Whither Communication teaching?

BY JENSON JOSEPH| IN Media Monitoring | 31/08/2013
Has the discipline of Communication and Journalism in India failed to redefine itself as a relevant academic field in the context of media's changing political economy,
asks JENSON JOSEPH. PIX: Vimeo.com

When the Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari recently proposed instituting license and common entrance examinations for journalists, one round of discussion about what should determine the criteria for a journalist’s qualification had already been had. The context was the Press Council of India chairman Justice Markandeya Katju’s controversial proposition stipulating a minimum educational qualification for journalists. The Minister would definitely have found an obdurate Katju’s scornful estimation of the field of journalism in the country the perfect springboard to pitch his rather idealistic plans to streamline it. Nevertheless, Katju’s musings and the debate they generated deserve a reappraisal in the current context, since they arguably reflected a much more nuanced take on issues related to journalism education, than setting the stage for instituting licensing as the panacea. The attempt here is to look at what were at stake in the debate between Katju and his detractors, and more specifically their implications for journalism training schools in India.  

Are journalism schools listening? 

The Press Council chairman’s proposals had drawn sharp flak from media practitioners and commentators alike. Coming in the context of growing concerns regarding the deteriorating ethical-professional standards in journalistic practices in the country, Justice Katju’s suggestions included even setting up a committee to decide on the minimum qualification required to become a journalist which the Press Council would recommend to the government for its enforcement through suitable legislation. Paradoxically, he also proposed a panel to monitor and regulate institutes and departments of journalism in the country, which according to him “are wholly unsatisfactory, neither having proper teaching staff nor infrastructure” (Deccan Herald, March 13, 2013).  

His detractors have raised a number of objections, the most recurrent of them being the claims that successful journalists have always learnt their lessons on the field than in classrooms, and that the crucial set of skills required for journalism – like, cultivating sources and having a nose for news – cannot, in fact, be acquired through academic training. Responses like “if degrees make journalists, we will not have citizen journalists”, and “my (having or not having a) university degree does not have anything to do with what I have achieved as a journalist”, were the other two predominant lines of argument from commentators and reputed media professionals. A few lone voices also made the point that more than lack of professionalism, what ails today’s media practice is a waning commitment to ethical practices and social accountability, for which university degrees need not be a sure solution. Journalism, we reminded Katju, is a calling; and formal education in this field is mostly a redundant, if not pointless, exercise. 

What escaped scrutiny amid these frenzied responses is the irony in Justice Katju’s proposition itself, which, on the one hand advocated militant enforcement of stipulated formal education for journalists, but in the same breath sternly censured the journalism schools in India – the very same institutions supposed to produce trained graduates in the field – for completely failing in their mission, on the other. There was no reason to attribute to Katju’s proposal an absolutist belief in formal degrees. Deeply and equally implied in Katju’s angst as well as in his detractors’ responses was a clear agreement that our journalism schools are either performing poorly, or worse, that their purpose as training institutions has become obsolete. The only matter of contention in the debate, it turns out, is whether there lies any merit in calling for another state-led, programmatic, civilizing mission to save journalism in India. Irrespective of which side wins that argument, the message to journalism schools from both the camps is very clear: do something to justify your raison d’être.  

This should have initiated a wider debate about the discipline of Communication and Journalism in India and its apparent failure to redefine itself as a relevant academic field in the context of media’s changing political economy. Of course, all disciplines face criticism from within and related fields, and the attempts to address them usually become occasions for each discipline to introspect, map its historical foundations and trajectories, assess the nature of the crisis adequately, and set new objectives. Often, such attempts themselves produce large bodies of critical literature within disciplines, enriching the field and pushing it towards newer directions. Somehow, Communication and Journalism seems to have largely shied away from such introspective exercises of any significance.  

There could be a number of reasons why the discipline could afford to do so. First of all, the job prospects for graduates from Communication/Journalism schools have remained considerably higher than for those from other disciplines in humanities and social sciences, making it one of the most sought-after courses in colleges and universities. The expanding media scene and the emerging related sectors readily absorb a vast chunk of fresh graduates coming out of these institutes. Hence, it never had to face the criticism of producing unemployed graduates, like some other disciplines had to. In fact, this scenario has only led to the mushrooming of institutions offering training in media in India over the last decade.  

