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Update: University media relations departments and j-schools

My post on the sometimes tense relationship between university media-relations departments and journalism professors who seek to use the campus as a teaching tool generated a gratifying number of responses — including some positive moves from the media-relations department at my own campus, Stony Brook University.

In the week since my post appeared, Lauren Sheprow, the interim media-relations director whose methods I criticized, has reached out to the editorial board of at least one campus news organization. On Wednesday, she met with editors of The Statesman, Stony Brook’s oldest student newspaper, to discuss matters of access and communication. And one Statesman reporter tells me that Ms. Sheprow responded to her request to interview a top university financial official with alacrity — after hours, no less — and arranged the interview well within the reporter’s deadline. This surely is not be the first time Ms. Sheprow has responded effectively to a Statesman reporter, but it is unusual enough to merit notice — and praise.

Whether my post galvanized Ms. Sheprow to take these steps, I can’t say, but whatever their impetus, I welcome them.

In one of her several comments on my post, Ms. Sheprow wrote:

…it is tragic that there are those who feel it is appropriate to mention someone by name in a disparaging blog post, yet fail to sign their own name at its conclusion. Why not take credit — and responsibility?

Gotta say I agree with you on this one, Lauren. While those comments reflected years of frustration with stonewalling, calls returned after deadline and the resulting inability to tell complete stories, nastiness is never dignified. And while I understand that current students may hestitate to criticize Ms. Sheprow on the record for fear of an even deeper freeze-out, I — like most readers — have much greater respect for those with the courage to sign their names.

A few other points: Continue reading

University media relations: help or hindrance for j-schools?

College and university journalism schools offer their students a built-in community to cover: the institution that houses their program. A campus offers practice in covering politics, budgets, race, education, crime, social trends – in short, many aspects of life in the wider world.

The institution’s media-relations personnel can play a key role in helping – or hindering – journalism educators who use the campus as a teaching tool. They can help students find scholarly and administrative sources for their stories, whether for class assignments or for the student media, or they can use their power to block access and prevent students from gaining needed reporting and interviewing experience.

The argument can be made that students must learn to deal with recalcitrant media-relations personnel, whom they will surely encounter as professionals. But questions arise: When does learning this lesson cease to be useful? What is the responsibility of a university administration to aid in the pedagogical efforts of the journalism program it sustains? Where the relationship has been problematic, have the parties resolved tensions and established useful working relationship? If so, how? What makes a good working relationship possible?

At Stony Brook, the opening of our School of Journalism in 2006 coincided with the departure of the university’s longtime spokesman, a former Newsday sportswriter. His replacement was the Continue reading

Slipping numeracy into reporting class

I’ve started putting into action one of the most important things I learned at the AEJMC meetings in Denver last month. I’m not waiting for that special day, that somewhere-over-the-rainbow day, when every student in our program takes a class devoted to quantitative literacy. I’m focusing now on ways to incorporate quantitative thinking into lessons and discussions that ostensibly have little to do with numbers.

On Tuesday, for example, I gave my introductory reporting class its first weekly current-events quiz and included a couple of questions about President Obama’s speech on Iraq. I asked:

In his Oval Office address last week, President Obama said the U.S. has spent more than _________________ on war in the past decade.
a. $10 billion
b. $75 billion
c. $1 trillion
d. $10 trillion

The answer is C, $1 trillion. But more important, this was an opportunity to discuss estimation and to talk about which numbers pass the sniff test.  What is a billion? A trillion? How can we make sense of these numbers not only to readers but also to ourselves?
The key, I told my students, is to keep some number comparisons in your mental back pocket so you can pull them out easily. For billions and trillions, I said, I’d use our university’s annual budget of nearly $2 billion. Is it likely  that seven years of fighting two wars cost the United States $10 billion, or only five times as much as it costs to run the campus for a year? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Summer travels I: Barcelona’s language lessons

I mention my trip to Barcelona here because of the opportunity it afforded me to think about language. For 35 years, I have retained a smattering of schoolgirl French and Spanish that has seen me through travels in France, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. Though Barcelona is part of Spain, Spanish is not its primary language. Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, was the last stronghold of the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War and retains an abundance of regional pride. The people speak Catalan, and one of the region’s triumphs since Franco’s death in 1975 has been the establishment of Catalan as an official language. Public signs are written first in Catalan and secondarily in Castiliano, as the Catalan people refer to the language spoken in most of Spain.

