Search the UW course guide for “taking initiative” and enroll in INTER-LS 210 in Fall 2015!


On teaching an interdisciplinary career course

Here’s a question for my post-graduate readers: Looking back on the story of your own career, what do you wish that you had known during your college years about yourself, about your education, or about the world of work that awaited you upon graduation?

career-cartoon-smallThat question is precisely what I’ll be trying to explore with over 250 undergraduate students this semester, as the faculty member in charge of the College of Letters and Science’s newest one-credit course: INTER-LS 210, “Taking Initiative.”  Better known as “the L&S second-year career course,” the idea is to introduce students not only to the instrumental skills of the job search (preparing a resume, writing a cover letter, and developing an online persona, for example), but also to the conceptual knowledge background of high-skill labor markets, the critical reflection practices of discovering one’s strengths and goals, the information evaluation processes of researching occupations and majors, and the expert resources available across the UW-Madison campus — all of which are necessary to help students to turn a simple “job hunt” into a comprehensive “academic and career development plan.”

I approach this course knowing well that my own thirty-year academic and career development path since first starting my undergraduate education in 1985 was anything but predictable.  My first college degree, taken at a public research university much like the one where I work now, was in computer science.  Of course, at the time I didn’t know that would be my “first” degree; it took several jobs in both the for-profit and the non-profit sector before I realized that algorithm development and technology consulting were only part of what interested me in the world.  So, sometime in my late twenties, I returned to university, first part-time and then full-time, to earn a doctoral degree in two fields which might seem as far from computer science as possible: history and geography.  Yet the end of this story — so far at least — is that my resulting combination of professional training in technology and liberal arts training in the humanities and social sciences has served me extraordinarily well for the past fifteen years in my second career as a university professor.

It’s these sorts of stories of “planned happenstance” that drive my interest in teaching this new career course.  Throughout the semester we’ll be taking students through a structured process of critical reflection intended to demonstrate to them that the various components of their “Wisconsin Experience” — both inside and outside of the classroom — provide them with a rich menu of high-impact educational options that will prepare them for a wide variety of important and rewarding careers (including many that haven’t even been invented yet).  One of the secrets of turning academic curiosity and excellence into success on the job market, though, is being able to tell the story of your educational accomplishments to a hiring decision-maker — convincing a for-profit, non-profit, or public organization that you can add value, energy, and creativity to their mission.  So storytelling in this class isn’t just a pedagogical tool we choose as the instructors — it’s a learning outcome for the students as well.

I say “we” in terms of instructors because this class, part of the new L&S Career Initiative led by Dean John Karl Scholz and Assistant Dean Rebekah Pryor Paré, represents the most broad-based division of educational labor that I’ve ever had the good fortune to be involved with. Like many large classes of over 250 students, we have the standard team of graduate teaching assistants leading small discussion sections which complement the engagement of students in my large lectures.  But besides the TAs, each discussion section will include a professional UW academic or career adviser, on hand to help students with questions and assignments in realtime.  These UW experts come from L&S Career Services, from the Cross-College Advising Service, and from several major departments.  And still there’s more: each discussion session will be paired with one of nineteen volunteer UW alumni, who will participate in the conversation via remote conferencing three times during the course of the semester.  Many of these fantastic alums are not only taking precious time to engage with our students as mentors, but also underwriting the costs of the course through generous gift donations.  I can’t thank them all enough.

Take a look at the final syllabus for the course, if you’re interested.  And please contact me if you’re a UW-Madison student, faculty colleague, staff colleague, or alum who would like to become more involved in this innovative, interdisciplinary effort.

A brief history of innovation in higher education

Today it was my pleasure to speak at the annual UW-Madison Teaching and Learning Symposium as one of three keynote speakers on the theme of “Transforming Education.”  (I want to thank everyone who stayed to hear my talk, especially since it was at the end of the whole event and lunch was calling!)

As with the earlier talks by Professor Davidson and Professor Ladson-Billings, my presentation, “A brief history of innovation in higher education,” drew on my own research to explore this topic:

The rhetoric of innovation implies something new and revolutionary, but higher education has a long tradition of experimenting with new technologies, new audiences, and new strategies for teaching and learning. In this talk, Professor Downey will draw on his research into technology and society to set the current debates over higher education innovation in historical context.

I won’t repeat the talk in this post — you can check out reaction on Flickr and Twitter (#teachuw) if you like — but let me just post the slides and highlight the conclusion:

  • Technological innovations in education are always complex, often contradictory, and inevitably tied up with questions about work, value, identity, and power.
  • Considering our own syllabi in historical context can help us productively engage with such questions.
  • All of our scholarship — whether on today’s digital-savvy youth, tomorrow’s advances in brain science, or yesterday’s information infrastructures — can and should be rich sources of teaching and learning innovation.

Finally, here are some links to the original research on which the three case studies in the talk were based:

Thanks again to the organizers of this event for inviting me, and to the audience for their thoughtful commentary!


An end-of-year message from the outgoing SJMC Director

Dear students of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication:

As I bring my five-year term as Director of the School to a close this month, I am so proud of the progress that our faculty, our staff, and you, our students, have made together. These were some of the worst budget years for the nation, as well as an unprecedented period of disruptive technological change for the whole mass communication industry. But thanks to all of our efforts, our School is stronger than ever before.

SJMC capConsider just a few comparisons with where we were in Spring 2009 when I first became Director. Today, we count a hundred more majors (and we admit more students each semester); we distribute more scholarship money (including new funds supporting student internships); we engage in more community partnerships (including our award-winning collaboration with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism); and we employ more faculty and staff than at any time since I was hired back in 2001 (with one more new professor, specializing in global media ethics, joining us next fall).