A Discipline without an object

Secondly and more importantly, it is widely held and often cannily acknowledged that Communication as a discipline does not have a specific object of study (like Humanities has literature, Linguistics has language, Social Science has society etc.). What follows this predominant self perception within the discipline is a cynical indifference towards suggestions for a radical overhaul of the existing literature and theories taught in Communication schools. Interestingly, this cynicism co-exists with the candid awareness that the literature taught in these schools is obsolete. Thus, the radical revamping of the ‘theory part’ of the curriculum is eternally deferred, not because the theories offered in these schools are seen as relevant and modern, but because theory – any theory for that matter – itself is seen as redundant for the discipline. Professional training modules have always been regarded as the core of the discipline as well as the only field where any productive interventions can be made.  

This approach eventually gives rise to a bizarre mode of running these schools: while theoretical literature and theory-oriented courses are indeed retained in the syllabi – sometimes in the decades-old formats, sometimes with a few modifications – there is a tacit acknowledgment in the staffrooms that these modules are either obsolete or futile. Engaging the mandatory classroom hours often becomes the sole purpose of retaining them. And there is a sanctioned denial of this state of affairs as anything unusual for an academic discipline. The antagonism that prevails predominantly in most Communication schools towards research, and the classic common view that a PhD in the subject is rather an over-qualification, epitomize the internal as well as public perception that Communication is a discipline without an object. The vast array of inflated course modules usually taught in these departments – ranging from Development Communication to International Communication – only indicates the discipline’s attempts to fill in its void. In fact, this void precisely seems to be what Katju hinted at when he said “majority of media people are of poor intellectual level with no idea of economic theory, political science, philosophy or literature.”

There are reasons why this scheme of things escaped public and academic scrutiny until recently and why it is increasingly coming under criticism as needing immediate intervention now – with Katju’s call even attaining the tone of an ultimatum. They are closely linked to the transformed needs of the media industry in the country’s changing political-ideological context. To understand them, we require a historical appraisal of the nature of the discipline’s crisis.  

Historicising the Discipline’s crisis 

Training during Nehruvian Socialism

When the first journalism departments in the country were set up in universities as vocational/professional training centres during the late 1940s and the 1950s, the ideological tasks assigned to them reflected on the pedagogic practices in fundamental ways, became deep-rooted and endured decades. Journalism, in post-Independence India, was seen as a ‘divine profession’ complementing the modern state in its project of nation-building. Media was to be one of the ‘central pillars of democracy’, fighting the social evils along with other state machineries. The task for the journalism schools was to produce professionals capable of carrying out the central role assigned to media in working with the state in its mission of social modernization. Moreover, since the state monopolized the broadcasting sector until the early 1990s, it was expected of the journalism schools in universities to train and supply professionals who would work for All India Radio and Doordarshan. Even if the graduates were to join privately-owned media houses, the perception about the media’s public function as the facilitator of democracy provided the rationale for the state-funded universities to train personnel, irrespective of whether they would join the state-run or private media sectors.  

Also groomed in these departments were communication strategists for developmental projects and modernization campaigns of the state and international voluntary organizations, aimed particularly at the country’s impoverished rural regions. In other words, such media professionals and communication experts were to operate as the state-anointed civilizing agents, no matter which sector they belonged to. The teaching staff in these departments comprised mostly a few US-educated professors and working journalists who took up part-time teaching jobs. 

It was not a matter of policy in these departments not to engage in research and scholarship. Nevertheless, the number of PhDs produced in journalism departments across the country have remained abysmally low compared to other disciplines, indicating the overwhelming emphasis they placed on professional training. Rephrasing it in the discipline’s own quotidian vocabulary, one could say that the pedagogic practices in these institutes were organized around devising models of better effective communication of (the agreed-upon) messages, than thinking about who wants to say something to someone in what contexts and why, etc. Until very recently, Press Institute of India’s semi-academic journal Vidura remained the only platform for discussion of matters related to the field.  

