Author Archive

Hero worship: Musings on Mulroy’s “War Against Grammar”

My previous post outlined David Mulroy’s incisive brief for formal instruction in punctuation, grammar and syntax, “The War Against Grammar.” Here’s why Mulroy’s 2003 book made me so happy.

First, his fierceness. Mulroy gives the anti-grammarian contingent no quarter. His attack on the studies educators have used for decades to argue that formal grammar instruction hinders students’ ability to learn to write demolishes those arguments, arguments that seem on their face, to me, to anyone who knows grammar, to anyone born before 1960, say, idiotic. He shows that these studies did not set out to answer the question at hand or used mature rather than youthful subjects. He reveals the sophism, the deceptiveness (unwitting, we’ll say, giving the benefit of the doubt) behind the earnestness of the “language arts” crowd. When did literature, reading and writing become “language arts,” anyway? When people make specific things vague, I gnash my teeth.

Second, Mulroy’s book beautifully articulates ideas that I’ve had in my head for years, ideas I’ve talked about with colleagues and friends and written about a little but never backed up with the kind of research Mulroy undertook on this side project; he’s been a classics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1973. For instance: the idea that grammar helps make us human. I formulated this idea in a reverie and later dismissed it as overblown. But in his third chapter, which surveys the decline of grammar instruction in the age of medieval scholasticism and its renewal with the rise of Renaissance humanism, he gets at exactly this point. “Grammar’s dual role, preserving or reviving the appreciation of literary classics and creating new eloquence, was never illustrated more dramatically,” he writes, referring to the “flowering of vernacular literature” from Dante and Petrarch to Shakespeare. Literature helps us understand ourselves and others as people more directly than philosophy. Understanding grammar is essential to understanding literature, a point Mulroy illustrates with examples including a Shakespearean sonnet (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” in which the main clause doesn’t appear until the ninth line of the poem) and the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. When he asks his students to restate the point of that great American sentence (“When in the course of human events…” in case you were wondering), few can. For example: “‘People must have true facts to back up their thoughts on a god if they are different from the thoughts of the majority.'” Mulroy calls this “a higher kind of illiteracy,” one that, as the students can write and speak English adequately, “boils down to an ignorance of grammar.”

Third, he digs into grammar ignorance in a way that reveals just how barren of this knowledge many college students are today. Few really know what it means to conjugate a verb. Worse, few know what “verb” means. I’ve had a student tell me that the verb in a sentence is “that.” Mulroy writes that it was a watershed event in his career when he realized “that few of my students knew what I meant by ‘the verb to be.’ They thought I was referring to a word that was destined to become a verb.” Continue reading

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David Mulroy, grammar hero, debunker of anti-grammarian myths

One of the great joys of reading is finding a writer who expresses one’s cherished beliefs, one who writes about them with such meticulous authority that one wants to jump from one’s chair, run into the street brandishing the book, and shout, “See? See?”

That’s how I feel about “The War Against Grammar” by David Mulroy.

Mulroy, who has taught classics at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1973, published this slim volume seven years ago. In it, he debunks the many myths used in the past few decades to all but eliminate the teaching of grammar in America’s public schools. (Used by whom? The main culprit, according to Mulroy, is the National Council of Teachers of English, which sets standards for English instruction from kindergarten through college.)

Mulroy outlines the history of grammar instruction, starting with its place of high honor among the Greeks, who named it first among the seven liberal arts.

Wait a minute. I thought the liberal arts, as in a “liberal-arts education” at a “liberal-arts college,” were subjects in the humanities and the sciences: psychology, French literature, biology and so on. But no! The seven liberal arts handed down from antiquity are grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, harmony [music] and astronomy. How come I didn’t know this? Continue reading

Daniel Okrent

Readers of this blog may or may not recall my promise a while back to write about Daniel Okrent‘s visit to Stony Brook. (What? You haven’t been wondering about this? I can tell you it has been on my mind. The blog is a relentless taskmaster!) Okrent, the founder of New England Monthly, a longtime honcho at Time Inc., inventor of Rotisserie League Baseball and the first public editor at The New York Times, hired in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, had a lot to tell our students. Herewith, some high points of his visit, which included lunch with faculty, a talk to a journalism history class and a half-hour discussion with graduating seniors.

