Gina Chen is an Assistant Professor at The School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin. In this episode, we speak about the changes and innovations in journalism education.
State of Digital Publishing is creating a new publication and community for digital publishing and media professionals in new media and technology. In this episode, we speak with Gina Chen, a professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, on the changes and innovations in journalist education. Let’s begin.
Vahe Arabian: Hi, Gina, how are you?
Gina Chen: I’m doing great, thanks. How are you?
Vahe Arabian: I’m good, thank you. Thanks for asking. Thanks for joining us. With your background, I guess, I want to bring you today on this episode just to speak more about seeing where the path of current students is going in getting to their digital media career and more about your background as well because you’ve had quite extensive experience. So, let’s just start off with if you can provide a bit of a background about your experience and why you led into academic life?
Gina Chen: Sure. I started out as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York here in the United States. I spent 20 years as both a reporter and an editor. Most of that was at a newspaper in Syracuse, New York. I worked as a copy editor. I worked as an assignment editor. I was a bureau chief. I covered pretty much every beat except for some business. So, I covered police. I covered local and state and county government. I covered court. I had a brief period where I covered parenting as a beat and wrote about issues for mostly mothers.
Gina Chen: At the tail end of that, the newspaper business here in the United States was beginning to hit some problems. Our newspaper was laying people off and I was getting concerned that I might not have a job. So, I thought well what else would I like to do and that’s when I went back to school. I got my Ph.D. in mass communications from Syracuse University and when I finished that, I started teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi. I was there for two years, in their School of Mass Communication and Journalism.
Gina Chen: Then four years ago, I came to the University of Texas at Austin where I’m currently an assistant professor of journalism and I’m also an assistant director of the Center for Media Engagement, which is a research colloquium that studies journalism and how we can improve it.
Vahe Arabian: So, how does the day-to-day look like, being an assistant professor and also directing engaging news?
Gina Chen: Right. I’m an assistant director of engaging news, just to clarify. But, you know, most of my day is spent either doing teaching or research. So, what I do for the Center is both practical and more academic research. So a typical day, you know, I’m writing, I’m creating surveys, I’m talking to clients that we work with the Center for Media Engagement to set up projects to study specific things about journalism that they would like some information about. For example, how to make our comments seem less uncivil, or how do we get our audience to trust us more. We contract with mostly news organizations or private foundations to come up with projects. So much of my day is spent doing that, and then much of my day is spent doing sort of traditional professor duties like teaching, grading, lecturing, meeting with students.
Gina Chen: Then on top of that I’m also doing my own research, where I study online interactions, particularly as it relates to incivility. I recently published a book about online incivility called Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk. I’m currently working on my third book, which is looking at why Americans engage personally with their politicians. So much of my time is spent writing, to be honest.
Vahe Arabian: You answered my other question that I had, difference between teaching versus writing. So looking at engaging news, how did that come about? How has that model worked now that news organizations now come to universities to get that information?
Gina Chen: Well, you know, it started as a project called the Engaging News Project that was started by the director of the Center, Talia Stroud. She is an associate professor here at the University of Texas at Austin. She started it really just working … These organizations had some projects, they wanted some help with them, and she kind of started it gradually about five years ago. Then in October, we formally became a Center at the university.
Gina Chen: What that means is we have sort of a more formal title. We have a small endowment. But really how it started was news organizations wanted answers to discreet questions and they didn’t necessarily have the research background to answer those questions or the time.
Gina Chen: So, they would contract with us and say, “Hey, we want to know this. We want to solve this problem,” and then we would work together to come up with a plan, often an experiment, to test out how they might change either their content or the way their website looks or how they engage with the public to increase audience engagement, to increase interest in their news site, to increase satisfaction at their news site.
Gina Chen: So, it was a good fit for me. I started working with the Center back when it was the Engaging News Project about two years ago, sort of informally, just because I was very interested in the topic, and then I became the assistant director in January.
Vahe Arabian: Congratulations on the promotion. With that, how much of that information that you learned from those organizations feed into your teaching?
Gina Chen: Well, you know, a lot of it does. I mean whenever we do a project with a news organization or a nonprofit, we produce what we call a whitepaper, which is basically a report that’s written for a lay audience, so a non-academic audience, that summarizes what we found. You know, we tested this, this is what we found, this is what we found worked.
Gina Chen: I have used those specifically in the class I teach called Online Incivility. I have used some of those reports to explain to students, you know, how many people read the comments and what type of people read the comments and what kind of interactions improve comment streams. So those are really … I’ve used directly in my teaching to inform, you know, what we do in my Online Incivility class, which is really geared towards helping students combat incivility or deal with it once they get on to the job market.
