Jennifer Palilonis, educator

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Jennifer Palilonis is the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Multimedia, and journalism graphics sequence coordinator at Ball State University.

Jennifer Palilonis is the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Multimedia, and journalism graphics sequence coordinator at Ball State University.

Jennifer Palilonis is the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Multimedia, and journalism graphics sequence coordinator at Ball State University. She is a PhD candidate in the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing (IUPUI). In the classroom, Palilonis teaches upper-level courses related to graphics reporting, interface design and multimedia storytelling, among others.

After graduating from Ball State University in 1996, she began her career at the Detroit Free-Press before moving to the Chicago Sun-Times as Sunday art director and deputy news design editor in 1998. Palilonis is a media design consultant and affiliate with Garcia Media. She has worked on the redesigns of more than 30 publications since 2000.

What do you think is the most significant challenge facing the current state of journalism education and how can that challenge best be addressed? 
Journalism educators have been talking a lot lately about the importance of “programming for journalists” in our curricula. At face value, it seems like it should be easy to change curricula to reflect new skills and/or concepts we think are important for our students to be exposed to before graduating. But with programming, I think this is easier said than done for a number of reasons. First, there is a shortage of faculty members who know programming themselves. This is so new, and in some ways so technical, that many professors have hard time 1) seeing how it relates to journalistic storytelling and 2) fighting the overwhelming concept of learning it so that you can teach it. It’s also worth nothing that learning it isn’t nearly as difficult as figuring out how to effectively teach it. Where does it fit into a journalism curriculum? Do ALL journalism students need to be exposed to it? If so, how deeply? And how do we effectively ADD something as big and complex as programming to our curricula without killing vital, foundational journalism skills and principles? Individually, these questions are overwhelming. Collectively, they represent a major roadblock to progress for many schools and faculty.

Academia is notoriously slow, but media and the tech landscape are moving incredibly fast. How do educators keep up?
Well, the question of educators keeping up is different from the question of academia keeping up. Universities aren’t very nimble when it comes to updating curricula, largely because the system requires that proposed courses and programs must pass through multiple committees – department, college, university – before they are accepted into the master catalog and offered to students. One could argue that this system is terribly antiquated for ALL programs, not just those that relate to media. The fact is that nearly all academic programs are affected by rapid changes in technology. So, really, I think that all universities should revisit the process for introducing new lines of instruction so that they can be more nimble and responsive to changes in individual fields.

There are, however, a lot of things that departments and individual faculty can do to keep up. At Ball State, we developed several “special topics” courses in our core journalism curriculum that allow us to change the focus of a class from semester to semester. The only requirements for these classes is that they be interdisciplinary and collaborative. By having a more generic name and description, faculty can create courses that respond to what’s going on the real world. I would also argue that every journalism faculty member – regardless of discipline – should be actively learning all the time. In this rapidly changing environment, I am sometimes only one step ahead of my students. But that’s okay with me. I am confident in my leadership and teaching abilities. And I am confident in my own ability to learn. Faculty who want to sit back and ride this out to retirement need to get out. They aren’t doing their students or the industry any favors by sticking around and refusing to advance their own skills and knowledge base in significant ways.

If you were to redesign j-school for visual journalists — from a 30,000 foot view — what would be must-have courses.

  • Programming for journalists I believe this is a class for ALL journalism majors, not just graphics students. Understanding programming languages – what they do and how they work – are all extremely important skills for today’s journalists. In the least, every journalism student should understand the fundamental properties of HTML5, JavaScript, Python and JQuery. I’M not saying everyone needs to be an expert programmer or developer. But we all need to have a fundamental understanding. Then, those who want to go further should be provided with opportunities to do so.
  • Basic and advanced writing courses I am appalled at how poorly today’s college students write. It’s not about making writing central to storytelling. It’s about making sure that our students can clearly and coherently convey thoughts, ideas, concepts, stories, etc.
  • Social media as a storytelling tool Every journalist must understand the power of social media for telling stories, driving and building audiences, etc. I don’t care what you ate for breakfast. But if you know how to use social media to move an audience, you will command attention. 
  • Multimedia storytelling I am a strong believer that multimedia storytelling should be infused into every course. But there also needs to be a single course that helps students understand (at a fundamental level) how different types of media can work together. There are many different ways to combine and present them. But how they work together to tell a single story is a thing to study in and of itself.
  • Data visualization Data visualization methods and how to mine/scrape/clean/analyze/present is another concept important for all journalism majors.

Tell us about a project you’ve worked on — from any stage of your career — that stands out as something you’re especially proud of, and why it’s significant to you. 
At Ball State, we have an ongoing project course called iMedia. It’s been around since 2006, and we have tackled interactive television design, news and information apps for the iPhone when it first came out, and tablet apps in 2010, just two months after the iPad was first released. iMedia is intentionally ambiguously named so that we can use the course to tackle news design and development for new devices and platforms. Our work – driven by undergraduate journalism  graphics, computer science, advertising and broadcast news students – has received national recognition, won national awards, and resulted in numerous local, state and national media coverage. In that class, I am not a “teacher.” I am a co-creator. I am a collaborator. I am a partner in learning with my students. I love that. It’s what I live for as an educator.

Tell us about how you first got involved with SND.
I was a graphics major at Ball State in the mid-1990s. Getting involved in SND was a given. It’s just always been a part of my professional life as a visual journalist and educator.

Tell us about how your involvement with SND or attending an SND event has helped you grow personally or professionally.
Some of my most cherished friends, mentors and colleagues have come through my involvement with SND. The connections I have made there have been integral in my career and professional development.

Best career advice you ever received?
Don’t ever get starry eyed by big names, get excited about big opportunities. Go where you can do your best work. That’s the only way you’ll be truly happy.