  • On anonymous sources: “It’s the single largest complaint that readers have,” Okrent said, harking back to his two years as the Times ombudsman. “They just don’t believe it” when reporters attribute quotes to that journalistic Zelig, Mr. or Ms. Knowledgeable Source. Readers think “the reporter just made it up.” He gently mocked the verbal contortions The Times inserts to defend its use of K.S.: “who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter” and  similar pretzel logic. The correct approach to protecting a source’s identity, Okrent said, should not be to tell the reader why the source wanted to remain anonymous but to explain why the reporter and editor “allowed this person to remain anonymous.” Ah, transparency: “to whom this newspaper granted anonymity to protect the reporter’s access …” Okrent also noted the English model, in which the reporter is assumed to have vetted thoroughly all the information he or she puts in print. “The byline stands in for anonymous attribution,” he said. “The authority of the institution” is put on the line. While this model is more in the nature of how news magazines or newspaper analysis pieces operate in the United States, he said, it would be a radical change for daily newspaper stories. Finally, Okrent said, there is the implied contract a reporter makes with a source when promising anonymity. Continue reading

Journalism students critique the changing news industry

As part of my Journalism 24/7 class at Stony Brook University, I require students to set up a blog on WordPress: [student’s name]247.wordpress.com. The blog is worth 15 percent of the course grade, and the blog grade is based on the frequency of posting, with two posts per week — 24 total — required for an A. (One post per week is a C, 1.5 a B, .5 a D, less than than an F, with pluses and minuses awarded for quality of thought and writing and sophistication of blog elements: embedded photos and videos, links and so on.) Why such weight for frequency? Because, as I’ve learned, the blog is a relentless taskmaster, and a big part of success in anything is just showing up, or in this case, just posting.

Topics are limited to what we discuss in class: the changing news industry. Students are to reflect on class discussions, readings, news. Another class requirement is that students follow industry news through the daily news feeds from mediabistro.com and freepress.net, and they’re welcome to blog about stories they find through those sources. One of the things I like best about this assignment is how often the students find things elsewhere and share them with the class.

Next semester, I’m also going to require that they have Twitter accounts. Twitter is no longer an optional tool for journalists — it’s become as necessary as a telephone. It’s getting to be time for journalism professors to incorporate the discipline of Twitter in their instruction.

The class has about 50 students. Those of you who teach are surely thinking, “How does she reead 100 posts a week, let alone follow all those Twitter feeds?” The answer is, I don’t, and that’s a problem. Even with the blogsurfer function on WordPress, which allows me to see recent posts from every WordPress blog I follow, I can’t keep up, which frustrates me as well as the students. I do read every post in a daylong session at the end of the semester, but that’s not ideal. Nevertheless, many students find the blogging worthwhile even without my steady feedback. During my end-of-term blog-reading marathon, I was pleased to see  a few posts from students who marveled at how much they had enjoyed blogging. They found it helped them to comprehend the material we covered in class.

For the fall, I’ve requested a graduate teaching assistant whose job will be to read and respond to the blogs each week, keep track of the posting frequency and bring notable posts to my attention. Haven’t figured out how the Twitter assessment will work — for the fall, it may have to be enough in and of itself, with some sort of end-of-term Twitter marathon replacing my blog marathon. Suggestions welcome.

I’d like to share some of the most thoughtful and creative blogs. Here are a few of the best:

http://mboyle247.wordpress.com/ — I’m delighted to see that Morgan Boyle has continued to post well past the end of the semester. I’ll keep reading as long as you keep writing, Morgan.

http://gerani247.wordpress.com/ — Amanda Gerani is a business major, concentrating in marketing, with a minor in journalism. (All Stony Brook business majors are required to have a minor.) I liked how Amanda used her blog to examine the news industry’s evolution from a marketing lens.

http://lew247.wordpress.com/ – Bryan Lew interprets the “industry” broadly and explores widely.