Vahe Arabian: Just to be clear, it’s supplemental to … It’s part of the curriculum. Is that correct, that you use that material?
Gina Chen: Yeah. I mean usually the way it would work is I might have a lecture on it, so then I have them read the report. You know, the reports are relatively short and they’re written for a lay audience. They would read the report and then we’d talk about it as part of the class discussion on my lecture that day.
Vahe Arabian: And how have you seen that difference in engagement from the students by having that supplementary material?
Gina Chen: Well, I think it’s important because it’s really a very real-world example. At the Center, we directly study why people engage with the news, how they engage with the news, what are the ways we can improve that. Those things are really practical and super relevant to my students, who are mostly students in the Journalism School, who are either going into a career in journalism or into a career that’s somehow related to journalism. So it gives them some real-world examples of what they might do once they get into those jobs they’re hoping to get after graduation.
Vahe Arabian: Do students have opportunities to get involved with those other projects that are some affiliated or associated with the Center?
Gina Chen: They do. I mean we have both doctoral research associates, so those are doctoral students who are getting their PhDs, who assist us with the research. We also have occasionally masters students doing that, and we have undergraduate research assistants. So for example, I have a student who was in my Online Incivility class last fall. I was very impressed with her, and now I’ve hired her for this fall to work with the Center. So, she’ll be helping us with the research directly, doing certain tasks that are relevant to her ability level, but really get a firsthand look at not only the news industry but how to conduct research. So, there’s a real educational component to it as well.
Vahe Arabian: That sounds very practical and very positive for the student’s development, so that’s really positive. With the Center, or journalism centers in general, to your knowledge is this concept fairly new, or when did this first start in the US, and how do you think it started?
Gina Chen: Well, I think that certainly having research centers at universities is not new. We have many of them at the University of Texas at Austin that study different things. You know, we have one studying health communication. We have one studying innovation. But what I think is new is the fact that our Center directly works with news organizations to solve really practical problems.
Gina Chen: So we’re not just … You know, sometimes academics are accused of just being up in the ivy tower, you know, doing research that doesn’t affect anybody, and that’s not the case with our Center. We do research that we publish in academic journals as well that has real direct, practical implications for news organizations, for the news media, and for a democratic society more broadly in the United States.
Gina Chen: So I think that is relatively new. There are some other research type colloquium around other universities that are similar to ours, but I don’t think any of them do exactly what we do, which is really conduct high-level research for news organizations to solve the discreet problems around engagement with the news.
Vahe Arabian: And, I guess, this probably is better than going to … maybe a better alternative than going to a market solution provider to try to solve a problem. It’s not biased, and like you said, it’s providing more of a high-level view of trying to solve the problem, as opposed to giving the advice?
Gina Chen: Right. And part of it too is, you know, we bring expertise not just as researchers, but of experts on the journalism industry and how the news media works. I, myself, have the experience, as we already discussed, as a journalist. So I think that brings a really unique perspective to it because we’re not just … You know, the news organizations aren’t just hiring somebody who knows nothing about this topic to create a survey. They’re hiring people who know a lot about the topic to really help them solve the problems that they want to solve in their own business.
Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. Let’s go back to the Center, in terms of initiatives and everything else, a bit later in the conversation but let’s take a step back. How was it like when you studied for journalism and how do you think it compares to today?
Gina Chen: Well, it was very different. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in communications in 1989. My first newspaper I worked at was a weekly newspaper, where we actually didn’t even have a typesetting machine. We had to roll wax on the back of these layout sheets to actually put the paper together, so that’s how long ago that was.
Gina Chen: I was a journalist in the pre-internet age, so obviously that has changed a lot. I mean I was a journalist in the pre-social media age, so those are significant changes. I also was a journalist in the days before, you know, newspapers used video. The only people who were using video at that time were TV stations, certainly not print organizations doing videos. So I think those are three significant changes in how we do journalism.
Gina Chen: I think the skillsets that journalists need today are much broader than they needed to be when I graduated in 1989, but I think some things have not changed at all. I teach a class occasionally here at UT which is our basic reporting class. We teach students, you know, how to write a good lead, how to write a clear sentence. All of that hasn’t changed. We teach students how to be accurate, how to check their facts. That hasn’t changed. In fact, that’s probably become more thorny because there’re so many more ways to make a mistake today than there was when I was starting out.
Gina Chen: So I think we have a situation where the skills that a journalist needs today are much more broad than the skills that I needed. I basically need to know how to write and how to ask questions and how to put it together in a cohesive story, and how to maybe look at documents and gather information from that.
