Archive for the ‘ J-schools ’ Category

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

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.

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?

‘Facebook is nothing more than a campfire’

That’s what Paul Gillin told the students in my Journalism 24/7 class when he visited a couple of weeks ago.

He’d given a pithy run-through of the reasons why the new industry must, in his words, “destroy the old to create the new,” and the students were asking probing questions about collateral damage.

“What’s going to happen to verification?” asked Lauren Cioffi, a junior who has interned at Newsday and written for The Statesman, one of our campus papers. (Links are to the blogs students write for my class.)

The emphasis on speed over accuracy is “scary,” said Ari Davanelos, one of two exceptionally computer-savvy students in the class. “Will we reach an equilibrium?”

“The jobs being lost in the old model — what about all the people who are being squeezed out?” asked David O’Connor, who wants to be a sportswriter. “Is that okay?”

“What’s the future of journalism schools?” Paloma Paultre, who hopes to be a news anchor, wanted to know.

Gillin’s answers had a common theme: What has changed are behaviors, not a value system. “The essential values of human trust have not been changing,” he said.

“Facebook is nothing more than a campfire,” he went on. “We get together at the end of the day, and we shoot the breeze.”

It’s a comforting thought — that despite the tumult and uncertainty enveloping the news industry, people ultimately want to know that they can trust the storytellers.

But “the next 10 years in journalism are going to be really ugly,” Gillin said. The democratization of publishing is “now destroying the institutions we have relied on since the Civil War to tell us what is true.”

“Big media was created to solve a problem: lack of information,” he told the students. “You’re going to enter a world where everyone is publishing.” Publishing “is cheap and easy. And that changes everything.”

“This is much bigger than just journalism,” he added. “When anyone can publish … then it’s much harder to hide.”

Gillin earns his daily bread by consulting with businesses that want to harness social media, and he noted that many companies — he cited the Coca-Cola Co. as one example — now encourage mid-level employees to blog, or to communicate in forums, or to use Twitter and Facebook. Like journalism, business in general will be “more participatory and more transparent.” Companies will be smaller and flatter with less need for middle managers, whose role traditionally has been to communicate up and down within organizations.

For media companies in particular, which in a largely digital future won’t need expensive real estate, presses, paper, ink, drivers, press operators or circulation departments, “the future is going to be in ‘small.'”

From a societal perspective, the whirlwind is destroying institutional knowledge, reducing journalism’s role as government watchdog, making it harder  to afflict the comfortable and eliminating “a common reference point for conversation.”

“That’s bad,” he said.

(A note to those who demean observers like Gillin, Michael Rosenblum and others who are delineating the new realities: These observers are not the enemy, and they are neither ignorant nor uncaring about the toll of the destruction. They are news people reporting a story.  Scratch their enthusiasm for the possibilities of the new order, and you’ll find a deep disquiet about the loss of many aspects of the old — just like the classic newspaper grouch whose cynicism masked a deep but often thwarted idealism.)

In Gillin’s view, the role of the journalist is expanding. Reporters will continue to write stories, but “our product is not a single story any more,” he said. “Our product is a flow of information … Curation is really, really important.”

And that’s where the conversation comes back to trust and basic human values. The digital journalist who becomes a trusted “brand,” for lack of a better word, leads readers (viewers, news consumers, news participants, whatever you call ’em) not only to his or her work but to the best of the work others produce. People who want to make sense of the world will follow those who can curate the most meaningful interpretations of events, issues and trends.

“The principles of journalism are very, very solid,” Gillin told Paloma, the student who had asked about the future of journalism schools. “And they’re not going to change.”

Reinventing J-School: We get the Gillin imprimatur

It’s nice when someone whose opinion you value tells you, “You’re doing the right things.”

Responding to the invitation I issued in one of my first posts on this blog, Paul Gillin, creator of the widely read Newspaper Death Watch blog, came to Stony Brook University last week to see for himself what we’re doing at our 4-year-old School of Journalism — how we’re reinventing j-school at a time of chaos (or challenge and opportunity, as my dean prefers to call it) — in the news industry. He liked what he saw.

“Journalism Educators Who Get It,” the title of his post about his time with us, was a nice change from “Misshaping Young Minds,” the post he wrote just before he arrived, or “J-Schools Get an F in Finance,” the post he wrote back in February that triggered my invitation to him.

He liked our News Literacy program. He liked our multiplatform worldview, our insistence that every student learn to write and edit text, to shoot digital photos, to shoot and edit video, to blog, to create interactive news elements. He liked the 18-credit interdisciplinary concentrations each of our journalism majors completes in addition to 47 credits in journalism. (A typical course is 3 credits.) Ditto our required senior project, in which students spend six weeks reporting a story and then tell it three ways: in text, in video or audio, and interactively. Ditto Journalism 24/7, the class I teach on the history, present and possible futures of the news business. Ditto that each student in the class reflects on what he or she is learning via twice-weekly blog post.

