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Jumping Tracks

Is a journalism education by any other name still as good?

The University of Pittsburgh recently announced it was merging the journalism track of its English writing program into a combined "non-fiction" track, where it will be taught alongside the school's creative non-fiction program.

"We will continue to support students with interests in print journalism, but in a context that allows for greater reflection and flexibility," David Bartholomae, chair of Pitt's English department, pledged in a May 29 mass e-mail. Journalism will now be taught "in the context of a liberal-arts rather than pre-professional program."

Some are skeptical about the changes, especially since they turn courses like Introduction to Journalism into an elective, and replace it with a required Introduction to Non-fiction. That and other classes, Bartholomae wrote, will "present non-fiction broadly defined -- including, of course, writing for (and in) newspapers."

"It's disappointing to those who teach [journalism-focused classes] and think that the students have gotten some benefit out of what we're teaching," says Gary Rotstein, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who has taught Intro to Journalism. Students "were getting something out of it, whether they were planning to be professionals or not. ...

"I always told people, 'The idea isn't to make you a journalist,'" he adds. "But really ... to figure out, did they want to be [one] or not. And, 'Here's what you're going to need to know.'"

With all of the hits the newspaper industry has taken in recent years, Rotstein says that this is "a blow, but probably a minor one in the overall scheme of everything else. ... I'd say it would be a lot more disheartening if it was Point Park or Penn State."

Those schools, unlike Pitt, have standalone journalism departments. One reason Bartholomae gave for merging the programs, in fact, was fears "about appearing to advertise a major in Journalism, when our course listings couldn't compare to what a student would find in a" bona fide journalism program.

In an interview with CP, Bartholomae said that Pitt has also been putting more support behind journalistic internships, citing a P-G internship and new stipends for interns.

"We're in a position to provide substantial support for the kids who have the smarts and initiative," he says.

For better or worse, though, the changes signal a shift away from newspaper-centric courses.

"It's really a shame to see them reformatting that track," says Drew Singer, editor-in-chief of Pitt's student newspaper, The Pitt News. "The values they teach through the journalism courses are skills that you can use in pretty much any job you go into."

Singer says instructors have told him they're worried the new non-fiction track might shift the focus away from those writing skills stressed by professional journalists. But he was more optimistic about a reference to "an expanded list of elective courses" made in Bartholomae's e-mail to the school.

"If this is the direction that they feel will make the program strongest, then that's great," Singer says. "I just hope to see them fulfill that commitment."

Others have found additional silver linings. "I think that in journalism nowadays, it's a lot more useful to have many skills," says Katelyn Polantz, last year's Pitt News editor-in-chief. "I don't think that you have to take journalism classes in order to be good at working at a newspaper."

On the other hand, she says, having a journalism-specific track did encourage fledgling writers to get into the business.

"It takes a lot for someone to figure out where The Pitt News office is, walk up there and apply for a job," Polantz says.

So is the university making a smart trade by shifting its focus?

"We'll see," Polantz says. "I'm glad it's not my problem."

Melissa Meinzer contributed to this report. Editor's note: Meinzer and Fleming are graduates of Pitt's English writing program.

Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly attributed quotes made by Gary Rotstein to another Post-Gazette staffer. 

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