Gina Chen: Students today need to know all of that, but they also need to know how to use social media correctly without repeating inaccuracies. They have to know how to use video and edit it and record it. You know, we also do a fair amount of audio, podcasts, so they need to know those kinds of more technical skills. So I think those are the main differences and similarities over that period.
Vahe Arabian: You said it’s a lot thornier … You said it’s pretty much the same approach, but they have to be more careful. Hasn’t there been any other techniques that are being factored in or any other … Obviously, the tools that you use have changed, but do you think that there haven’t been any other techniques that would be factored into fact checking these days?
Gina Chen: Well, I think there are. I just think that there’re more ways for an average person and journalists to come across information than perhaps in the past. When I was starting out, I needed to make sure when I interviewed somebody that they were who they said they were. I had to check the facts they gave me, maybe check their date of birth, check their age, make sure the things they told me were correct, whereas now journalists are faced with the situation where there may be things on Twitter that are being spread virally that are completely not true. So, they need to also know how to check those things.
Gina Chen: They need to be aware of fact-checking sites like Fact Checker, PolitiFact, Snopes. They also need to know how to verify by reading multiple accounts. If you see somebody has … A famous person has died on Twitter, you need to know how to verify that before you start spreading it. You also need to read multiple sources of news to make sure you know the full story before you start asking questions about it.
Gina Chen: I also think journalists today often use content right off Twitter, so they need to be aware of whether an account is verified, whether an account is really from another journalist or not, whether an account is a parody account or a fake account, whether it’s a fake news site. There’re some fake news sites that are created just to be funny, so they need to be aware of those. They also need to be aware of news sites that maybe have a very partisan bend to them and are not really providing true information. So, it’s a lot more to keep track of. I mean journalists always wanted it to be accurate.
Gina Chen: I think the other part that makes it thorny is that we can release information so much more quickly than we could. Again, back to when I started as a journalist, I’d write my story. I’d give it to my editor. My editor would read it, then another editor would read it, then another editor would read it. It might go through five people before it got into the newspaper, so there was time to double check everything. There were multiple people reading my story.
Gina Chen: Today, many news organizations don’t have multiple editors reading a story. They often don’t have copy editors. Also, because we have the internet, people want to get their story out right away, so there’s a temptation to get it out right away without checking things as much as they should, whereas we didn’t have that option before. No matter what I did, my story wasn’t going to come out until the next newspaper anyway, whereas now a journalist can write a story and post it on the website or share it on Twitter within five minutes, so I think that has really changed and made the issue of truthfulness in the news much more important, but also more challenging.
Vahe Arabian: Like you said, there are many factors that you have to consider. You mentioned before as well that before academics were seen as people who sit in ivy towers and just doing their own thing and just publishing content, which was great, but now you’re working with these organizations. The only thing that I just wanted to add on top of that and ask you was given that you said that you worked from the pre-social media era as a journalist, are you able to gap that difference between current aspiring journalists that want to come in that, have digital savvy and they have grown up with technology? How are you able to bridge that gap in educating students these days?
Gina Chen: Well, I think for me, I started out in the pre-internet age, but I didn’t end my career in journalism in the pre-internet age. I left my job as a reporter in 2009, so obviously social media was around. I was a very heavy user of it at my newspaper when I left. In fact, I was one of the people who was, you know, sort of developing at our newspaper ways to use it, and that actually fueled my interest in studying it. Once I became an academic, and I needed to pick a research area, I became very interested in the online space because I used it as a journalist. Yes, I started out in the pre-Internet days but the tail end of my career wasn’t and I sort of had to evolve along with the technology. The technology was changing, the Internet was introduced, social media was introduced. When I left my newspaper I had a pretty popular blog, I was covering parenting at the time and I had a mommy blog, which was very popular at the time. So, I was pretty attuned to those newer skills, and then I sort of learned how to do video and video editing so that I could be able to teach the next generation of journalists.
Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. Do you find that there’re other ex-journalists, who are academics now, haven’t evolved in working in your university, or generally in universities around the US?
Gina Chen: I think it’s hard if you left the business, you know, left the news business pre-Internet. Because you didn’t work there during that period. But, with that said, I think many faculty members, they’ll do things like getting more training in the newsroom, they’ll spend a summer in a newsroom to get more updated on their skills. So, I’m sure there are some journalism professors, across the whole world, who aren’t as updated on their skills as they should be but I think many of them are and make a concerted effort to update their skills. I also think that we have to constantly do that because it’s not like you can do it and then stop. Because it’s still changing. Virtual reality is one of those things that some news organizations are using. Data journalism has become really popular lately. So, it’s not like you can ever, no matter when you left the news business, you’re still going to have to update your skills. Because we’re constantly going to have new technology, it gives us new ways to tell stories.
