What if you could design a university program in visual communications from scratch? What would such a curriculum look like?
Which courses would you absolutely need to have, and which would be nice but not necessary? How would you determine the core body of knowledge that every graduating student must master, and how would you project far enough into the future to include courses that would prepare your students for the work-a-day world?
Here at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the goal of the Visual Communications sequence —according to the school’s Web site  — is to produce graduates who can cover breaking news events as photojournalists; produce commercial photography; use skills in design, typesetting, illustration, photography, writing and editing to prepare materials for the mass media such as books, magazines, newspapers, newsletters and Web sites; create graphic communication for informative and persuasive messages in the mass media, such as logos, animation, software interfaces, statistical charts, diagrams, timelines and maps; create audiovisual communications for internal and external publics; and supervise the printing, production and delivery of print and online publications to a mass audience.
Adding Video to the Curriculum Design
Although universities are perceived by some as bastions of tradition, we who teach at a university are constantly struggling to keep our courses useful and relevant, without neglecting the rigorous academic and theoretical framework that distinguishes a university from, say, a community or technical college.
For example, in our program, we are acutely aware of the need to incorporate video and multimedia into our Visual Communications sequence. For several years, video and multimedia were integrated into existing courses, including our introductory survey course, our photography courses, and our capstone course. Last spring however, we decided to offer an experimental, stand-alone video course, which I taught and which will be taught again in the fall by Prof. Denise McGill. The questions raised by this seemingly simple offering may help give you some insight into the problems of curriculum design.
We currently have two what might be called traditional photography courses — Photovisual Communications and Advanced Photovisual Communications — both of which I, along with others in my department, teach.
Photovisual Communications is a beginning course using point-and-shoot cameras. Students learn the fundamental principles of photography, including composition, lighting, and storytelling, plus some Photoshop skills. Advanced Photovisual Communications, as the name implies, is designed to give students confidence with their equipment — 35mm digital SLRs — and command of the artistic and technical skills required to produce portfolio-quality images, including audio slide shows, covering a range of subjects.
In a perfect world, then, we might simply add our video course to this mix and create a photovisual trifecta: a beginning course, an intermediate course, and an advanced course that would cover video and multimedia. But the academic world, as anyone involved with it will tell you, is hardly perfect.
A Tall Order
In order to graduate with the BA degree, students in our Visual Communications sequence must fulfill the following general-education requirements (90 hours): English (15 hours); humanities and fine arts (9 hours); social and behavioral sciences, history, and business (30 hours); natural sciences, numerical/analytical reasoning, and foreign language (18 hours); minor, or second area of study (18 hours).
In addition, they must take the core courses (15 hours) — Survey of Mass Communications, Writing for Mass Communications, Law and Ethics of the Mass Media, Mass Communications Research, and Introduction to Visual Communications — required of all Journalism and Mass Communication majors. Finally, for the Visual Communications sequence, our students must take six required sequence-specific courses, plus nine additional elective hours in journalism and mass communications.
Currently, the sequence-specific courses are the following: Photovisual Communications, Introduction to Visual Communications (part of the journalism core), Graphics for Visual Communications, Informational Graphics for the Mass Media, Advanced Photovisual Communications, and Advanced Visual Communications (the capstone course, in which students produce both a print and an online portfolio of their work).
So, out of six sequence-specific courses, two deal with photography, and the remaining four deal with all other aspects of visual communications — a tall order, to be sure. In fact, one of the rationales behind creating a stand-alone video course is to free up time in the capstone course that then could be devoted to enhancing the students’ understanding of Web and portfolio design. However, by adding an additional required course, you necessarily deduct another course from the total required to graduate.
Wide Range, Not Narrow Focus
Without getting into the minutia of accreditation and balancing the general-education requirements with the instructional needs of each sequence, adding a new course — especially a required one — is clearly not as simple as it sounds. But there is a larger issue as well. If a student graduates from our visual-communications sequence and gets a job in the field of visual communications, chances are the job duties will require a wide range of skills and not a narrow focus.
In other words, very few of our graduates will work exclusively as photographers or videographers or graphic designers. But many who do enter the field will be called upon to do some graphic design, some Web design, a little brochure work here, a bit of photography or videography there. And if they are not doing all these things themselves, they will probably either be working as part of a creative team or be in a position to hire creative professionals. In any event, a breadth of knowledge will serve them well.
Seen from this angle, does the addition of a third photography course — albeit one devoted to moving images — make sense? Or would it be better to retool the two courses in photovisual communications to take into account the increasing prominence in the mass media of video and multimedia?
Perhaps we could do away with the point-and-shoot phase all together and start by teaching the basic principles of photography using digital SLRs. We who teach Advanced Photovisual Communications find that making the switch to digital SLRs is like taking a step backward — the students are expected to shoot complex assignments with unfamiliar equipment, and this sometimes leads to poor quality work and a student’s loss of confidence. Consequently, we end up devoting many classroom hours to explaining the basics of camera and flash use — f-stops, shutter speeds, and lighting ratios, topics that, before digital, were covered in most beginning photography courses.
Crystal Ball, Anyone?
If you consider the complexity of figuring out how to deal with individual courses, you may gain a greater appreciation for what it takes to put together an entire curriculum. Without a crystal ball, it is impossible to predict precisely which skills students graduating four or five years from now will need in order to have successful careers in visual communications.
I’m betting on an increased demand for video and multimedia, along with the desire on the part of employers to hire young people with an entrepreneurial spirit, who can quickly and efficiently perform a variety of tasks that will help clients get their message out to the world — whether than means via the traditional mass media or some new paradigm of communication waiting to emerge.
(My thanks to my colleague Prof. Scott Farrand for taking time to look over this column.)