At Emerson, innovation ends at coursework divisions

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • February 19, 2015

At issue: Antiquated restrictions within majors.

Our take: Academic divisions are holding students back from 21st centry industry possibilities.

Emerson has long toed the line between a vocational and liberal arts school. Today, though, it’s clear that the pendulum has swung too far toward the former. Students say that some of Emerson’s current academic programs create arbitrary and illusory divisions between trades that are quite similar skillwise. Courses about magazine writing, for example, find their home in the writing, literature, and publishing department, not journalism—as if writing for magazines doesn’t require many of the same skills as writing for newspapers or broadcast. Indeed, that at Emerson a trade must “belong” in one academic division, instead of being shared among the relevant ones, reveals outdated institutional thinking that must adapt to the multimodal reality of the arts and communication industries today.

This leads to unnecessarily limiting divisions. As they stand now, the typical journalism degree is more technical, earned through fact-gathering and equipment usage; the WLP degree is more creative, more L then P.

Emerson’s organizational dogma extends beyond the magazine trade. Administrators recently shuffled Emerson’s radio program from one departmental silo to another, instead of adapting the program to the contemporary demands for reporting and artistry. It was demoted in 2013 to a minor from a concentration in the visual and media arts major. This shift also placed it into the jurisdiction of the School of Communication. Now students studying radio may face the same creative limitations as the other communication disciplines, which too often emphasize technical training over artistic guidance.

Positive changes to better access the rise in multidimensional careers have happened in the past, and they ought to continue. In the fall of 2011, for example, Emerson erased the division between the print and broadcast in the journalism major. Now, all students enrolled in the program get experience in both fields, a change that actively worked to meet the needs of journalists working in the digital age. This change acknowledged the current needs of an evolving industry, in way that the persistence of other seemingly pointless academic partitions do not.

Though Emerson administrators praise the school’s supposed liberal arts focus, the academic boundaries that define each major are actually quite rigid. It’s more likely that Sarah Palin will enter the next presidential race than non-VMA majors will be able to enter film classes. The parochial departmental definitions divide multidisciplinary trades in a way that more reflects institutional inertia than industry reality.

The idea that a field so amorphous as magazine publishing or radio has to exist exclusively in one department adds to these limitations. A journalism student interested in magazine writing could take magazine classes, and even double-major or minor in WLP. But the responsibility is currently on the student to pursue these opportunities, and many may not figure this out until too late. Sometimes, for example, the classwork that students complete in literary journalism course could be published in a niche magazine. But journalism students are rarely, if ever, encouraged to pursue that kind of opportunity beyond the class because the department is solely focused on print newspapers, online multimedia, and on-air broadcasts.

It’s not individual professors’ fault. They, no doubt, want the best for their students. But it’s unrealistic to expect each professor to make singular efforts to reshape the departments’ entrenched turf divisions. To effect real change, there must be a concerted effort by departmental leaders and deans to frankly examine how Emerson can reimagine its course structure to better reflect the jobs students want, not the provincial divides that bureaucrats may prefer.