Tenure tragedy

Having written about tenure recently, I wanted to comment on the tragic events at University of Alabama, which initial reports say had to do with Amy Bishop’s learning that she was denied tenure.

There are tragedies within tragedies on top of tragedies in this case. In no particular order —

  • the three faculty members Bishop is said to have killed leave behind families and students who will grieve for them
  • the discoveries these scientists will never make
  • the children of Amy Bishop and her husband, who will endure shame, fear, loss
  • the discoveries Bishop herself will not make; she was apparently quite a brilliant scientist
  • Bishop seems to have been a disturbed person; was she ever seen by a mental health professional? Could she have been helped?

I heard faculty joking about this case today. Callousness, or whistling past the graveyard? We live in a dangerous world.

Mr. Gillin, come to Stony Brook

I’ve just read a post on a terrific blog by a longtime technology journalist turned media consultant named Paul Gillin, who sees the lay of the new media landscape as clearly as anyone.

His blog is called Newspaper Death Watch, and the post is entitled “J-Schools Get an F in Finance.”

Gilln spoke to a journalism class at a program he says is “considered one of the finest in the country.” His topic: “the state of the US media: Why it’s in a predicament, how the story is likely to play out and what it all means for aspiring journalists.”

That sounds a lot like the course that inspired this blog, Stony Brook’s JRN 301: Journalism 24/7.

Gillin was stunned by the students’ lack of awareness about the industry they were training for. The students “were aware that they’re stepping into an uncertain world but they didn’t seem to grasp the finer points of the media business,” he writes. “Looking at the journalism department’s website later, I could see why. The curriculum lists 29 courses in the journalism program, and not a single one is about the economics of publishing or how to sustain a career as a journalist.”

Paul, come talk to our students.

Journalism 24/7 is a required course for all our majors and minors. It examines the current chaos in the news industry, a chaos underlain by so many things: the astoundingly disruptive explosion of the World Wide Web, beginning with the migration of classified advertising from newspapers to job sites, Craigslist, eBay; the advent of a thousand distractions that didn’t exist 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago (take your pick: video games, movies on demand, mobile devices); the consolidation of national retail chains and the decline of the U.S. auto industry, which shrank the ranks of newspaper advertisers.

I teach Journalism 24/7 every semester, and every semester, it’s a different course. The industry’s rate of change–its delta–has been so steep that, after examining the old, blown-apart business models, we spend the rest of our time exploring the what’s new. We follow entrepreneurial projects like Dave Cohn’s Spot.us, we follow corporate hyperlocal initiatives like Aol’s Patch.com, we follow the raging debate over paywalls.

As a school, we haven’t yet incorporated any significant classes in entrepreneurship, but as a final project in Journalism 24/7, I ask my students to come up with a piece of the puzzle, something that could sustain quality journalism while making money. Some of the ideas have been terrific.

Paul, come talk to our students. They’re ready to listen.

Playing a different game in academia

Building a journalism school at a research university in a time of tightly constrained funds has to be an exercise in patience for the faculty looking in at the school. We’re such a different animal at this early stage of our development. Typically, first-time professors focus on their scholarship, with teaching and service — things like committee work — taking a back seat. New profs need to prove their intellectual chops, need to establish their cred at conferences and symposia, need to be published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals, need to write books. They need to develop a scholarly reputation that brings distinction to their universities.

That’s not how it’s working at my three-and-a-half-year-old school of journalism, which was born from a journalism minor in the fall of 2006.

First, there’s the teaching. Our founding dean, though an editor for many years, is a reporter at heart, and what he wants more than anything is to turn out reporters. So he’s hired former print reporters and their broadcast equivalents, producers, to fill the first five faculty openings. Academia is a second career for all of us; we’ve been playing one game all our working lives — journalism — and now we’re learning the ropes in another.

Second, there are all the administrative accoutrements that come with building a journalism program. There must be internships, so there must be an internship coordinator. There must be scholarship and awards committees. There must be a student advisory board with a faculty liaison. Because we are ambitious, and because globalization is an important consideration at our university, there must be a study-abroad program. There must be a school website. There must be advising. There must be contact with the rest of the university in the form of representation on committees and senates. In fact, there’s so much to do administratively that each of us professors spends almost as much time on admin as we do on teaching.

