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Journ curricula’s need for transition isn’t unique

Posted by on Sep 16, 2010 in Blog, CAR, education, programming, theory, web | No Comments

Despite being months out of school, I’m still relatively obsessed with teaching and learning. That’s part of what makes journalism these days fun — we learn about our subject matters, and we learn new tools for information display. But the training of new journos has a special place in my heart. Every day, I benefit from the teachers in my life at the LAT, and elsewhere in the community. In return, you, the knowledgable, tell me to pass it on. So, anytime someone has a question, I make a very serious effort to do whatever I can. All of which is a long way of saying I’m still obsessed with the transition that journalism curricula must go through. We shouldn’t give up our fundamental basics that allow us to find the truth, and convey it to the public. But we must teach new skills as well.

That’s why I absolutely loved last week’s post by TBD’s Steve Buttry on this isssue. Read it, seriously. I was going to write up my comments, but I’ve got something better.

I started discussing this issue with my father Mike Minkoff, who happened to be in town last week. And he helped me realize the struggle our education finds itself in, well, it’s nothing new.

Mike is a computational scientist at Illinois’ Argonne National Laboratory, using his cs skills to enhance the work of his fellow scientists, and enables them to explore problems whose complexity or sheer magnitude is beyond the reach of mere humans. It’s applying tech skills to another field. And that’s a little bit like what we do as journo-programmers, bring the cs to the journalism.

But when he was going to school, computer science curricula weren’t all that certain. And we can learn from that transition. I’ll let him take it away.

I am a computational scientist with an interest in data in journalism. I find a number of exciting and interesting parallels between the current evolution of journalism as discussed in this post and the early history of the field of computer science when I went to grad school in the 1960s.

I studied computer science at the undergraduate level through Ph.D. between 1963 and 1973 at the University of Wisconsin and Princeton University. During that time, there were relatively few schools that had curricula in computer science (Cal Tech, MIT, the University of Wisconsin and a few others) and the programs were principally at the graduate level. In fact, schools didn’t always call it “Computer Science” — some of the courses were listed as “Programs in Numerical Analysis,” as at Wisconsin.

There are two points I’d like to comment on:

  1. In the 1960s, as computer science programs developed there was a fundamental debate regarding what should be taught and where. On the one hand, grad students and faculty felt that learning a programming language was of utmost importance in order to get a job after graduation. On the other hand, others felt that theory is more important so the student can develop and move with the technology rather than become stagnant as technology advanced. Later on, the theory approach justified the placement of computer science in major universities rather than trade schools. There is a parallel here to the “basics” vs. “technology” issue in journalism.

    As this debate developed, the professional societies (notably the Association for Computing Machinery) established a committee to define a core curriculum of an B.S., M.S., or Ph.D. and allow for electives that could be locally defined by the institution. The courses in the core represented the key areas of computer science and are reflected in their decendents today in simulation and modeling, data analysis and operating systems theory:

    • numerical analysis and mathematical optimization
    • systems programming
    • artificial intelligence and automated reasoning

    Of course these are historical topics and just as the technology used in journalism will develop in new ways, so did these areas.

    As to the theory vs. language issue the obvious answer is both. In all fields, as the subject advances there are always new topics to integrate into a curriculum. I would expect that a journalist be as good a writer as in the past, but also he or she must know how to utilize the technology of today (and tomorrow). I would hope that in the rush to move with technology the programs and faculty of traditional journalism is not neglected. There is the danger of being so committed to technology that the core of basic journalism is lost.

  2. One of the most exciting parallels to me has lasted my career. The pioneers of computer science were my teachers, mentors and lifelong friends and advisors just as the present digital journalism teachers and mentors are for their students. Graduate school is not just a spoon-fed set of courses, but a place where inquiry and learning can be nurtured. One of the commonalities of computer science of the 1960s and the technology journalism of today is that once in a generation a field provides the opportunity to meet and learn from the people who created the field. This gives the mentor and student to opportunity to rise to the challenge of working in a new and growing field. While students in both areas need to decide for themselves what they want to get out of a career, for me it is exciting to meet and learn from the people who created the field. As a student, I felt that the difference between studying math and computer science was that you could meet and talk with the developers and authors of the textbooks. Of course today it is the blog rather than the textbook, I guess!

I thought this was definitely something to ponder, and I hope that in a generation, I’ll be the one telling my children about the parallels between what we consider modern journalis, and some new transition their field is going through.

Has this gotten you thinking, too? That’s what the comments section is for!

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