http://lcioffi247.wordpress.com/ — Lauren Cioffi uses her blog to help establish her “brand” — an idea espoused — proselytized, even — by most of the guest speakers who addressed the class this term: Joe Grimm, Paul Gillin and Chris Vaccaro especially.

http://fposillico247.wordpress.com/ — Frank Posillico is editor-in-chief of The Statesman, a campus newspaper for which he plans big changes in the fall, including a rebuilt website. He and other Statesman editors who have taken Journalism 24/7 plan to incorporate many ideas they developed in class, and I, for one, look forward to seeing what they do.

http://sdemezier247.wordpress.com/ — Sarah Demezier nicely incorporated her reflections on class speakers and discussions.

http://glowatz247.wordpress.com/ — Elana Glowatz is always whip-smart and often very funny.

http://dwhite247.wordpress.com/ — Domenic White, another business major/journalism minor, is a promising sports journalist. White, who is graduating in August, has been writing for professional sports websites since his sophomore year.

SBU/Journalism Commencement 2010: Our third graduating class

It’s over.

The busy spring semester is finally finished. All the work is graded, all the grades are posted, the orations have been heard and the cap, gown and master’s hood returned to the university bookstore. Our third class of graduates has moved its tassels from right to left.

I’m enormously proud of this group, as I have been of our first two graduating classes, but in some ways of this group just a bit more. These graduates embody not only their own talents and perseverence but also our growth as a faculty and a school.

It’s our biggest class yet (seven majors in 2008, 19 last year, 29 last week). Three are going to prestigious graduate programs in journalism (Columbia, CUNY). One has already started as a reporter for the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder, a six-day-a-week newspaper near his upstate home. One has a job as a desk assistant with WCBS-TV/Channel 2 in New York, which she earned after proving herself in a semester-long full-time internship. Another expects offers from either of two major metro news websites. Another has been called back for a second interview at Cosmopolitan. Another will be attending law school at St. John’s University. For students graduating in this economy at this point in the evolution of the journalism industry, having a quarter of the cohort with something solid ahead of them seems a victory. And I expect to hear more good news in the coming months.

I’m confident because while we as a school still have a lot to figure out about what and how to teach, we’re learning from each class of graduates, making changes and building on our successes. One thing we’re learning to do better is teaching professionalism. We have emphasized resume writing, portfolio construction and mock interviews, and the results show in the confidence with which our graduates are approaching the job hunt. The Cosmo girl (couldn’t help that) practiced with me in our senior-project class. The assignment was to find a job posting online that she really wanted, tailor her resume and cover letter for that position, research the organization and then sit for a mock interview. When she went for the real thing, she was ready, with ideas for the website and a successful senior project on a difficult topic that showed she could report, write, produce a video, take digital photos and add interactivity online.

Our push for every student to have one solid journalism internship, if not two or three, is beginning to show results, too. Fewer students than I would have liked interned, but 14, nearly half, did, 10 more than once, at newspapers, websites, magazines, television and radio stations, the full gamut. A couple “walked,” as they say, in Friday’s commencement ceremony but are postponing their official graduation date until August to squeeze in one last internship that requires academic credit. We have 15 students interning for credit this summer, at last count, mostly juniors, so I expect the percentage with internships on their resumes to rise next year.

On the day of the ceremony, in their red caps and gowns, many seemed both joyful and anxious. Who could blame them for a few jitters as they leave the intimacy of our program for the big wide world? But they’ll do well. I believe this from the bottom of my heart.

Walt Bogdanich and Stephanie Saul, investigative reporters extraordinaire

The multiple exigencies of a waning semester pushed blogging — the lack thereof, more precisely — to the top of the stress pile in recent days, but a brief, probably illusory respite at 5 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, after a day spent swatting at the most pressing elements of the to-do list, offers a chance to relieve that particular pressure.

That pile of ungraded student projects in the corner? What pile?

Highlights of the past three weeks, the thoughts left unblogged, revolve around visits to the School of Journalism by four exceptional journalists: Walt Bogdanich and Stephanie Saul of The New York Times; Daniel Okrent, the Times’ first “public editor,” and Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News.

