Networked Journalism Education

Escaping the academic pit of despair

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OurTahoelogoI love my job at a small state university. I love my colleagues and my students. But despite all that love, we failed big time at building a new graduate program in journalism that could have been a huge success.

I could say we failed because our visionary leader died suddenly in the first year of implementing the project. Or that we got so passionate and attached to our ideas that two team members ended up leaving the university altogether as a result of constant fights. Or that our reach extended our grasp. Or that we were totally unrealistic in estimating what it would take to make the idea fly.

But honestly, looking at my part of it, I just got tired. I didn’t believe long enough or understand enough to overcome the conflict of competing visions for what the idea could be. For a couple of years I couldn’t even think about it because it was so painful. I’ve been thinking about this post for two weeks (in the shower, mostly) and it’s only now that I’m starting to think that actually, maybe we didn’t fail. We’re just not done. It needs to morph.

Our idea took shape in 2005 as a new graduate program for our journalism school. In the first year we won an honorable mention in the Knight Batten innovation awards and a first place from the Online News Association for student projects. Our first cohort of students found interesting jobs and we were full of ideas about how to improve the program for its second year. But the energy to sustain a truly innovative program in academia takes an immense amount of work. The administration didn’t provide any recognition for the extra effort. Colleagues were either ambivalent or hostile. Grief from the loss of our colleague, Cole Campbell, compounded the angst.

When energy flagged, I didn’t look for ways to solve that problem. I failed to push through what might have been a temporary growing pain to discover what we might have learned had we continued. Instead, I gave up. I didn’t keep trying to make it work. I let it die without even a burial.

But we actually did learn a lot. We learned about the value of focusing on one community and how important it is to define that community. We learned that participation is different from coverage. We learned that preconceived ideas about what matters to a community is an arrogant way to start. We discovered that living 40 miles away from the community we wanted to focus on is laughable. We learned about steep learning curves (Drupal) and more flexible publishing (WordPress). We learned that academics and graduate students don’t generally share visions for what would make a great project. People have their own ideas about what they want to do and learn. It takes a great effort to get people on the same page.

But I am also realizing that those lessons could be put to use now, if I have the courage to try again. Academia should be a place where failures are milked for all the good we can possibly get out of them. We build on the shoulders of giants — and giant mistakes. It’s so easy to stay comfortable and go with the status quo. But what good does that do? It’s time to get up and fail again.

Thank you to everyone for their inspiration today on #jcarn fail.

Written by Donica

May 5th, 2011 at 5:21 pm

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