A small step toward solving the “our curriculum is too full” problem

One of the arguments used to push back against adding new things into journalism school curricula is “Our curriculum is too full! We can’t possibly add anything more! What are we going to do? Stop teaching writing? Or editing?”

First, the argument is silly — no one said anyone was going to stop teaching writing or reporting or whatever “fundamental” skill is most beloved by the combatant. 

Second, it’s not an either or problem.

Put another way, you can view a crowded curriculum as a challenge or a lament. Too many view it as a lament and throw their hands up.

I’ve started picking away at this problem — viewing it as the challenge that it is — by focusing on a specific class: beginning reporting.

Let’s start with a set of statements:

  1. I believe that all reporting classes need to beef up the amount of data journalism contained in them. Data is everywhere, and thus it’s part of modern journalism, and thus it should be in every reporting class.
  2. I believe the level of mathematics education that most journalism schools require (if any at all) is far too low.
  3. I believe the inside-joke “journalists are bad at math ha ha” has to stop.

Given that, the place to start is beginning reporting. Why there? Because if you expose math and data to beginning reporters, they will not know any better than to think that math and data are part of the job. Because guess what? Math and data are part of the job.

The argument that I get against adding data to a beginning reporting class is that it can’t be done because we need to spend as much time as possible teaching them how to write and how to report. Learn how to interview people. Learn how to write an effective lead. Learn how to write using AP Style. Learn how to find the news. Learn how to come up with good story ideas. And many of them don’t get enough of all that in beginning reporting. 

And, to be fair, they have a point. Until you write a few thousand leads, they’re hard to do and even harder to do well. For students who don’t read news, finding the news in something is difficult. It takes repetition.

But what if we combined some skills training and showed how one leads to another which leads to another? 

What if we combined the basic math-for-reporters section we teach with how to do those exact same problems with a spreadsheet, and then used that spreadsheet with real data to find real stories? Math + Data = Story ideas. 

Well, I’ve started to do exactly that, and I’m hosting it on GitHub. It’s a work in progress, but the idea is to take basic math skills, show how you can do them on a spreadsheet, then take real data and do the same thing, but this time with an eye toward generating story ideas. I’d like this module to take a week of class time — with in-class and out-of-class learning. 

I have no idea when I’ll be done with it, but I intend to use it in my own beginning reporting class when it’s done. As always, pull requests, issues or criticisms are welcome. 

Some of the math is painfully basic, but I’ve found students who had no idea that mean and average were the same thing. They’d so completely fled from math that concepts like orders of operation were foreign to them. So laugh all you want at some of the topics covered, but I assure you, they’re rooted in experience. 

I have to believe that with a little creativity, the “our curriculum is too full” problem can be solved. I have to believe this because if it can’t, journalism education is screwed.