He had ideas for us, too, some that I liked a lot and others that I liked less. I liked his suggestion that we expand on the concept of our new Center for Communicating Science, which is about to have its first big event at Brookhaven National Lab, and provide a thread of courses teaching writing, blogging, audio and video skills to undergraduates from all disciplines. Scientists outside of the information-technology area lag in understanding how to use the power of the Internet, as my friend Denis Pelli, a psychology professor at New York University, showed poignantly when his timely panel on the subject drew a meager audience.

I liked his insight that Web sites will decline in importance as information consumption rolls inexorably onto mobile devices. This comment startled my colleague Wasim Ahmad, who cherishes good Web design and has made design central to his teaching philosophy. Food for thought: Original design won’t mean much when most people get to the Internet via the tiny screen of a smartphone.

I didn’t agree with Gillin’s print-is-dead pronouncements. Media history has shown that new platforms are built on the old while the old learn how to live with the new, processes definitively described in 1997 by Roger Fidler in his essential work, “Mediamorphosis: Understanding the New Media”: “Coevolution and coexistence, rather than sequential evolution and replacement, have been the norm.” People still hunger for print. The audience for print is shrinking but not vanishing. For j-schools, this means coevolution and coexistence in course offerings. Continue to teach writing and copy editing, layout and headline writing, but make room in the curriculum for all students to learn the other modes of communication, too.

That’s how you get to a 47-credit journalism major.

I’m still wrestling with the argument Gillin made, one made by many on the leading edge of journalistic entrepreneurialism, that the wall between editorial and business is not sacrosanct, that it is being eroded by journalists’ need for survival skills. Yes, journalists need to make money in an era of fewer staff jobs and click-driven metrics, but (to round up the relevant cliches and mix a metaphor or two), it’s a slippery slope, and you can’t serve two masters.  Of all that the faculty discussed with Gillin, this idea gave my colleagues the most trouble.

We are a forward-thinking group and we’re doing a lot that earns the praise of those who, like Paul Gillin, seem to see clearly where the news industry is going. But as a faculty, we have some old-school ideas about right and wrong.

My next post will report on Gillin’s visit to my classroom and how our students responded to his vision.

Tom Jolly

My colleague Jon Pessah, who teaches sports journalism at Stony Brook and blogs about sports and other topics at True/Slant, invited me to sit in on his class yesterday to hear New York Times Sports Editor Tom Jolly speak.

Jolly’s comments after his talk endorsed the approach we’re taking here at the SBU SOJ: Fundamentals first, then technology.

He spoke at length on how the Web and the existence of nytimes.com have changed the way the sports desk works. To Pessah’s question “Is the game story dead?” he replied that he’ll post a 300-word game story on the Website immediately after a game. But for the next day’s paper, reporters have time for to interview and to craft a story that explains why a game turned out the way it did or what the events of the game reflect or portend. Those old-fashioned play-by-play stories have no place in print: Sports fanatics have already seen the highlights reel on TV or on the Web, and casual sports fans are more interested in the broader context than in the details.

He uses Twitter promote stories on the Times site and to follow what other sports desks are doing and what sports-journalism critics are saying. And he finds Twitter the best source of breaking news. When the National Hockey League lifted the suspension of a prominent player (the name escapes me), Jolly had read the NHL’s tweet before his hockey reporter heard the news.

But after class, when I asked him what these changes in practice mean for journalism schools — what we should be doing to prepare our students for the new news ecology — he barely hesitated. Training students to be excellent reporters comes first, he said firmly. Multimedia skills are great, but they are the icing on the cake.

Some j-schools are trying the tech-first approach. Their entering students attend technology boot camps to learn multimedia before they study research, interviewing or verification. As a faculty, we’re pretty much unanimous that this does students a disservice. I know my dear friend Michael Rosenblum will shake his head, but we still believe in training reporters. We also prepare them for the new realities in the news business, and we continue to beef up that aspect of their education. But we remain dedicated to creating reporters — or at the least, to imparting reporters’ ethics and ways of viewing the world — first and foremost.

A New Year, A New Blog

January 2, 2010. 01/02/10, 01/02/2010. How anagrammatical. Or, as I’m among many to observe, how palindromatic.

JRNTeaching.wordpress.com: Inside the J-School Evolution has two purposes. One is to examine how the Internet revolution, which is reshaping the news industry, is driving changes to the journalism academy. It’s a parallel journey. Just as legacy news businesses — newspapers, magazines, network television — are thrashing about in a frenzy, trying to hold onto readers, viewers and advertisers in an era of free content, journalism schools are striving for new ways to prepare students for a very different industry than the one we professors came up in.

It’s a constant amazement that students are flocking to j-schools despite constant reports  of layoffs, cutbacks in coverage, shuttered publications and the rest of that grim litany. Young people want to tell stories. They want to share information. They’re turned on by the things that alternately intrigue and terrify their teachers: transparency, change, community. The school  at which I teach, the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, is midway through its fourth year of existence and has nearly 300 majors and 70 minors. Our youth as a school makes us more flexible than some long-established institutions, yet we, too, struggle to anticipate what will best serve our graduates.

At the same time, the fundamentals of journalism remain paramount. Those venerable ABCs: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. How to get there? Research. Interviewing. Proper syntax. Quantitative literacy (the clear and accurate use of numbers). Writing about how I teach the fundamentals in the Internet Age is the second purpose of this blog.

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