Over the summer I returned to the newsroom after a five year hiatus to conduct what some academics refer to as ‘self managed time’.
As a lecturer in journalism I feel it is important to keep up to date with changes in the industry and for me personally the best way of doing this is with a hands-on approach. No matter how much I read about the subject or how much I research and interview journalists, I feel that the best knowledge comes from experience.
Therefore taking an ethnographic approach to staff development seemed a natural thing to do.
I spent a few days at a regional newspaper reporting news for the paper and website, writing stories, taking photographs, shooting and editing video, designing pages, uploading content to the web and using social media.
I found it extremely valuable as it reinforced many of the things I have been teaching but also gave me ideas for how to develop our journalism provision.
As a regular blogger, I wrote a piece about my experience on my own website which received positive feedback and gained some momentum on Twitter.
Where relevant, I would advise other academics to undertake a similar process, even those who are not former practitioners. I believe that first person experience will always trump intellectual theorising on a subject and is certainly deemed more credible by students.
Work shadowing or work experience is a great way to view your subject in a fresh light and to help you understand the work place your students will be stepping into as graduates.
However, as my own experience shows, I would be more cautious about writing a blog on the experience.
My particular work experience reflective blog was well received by the staff I worked alongside and retweeted by the newspaper publisher. However this meant it gathered attention and I was contacted by an industry website who interviewed me about the experience.
This is where things took a different turn and I was perhaps not cautious enough.
The subsequent story written by the trade website was not a positive one and was angled as an attack on the newspaper I had been working at. Admittedly I had raised concerns about practice across the industry but I had not been singling out the one particular newspaper.
I was not happy about the article but as a former journalist myself I understood why the reporter had taken the angle he did. I was more angry at myself that I did not see it coming and did not choose my words more carefully.
The knock on effect of the story was that many of the staff at the newspaper I did work experience at were upset/disappointed/angry at me and that contact has probably been severed.
I also received some personal attacks on the comment thread of the news story questioning my teaching practice, the (very successful) course I work on and even comments on my sex life! This was not because they disagreed with my criticism – indeed everyone appeared to agree – but it was because it was felt I was stating the obvious.
I have thick skin, so I took a calm approach and simply wrote a response to the story and comments. However I did find it bizarre that firstly I was slammed for doing work experience and wanting to improve my knowledge of my subject area (because of course as academics we all know absolutely everything and shouldn’t need to experience anything at all in the real world) and secondly that I was accused of being out of touch even though what I was trying to do was stay in touch. Also if everyone already knew what I had pointed out why did the website deem it a newsworthy story in the first place?
I guess what surprised me the most, was not the angry journalists, but the response of other academics. But at the end of the day you cannot please everyone and you won’t win whatever you do. The point of the exercise was my own staff and curriculum development and sharing it on a blog and via a news story was simply a way of sharing practice, something academics do on a regular basis.
So whatever you decide to do just be prepared to face (and ignore where necessary) the reaction…