Vahe Arabian: And is that the main approach that you’d take in order to stay connected with upcoming students and aspiring journalists?
Gina Chen: Yeah. Well, I think it’s important. I think that it’s important to stay up with the technology that the news business is using. It’s teaching it. And I think that to stay plugged into how news organizations are evolving. Because we know technology isn’t going to stop. We’re not going to stop and say, “Okay, that’s it. We’re not going to invent anything else.” So, in ten years I would probably be talking about different things that are being taught in my journalism school than today, and I think that’s great. I mean, we should keep innovating.
Vahe Arabian: Gina, still on this point, I just wanted to get your opinion on this. Do you think the age of the teacher matters? I know that you still keep on top of things but having a younger professor or a lecturer who’s teaching upcoming journalists, is there any difference in how students respond or connect with that teacher?
Gina Chen: I don’t know that age is the difference in how people respond. I guess, what I would say is, I think it’s good to have a good mix. There is certainly value to having people on your faculty who have experienced things that journalists today haven’t. Like, they have a greater depth of experience. I also think there’s tremendous value for having people who are more recently out of the business. We do that on our faculty where we have, what are called, lecturer positions. So those are professors who usually don’t have a Ph.D. but have a lot of professional experience, more recently, in the business. And so that allows us to constantly be hiring people who have more updated skills. And I do think that you want a good mix.
Gina Chen: You want some young faculty members, you want more senior people, and I think students respond to faculty not based on their age but on how well they are able to communicate the information they’re trying to teach. So, when I think about professors I know, there’re professors who are older than me who I think students learn a lot from and there’re professors who are younger than me who I think students learn a lot from. But it’s good to have a good mix because the industry keeps evolving and so, as we hire new people who are more recently out of the business, obviously they’re going to provide information that more seasoned people aren’t going to have.
Vahe Arabian: So, what are some of the things you said that there’re journalists that don’t know how to do this anymore, that may be more of the experienced PhDs and professors can teach students today. Is the old school, I guess, fact-checking journalism style?
Gina Chen: Like I said, I don’t want to give the impression that I think that if someone’s worked at a journalism school for a long time then that’s a bad thing because I don’t think that at all.
Vahe Arabian: No, of course, not. I just want to get your opinion.
Gina Chen: I think that many of the things that we need to teach students are not changing. Teaching students how to interview someone really well doesn’t change. That’s the same as it was 20 years ago, it’ll probably be the same in 20 years. The tools of the interview may change, but the ability to ask the kind of questions that elicit the kind of answers that tell a vivid story is so important and it doesn’t change. And I think that writing well doesn’t change. We have more senior faculty members who have a lot of experience in writing. They are invaluable to students to teach that craft to them and I think the ability to dive through documents also doesn’t change. We might do it, today, using data journalism and using a computer to do the digging, but it’s not really any different than the way we used to do it where we actually had to obtain physical documents and look through them in a stack.
Gina Chen: So I think there’s still a need for all of that. There’s a need for professors who have expertise in newer areas. For example, I teach a social media journalism class. We certainly need somebody who has expertise in that. We just hired someone new who teaches a data journalism class. We need expertise in that. But there’re plenty of other aspects of journalism that are unchanging and really don’t change. And the students need a strong foundation in those aspects as well.
Vahe Arabian: Thank you for reinforcing that. I just wanted to be really clear on that point. So, what’s that transition that, you know, your motivation behind becoming an academic is different from other people but what are some of the other stories that you heard or some of the other reasons you’ve heard that people have transitioned into academic life or profession?
Gina Chen: I think that I made the transition, when I did, for economic reasons because I was afraid I wouldn’t have a job. But even before that, I had always wanted to come back and become a professor later in my career. So I think part of it that I’d done one thing for 20 years. I was a journalist for 20 years and I loved being a journalist but I was ready for a new challenge. The other part was I wanted to be able to do research, more extensive research, that, you know, you do research for a news story but when you’re a professor, your job, you do much more extensive research. You can conduct experiments, you can conduct interviews where you might interview 100 people versus a dozen people.
Gina Chen: So, I really wanted to be able to do those kinds of things and I think, of my friends who have made the transition, it’s usually a mix. It’s a mix between, “Hey, I love what I’m doing but I’m not sure if I want to do it for the rest of my life and I want to do something related to it.” I think, for some, it’s a little bit of a fear of being able to keep a job in journalism because that’s harder and harder to do these days, and it’s harder for the people who’ve been there a long time. But I don’t want to make it sound like either I or most people go into being a professor because they were running away from a journalism job because I didn’t feel that way at all. The timing of it had to do with the finances but, really, I love what I’m doing now.
