New look for SJMC master’s program

Natalia M. Mielczarek

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s master’s degree program has rung in the new year with a new look. The non-thesis track, known as the professional sequence, has been gradually phased out in favor of one thesis-required model, which could eventually provide a direct path toward doctorate or professional careers.

The change comes on the heels of an October 2010 accreditation site visit by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC), a group that reviews journalism and mass communication schools for excellence. It did not grant the master’s degree program accreditation, citing the low number of graduate-level courses the program offered and the small number of students enrolled. (More details here.)

But what ACEJMC pegged as a shortcoming, SJMC Associate Professor Don McLeese sees as the program’s strength. McLeese, associate director of professional graduate education and outreach between 2009-11, said the master’s program was small by choice – and by necessity. 

“We have a small graduate program. Many students we’ve attracted like that. This creates a small cohort and the one-on-one attention,” said McLeese, who is now associate director of online and distance education.

“Given the size of our program, any course that we’d offer we would have had to require all master’s students to take, and they wouldn’t make. If you have a program of 10 or 12 students, you can’t assume that all will register.”

Such was the case with an editing course, McLeese said, that didn’t attract enough master’s students to become a self-standing graduate class. The interested graduate students took the course with undergraduates, fulfilling more stringent requirements, he said.

Plus, McLeese said, Iowa City offers a limited pool of professional opportunities that doesn’t support a professional track the size of those in the New York City schools.

“My perception is that at the time we were undergoing re-accreditation, the program was in the midst of a resurgence and we were already taking steps to address some of the steps the team brought up,” McLeese said. “Our program was stronger when we were denied re-accreditation than when we originally received accreditation.”

SJMC Professor Pam Creedon, SJMC director from academic years 2002-03 through 2006-07, said the ACEJMC accreditation standards for a professional master’s degree were enforced initially in the 2005-06 academic year.

“The standards were being further developed and somewhat unclear when the accreditation team visited us in fall 2004,” she said.

The master’s program currently enrolls 22 students. Its new iteration – the emphasis on thesis – doesn’t mean that creativity and professional skills are out the window, said Professor David Perlmutter, SJMC director.

“The key point and great opportunity is that in 2011-2012, a thesis can be many things: digital, creative, multimedia, as well as complemented by strong research,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of the same fine work produced in a single-track master’s. I don’t think anything or anyone will suffer from the change.”

The idea seems to be catching on. As a Daily Iowan story reported recently, 2011 applications for the revised Master of Arts and the longstanding Ph.D. are actually up.

SJMC is also exploring the possibility of launching a new online master’s degree program, primarily targeting its graduates and alumni, Perlmutter said.

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