Archive for the ‘ Journalism Fundamentals ’ Category

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.

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

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.

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.

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