The Digital Rap Sessions, or how die-hard traditionalists and emerging media yahoos became One

I had seen it happen before. When I was a kid, acoustic instruments went electric, outraging traditional musicians. When I became a musician, electric went electronic and the traditionalists who objected to electrifying instruments now denounced synthesized sounds as not even being music. But music, organized tones, has always remained the thing—not the amplification through wattage or the digitizing of instruments.

Many traditional journalists reacted much in the same way to digital and social media, and, in journalism and mass communication schools across the country, professors often railed against and slowed the development of digital media programs, even as the rest of the world moved rapidly on.
A year ago, in this journal, I wrote about an experiment in which I added digital elements to my Intro to Journalism class. As the associate dean and lead multimedia professor where I teach at Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) in Miami, I thought it was time to include Web development and the use of social media in classes before students were admitted fully to our program, instead of in the capstone journalism course when they were exiting the school.

Intro to Journalism is traditionally offered as a lecture class, not a skills class, with periodic quizzes based on a textbook, a mid-term and final. Some of my students were taken aback when, on the first day of class, I asked them to develop a WordPress site and post a written assignment. Those students who had a sense of the digital now, whose reach was beyond personal posts on Facebook or Twitter, were enthusiastic about the opportunity. There were 112 students in the lecture class; in hindsight, a couple of teacher assistants to help read the postings and comment on design elements would have made this a more efficient experiment.

Still, a year after the experiment, those students who were in my Intro class and were now in my capstone multimedia class were more advanced in developing and writing for the Web than the students who had been in more traditional such classes. These students had an extra year to meld journalistic values and reporting skills in a digital environment.

While teaching Intro, I thought it was a good time to gather a few faculty I knew who also were infusing digital and social media components into their classes. Our school has two departments—journalism and public relations/advertising—and though we newly had added a multimedia course to our core undergraduate curriculum, in which students are taught Final Cut, Soundslides and Audacity, and had updated our graduate programs (a Spanish Language Journalism master’s program and Global Strategic Communications program) with Web and social media work, we had not yet developed a formal digital major or graduate program. I thought this would be a good opportunity for us to compare notes and maybe find a path to a more cohesive way of teaching new media in our school.

I didn’t want to call a formal meeting, or ask faculty to serve on yet another committee to evaluate our digital relevance. As the ongoing change in media lends itself to improvisation, I sent out a vague email saying that I was holding a Digital Rap Session in the dean’s conference room. My idea was to gather a small, free-wheeling circle of professors, sort of like a musical jam session, where we could basically riff about our in-class digital experiences.

As nobody RSVPed, I thought I’d be having a meeting of one. I was surprised, actually thrilled, when eight faculty from journalism, public relations and advertising, some technology-oriented and some more traditionally-based, wandered into the conference room. Issues relevant to the seismic shifts in the media were usually discussed in separate departmental meetings.

Some of the faculty came to this Session out of interest, some out of curiosity—”What’s a Digital Rap Session?” But there were no accidental tourists here. Of the eight who showed up, all had either been infusing their courses with either theoretical discussions about digital media or hands-on work.

Several professors had been teaching our new multimedia production course, so there was discussion as to whether we were being realistic expecting students to learn Final Cut, Audacity, Soundslides and Web design in one semester. A mild debate also broke out about WordPress—as most of us were using it for Web work, did we need to purchase a dedicated WordPress server?

We found common ground—and were surprised—when we discussed student competency in digital skills. Several of us had made informal surveys and discovered that only about 20 percent of our students felt comfortable working on the Web or in video. Was this a national trend, or was it because our school is a minority-serving school—71 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African-American, 3 percent Asian—and weren’t exposed to the opportunities in their high schools?

The hour Rap Session ended without a commitment to meet again or to pursue any kind of action plan to develop new curriculum. But I felt the meeting was successful, if only for the easy-going atmosphere and collegial gathering of faculty from the three different disciplines.

Unstated, but apparent, was that, in spite of individual efforts to teach students digital media, the school needed a more cohesive pedagogical approach.

I let the Rap Sessions sit for the rest of the fall semester, then put out another call for a Session immediately after the spring semester started.

The number of faculty in attendance grew to ten. The need to create a digital program had fermented—we universally agreed that we had to produce an organized program that addressed the concepts and theories of digital communication, in addition to our digitally-infused courses.

Initially, we thought that the group that most needed these skills were recent graduates and people already out in industry who wanted to retrain, so we first went about developing a generic 16-credit Certificate in Digital Communication that could appeal to journalists, public relations reps, advertisers and interested lay people. Faculty from both of our departments contributed ideas for hands-on Web work and more theoretical courses in digital communication.

Over the next few meetings, as more faculty joined the discussions—the Sessions now had more than 50 percent of our full-time professors—we thought of expanding the certificate into a master’s program, as many schools are doing. But ongoing conversations with industry partners indicated that they wanted newly graduated Bachelor of Science students with the skills and understanding of the digital age. A formal survey of undergrads indicated that they were enthusiastic about enrolling in a digital media program.

Our group finally decided that it was critical for us to teach the fundamentals of the digital era in a uniform undergraduate program. As we developed the curriculum, we felt it was necessary to make it possible for students to overlap some of the digital media courses with journalism, public relations and advertising courses, so that they could benefit from the merging of majors.

Our new major—the Digital Media Studies—requires students to take the same core courses in writing and grammar, law and ethics, visual literacy and global mass media as our journalism, public relations and advertising students. Courses more specifically dedicated to digital media, including Introduction to Digital Media, a study of metrics and the impact of social media on social movements, follow the core. Students then have the choice of continuing in one of two directions: media management and entrepreneurship, or advanced production project-based courses that integrate Web, video and writing.

The major flew through school and university curriculum committees and was unanimously approved by the university’s faculty senate. It begins in fall 2012.

Throughout the Rap Sessions, I kept waiting for faculty objections that could slow or possibly derail the process. But there were none. Only surprisingly good-natured collegial discussions. The Sessions seemed to capitalize on a rare moment, when the timing and growth of the digital movement obviated the need for the school to produce a program to maintain its relevancy.

Although I spearheaded the Sessions, there was no one leader. Faculty from both departments came and went, felt the freedom to join or not, and contributed ideas.

In the end, the Rap Sessions broke down more than the walls between departments and disciplines, traditionalists and new media types, researchers and practicing professionals, SJMC veterans and the newly arrived. The free-wheeling forum of riffing professionals stepped outside the formal academic setting of assigned committees, and produced a collaborative effort by faculty connected in common purpose. In so doing, it reflected what the Digital Era seems to be increasingly about.

About Allan Richards

Allan Richards, M.A., Associate Dean and Associate Professor, Florida International University,
School of Journalism and Mass Communication, N. Miami. [email protected]