Third, we are building this school at a time of unprecedented disruption in the business of news. Neither radio nor television did as much to change the way news is gathered, delivered and paid for as that incredible boon and incredible bane, the Internet. I would say that 2006 through 2008 could turn out to be the most chaotic years of this disruption. In 2007, when I began teaching Journalism 24/7, it was still unclear what was going to happen to newspapers and television. Knight Ridder still existed, as did the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Dow Jones was an independent company. Dan Rather still delivered the CBS Evening News. Twitter was in its infancy. Facebook was a toddler. Smartphones didn’t exist.

While there is much change still to come, the outlines of that change are much clearer now than they were such a short time ago. We have a better perspective now. This blog is a sign that I’m ready to begin articulating what it means to be teaching journalism to 21st-century students. As the administrative responsibilities begin to settle into a routine, and the changes in the industry seem less earth-shattering, an opportunity for reflection and writing has opened.

What does this all mean? I’m thinking about the tenure process. I still have a couple of years to put my academic life in order, but I worry about colleagues whose cases will be considered sooner, colleagues who are brilliant journalists and dedicated teachers but simply haven’t had time to produce significant scholarship. I can only hope that the powers that be will recognize the special circumstances of our situation and base their decision on their potential for academic accomplishment and the reality of their immeasurable contributions to building our program.

Dawn of a new semester

The spring semester started six days ago, six days that flew by in a blur. Something about teaching in the winter semester makes getting ready for spring a heavy lift; not that I’m complaining. In a phrase I love to hate, it’s all good. Something’s got to give, though, if I’m to keep up with this blog. Blogging is one of my top priorities right now.

I started teaching Journalism 24/7 last Monday to 48 students, and right away, I managed to display my technological ignorance. I’ve been reading about how the cable companies have resisted upgrading set-top boxes to allow online access, but apparently I missed something. Wouldn’t it be great, I was saying to the class, if you could hook up your laptop and stream movies right onto that nice new HDTV screen? A slow roar welled up from the students. “You can already!” “You just need a frimfram wire and then you…” etc., etc. About a third of the class, apparently, was already streaming movies in just that way. I could feel the startled expression breaking across my face.

Oh, well. I’m never going to catch up technologically. That’s just not my nature, and it’s not what I bring to the class. I’m willing, if not overjoyed, to have my technological backwardness revealed again and again. I’m fine with learning from my students. It’s the journalism professor’s version of the newsroom generation gap, between digital natives like them and digital settlers like me.

Pictures of dead Haitians

After the earthquake last week, one of my students asked why news organizations had no compunction about showing images of dead Haitians amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince, images that clearly showed their faces, images through which family members elsewhere in the world could easily identify victims. She recalled that U.S. news organizations declined to show footage of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, which led to a discussion of the controversy over news photos of dead soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why, she asked, was this sensitivity to survivors’ feelings, or to what some have called the dignity of the dead, abandoned in the case of the Haitian earthquake victims?

Why, indeed?

Unleashed in the metropolis

What I love about teaching Reporting in NYC is unleashing Stony Brook students on the metropolis.

Stony Brook University, for all that is good about it, is a tough place to report. The campus is isolated from the community — deliberately, according to lore, but certainly effectively. A four-lane divided roadway, train tracks, woods and fields cut the campus off from Stony Brook and the surrounding hamlets, which, after 50 years of cohabitation, bear little student imprint. There’s no college-town ambiance.

Moreover, Long Island’s near-total dependence on the automobile keeps many students campus-bound. And the university is making a slow adjustment to the soaring number of student journalists who are trying to cover it. Access to university officials has often beendifficult, though all sides  hope to improve the flow of information. The School of Journalism and top administrators met last month to discuss the situation, and several useful ideas came out of the meeting. More on this another time.

But here in the city, freedom reigns. For the most part, students find story ideas easily. All they need to do is walk out the door. At the university, information is centralized; here, students can find multiple sources for answers to many of their questions. And with some perseverance, they’ve generally been able to get comments from politicians and government officials when necessary, perhaps because those sources are more accustomed to dealing with the press.

