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Writers – What to Expect from Journalism at Rhodes

by Johann Harmse

Thinking about studying journalism and being an A-class reporter and writer? Johan breaks down what you can expected from Journalism studies at Rhodes University.

Reporting on the #FeesMustFall protests as a student journalist in Grahamstown was a watershed moment for me. It highlighted the important role that young journalists can play in South Africa today, and I would encourage hopeful writers who feel committed to this country to pursue this career path. Having just finished my 3rd year of Writing and Editing at Rhodes, here is what you can expect from a Rhodes Journalism degree.

Making the Decision

I matriculated in 2012 from St. Stithian Boys’ College, a leafy rugby-crazed private school in the heart of Sandton. I was one of those lucky few who were naturally talented in two or three subjects and had to work hard to pass almost everything else. This made exam periods quite stressful, but it meant that I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do after high school.

My favorite subjects in school were Drama, English and History, all subjects that required a flair for writing. At the end of Matric I got over 75% for all three. My marks for Maths and Physics however were both in the low 50s, and I still remember struggling to pass these subjects from grade 10 up until Matric. The rest of my subjects hovered in the 60% bracket. I was not what you would call an ‘all-rounder.’

I had always been an avid reader, deeply interested in world news and totally in love with Time Magazine. My childhood spent reading news articles shaped my interest in writing and in Journalism particularly. My parents suggested that I consider studying Journalism at Rhodes University, and in the end it was the only university I applied to.


Rhodes works just like most other universities, using a points system based on your final Matric marks. LO and Mathematics Paper 3 don’t count, and if you receive under 40% for a subject then you don’t get points for it. Each 10 percentage points counts for one ‘point’. This table on the Rhodes Entry Requirements page uses an example to explain how these points are worked out:

Applicants need to get 40 points (67% average for 6 subjects excluding LO) to secure a firm place, and the dean decides each case individually if you received over 35 points (58% average). If you get between 30 (50%) and 34 points (57%), you may be considered for the Extended Studies programme.

The Journalism degree at Rhodes is a three-year Bachelor of Arts degree. If you want to do a fourth year, this will turn your Bachelor of Arts into Bachelor of Journalism, a different degree that is recognised more highly than a BA in Journalism.

I decided to do a four-year degree because I want to spend at least another year in Grahamstown and feel I would learn more in university next year than I would if I was working.

What to Expect

The first year of a BA in Journalism focuses on developing basic writing skills for producing Journalism and understanding the state of the media in the world today. You will learn about:

  • the rise of digital journalism
  • how to promote your content online
  • the essential skills of producing Journalism

You will be expected to do observation work at a functioning media company and hopefully publish some work in the process. Your assessments will focus on using your newly acquired skill set as a writer, your understanding of the digitalised global media and how to give your writing exposure online.

Second year is divided into different modules. You will spend different parts of the year focusing on different kinds of Journalism. You will:

  • produce a radio show
  • design a newspaper
  • make short investigative documentaries
  • write longer and more in-depth pieces than in first-year

While you will learn theory in courses such as Representations of Violence in the Media (my personal favourite), the primary course is more practically focused than in first year. You will also be given greater responsibility and freedom in the work you produce, allowing you to develop an identity as a journalist.

In third year you will specialise in either Television, Radio, Writing and Editing or Design. As a writing student, you will:

  • maintain an online blog with classmates (two fourth-year students will act as your editors)
  • produce writing for this blog throughout the year (your lecturers will only guide you through this process)

Lectures will focus on intensive skill development in writing and editing, and you will be expected to develop a tight focus on your identity as a writer during this period.

A Department that Celebrates the Individual

I found the Rhodes Journalism department to be remarkable for a few reasons. The most striking was the attention the department gives you as an individual at third-year level. One student in our class was determined to be a sports journalist, and had little interest in reporting on anything else. Our lecturers suited his assessments to his goal of becoming a sports journalist, not requiring him to be part of a group blog and adjusting his course requirements to develop his particular writing interest. This focus on our personal writing preferences and identity as writers made the course subjectively relevant to us as individuals, allowing us to grow as writers as we saw fit.

From first year the course has a strong practical focus. Most of the assessments are in the form of writing articles that require you to:

  • do your own research
  • conduct your own interviews
  • edit your own work yourself

Feedback is always extensive and constructive, and lecturers are always prepared to discuss your work with you individually. The small classes in second and third year create an intimate relationship between you and your lecturers, something that was unmatched in my other subjects. In third year you have weekly one-on-one sessions with your lecturer to discuss your writing inside and outside of the course, and I spent much of these sessions discussing personal writing I had produced that had nothing to do with the course. We discussed how I could improve this work and even get it published.

The department is primarily geared toward developing you as a writer, giving you the skills to work as a journalist and getting your work published. The emphasis on getting your work published and creating relationships with media companies means that before you even finish your degree you will have published at least three articles, something that will put you in good stead when you graduate.

3 Points of Advice

The drop-out rate for Journalism in first and second year is quite high. Many people struggle with having to do most of their own interviews and research for the stories they write, and not everyone is cut out for how much you will have to do yourself. This freedom and independence suits other students very well, and there are a few things you can do to turn this pressure into a fun and personally challenging way to spend your time in university.

1. Do the kind of journalism you want to do one day.

Most of the people who quit early couldn’t see the connection between the work they were doing on a daily basis and why they wanted to be a journalist. If you want to do social justice work, write about social justice. If you are interested in race or gender relations, write about that. Relate your coursework to your aspirations and you will enjoy the freedom the course offers.

2. Read the kind of writing you want to write.

Whether it’s in Time Magazine, Vice, Getaway or Men’s Health, seek out the writing and writers you think are remarkable. This is the best way to learn what good writing looks and reads like. As the poet Hart Crane put it,

‘one must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.’

3. Develop a work ethic.

Creating and sticking to a work schedule is a very good idea. While structure may seem restrictive, maintaining a reasonable level of productivity for long periods will be very important to succeed in this course. There is much wisdom in the work-hard play-hard strategy, as balancing your work and social life will become important very soon after you arrive in university. Personally, I really like the work schedule used by Henry Miller, one of my favourite writers.

And Now, a Brief Sentimental Point.

I truly believe that good, responsible journalism will play an important role in the development of this country in the years to come. You, the young writers of South Africa, have the potential to do some important and incredible work here. This year I saw what can happen when young South African writers commit themselves to recording and interrogating the South African story, and it was beautiful.

Join us. We have much work to do.

Inspirational Writings for Aspiring Journalists

Chelsea Haith has been the top student in my Journalism class since our first year together. This is her reflection on her third year studying Journalism, a beautifully written piece on rekindling her love for journalism. I recommend reading everything on this blog.

  • Shutting Down the Rainbow Nation

This documentary produced by Africa is a Country explores the reasons for and development of the #FeesMustFall protest.

Cool Websites for Quality South African Journalism

EduConnect 2cents

If you are a writing and Journalism student, or have a knack for writing and research, try to get your work exposed! Find an online platform, blog, or company that is keen to feature your writing – the sooner you build your portfolio, the better.

EduConnect has an ambassador programme for exactly this reason. If you think you have some quirky writing talent, why don’t you write for us and get your work out there? 

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