Summer travels 2: AEJMC in Denver

The AEJMC, or the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, is a 98-year-old organization that holds annual meetings for faculty members who teach journalism, advertising and public relations. It meets every year during the first week of August in some large U.S. city. Roughly half its 4,000 members show up to attend sessions in the sunless, underground meeting rooms of an anonymous convention hotel and to schmooze with friends they haven’t seen since grad school.

That’s grad school as in doctoral studies, for the most part. AEJMC seems to be dominated by people with PhD’s who conduct studies with names like “The Media and Identity Scale: Some Evidence of Construct Validity” and “The Influence of Interdependent Self-Construal on Consumers’ eWOM Behaviors in Social Networking Web Sites.” (I’m sure these are both very fine studies.)

The daily sessions begin at 7 a.m. and run until nearly midnight. There may be a dozen or more sessions during any given 90-minute time slot. The sessions are labeled in degrees of opacity: research panel session, refereed paper research session, high-density research paper session, scholar-to-scholar refereed paper research session, panel session, teaching panel session, mini-plenary teaching session. None of the four AEJMC staffers I consulted could define these terms. This schedule goes on for four days, plus a “pre-conference” day of workshops.

With so many choices, finding intriguing sessions at this year’s meeting in Denver was easy. I attended “Journalists and Numbers: They Can Mix,” “Planning, Launching and Running a Convergent Student News Website,” “11 Years of Terrific Teaching Tips” and “The New Convergence: Innovations in Industry and Academic Collaborations.” I went into one session by mistake but stayed for a fascinating account of how “K-State” University journalism professors helped rebuild the media infrastructure of a tiny Kansas town destroyed by a deadly tornado.

I missed some panels and presentations that had piqued my interest because I browsed, perhaps overlong, among publishers’ displays in the exhibit hall. Like a kid in a toy store, I wanted everything I saw. I ordered book after book for myself and my Stony Brook colleagues to examine for possible course adoption. I attended the passionate but rambling keynote address by longtime NPR foreign correspondent Anne Garrels, recently returned from six years in Baghdad. “I stayed too long,” she said.

The highlights for the performer in me were the two times I held the podium. I was invited to discuss “Leadership Training and Negotiation Skills” in a pre-conference workshop on women in the news business and in academia. I described my negotiating failures, all due at least in part to inadequate preparation, and the two big successes I’d had when I really did my homework.

Here’s one: In 1987, pregnant with my first child, I decided to ask Newsday for a part-time reporting position that didn’t exist. To prepare, I surveyed the work/family policies of the nation’s 20 largest newspapers and presented my findings to my boss. It was clear that Newsday was in the bottom quarter of the group from a family-friendliness standpoint, and for the next five years, until I became pregnant with my third child, I worked three days a week.

A comment I made that I liked (though I sez it as shouldn’t) was that I include my motherhood in my work persona – not to excess, but I don’t hide it. I mention my children and my home life from time to time. I like it when my colleagues do so, too. We all have lives outside work, and one nice thing about colleagues is getting to know then as people, not simply as professionals. Some of the women at the conference said they feel obliged to act as though their jobs are the most important things in their lives. They try never to talk about their families. I’m constitutionally incapable of doing that. I’m an open person, not good at secrets, and being a mother is a big part of what has made me who I am. Motherhood has made me a better teacher. I don’t use family responsibilities as an excuse for shirking my duties. In fact, I have a reputation as a hard worker. But when something comes up that cuts too close to the time I need for my family, such as teaching an early-evening class during my daughter’s last year of high school, which would cause me to miss dinner with her twice a week, I say no. All parents should stand up for their family time. I have a male colleague with a young son who does the same, and I salute him for it.

Two days later, I moderated and presented at a panel I had proposed called “The Problems That Won’t Go Away: Grammatical and Quantitative Competence in Journalism Students.” (Or “To, Too And Two: How They Co-exist And Enhance One Another,” as Michael Kelly, SBU 2010, suggests.) I led off with the thoughts I’d expressed in this blog post. Tom Johnson, a retired investigative reporter who now consults with newsrooms through Santa Fe, N.M.-based Institute for Analytic Journalism, gave a super presentation on teaching students to include quantitative ideas in their reporting: How much? How many? He stressed class discussion of “dataviz,” the visual presentation of data, and the best and worst ways to write about numbers. He showed everyone the back of his business card, on which are printed the “Fundamental Five” statistics every journalist should know: percent of change, proportion, ratio, rate and inflation. “You walk into any newsroom on the planet with this card, I guarantee you’ll know more statistics than 90 percent of the people in the room,” he said.

As I said: the problems that won’t go away. Links to Tom’s PowerPoint, a video of the Denver session and other useful grammar and numeracy materials are on the Recommended page of this blog.

Anthony J. Moretti of Point Park University gave the audience a taste of his numbers lecture for broadcasting students, and Alan J. Kirkpatrick of our host institution, the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at University of Colorado-Boulder, spoke briefly about how employers view grammatical and numerical competence.

The Q&A period was lively, but it dwelled too long on the validity of grammar tests as predictors of success in journalism school. In my view, that’s not why we should teach grammar, although I do endorse using repeated failure in a grammar class as a way of washing students out of a journalism program. Students should know how to write correctly simply because writing correctly matters. Obviously, journalists need many other traits and skills. Writing correctly is a good thing in its own right.

I had been brazenly promoting e-mail subscriptions to this blog throughout the session, so imagine my delight when a woman from audience whom I’d never seen before referenced one of my blog posts. Oh joy!

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