The experience is enormously liberating for the students. They feel more like “real reporters” than they have before. I’d like to teach this class year-round.

Gerald Grow, Grammar Guru

“In a manner of speaking, students cannot learn journalism; they can only learn to become journalists. That is, students cannot remain who they used to be and just add journalism to that self. They must experience a transformation of identity, skills, habits, and values, a transformation in the way they think and know and see the world — the transformation of becoming a producer of journalism and not just a consumer of it. It’s like that point in learning a foreign language when you begin to think in that language.” — Gerald Grow, professor of journalism (retired), Florida A&M University, in “When Journalism Majors Don’t Know Grammar (causes, considerations, and approaches),” from ASJMC Insights,  Spring 2006

This bears repeating: “[S]tudents cannot remain who they used to be and just add journalism to that self. They must experience a transformation of identity, skills, habits, and values, a transformation in the way they think and know and see the world … “

Some might argue Gerald’s point that students must become producers of journalism and not just consumers of it in a world in which everyone, especially current college students, publishes all the time to Facebook, Twitter and so on. But publishing is not journalism. Publishing is a necessary but not sufficient condition for becoming a journalist. It is the critical mindset; the thirst for understanding and describing events, people, trends; the voracious reading — these are the necessary and sufficient conditions.

Which brings me back to Reporting in NYC, Winter 2010. Course requirements, expressed in the syllabus and on the first day of class, include “Come to class prepared to discuss the news of the day.” I told the students to read all metro and regional coverage in The New York Times. I assigned each of the six students to bring either the New York Post or the New York Daily News to class each morning.

I assumed it was clear that this meant buying the paper at the start of the commute, reading it on bus, ferry, subway or train, and being fully abreast of the latest developments by the 9:30 start of class. I hoped that each would go to nytimes.com the night before class and learn the history and context of the day’s news from the lengthier stories there. (It’s horrifying how short the tabs’ non-scandal coverage of most local stories has become — a few grafs at the bottom of each page. But that’s a post for another day.)

So far, only one student has come to class prepared.

Understanding that this kind of work informs the journalistic mindset — that it must take place — is the part of the transformation Gerald described so acutely in his 2006 piece on teaching grammar. The connection with grammar comes, in part, with his observation that “it is possible that the problem of grammar might prompt journalism schools to refocus many types of instruction in order to deal with the underlying problems that originally led to the grammar problem. The goal in this case is not to teach grammar, but to teach students to figure things out for themselves — in preparation for a life of figuring things out for themselves.”

Figuring things out for themselves: Whether it’s syntax or the dysfunction in New York State government, the journalist figures things out for herself. Figuring it out requires preparation. Preparation requires reading. Reading requires curiosity. Curiosity — is there an app for that?

Reporting in NYC, Winter 2010: Day 3

Nothing is more gratifying to a journalism teacher than watching a student find an original story idea and get fired up with excitement during the reporting process. Today, the six students in our winter reporting intensive — 12 days in three weeks, finding and developing stories in Manhattan — began to show signs of real progress on their stories.

Gabby Pretto came back from the ice rink at Bryant Park aglow both from the cold air and from the pleasure of alighting on a willing and eager group of sources. The early-morning skating crowd, upon discovering her presence, had descended upon her, and she got interviews with seven of them.

Ryan Lavis came in with some good ideas for reporting on the recession-charged business of thrift shops.

Constantine Loizides had found a 9/11 rescuer who, having recovered from the injuries he sustained when the buildings fell, has made a new life as a Ground Zero tour guide and motivational speaker.

Jie Jenny Zou is exploring Curry Hill, that stretch of Lexington Avenue in the 20s populated by spice shops and South Asian restaurants. She’s examining whether Curry Hill is losing steam as a center for Indian and Pakistani culture, losing out to Jackson Heights and Edison, N.J. Now the trick is finding the demographic data she needs to support shopkeepers’ anecdotal evidence.

Luis Gronda has a lead on a candy store off Tompkins Square Park, a local institution threatened by rising rents, the recession and the aging of its longtime proprieter.

And Fendy Lamy spent the day interviewing the folks involved with an odd community garden in Chinatown, where nothing grows but artifacts contributed by local residents.

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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