It didn’t take long for me to see that Catalan lies somewhere between Spanish and French — naturally enough, as Catalonia, or Catalunya, as its inhabitants call it, borders the Pyrenees that divide Spain from France. Take, for example, the Catalan word for “you,” vostè. In Spanish, the word is usted; in French, it is vous. Vostè is a nice compromise, don’t you think? Catalan reads phonetically, like Spanish, and uses accents, like French. Questions have question marks only at the end, without the upside-down opening question mark of Spanish. The most common expression for “please” is si us plau, sometimes rendered sis plau and meaning “if it pleases you,” not far from the French s’il vous plaît.

I had failed to find a Catalan phrasebook before leaving the States. There were none on the big bookseller websites or on Google. A friend sent me a link to this useful online source, which I cut and pasted into Word, edited for the needs of my trip, shrank the font of and printed on seven sheets of paper, which I then folded to pocket size and stuck in my Barcelona folder. Naturally, it was missing when I arrived at the flat my husband and I had rented in the Eixample (pronounced eye-ZHAMP-la) section of Barcelona. Continue reading

Constructing a grammar course for journalism undergraduates

Commenters on my previous post discussed the fear that contemplating grammar induces in adults who never learned it in grammar school.  Those of us stuck with the results of K-12’s failure to teach grammar face these questions: What are the most effective ways to teach grammar to college students? What can we hope for?

The first principle to establish with our students is the value of learning grammar. Some of us — those who teach in journalism schools, at least — have the advantage of teaching students who already see themselves as writers, or at least as people to whom writing is important. When I say that on the first day of grammar class, it’s as though the students suddenly sit up straighter. They like that idea and embrace it eagerly.

Taking on that label–“writer”– enables them to move to the next step: identifying what writers need to do to improve. We are writers; words are our tools. We use them to construct sentences, and we use our sentences to build longer pieces of writing. We want our writing to be sturdy. Knowing the names of our tools and what each is used for — the right tool for the job! — helps us write clearly and with control.

University of Missouri J-School Professor Emeritus Don Ranly makes a compelling argument along these lines in his limited-edition set of videotapes called “Ranly on Grammar,” of which I have a treasured copy. He says — and I’m paraphrasing — Why shouldn’t we get grammar and syntax and punctuation right? And why shouldn’t we call parts of speech by their right names? Would you trust a surgeon who asked an assistant in the operating room: “Hand me that sharp, pointy thing that I use for cutting, would you? I used to know what it was called, but I’ve forgotten.” Continue reading

Where do we go from here, fellow grammar nerds?

After reading my posts on David Mulroy’s book “The War Against Grammar,” my friend and colleague Ann Marie Horbey asked:

“So where do we go from here? Are we language mavens* resigned to shaking our head and waiting for the four horseman to arrive? Or can we try to change the system?”

Like Mulroy, I would love to see formal grammar instruction return to grammar school — ahem. But this seems an unlikely prospect given the resistance that has built up over the years.  Mulroy pegs the National Council of Teachers of English as the heart of this resistance although, as he notes, it has a subgroup called The Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. The Assembly has been holding annual meetings since 1990 and has both a journal and a substantial website. I am joining the assembly and will familiarize myself with its positions and personnel; perhaps this is the best vehicle for advocacy.

One can certainly advocate for change at the local level by speaking to local school boards and officials.

Anyone else have ideas — or better yet, a successful strategy?

* “Language mavens” is a much nicer term than “grammar nerds,” I know, and yet I find the self-deprecation of the latter irresistible. When I refer to myself thus to my students, they respond with affection. I believe that they generally respect me and that the combination of respect and affection helps them see me as a role model. So I’ll stick with “grammar nerd”; I hope none of you language mavens out there are offended.

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