In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: Rumours of my demise… (I’ve been busy being shortlisted for jobs)

MARK Twain countered the report of his demise with a statement to the New York Journal: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

It always reminds me of another, far less well-known story. While visiting my late aunt in the Bahamas, years ago, I met a friend from university days who was engaged to a Nassau-based lawyer.

He told me of a Bahamian need to establish a personal connection with anyone they do business with. An old lady entering the law offices of Hughes, Knowles and Bowler (a completely fictitious name, m’lud) felt compelled to ask for Mr Hughes, personally.

“I’m sorry,” said the receptionist politely, “but Mr Hughes is deceased.”

“That’s a’right,” said the old lady, unabashed, “I’ll wait.”

Like Mr Twain, rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. And, like the Bahamian lady, thank you, dear reader, for waiting.

I have been quiet of late. Nothing to say? Bored with blogging? In a huff?

No, I have had a lot to say in other areas. For I was shortlisted for three jobs in three months and, as if trial by interview panel were not enough, universities require candidates to give a presentation on a subject they set.

So the Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism at Nottingham Trent University asked how I would ‘inspire students in the fast-paced world of multiplatform journalism in a way that would enhance their employability, provide a shop window for CBJ and the wider university and give the potential for academic research?’.

I resisted an urge to say: “Tell them it’s a jungle out there.”

Instead, I whipped up a blizzard of PowerPoint slides I entitled, ‘Learning for multi-dimensional media employability’. What it lacks in pronounceability it made up for in buzz-words.

I concluded, by saying: “The fast-paced world of multiplatform journalism offers unprecedented opportunities for new forms of employment, self-employment and media entrepreneurship. Few journalism centres are fully enhancing those opportunities. Those that do will attract attention to their teaching and their related research.”

That I genuinely believe is true. Nottingham Trent is further on the path to this than many universities, especially some in Scotland, where they seems more of an emphasis on lecturers having PhDs than extensive experience of journalism in the UK.

Universities earn income from research and teaching, whether the student or the government pays the tuition fees, but it is research ratings which seem to obsess them. I have taught at four universities in Scotland and one in England. None has asked for a teaching or training qualification. Fortunately, I have one of each.

The supposed dichotomy between teaching and research appears to be echoed at some universities in a tension between academics and practitioners. But as I said in my presentation, on which I was complimented: “Our object is to develop self-aware practitioners. Learning and practice are inextricably connected.

“So too are teaching and research. We are all learners. As Joubert* said: ‘To teach is to learn twice’.”

And so on to the University for the Creative Arts at Farnham in Surrey who wanted a presentation on ‘the key skills and knowledge sets needed by journalists today’ and asked: ‘How should we teach and assess them on a university journalism course?’

I admit I did plagiarise myself, recycling the quote from Mr Joubert. I did add, however: “A key differentiator of the new skillsets is likely to be that we shall tend to be less prescriptive in some areas, more open to a range… of outcomes and, perhaps disconcertingly for some, more likely to learn from our own students.

“We can continue to provide the spine of our students’ knowledge and skillsets. We may be less able to dictate the shape of their final creations.”

By which I mean we need to be more open to learning from our students and, while developing core skills, not circumscribing the work they produce.

Where did all these presentations get me? I’ll tell you next week.

* Joseph Joubert, Recueil des pensées de M. Joubert (Collected Thoughts of Mr. Joubert), ed. François-René de Chateaubriand, 1838 (All right, I’m showing off but I’m entitled – I did the research).

Francis Shennan is director of and was until recently Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde universities.