The point is not to say that the thrust on professional training modules ruined the discipline – an oft-heard lament in discussions on journalism education. Rather, the discipline was carrying out its historical mission by not only producing professionals for the industry, but more importantly, by identifying and imparting the ‘right’ set of skills required for the industry, taking into account the specific ideological tasks assigned to media during the era of Nehruvian socialism. It is the latter aspect – identifying a combination of skills that would facilitate media in fulfilling its ideological tasks – that has always determined the academic orientation of the discipline. For example, as cultural theorist M Madhava Prasad (2005) notes in one of his perceptive essays, the newsreaders in AIR and Doordarshan used to be known mainly for their pronunciation (than their enunciating capacities), suggesting that in post-Independence India, the media functioned mostly as the transmission vehicles of modernizing messages from the state to its subjects, with media professionals playing the role of efficient message bearers. Training personnel in precisely these skills of effective dissemination of the modernising state’s messages was one of the key tasks required of journalism schools in this scenario.  

The becoming of a discipline: The post-Emergency period

The post-Emergency period witnessed the earliest efforts to transform journalism education into a full-fledged discipline – a move denoted by the gesture of prefixing ‘Communication’ to its title, signifying this as the discipline’s field of knowledge production and specialization. This move followed a sentiment of distancing from the state that journalists began to nurture, and the realization that media would require professionals with a new set of skills if it was to perform the role of ‘the watchdog’ when the state machineries are put to corrupt uses. The increasingly felt need to produce full-time teaching staff for this sector was another overriding concern behind this initiative. However, the lack of adequate literature, along with an absence of any clarity regarding what exactly would be the discipline’s object of study, meant that these initiatives ultimately resulted only in the large scale import of the syllabus and texts used in Communication schools in the US to Journalism departments in India, as the accounts of K E Eapen – one of the pioneers in the field – has pointed out in his essays (Eapen et al, 1991, Eapen, 2001).  

By the 1990s, with the introduction of neo-liberal policies, the sphere of media was opened up to significant private investments both from domestic and foreign corporate houses, resulting in increased competition in the media scene in India. The airwaves, monopolized by the state till then, were not spared either; AIR and Doordarshan became marginal players in radio and television sectors. The middle class in India – the audience segment that actually matters for the media in a highly competitive field – began finding the belligerence of the new age journalists and TV anchors more appealing and as representing their concerns. Conventional journalism departments began to be seen as inadequate to train professionals competent for this scenario. Realizing this, private media organizations opened their own training institutes (also referred to as Industry Backed Media Schools – IBMS). In response, at least a number of departments situated in universities in the country successfully managed to build adequate infrastructure to compete with the IBMS in terms of their professional training modules. Such departments became highly sought-after, since they offered professional training within affordable fee structures to a wider public, compared to the IBMS.  

The critical turn

This context, however, necessitated that the university-based Communication schools revamp their course structure and identify new pedagogic missions in order to differentiate themselves from the private institutes and justify their existence as a discipline within the university system. To a significant critical section within the discipline, the attempts to match with the IBMS in professional training did not appeal as a satisfying set of new tasks. An overhaul of the syllabus with a view to providing students with the required exposure to a wide range of knowledge fields like cultural and political theory, human rights discourse, social movements, textual deconstruction, etc., was proposed as the exclusive new mission that university departments could take up. The literature emerging out of the vibrant debates taking place within Humanities and Social Sciences during the 1990s were borrowed and included in the Communication syllabus by creating new course modules mainly intended to train students in analytical skills. Once a restructuring in this direction was implemented in at least a few departments in varying degrees, this was projected as the ‘cutting edge’ component of university-based Communication schools. Thus, the two key arguments put forth in defence of the continued relevance of Communication schools in universities are: a) they can groom students in critical thinking and thus produce socially committed media professionals, unlike private institutes; b) they can inculcate an academic atmosphere conducive to research.

This new ‘critical turn’ in Communication schools had two important fallouts. One is a division of labour visible in these institutes, where the ‘academically inclined’ faculty members confine themselves to designing and teaching courses in critical theory, while the traditional courses and professional training modules are left to the ‘labouring class’ (women faculty members in many cases) and guest faculties. The other outcome is a perceptible tendency among the ‘academically inclined’ faculty members, though often scarce in number, to turn completely away from all the traditional concerns of the discipline, to political and cultural theory, tools of deconstruction, semiotics, textual analysis, etc. Thus, the US-produced Communication theories have been replaced with post-colonial theory or psychoanalysis, but often with no attempts taken whatsoever to make sure that the discipline’s specific concerns determine the structure of courses in critical theory or the readings adopted from other disciplines. As a result, often course modules in professional training and cultural-political theory exist totally compartmentalized in many schools, without any exchanges between them. The specific requirements of the profession do not reflect on the choice of critical theory; the insights of critical theory do not inform the professional training modules.  

