New RSJ chair ushers in 14 new instructors: A conversation with Janice Neil

Janice Neil says she can’t believe how many fantastic, experienced journalists are interested in teaching journalism at Ryerson.

By Yara Kashlan & Lisa Cumming 

Ryerson School of Journalism

Janice Neil says she can’t believe how many fantastic, experienced journalists are interested in teaching journalism at Ryerson.

The chair of the program met with many instructors over the past couple of years and when part-time jobs were advertised last spring, 14 new instructors were hired for this academic year. Ten are teaching this fall and the others start in the winter semester.

Dozens of candidates with a broad range of digital skills and teaching experience applied. It was a process that happened over a six-week period in June and July.

Neil was appointed as chair, effective July 1, for a three-year term. She was previously the associate chair to former RSJ Chair Ivor Shapiro, who is currently on sabbatical.

Bringing in a broad, diverse instructing talent was just one of her goals, says Neil, who was appointed on July 1.

Below read a Q&A about what she hopes to accomplish during her three-year term.Janice Neil Associate chair

Q: What do you anticipate as being the most challenging aspect of your new position at the Ryerson School of Journalism?

A: Rather than saying there’s something that’s challenging, I would like to say there are lots of exciting opportunities to let our brand new curriculum shine. Our second-year students are getting all new courses and our first-years are getting the second year of the new curriculum. We’ve also, of course, brought in new courses for the final-year students. We’re introducing the online course, Reporting on Aboriginal Communities, and that’s very exciting. We have 14 instructors this academic year who are new to teaching at Ryerson and bringing experiences from newsrooms and organizations where they work right into the classroom. We also have the instructors coming back to us who the students love and learn a lot from, and of course all of our full-time faculty. I think the challenge is that we want, and we need, to be staying on top of where the journalism profession is, where the industry is, and trying to anticipate challenges, anticipating innovation and to spark innovation among our students. We teach students the fundamental skills that are important for where they are right now. Like so many other schools in the university, we are constantly on the cusp of change and that is exciting and it is a challenge.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish during your time as chair?

A:I believe we’ve already started here at the school and what we’re going to really continue working on is really identifying the culture that we have in the classroom [as we prepare] students for the real world. By that I don’t mean that we are replicating all the harsh realities necessarily of the real world, but that we are constantly taking care of our students and nurturing who they are and recognizing that they are students and they are here in our classrooms and preparing them to take responsibility for their careers and basically the career of life. We’re establishing what the culture in the school of journalism is, and that includes some of the things that I mentioned earlier. Ryerson has had a reputation for being a place of teaching excellence and I want to continue to nurture and to build that. Giving our faculty and instructors lots of opportunities to think about how we can constantly give our students the best possible experience while they’re here in the classroom – that is an important part of my vision and I know it’s one that is shared by my colleagues.

We’re offering our first online course starting in January that students can fit in if they are working the extremely long hours we know many students work in their supposedly part-time jobs, and carrying a full course load as well. It’s a course that is so essential and that’s responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that said that we have to be doing a better job of educating students about the history and how to report on Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples. We’ve had support from the university to build a whole set of resources. We’re going to have a website we’re going to launch [sometime] this fall.

I want the whole school, the students and the faculty, to embrace how we can report on Aboriginal peoples that are here in Toronto. It’s the second largest urban community of people living off reserve in an urban setting in the country. That is taking our responsibility to respond to what is a pretty passionate call to right the wrongs of the past in terms of this relationship that non-Aboriginal people have had with their indigenous communities.

I’m very excited by so many of the research projects that our faculty are working on and there are all sorts of great plans for interesting panels and discussions so stay tuned for that. I think one of the goals this year is to continue to look at ways to integrate journalism students within the rest of FCAD. We’re in this wonderful faculty with eight other schools that are interested in ideas and producing things.

All of the faculties are interested in storytelling. One of the goals is to learn how to tell those stories with students in some of the other schools, including the Transmedia Zone, which is just up on the second floor. I’m hoping there is going to be more journalism involvement in that, but [also] really strengthening relationships and finding really innovative ways to work with other schools that are in our faculties to create some really nice synergy there.

Q: I can tell that there are a lot of ideas you’re excited for and a lot of changes in the school, but what really drove you to take on this position as chair?

A: I am so energized by what is happening here. We have fantastic students and fantastic teaching instructors and we have great staff. We are a really good family that, I think, is really at the centre of Canadian journalism education in the country. To be not just part of it, but to be looking on the horizon and see what’s coming and what we can create. I think these are times of such incredible transformation in the journalism profession, in the journalism industry and that is exciting to mobilize what we do well already and to kind of figure out how that’s going to take us to the next level.

Q: As chair, do you see yourself having more interactions with students to get feedback, not just from your staff and faculty, but is there going to be more connection with students?

A: Absolutely, an open-door policy. I think I’m going to steal an idea from our current dean [of FCAD] Charles Falzon. When he was chair of RTA he used to have Fireside Chats. He said I’m welcome to steal that idea. I’m not sure there’s a fireplace, and in the summer it’s hard to think of needing warmth, but I think it’s a great concept. I’ll figure out what to call them, but to have occasional open pit chats to have students drop by. I realize our students are so, so busy and that just having one-off events to meet the chair isn’t necessarily going to fit their schedules, so I try to have an open-door policy and also to have students [meet the person] who can best meet their needs. Together as a team we are open for business. If we were a business, [students] are our clients and we are here to not just guide their journalism education but to participate with them in that process of having a fantastic experience. There are undergraduates and graduates who are here for [respectively] four and two years and we help them prepare for the rest of their lives.

Q: Is there any advice that Ivor (the previous chair) had passed on to you or had shared with regards to the chair position?

A: <Laughs> The office gets cold in the winter. I’ll be honest, what Ivor told me over and over again is this is the best job. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping a student, than working with a colleague, than working with staff on a project that serves the students, serves journalism research, serves the greater community that participates in it and that is absolutely honest. When I asked Ivor what he got out of it, he got a little misty eyed. It’s helping people, that certainly inspired me and I’m sure that’s going to be my answer when I step down from this as well.

The interview was edited and condensed for length.