I want to thank you all for your hard work, your support, and your creativity through these challenging years. And … I’d like to ask you for one more thing.

Over the past week we’ve been running a social media campaign across the web and mobile media — including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and our own UW-Madison site — around the theme #SJMCGaveMe. Our goal has been to solicit stories about the difference that SJMC has made in the lives and careers of our many colleagues, alumni, friends and supporters around the world. In just one week we have heard so many great things and reconnected with so many important stakeholders — so far, the campaign has been a huge success! Check out some of the stories on Twitter by searching the hashtag #SJMCGaveMe, or just visit

Our #SJMCGaveMe campaign is still going on for one more week, and I’d like to personally invite you to participate as well. Nothing pleases our alumni more than to hear from the current generation of students who are following in their footsteps. Please, visit today, and share a story of your own. Especially for our graduating seniors, not only do we want to hear from you now, before you leave campus, but also we want to keep in contact with you as you move into your lives and careers beyond UW-Madison.

Finally, if you are so inclined, I’d also like to invite you to make a small gift to our Annual Fund — the same fund we use to keep our iPads up to date, to pay student hourly workers for special projects, and to make sure that our faculty and staff receive the best professional training so that they may pass along the latest techniques to all of you in the classroom. You can find our donation page at

No donation is too small! For graduating seniors, for example, a donation of $20.14 might be a nice symbolic gesture. Plus, for the next week, every donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar by our Alumni Board of Visitors. If you’ve benefited from our technology resources, our scholarships, or our intensive classroom experiences like Curb magazine, you know what kinds of great things these donations can do for the next generation of students. You can start giving back today at

OK, that’s the end of the sales pitch. Let me just close by saying that it has been an honor and a privilege to serve all of you as SJMC Director, and I wish all of you the very best in all that you do. And remember, whether you’re graduating this year or not, don’t ever stop learning — and leading. You’re Badgers — and you’re J-Schoolers — and we hope you’ll always call our campus, and our School, your home.



Gregory J. Downey
Evjue-Bascom Professor
School of Journalism & Mass Communication (Director)
School of Library & Information Studies (Professor)
Center for the History of Print & Digital Culture (Director)
Internships in the Liberal Arts & Sciences (Director)
University of Wisconsin-Madison
5112 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706 USA
(608) 695-4310

A new job where I will be wearing more ties

So, invisible blog audience, I have some news.  As UW-Madison College of Letters and Science Dean John Karl Scholz emailed out today,

I am pleased to announce that Greg Downey, Evjue-Bascom Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) and the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS), has been appointed the new Associate Dean for the Social Sciences in the College of Letters & Science beginning May 26.

I’m humbled and delighted to have been chosen by Karl for this job, and I look forward to learning more about all of the departments and units that will soon be under my stewardship as an Associate Dean.  For the next two months I’ll be working closely with our current Associate Dean for Social Sciences, Maria Cancian, to make my transition into South Hall a smooth one.  (For those of you who don’t know her, Maria is the official dictionary definition of “a hard act to follow” in this role, but I will do my best.)

I wouldn’t have been a candidate for this job without the five years of intensive administrative and leadership training that my fellow faculty, staff, and students in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication have so graciously (if perhaps unknowingly) provided for me during my time as SJMC Director.  And I am relieved that even as Associate Dean, I will continue to be able to teach my undergraduate course on The Information Society with my fellow faculty, staff, and students in the School of Library & Information Studies.

Downey G - cowboyThis summer, if you’re the chair or director of an L&S social sciences unit, please expect that I’ll come calling with some coffee for a nice long conversation about how we can best work together to support your research, teaching, and service mission.  For everyone else, don’t be shocked if you see me bicycling past you toward South Hall wearing a tie and jacket.  (But probably not the cowboy hat.)

On my way to Berlin


ischools iconI’m on my way to Berlin this week for the 2014 iSchools Conference, or “iConference,” dealing with all sorts of crunchy information infrastructure, history, and labor issues.  This is my first time participating in this conference, as our UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies just officially became an iSchool fairly recently.  I’ll be hanging out with my colleagues Kristin Eschenfelder and Kalpana Shankar at the first poster session, pondering the history and geography of social science data archives.  Thanks to Ingrid Erickson and Bonnie Mak for both inviting me to participate in two other interesting events, one at the start of the conference and one at the end!

Defending media research in the public interest

For those of you who have watched me cancel meetings and defer obligations this week, citing an unspecified “media crisis” having to do with my role as Director of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, wonder no longer.  I was involved in defending the work of my colleague and friend, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor Lewis Friedland, in trying to uncover the critical information needs of underserved localities and social groups.  Today Lew published a superb analysis of the situation in the Washington Post:

Sometimes research takes on a life of its own and becomes more like a Rorschach test for a national policy controversy. That’s what’s happened to a review of the literature on the critical information needs of American communities that I and colleagues from around the country conducted for the Federal Communications Commission in July 2012. The recommendations of the review informed a proposed pilot study in Columbia, S.C., of what, if any, critical information needs citizens have and whether they are being met in our rapidly changing media environment.

To conservative media from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, this was an attempt to reintroduce the now-lapsed Fairness Doctrine and for President Obama to take control of America’s newsrooms. Other former journalists and media critics apparently agreed. Still others took a more nuanced view – that this may not have been a government plot, but that it would be a waste of money, because either we already know what these needs are, or, there aren’t any, or if there are, we can’t know what they are.

In the end, the underlying theme was: we already know the answers. Americans either have no needs or none that the market is not meeting or can’t meet. Don’t do research. Don’t ask these questions.

Click over to our department weblog Mediated Communication to read the rest of Lew’s important essay.  It’s well worth your time.