“I feel like a fraud”: The farce of teaching journalism

While this is the emerging scenario in a few schools situated in central universities, the discipline’s plight remains rather unchanged in most departments across the country, and is increasingly coming under public scrutiny. The constant failure to conceive course structures with substantial readings for each unit often results in the practice of retaining courses solely for the purpose of occupying mandatory class hours. Lecturers are often faced with the challenge of engaging 70-odd hours over a semester, teaching subjects on which no significant and relevant literature exists. What a colleague recently told me about her experience of teaching the course ‘Media Management’ in a college in Bangalore could very well be the feeling that the fraternity shares in general: “I feel like a fraud!”  

The absence of adequate and relevant literature is the gravest issue that Communication departments face now. Taking into account the fact that the discipline has so far failed to produce a significant body of literature required to sustain it, measures need to be taken towards assembling existing and emerging texts related to media studies produced in other disciplines and work towards building a standard curriculum. Along with this, the pedagogic practices in these departments should be reconstituted so as to convert them into academic spaces facilitating production of specialized scholarship in the field. Such measures would enable the discipline to produce literature and contribute to the knowledge economy in the field of media studies, thus generating more clarity regarding its object of study and reducing its dependence on readings from other disciplines. The departments based in central universities can play a key role in this.  

This need not mean doing away with professional training in favour of grooming students in critical discourse. In fact, revamping a professional training module in the light of the critical debates emerging from related fields could result in interesting assemblages of reading materials, which could be used to improve existing syllabi for the conventional courses offered in these schools. Distributing the responsibilities of handling professional training modules and critical theory courses equally among the faculty members could be a constructive way of ensuring that the insights of critical theory reflects on the skill-imparting tasks of the school, while the discipline’s specific concerns continue to have some relevance in the choice of texts and readings that it borrows from related academic fields.  

A radical overhaul of the practices in Journalism education and Communication discipline is under way, and such revamps take different trajectories in various instances. The emerging trends in the departments based in central universities and colleges in metros would set models for the future. Hence, a wider debate is needed in order to generate some clarity, if not uniformity, regarding the rationale for adopting one path over the other in the process. From the very limited experience of teaching in the Communication department at a reputed college in Bangalore, it seems to me that many city-based journalism schools have started reorienting their programs by catering to a tempting fad in the metros: techno fetishism. This often involves frantic attempts to catch up with the rapid transformations in electronic media, by constantly upgrading the labs with the latest softwares and digital gears and, in many cases, even making it mandatory for each student to have one’s own laptop and digital camera from the undergraduate level itself. The discipline needs to realize that such attempts like indulging the technophilia of the city students cannot substitute its failure to define and constitute a concrete object of study and produce scholars and literature in it.  

Jenson Joseph is Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, St Joseph’s College, Bangalore  

References  

Eapen, K. E., Thakur, B. S. & Sanjay, B. P. 1991. ‘Journalism Education and Text books in SAARC Countries’. In Inventory of Textbooks in Communication Studies around the World: Final Report of the Project, (ed.) Kaarle Nordenstreng. University of Tampere.  

http://www.uta.fi/cmt/textbooks/saarc.html  

Eapen, K E. 2001. ‘Reflections on Journalism/Communication Education and Research in India and Abroad’. In Critical Issues in Communication: Looking Inward for Answers, (eds.) Srinivas R Melkote and Sandhya Rao; pp. 35 - 51. Sage: New Delhi.  

Prasad, M. Madhava. 2005. “The Subjects of News Television”. Journal of Moving Image 4, 2005. http://www.jmionline.org/film_journal/jmi_04/article_03.php 

 

Relevant recent links:  

Slipping on the slope (The Indian Express)  

The right to talk and write (The Hindu)  

A test for Mr Tewari (Business Standard)

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