School featured on cover
of the Magazine of Elon

 

A mainbar feature and two sidebars about the School of Communications are the featured elements of the next issue of the Magazine of Elon, a quarterly publication. The cover story follows, with links to the sidebar articles on Connie Book's digital TV research and the school's Internet Predictions Project at the end of this story.

Elon's School of Communications is preparing to take a major step forward as it seeks accreditation from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. Only 16 private colleges and universities in the nation have received ACEJMC accreditation, considered the highest recognition of quality in the field. These stories explain why Elon's communications programs are now considered among the best in the country.

By Daniel J. Anderson and Julie Chapman

One measure of quality in Elon's journalism and communications program can be found in the numbers. About 20 percent of Elon students, more than 800 undergraduates, are majoring in a communications field.

The School of Communications includes 32 faculty members, most of whom have extensive professional experience in their discipline. Students utilize two fully equipped television studios, three digital media labs containing 63 sophisticated Macintosh computers, a three-room audio suite, a 13-station video editing suite and a digital theatre. Four different newspapers are available free to students each morning, and they can check out more than 80 digital video and still cameras.

But while Elon's facilities, housed in McEwen building, are the envy of much larger universities, the more important measure of quality can be found in the school's approach to educating students to enter a career field that is evolving rapidly. The communications industry is undergoing a fundamental transformation in which video, audio and print publications are merging in a media world now being defined by the Internet. The term used to describe this is "convergence."

Changing with the times

To adapt to this changing environment and bring the program in line with standards of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), the school implemented a major curriculum revision in fall 2004. The new communications major includes concentrations in journalism, broadcast and new media, corporate communications and cinema.

Courses continue to emphasize writing and analytical thinking, but they also integrate four common themes: a global perspective, digital technology, high ideals and a required internship. For example, students begin the major with a course titled Communications in a Global Society, a new required core course is Digital Media Convergence, and journalism students take a course titled Web Publishing and Design.

"Some universities have gone to a highly converged curriculum where there's almost no specificity," says Paul Parsons, dean of the School of Communications. "We aim for a middle ground. We want everyone to be able to write, to be a photographer when called on and to be able to create a Web page. We want to produce students who have breadth as well as depth."

Parsons says the faculty adopt this philosophy by teaching courses across the curriculum. "We have journalism faculty members who may teach a broadcast course or may teach a senior seminar course," says Parsons. "We try to have a converged faculty so that we don't become isolated."

Among the many new faculty members who have joined the school in recent years are former industry professionals who made the transition to academia, becoming excellent teachers and researchers.

Associate Professor John Guiniven, former bureau chief with United Press International and former press secretary to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, came to Elon from Syracuse University.

"(Elon's) students and faculty are as good as those at Syracuse's Newhouse School," Guiniven says. "I think we're a program that's more than 'up and coming.' I think we've arrived, and I believe we're easily in the top 10-15 programs in the nation."

Assistant Professor Lee Bush spent 20 years as a public relations executive at major agencies in Chicago and taught at Northwestern University.

"I've seen universities where faculty members are trying to teach advertising or public relations, yet have never worked on a campaign, never seen the inside of a corporation," Bush says. "That doesn't make much sense in a professional school where you're preparing the next generation of communicators for their careers."

Keeping up with industry

The school also keeps curriculum relevant with current industry practices through an active 25-member national advisory board that includes a variety of top executives from newspapers, television, publishing, advertising/public relations and film companies. The members consult on curriculum, speak to classes, arrange internships for students and even partner on research projects.

"Sometimes schools are not up to speed with the changes that are taking place," says Don Bolden, chair of the board and editor emeritus of the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News. "It's absolutely crucial to bring in people who are in the workplace every day, helping to bring about the changes that are occurring. They help the school develop new programs and give guidance to faculty and students."

The School of Communications fully embraces Elon's commitment to a hands-on approach to learning. Beginning with their first courses, students produce class projects using the latest computer software and digital recording tools.

"By the second week of school, I had a camera in my hand. By the third week I was anchoring the news," says senior Matt Belanger, who graduates this spring and immediately heads off to begin work as a reporter at KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Students often enrich their hands-on experiences in student media organizations, including The Pendulum newspaper, WSOE-FM radio and ESTV student television. They are soon ready for media internships, which allow them to produce impressive portfolios of professional work and develop connections that will be valuable in a job search.

Erin Cunningham '04 did reporting internships at the Cary News, Greensboro News & Record, Burlington Times-News and Frederick (Md.) News-Post. She had three job offers at graduation and took a position as a reporter for the News-Post.

"There's no other way to get a foot in the door," Cunningham says. "It's all about getting bylines. I wouldn't be working here without those internships."

Meeting ACEJMC standards

Elon's communications program has changed considerably since the mid-1980s when it was part of the English department and counted 100 majors. Associate Professor Don Grady, who came to Elon in 1985 and served as the first chair of the Department of Journalism and Communications, has had a front-row seat to the evolution of the program. Grady says he is "tremendously proud" of the progress that has been made over the past 20 years, and says the success has been due to a strong curriculum.

"We've achieved balance, blending communications theory with strong writing and technical skills," Grady says. That approach, he added, will prepare students to work in a rapidly changing environment. "This is the most exciting time in the history of communications for our students to be entering this field," Grady says. "We are experiencing fundamental and radical changes and there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty. But there are also great opportunities and we are very conscious of the need to prepare students in a broad way."

That means a new curriculum that requires students to receive extensive exposure to the liberal arts, in line with the philosophy of ACEJMC. The accreditation council calls for every communications student to have at least 80 of their 132 credit hours outside their major. At least 65 of those hours must be in the arts and sciences.

"We encourage students to take a great deal of coursework in diverse disciplines, such as psychology, economics or sociology," Parsons says. "We deeply value a broad education. That will make students better journalists, better communicators and better citizens."

There are 105 accredited schools of communications, including 16 at private colleges and universities such as Syracuse, Washington and Lee and Columbia universities. This year, Elon hopes to join this peer group. But before the accolades comes the work. Parsons and the communications faculty are in the midst of a yearlong self-study and will send their findings to ACEJMC in September. Council members will visit Elon Oct. 23-26 and scrutinize every aspect of the program before making their recommendation.

"Accreditation is a national benchmark of program quality," Parsons says. "This will take us to the next level, the national level, and proclaim that Elon has arrived."

Go to the sidebar "Fine-tuning the Future," about Connie Book and her work.

Go to the sidebar "Imagining the Internet," about the Elon/Pew Internet Project.

 

 

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Last Modified:  5/12/05
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