Walt Bogdanich and Stephanie Saul, a married couple, both of The New York Times investigative reporting team and possessors of four Pulitzer Prizes between them, spoke to 300 news-literacy and journalism students as part of the school’s “My Life As…” series: renowned journalists discussing their careers and their motivation for the work they do. They got an exceptionally warm, enthusiastic reception, and I’ve been thinking about the reasons why.

First, their passion for reporting came through as essential to them, as essential as breath or water. Walt mentioned a recent three-month stretch when he worked, joyfully, every single weekend; one advantage of being married to another investigative reporter is that Stephanie understood both the work and the joy.

Second, like many Stony Brook students, neither came from a bastion of coastal or big-city privilege.  Stephanie grew up in a tiny Mississippi town where nothing, it seemed, ever happened — until the day a teacher assigned her to write reports about the high school for the local newspaper and she went to the newspaper offices, a hive of activity and purpose unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She didn’t know it right away, she said, but she was hooked then and there.

Walt grew up, he said, in a working-class family in Gary, Ind., and attended the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s. Students’ demands at then-frequent marches and rallies went unanswered, frustrating him until he joined the campus paper–and suddenly, his calls were returned and he tasted power, the power of the press to hold authority accountable. From university administrators to railroad regulators to Big Tobacco and beyond, he’s been using that power ever since, as has Stephanie.

That both of them, raised without clout, could rise to demand accountability from the Man in all his guises because of their passionate focus and their belief in the power of the pen, spoke to the audience of its members’ own potential for achieving greatness through hard work and a cause greater than themselves.

A recollection of the study guide I must write for a class tomorrow has pierced the illusion of respite I mentioned at the start of this post. I’ll call this Part 1 of three, and I’ll write about Okrent and Heyward in my next two posts.

    Musings on curation

    Who are your trusted news curators?

    I have a few favorites, most of which I follow through e-mails. To follow the changing news industry, I subscribe to daily news feeds from mediabistro.com and freepress.net. (I’ve always found each a cleaner, more streamlined read than Romanesko, whose blurbs tease more than they deliver too often for my taste.) Mediabistro curates industry news and trends with a bit of gossip thrown in for spice, mostly from newspapers and magazines and their websites along with the occasional broadcast story or blog post. Free Press has a lot of great journalism stories, some of which overlap Mediabistro’s, but it also curates stories about the FCC, media regulation generally, net neutrality, cable companies, Internet Service Providers and wireless communication. It’s got a tighter focus on technology and curates more from niche blogs. Merely reading its headlines and blurbs keeps me abreast of issues in areas tangential to my main concerns. There’s a fair amount of reformist rhetoric from Free Press, which is, after all, an advocacy group, but the news feed generally includes news stories that discuss opposing viewpoints, and sometimes it even curates directly to more conservative coverage. I respect that.

    That’s all I have time for regularly, and I read those two feeds daily in part because I require the students in Journalism 24/7 to do so. I get daily feeds from 3 Quarks Daily, but lately I’ve been archiving those unopened to avoid temptation. I also like The Chronicle Review, which isn’t really curated; it’s straightforward magazine editing, the weekly arts-and-ideas component of The Chronicle of Higher Education. But it covers such a wide range of topics that the experience of dipping into its articles feels broader than reading a magazine usually does. (Many of its stories are behind a pay wall to nonsubscribers.)

    Paul Gillin had a good post a while back about using Twitter to curate breaking news. During the Chilean earthquake, he followed Twitter for links to the best photos, videos and updates on the tsunami threat facing the Hawai’i archipelago. I had a brief fling with using the people I follow on Twitter to lead me to great stories about the news industry, but I got tired of trying to drink from that fire hose and tend to stay away from it now.

    Finally, there’s Facebook. I click on many a link that a friend (real or Facebookian) posts, and I have become a fan of some online magazines to keep up with their contents while avoiding RSS feeds, which I dislike even more than Twitter.

    Two questions, dear readers:

    First, the one with which I started this post. Who are your trusted news curators?

    Second (if three questions could be counted as one): Where does curating fit into the j-school curriculum? Does it need to be taught or merely identified as something journalists need to do as part of creating their brands? Are there ethical questions about the “link economy” that should be teased out and explored?

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