Posts Tagged ‘ Bernard L. Madison ’

Slipping numeracy into reporting class

I’ve started putting into action one of the most important things I learned at the AEJMC meetings in Denver last month. I’m not waiting for that special day, that somewhere-over-the-rainbow day, when every student in our program takes a class devoted to quantitative literacy. I’m focusing now on ways to incorporate quantitative thinking into lessons and discussions that ostensibly have little to do with numbers.

On Tuesday, for example, I gave my introductory reporting class its first weekly current-events quiz and included a couple of questions about President Obama’s speech on Iraq. I asked:

In his Oval Office address last week, President Obama said the U.S. has spent more than _________________ on war in the past decade.
a. $10 billion
b. $75 billion
c. $1 trillion
d. $10 trillion

The answer is C, $1 trillion. But more important, this was an opportunity to discuss estimation and to talk about which numbers pass the sniff test.  What is a billion? A trillion? How can we make sense of these numbers not only to readers but also to ourselves?
The key, I told my students, is to keep some number comparisons in your mental back pocket so you can pull them out easily. For billions and trillions, I said, I’d use our university’s annual budget of nearly $2 billion. Is it likely  that seven years of fighting two wars cost the United States $10 billion, or only five times as much as it costs to run the campus for a year? Continue reading

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

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