfish in sharing it. Engage and educate your classmates, as well as your professors. But remember one more thing: You don’t have all the answers either.

Photo by Jeroen Bennink used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 24, 2012, 11 a.m.
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