Gina Chen: I love what I’m doing now as much as I loved what I was doing as a journalist. I just was ready for a new chapter, to do it in a different way, to have the ability to teach is very different than the ability to, you know, go out and tell the story. And there’s something really gratifying about teaching someone who doesn’t know how to do it. And I think that drives a lot of people who make the jump from journalism to being a professor of journalism.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah. I’ve done a bit of teaching myself and I know that feeling. Because you even learn, by teaching someone else, you actually even learn better, the craft, as well in some ways.
Gina Chen: Oh, you do. Yeah. When you have to teach it to someone you have to know it really, really well. Because you can’t teach it someone else unless you really know it at a high level. So, I learn a lot from my students and I learn a lot of teaching because it helps me sort of refine, in my head, “Well, how did I do this? How did I get these people to talk to me? How did I find out about this story?” And then to be able to articulate it to my students.
Vahe Arabian: I agree with you. So, Gina, when students enroll in the University of Texas or, yeah, let’s refer to the University of Texas, into journalism school and the courses, degrees, what is the feedback that you’re getting in terms of why they are enrolling? And what have you seen in the past? Have you seen any changes in the reasons why, over the past five or 10 years, since you started?
Gina Chen: Yeah. Well, I mean, I can tell you, I haven’t been there five or 10 years so I can’t really speak historically. But one thing we are finding is that many of our students who enroll in the journalism school want a traditional route into journalism. They want to work as a TV newscaster, an anchor, they want to work at a newspaper, they want to be an investigative reporter. But some of them, and I think this is more of a transition, don’t want a traditional journalism career but they want the tools and the skills that we teach to enable them to go into different careers. So I think that’s probably a change over the past five or 10 years. I mean, certainly, in the past there were students who got a journalism degree and didn’t become journalists.
Gina Chen: But I think now students are going into the degree saying, “This degree is going to teach me how to write. This degree is going to teach me how to tell a story. This degree is going to teach me how to shoot, edit, and produce a video story. This is going to teach me how to shoot or record an audio story.” And these are skills that many industries want. Not just journalism. “It’s going to teach me how to run a social media account. How to manage social media in a professional way.” So I think that’s somewhat a transition. That some of our students come in and say, “I want to take these classes because I want to learn these skills, and then I want to take these skills and go work for a private company. Or I want to go work in government. Or I want to go on to become a lawyer.”
Gina Chen: We have students who do that. Who want to learn to write well because you have to write so much as a lawyer. So I think that, really, a degree in journalism has become a lot more diverse than it was in the past. It’s not just this sort of trade school to train you to work at a news organization. It’s becoming more broad. That you’re learning a whole bunch of skills that you might use in very, very different ways than your other classmates.
Vahe Arabian: Has that impacted the way that you teach? Given that it’s becoming more diverse, what are the positive, negatives, has that impacted you in any way?
Gina Chen: Yeah. I mean, I think it has. Before I got to UT, they redesigned the curriculum so that you could take sort of these pathways but you didn’t have to say, “Okay, I’m going to …” You used to have to sort of target, “I’m going to be newspaper. I’m going to be broadcast.” Whereas now you have a lot more freedom, between, to take classes. So that you don’t have to be sort of siloed into one type of news organization. So that’s one change that predates me. I think the other changes is that we are adding classes that have a more broad appeal. I mean, my social media journalism class is a great example. We have 150 students every semester and some of them are journalism students, and some of them are from outside majors, and we’ve sort of tailored the class so that it’s relevant to students who don’t necessarily want to go into journalism. So, we’ve done that with many of our classes. Made them so that you will learn this type of skills but you can use those skills with whatever career you go into.
Gina Chen: And I think we constantly are updating our curriculum because of that. We’ve added a class where students learn to make an app. Like, a phone app where they team up with the computer science students and they create a phone app. So, the journalism students and the computer science students work together. The journalism students kind of help with the idea of what might be useful in the realm of journalism or more broadly in communication, and the computer science student has the coding skills to do it. But they end up with a product that they could market anywhere. It doesn’t have to be in journalism. We don’t restrict their ideas to be, “This is something a news organization would use.” So I think, those are some examples of we have updated our curriculum so that it’s giving students options of skills that they want, that they can use however they want to use them, whatever career they end up in.
