Shining a light on missed deadlines

One of the biggest complaints among my colleagues — and, I imagine, among journalism professors everywhere — is the student who misses deadlines.

Why else the dire threats in every journalism syllabus I’ve ever seen: a grade lost for every day the assignment is late. No credit for work more than a week late. No work accepted late, at all.

I’ve written those threats into syllabuses myself. Yet I find myself nodding in resignation when a student begs to print out her story during a break or to e-mail it to me after class.

What to do? I could develop a steelier spine and follow through on the threats — and I have lowered grades for late work. Yes, I could do that consistently, in theory.

But I’ve stumbled upon a couple of techniques recently that have proved effective, and they’re more pleasant than the glowering tough-guy approach. Both harness the Internet.

Like many colleges and universities, Stony Brook uses an online educational tool called Blackboard. Each course has its own Blackboard site, with pages for assignments, email, announcements, course documents, gradebook, discussion boards, blogs and many more.

I like to use the Announcement function, which also allows me to send the announcement as an e-mail to all students in the course.

The night before a deadline, I post an announcement reiterating the details of the deadline: time, place, format. I specify that the work is due in hard copy, typed, triple-spaced and stapled, at the start of class. For good measure, I e-mail the announcement to all the students.

This tactic worked well during my winter-session course. Everyone managed to make the deadlines, despite commutes of up to 90 minutes for a class that began at 9:30 a.m., pre-dawn by student standards.

This semester, I tried something else when half of the 12 students in the senior-project seminar I co-teach with Marcy McGinnis had missed two interim project deadlines three weeks into the course. I threw together a spreadsheet listing all the students. The next column listed missed assignments — blank for those who were caught up. Then a column with the due date, and a column — blank — for the date submitted.

I posted the spreadsheet on Blackboard and e-mailed it to the class yesterday. Then I sat back and watched the late assignments roll in. All but two students are now caught up.

A picture, or in this case a chart, is worth a thousand nags. Seeing their names on the bad-boy list means public embarrassment, however slight. Just stating the facts, folks; it’s up to you to do something about the situation.

These students are working on semester-long projects. If  they fall behind this early in the semester, they are doomed. I plan to make this chart a weekly feature of the course.

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.

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