Chemical Engineering or Media Studies? Would be Students, Please Note: Any University Degree Worth its Salt Will Test You

Analysis

For the past 18 months, your correspondent has been “lecturing” at a local, private university, seeking to pass on to a new generation at least some of any knowledge I might have garnered in the past four decades working in and with a variety of media.

So it was that, once a week and for 80 minutes, throughout three-month semesters, I’ve been meeting young, budding scribes from as far afield as China, Namibia, Nigeria, Georgia and Brazil (and yes, with a couple of Magyars also in the mix) all assembled for classes on “writing articles”.

We’ve had some fun, and heartaches. I must confess that what precisely they took on board is open to question: for example, despite my attempts to drive home the need to write for their target audience, final coursework results for some were decidedly patchy on this point.

But for sure, I learned a lot.

I suppose it is a symptom of the world of social media, but I was in shock that one or two students interpreted journalism as meaning they could write what they wanted, mix fact and opinion, and even offer the latter without justification. (Note the use of past tense here; my students were swiftly disabused of such notions.)

Much to my surprise, and in complete contrast to my own student days, almost no one took notes – or only occasionally at best.

Now it was true that my “lectures” were really nothing of the sort. Shunning the classical academic approach, this professor rarely wrote on the whiteboard, for those assembled to promptly copy. Our classes typically consisted of the introduction and discussion of a feature or news story, followed by individual student analysis, peer evaluation, and feedback.

(Nonetheless, I thought some of my spoken pearls of wisdom might have justified the odd notebook jotting for future contemplation. Alas, seemingly not for the current youth.)

The ever-present theme was: does the chosen story fulfill its goals, if not, why not and if yes, how does it do it?

To learn by doing, and to evaluate a story, questioning its content in detail and from various angles, proved challenging. Worse still, to occasional groans and grimaces, I set, marked and graded follow-up coursework every week.

Tough Course

“Your course was tough,” one of the first intake recounted some months after graduation. “I was just thankful to pass.” (She got a grade three from me, equivalent to a lower second.)

On the positive side, more or less every student put something of a shift in, and the best were a genuine delight to teach.

More difficult was the fact that most were enrolled in some kind of general “media and communications” undergraduate course: relatively few had determined to forge a career in journalism.

All of which meant some students had a somewhat cursory, tick-the-box approach to tasks, rather than seeking to master the essence of an issue, which, of course, frustrates real learning to any depth.

Indeed, as one of the more dedicated students later confided, in her experience too many enter university with little idea of what they really want to study, primarily at the behest of – and supported by - doting parents.

In such an uncertain state of mind, nobody will choose, say, chemical engineering or nuclear physics, subjects that sound far too much like hard work.

But media and communications? That has a softer, more rounded appeal. It thus becomes a default choice for many, who are, alas, largely unaware of the need to apply themselves when confronted with the practical reality of the challenges involved.

As one student involuntarily sighed, after being asked to justify her injection of a certain argument in a story: “Oh, journalism is difficult.”

Too right. More or less like anything worth doing properly.

The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at robin.marshall@bbj.hu

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