Jobs in Academia Aren’t Academic

By: Randy Dotinga

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about making the switch from the newsroom to the classroom.

After spending more than three decades in newsrooms, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Stephen Berry packed up this year and headed to the Midwest to become a university professor. Even though he made his mark investigating police departments and the criminal justice system, Berry said he’s facing more pressure than ever.

“It is a major adjustment, especially if you’ve never done teaching before,” said Berry, who works at the University of Iowa. “You’re responsible for a whole classroom of students, and you tend to take every student’s success personally, as if their success is your personal responsibility.” In all, he said, “I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life.”

Come again? In the eyes of some journalists, the world of academia is supposed to be a cozy place where reporters and editors go to spend a few quiet years before retirement.

Well, not always. Journalists who have made the switch to teaching say they’re generally happy with the autonomy and freedom of their jobs. But they also admit to facing a variety of tough challenges, from snotty colleagues and unmotivated students to the never-ending pressure to “publish or perish.”

If you’re looking to a career in the classroom, here are some things you’ll encounter:

* Different pacing: Professors often teach 3-5 classes a week, but they don’t face the relentless daily deadlines of the newspaper business. It can be quite a culture shock, especially for those who come from smaller newspapers where the workload is higher and the pay lower than at major metros.

With deadlines gone, professors can lose a sense of accomplishing — and finishing — important projects each day. “When you work at a daily newspaper, you have a large group of people and a lot of equipment that’s very much geared toward putting this out today and getting it done,” said Rita Reed, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. “You’ve got a blank sheet in the morning, and [at day’s end] you do get a sense that you’re done for the day. In a sense, it’s as shorter cycle.”

With teaching, however, “it’s more long term,” said Reed, a former photographer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “You’re not going to see the fruits of your labor until four or five years after they’re out [of school]. It sometimes feels like I’m never done.”

* More autonomy: Reporters speak with editors every day. Professors, on the other hand, can go days, or even longer, without talking to department chairs or other university big shots. In general, no one peeks over the shoulder of professors to examine their lesson plans and revise their grading systems.

“You decide what’s worthy of teaching and what’s worthy of research,” said Scott Maier, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon and former reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

And if Maier wants to take an afternoon off? If he doesn’t have a class or office hours scheduled, his time is his own. But, as people who work at home often discover, work has a way of stretching itself out. “I end up working more than I thought I would,” Maier said. “That’s very typical in academic life.”

* Different types of hierarchy: In academia, you may have just one boss but plenty of colleagues who think they’re more valuable than you. This is especially true if you work at a university that emphasizes research over experience.

“You have people with Ph.D.s who have never set foot in a newsroom acting superior,” said Mary Hausch, who teaches journalism for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “There’s definitely a class structure between those with Ph.D.s and those without.”

At many universities, professors face pressure to publish research in academic journals, not on op-ed pages. “You’re under the rule of publish or perish,” said former Detroit feature writer Deborah Kaplan, who recently moved to the journalism department at the University of Washington because she liked its approach to research. “You have to turn out articles geared very narrowly to scholarly publications. I miss the ability to reach a mass audience with something that can have a lot of immediate impact.”

* Challenges on the teaching front: Can you find enough to talk about for three hours a week, 30 weeks a year? At UNLV, Hausch often watches in dismay as guest lecturers have trouble finding anything to say beyond the 15-minute mark. “Sometimes journalists don’t understand how much work goes into teaching,” she said. “They think they can stand in a class and just wing it.”

Unmotivated students are a common complaint in the academic world, and professors like to say the students aren’t engaged. (Invariably, the professors remember their college days as a more glorious time.)

“When you get into a classroom, most of the students have no interest in journalism. They’re going into P.R.,” said Michael Skube, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and assistant professor of journalism at North Carolina’s Elon University. “Things that you might take for granted — the urgency of news, the necessity of disinterested reporting — they’re utterly clueless [about].”

* A bounty of fulfillment: But professors soldier on, hoping to find a Woodward or Bernstein among the forests of future flaks. Of nearly a dozen journalism professors interviewed for this series of columns, not a single one expressed regret about moving to teaching from print journalism.

“For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m helping my profession by helping the next generation of journalists become good journalists,” said Berry, who worked as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times and Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. “I’ve got so much experience, and I’ve got a group of people who want to learn from my experience.”

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