Vahe Arabian: So, Gina, what’s the process now in determining how, when you’re advising or reviewing the syllabus, when to add new subjects and, the second part of the question is, how can students now determine their pathway without having that prior experience and knowledge at the university?
Gina Chen: Well, I think there’re two questions. One is, I mean, our curriculum, we have certain required classes. So, that ensures that the students will get the base thing that they need if they’re going into a journalism career or a non-journalism career. So they’re required to take a reporting class. They’re required to take a photography class. They’re required to take some more advanced levels of those classes. So, there’s not a danger that they’re going to get out of school and only know one thing. In fact, they’re going to be able to tailor what they learn, you know, certain classes you have to take your sophomore year. Certain classes you have to take your junior year.
Gina Chen: So there’re still requirements, it’s just there’s more flexibility in that. Now, as far as updating, I mean, I think there’re two aspects to that. Every year we talk about, as a faculty, what skills are our students going to need to know in the future that we’re not teaching them now, and we update it. And that’s sort of how the apps class came about. That is also how we’d added some data journalism classes and data visualization classes. That’s how those came about. And they can use those skills as frequently as they want. So, a good example of this is I teach a social media journalism class. I recently took it over from another professor.
Gina Chen: We add different platforms as those become more important for news and information. When we started the class, Snapchat hadn’t been invented, for example, but then when Snapchat was invented we added a Snapchat component to the class to teach the students how to post stories on Snapchat. Even stories, news stories, because while someone my age probably isn’t on Snapchat that often, young people are and they actually get some of their news from Snapchat. So, that’s a way we can sort of update really quickly. You know, I, with my social media journalism class, I will probably change the syllabi every semester as new things are invented or change.
Vahe Arabian: Is that under your control or do you have to validate that through the faculty?
Gina Chen: No. I mean, we can change our syllabi pretty much easily. As long as we’re teaching the core part. So, that’s pretty easy to do, to update it. For example, the professor that’s teaching it this summer, he’s going to add an Instagram stories component to it because that wasn’t available when we first wrote the syllabus and then I’ll probably use that in the fall. But as new platforms emerge that we can use for news, we’ll use it. Another example is we used to use Storify in the class, which is an application that collects tweets and Facebook posts together, and then Storify kind of went away and stopped being free so we don’t use that anymore. Now we use Twitter moment. So, for a class that involves technology, we can be very fluid and update it. In the syllabus itself, it doesn’t have to go through the approval process, you know, the way changing the whole curriculum would.
Vahe Arabian: When do you determine when you have to change the curriculum?
Gina Chen: I guess we usually talk about it, kind of an ongoing discussion, at our faculty meeting where we, say, people will propose a class and say, “Hey, I really want to teach a class on this.” And we can easily add a class to the course schedule without changing the whole curriculum. So a good example of that is, last year, or last fall, I wanted to add a class about online incivility because that was becoming such a particular issue. Basically, I talked to the chair of my department and said, “I want to add this class.” And he said yes, and we put it on the schedule. Now, we didn’t change the whole curriculum, in that students aren’t required to take it. It’s an elective, but it’s pretty easy to add an elective, and then an elective if we wanna turn it into a required course, then there’s a procedure where we update the curriculum every few years, but between those updates, we could easily add new classes that we feel like a really timely or relevant to what’s going on.
Vahe Arabian: How did you determine demand, if whether or not students would actually take on that class?
Gina Chen: Well, that’s a little bit of a guessing game. We don’t always know, but I can tell you the Online Incivility class, my first semester teaching it, I got 40 students, which is a lot for our classes. That’s a pretty big class in our school, so if we didn’t get enough students, they’ll just cancel the class, so it’s really not a risk. If I didn’t get enough students, they’ll cancel the class, I would be teaching something else. Our social media class when we started that, we had no idea how popular it’d be. Now, we get 150 students every semester, and we easily could have more if we opened it to more students. There’s usually a waiting list, so I think part of being a professor is being on top of what students are interested in, and also what skills they need.
Gina Chen: If you pitch a class that fits all of those, students will enroll in it. They’ll be interested in a class, the art class, for example. When they introduce the class where they design the app, it’s very popular, and because it’s something students wanna know how to do today.
Vahe Arabian: Gina, just back to the point that I was mentioning before how can you guide students to, like you said, ’cause the parts on, as clear as before, just a trade, learning the trade, how do you help students guide to what path they wanna take once they graduate?
Gina Chen: Well, there’re two answers to that. One is making sure they complete all the credits and prerequisites that they have to graduate. We have advisors who work directly with the students to do that. If there’s a certain pathway, even though we don’t have the same divisions between, say, newspaper and TV that we used to have, we still have required a class that every student needs to go to. That’s a more formal process where they work with their advisor.
