Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Final Countdown (Part III) The J-School

In this third installment of my special segment where I look back on my time in grad school I want to talk about what I actually took away from my program. I'm in the University of Wisconsin Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication Master's Pro-Track program. I realize that is a mouthful, which is why I typically refer to it as just the Pro-Track.

The program has only three core courses: short form journalism, long form journalism, and digital storytelling. The rest of the credits (you need 30) come from electives, either in the J-School or in any of the other departments on campus. I've taken classes in Zoology, History of Science, Life Science Communication and of course the J-School. Everyone has to have a specialty but you can choose to specialize in whatever field interests you most, I obviously chose science. I tried to choose electives that would be useful for science communication, not just journalism in general.

One of the best and worst things about the program is the flexibility it affords you to do whatever you want. I liked not having to fit into a pre-fab mold for what a Master's student should look like. However, there were a lot of instances where I felt like I was completely on my own. Sure, I can always go ask for help, and when I've needed guidance I've sought it out. I just feel like in general, the Master's Pro-Track students are an island unto themselves within the overall J-School. I literally had a PhD say to me once, "I don't really consider you part of the department." Yeah. Well, learning to be a practicing journalist is very different from doing academic research in communication, it just is.

My colleagues in the Pro-Track, I'm the one in the stripes.
Still, while we might be our own island, it wasn't exactly a lonely island. The best thing about the way the MA Pro-Track program is structured is that you go through it with a cohort. The group of people I went through this grad school experience with were a supportive, and in my humble opinion, critical part of the program. More often than not, they were my sounding board for ideas, they answered my questions, they helped me talk through issues or problems, and they offered advice. On days when I wanted to tell journalism to go screw itself, they pulled me back. In several instances they became real friends, and an important part of my Madison life. I am very grateful to them, for helping me make the most out of this experience. (You can get the links to all of their blogs/websites here and I do sincerely encourage you to check them out).

One of the hardest things about this program, again in my humble opinion, is that we all came at it with different skill sets as writers. I have a science writing degree (BA from Lehigh University) and had three internships under my belt when I moved here, but there were several members of my cohort who had never written before. I believe there is always more to learn and work on, but my needs in this program were different from someone who has never sat through the "this is a nut graph" lecture before. It wasn't easy getting everyone on the same page, and I don't envy our professors trying to meet such diverse needs. As someone who was already comfortable with standard journalistic conventions, I was grateful when opportunities to challenge myself came up, particularly in one writing workshop course. The course, which I took last spring, was designed to give us the flexibility to tackle stories that we wanted to write but felt we needed help with. 

I think of this course as "Journalism Therapy" because in the end all six students chosen to be a part of it ended up writing a personal narrative. We presented these pieces to each other, and worked through the struggles and roadblocks we were coming up against. I've always wanted to write about my family, and took the opportunity in the workshop class to write about 9/11. For a group of young people the amount of baggage that got laid on the table every other week was astounding. (I considered posting the piece I wrote in the course here, but so far I haven't been able to bring myself to hit the publish button. If there is genuine interest, let me know I could probably be convinced to post it.)

Ultimately, what I took away from the course, and this program in general is an understanding of my own voice. It takes strength to tackle the hard subjects, to go to the dark places if you need to, to tell the story with truth and integrity, to keep going - around, over, and under obstacles if thats what you need to do to get it right. I don't think you can summon that strength if you don't know what it is you want to say. Ultimately I think my point is that I'm glad I did this. It was an experience I'm grateful to have had. While I didn't necessarily learn the things I thought I would going into it, I still learned a lot about what kind of writer I want to be, and ultimately I think that is the most important thing I'll be taking away from the J-School.

There is a lot more I could expound on about my experience, good and bad. If you are interested in the Pro-Track, or are a prospective student feel free to send me an email and I'd be happy to discuss the program in more specific terms.