Gina Chen: We said, “You won’t be able to graduate if you don’t get enough credits in this particular area,” but then using the informal process, where you meet the student in class and you talk to them and say, “What do you wanna do?” You teach a recording class, and you get to know your students, and say, “If you love doing this, what’s your future goal?” You can say, “You really should consider taking this class.” Usually, we can’t force them to take it, so usually, you have that relationship with a student, so they are encouraged by the support you’re showing them, so then you can kind of unofficially say, “Hey, make sure you take these classes because I think you’ll get a lot out of them, and they really will fit your interest.”
Gina Chen: I think we do both. We do the formal system where, “These are the credits you have to take,” but then the informal system where you’re just … I have students come to my office all the time, who will like, “Here’s what I’m gonna do with my life. Should I take this class or this class?” I’m able to, sort of informally, say, “Well, if you love writing, take this class. If you love video more, take this class.” I think many of our professors have those informal relationships with students where they kind of guide them.
Vahe Arabian: What about for the larger universities where that professor or lecturer has multiple tutorials and classes, and they can’t really develop that one-to-one as an informal or like you said as close to you as you have. Do you think this type of students fall through the gaps, and that helps them become more incisive in terms of what they wanna do?
Gina Chen: Well, I’m sure those students will fall through the gaps but the University of Texas at Austin is certainly not a small university. We have 50,000 students. Our department is very focused on our students, and I think that’s a strength of our department, so I don’t know, I’m sure there’re universities where there isn’t that relationship, but one thing about us, we’re an accredited journalism program, and part of that, our core classes, our core skill classes are required to be small, so when a student takes the basic recording class, they’re not gonna have more than 20 students in that class, because that’s a requirement of our accreditation as an accredited journalism school.
Gina Chen: Now, certainly in upper division classes, like my social media journals and class for the 150 students, I don’t know every single student in that class, but I still have students in that class coming to my office hours and talking to me. So I guess, an answer to your question, I don’t think the problem is whether you’re at a big university or a small university. Because we’re a big university, it’s just you wanna find a school where those individual conversations with students are valued. I think that is the case in the school journalism where I work, it’s definitely valued. That is an expectation of my job that I’m not just gonna slop that off to a TA, that I’m available for students and I talk to students.
Gina Chen: Because we have the introductory skill classes which are relatively small, that helps because it enables us to get to know them better, so then you kinda check in with them, you see ’em in the hall a couple years after your class and they’ll be like, “Hey, how’re things going?” You have a relationship with them. Will every professor do that? Probably not, but I think at any university, the best professors do that.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, but I think in any students life, they always have that impressionable lecturer or teacher because of either their knowledge or the fact that they’re being able to develop a relationship, so I agree with you. It’s definitely a crucial value to have at the university. With that, I guess, are there any other tools that you use to gather feedback ’cause, for example, when I went to university, they always used to provide us survey links to fill out, to provide faculty with regular feedback. Do you use any other tools to get a feedback on the curriculum?
Gina Chen: Yeah, the university sends the evaluation to the students, either in person or online at the end of each semester, so the students both rate the professor on a quantitative scale, like a 1 to 5 type of scale, and then there’s also a place where they could put comments. Those are used as part of our annual promotional evaluation, so when we go up for either promotion or tenure or just the annual evaluation, one of the things they look at is how we do our student evaluations. My department takes them very seriously, so it’s important for us to have good student evaluation.
Gina Chen: I think that’s a more formal way. Certainly, the students are able to give some feedback, and that feedback is available to other students. If a student wants to take my class next semester, they can log into our computer system and read my evaluations from previous semesters, and see what other students thought of you. That is another tool for the student to be like, “Hey, do I wanna take a class with this professor? Is this gonna be a good fit for me?” Will the students do that or not? I don’t know, but I would guess they probably, some of them do.
Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. I think that’s very great that you said that ’cause even to my impression, sometimes when you fill out a survey you think they might not have been listening, but it’s good to hear that, and for those students, when they hear this podcast, as well.
Gina Chen: Right.
Vahe Arabian: Just a top-level question, is there a system in the US, the university, faculty, are there ranking systems in the US say, “If you wanna go to journalism school, this is the best journalism school that you go to?”
Gina Chen: Yeah, there’re ranking systems, several different ways. One thing is accreditation. That you’re accredited by the independent body, and then U.S. News & World Report does a ranking every year, where they rank the school based on various criteria, everything from cost to graduation rate, so students can certainly look those … They google top 10 journalism schools, we usually come up on that list, and they can see the criteria that news organization use to rank them, and there’s other ranking out there by other private organizations. It’s not like an official government ranking or anything like that, but there’s a ranking by either news organizations or like private companies that will rank them based on different factors.
Anything from cost to graduation rate. It’s just basically, the various rankings sort of all do it a little bit differently, but the ones from US news and world report, are sort of the ones a lot of people will refer to.
Vahe Arabian: What’re the ones that students commonly refer to and what’re the ranking systems which are internally used as part of your ongoing review or the course?
Gina Chen: Well, I’m not sure what you mean, students, if they’re looking, say, to find out how good is this university ranked, they will probably most likely go to U.S. News & World Report which releases the big report every year. That ranks universities in all different ways. Category system, major state universities, private universities, small liberal arts school. Internally, we certainly are happy when we’re ranked high on those, but at least to my knowledge, there’s not some kind of internal ranking of the colleges or university.
Vahe Arabian: You don’t use any of the external reports as part of internal performance reviews?
Gina Chen: Well, there’re internal performance reviews of individual employees. Faculty members got to review every year, but we wouldn’t necessarily be critiqued on where our school ranked. We would be critiqued on our course evaluations and our publication, how frequently we publish.
Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. I understand. Gina, looking ahead, what’re some of the initiatives that you have in place, do you see and beyond, for yourself personally, and for the faculty and for engaging users as well?
Gina Chen: Yeah, well, I guess my personal goals are very lined with, I guess, these professionals goals of I like doing what I’m doing. I want our journalism school to continue to be one of the best in the country, and I have high hopes that it’ll be because I think we have an innovated faculty, that were constantly talking about, “What can we do better?” I think from a research standpoint, my research with the Center for Media Engagement, we’re very excited about taking on more and broader projects that not only look at those discrete issues with particular news organizations but look at bigger issues across the industry that can be more generalizable to other news organizations and more helpful to other news organizations.
Gina Chen: I guess my goals are to continue doing what we’re doing and continuing to have a high level of excellent, well, teaching at the university, which I think we have some, and also in research through the Center.
Vahe Arabian: Absolutely, and I wish you’re putting the efforts. I realized, and everyone else appreciates it more and more, so I know this might be general but just to give some general career advice to students, aspiring journalists or people who’re interested in social media, what’s the advice that you give or you would give them for choosing this course and pursuing their passion for as long as you have?
Gina Chen: Yeah, well, my best advice would be not to be afraid. That don’t be afraid if you don’t understand everything at the beginning because most of these skills are very teachable. We can teach you how to write, we can teach you how to edit, we can teach you how to tell a story, so if this makes you passionate, stick with it. Don’t be daunted if you get a bad grade. One bad grade doesn’t mean you aren’t destined to do this. The other, I guess, good advice would be to have fun with what you’re doing. I think one of the parts that I loved about being a journalist was it was fun. That’s what I love about being a journalism professor.
Gina Chen: If you aren’t enjoying it, you might wanna think about doing something else because you want to have a job that you enjoy doing, but don’t be daunted by any one mistake or one bad grade because you wanna look at the big picture, and I guess that’s what I tell any student, really. Whether they’re going into journalism or not.
Vahe Arabian: Fun might mean a bit different to everyone else, so do you mean fun in terms of storytelling aspect or finding that script or finding that perspective that someone who might not have uncovered?
Gina Chen: Yeah, I guess I started, I became a journalist initially because I like to write and I was looking for a way to write and make a living, but when I got into journalism, I loved interviewing people, I loved talking to people and hearing their stories. I loved that they trusted me with their stories, and I loved trying to capture in my writing, what they had told me, so I loved that part of it. I also loved sort of the part where you can make small changes. I loved doing stories that actually improved people’s lives. That I did a story once about the funding of childcare was being done in the county where I lived was flawed and it was really hurting low-income childcare centers and I wrote a package of stories about it and they changed the formula.
Gina Chen: That was a very gratifying day for me because I felt like, “Wow, it’s very few jobs where you get to be that watchdog for government, and actually effect change.” I found that really fun, and I think the same thing. This sort of fun being the journalism professor is that I get to write, which is what got me in the beginning. I get to tell stories, which I loved and I get to affect students’ lives. I think there’re things I like about both fields are sort of the same. It’s just a little bit different.
Vahe Arabian: Different audience, essentially.
Gina Chen: Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: They’re a different audience and like you said, that gratifying feeling of being able to teach students.
Gina Chen: Yes, exactly.
Vahe Arabian: Awesome. Thank you for your time.
Gina Chen: Great.
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