Posts Tagged ‘ pedagogy ’

Back to the blog, and off to the moon

Gentle Reader, as the Victorians said: Perhaps you have missed my voice in the two years this blog has been silent. Or not. Either way, I’m glad to be back.

I broke off blogging in 2012 as I began a year of intense tenure-oriented work. My dean and I had agreed that my best chance for achieving that holy grail of academe would be to focus on traditional scholarship rather than persevering with a newfangled form that leaves tenure committees flummoxed. No peer review, no glory.

And so, I conducted a study of hyperlocal competition in Riverhead, L.I., which was vetted by my peers and accepted for a poster session at the annual conference of a major academic journalism group. I gave papers at two other conferences, winning an award at one. I got grants to survey the information ecosystem (how’s that for a phrase) of Brookhaven, L.I., a large, diverse suburban town. And in March 2013, I submitted my tenure portfolio at Stony Brook.

I’m still waiting for the result, these 15 months later, but that’s another story. My dean tells me the answer will come this summer. For those of you unfamiliar with academia, my job hangs in the balance. Stressful? Naaah.

I have roused from its slumber because of my involvement in solar system exploration. Hah! You weren’t expecting that, I bet. I am part of the E/PO in SSERVI’S RIS4E team.

Translation: SSERVI, the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, is a NASA-funded interdisciplinary project that will “[c]onduct basic and applied research fundamental to the lunar and planetary sciences while advancing human exploration of the solar system” (emphasis added). E/PO = Education and Public Outreach, which NASA and other federal research funders now require in grant proposals. My part is to teach a science journalism course based on the work of the RIS4E team.

RIS4E: It’s pronounced “rise,” and it stands for Remote In-Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration. Situ, synchrotron, studies, science: The four S’s = S4. In a future post, I’ll explain the in-situ and synchrotron parts—once I understand them better myself. RIS4E, based at Stony Brook, is one of nine international, multi-institution research teams in SSERVI.

Lots of acronyms and unknowns, but it’s all very exciting. My class, which I’ll teach in the spring of 2015 and again in Spring 2017, will have a limited, competitive enrollment. We’ll begin by building students’ understanding of best practices (dreadful phrase) in science journalism and of the science involved in this project. Some of Stony Brook’s RIS4E scientists will be guest speakers. We’ll take field trips to RIS4E labs on campus, at Brookhaven National Lab and at the American Museum of Natural History, and maybe a road trip to visit RIS4E researchers at Goddard Space Flight Center and the Naval Research Laboratory, both in Maryland.


Photo: NASA

I will ask the team’s grants managers to tell us about the architecture of scientific research: how it is funded, managed and published, how the web has changed that, and the role of grants in the university’s finances.

The students will blog about what they’re learning, bringing the public along on their educational journey. Among other written and multimedia work, they will profile the scientists and produce “explainers” about the science and technology they encounter.

The best part comes last. In June 2015, the entire class and I will spend 10 days on the Big Island of Hawaii where RIS4E scientists will be studying a certain lava flow on the Kilauea volcano that resembles a lava flow on the moon. The students will continue to blog and will gather information, take pictures, capture audio and shoot video of the weeklong field camp. We’ll be staying with the research team in rented houses in the town of Volcano, right outside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. We’ll spend a day or two touring the Big Island before returning to Stony Brook to put together a Journalism Without Walls website with our stories, photo galleries, podcasts and videos.

The RIS4E website will feature or link to all of the class’s work. (In 2017, field camp and our trip will be in New Mexico.)

This joint effort between the research team and a journalism school is unique to RIS4E among all the SSERVI teams, Stony Brook planetary geologist Tim Glotch, the RIS4E principal investigator and team leader, told me. It may be the first such project; I would very much like to learn about similar efforts elsewhere.

And that’s why I have brought back to life: to document what I learn about focusing a science journalism class on a research adventure of this scale. In the end, I hope to make a contribution to the literature on the pedagogy of science journalism education.

This post also appears at

Live-Tweeting the Class Lecture: A #selvin247 Exercise

I tried Staci Baird’s live-tweeting exercise in yesterday’s Journalism 24/7 class, using the Twitter hashtag #selvin247. I gave a lecture on net neutrality and students tweeted their notes, using their phones or laptops to enter their 140-character comments on Twitter; the “hashtag” allows Twitter users to search by topic. I projected their tweets on the board, updating every 10 minutes or so. Some of the #selvin247 timeline is still up on Twitter as I write, though it’s fading fast.

Results: Students took stabs at conveying the facts of the lecture; many missed the mark. Too much effort expended on wit. A former student posting prank tweets. Students tweeting to their friends on personal topics during class.

As an exercise in comparing tweets with traditional, handwritten note-taking, I’d call the live-tweets a failure. Baird’s instructions, however, included an admonition to give students “some examples of what good live-tweeting looks like.” I didn’t do that. I’ll save a few examples and try once more next semester.

A few wrinkles emerged, besides those prank tweets from a student who took the class last year (“Can I go to the bathroom?  #selvin247 #educationalvalue #justkiddingidonthavetogo #gogojournostudents”). Tweeters circled the points I made, occasionally landing on the bullseye, but anyone trying to follow the lecture from afar would have been confused. Jokes distracted tweeters and their followers: “If the ISP is the gatekeeper, who is the keymaster?  #selvin247 #ghostbusters  #thereisnodanathereisonlyzuhl.” A follow-up check on students’ timelines found some unpleasant surprises, like this one from earlier in the class: “Ugh this class is killing me! Idk how [a classmate] and i are going to surviveeee.” Or this, far uglier, from last summer: “The only thing more despicable than the muslims building a mosque near ground zero is @sarahpalinusa trying to gain from it politically.” This one was pointed out to me by someone who was deeply offended by it.

Twitter being a public medium, I could rightfully identify those posters, but as both are students, I will refrain from embarrassing them – or, in the case of the tweet about “the muslims,” maybe costing the student an interview or a job. The point is that everything on a public Twitter feed – everything on the  Internet — is available to everyone, now and forever. Students: Keep your online identity professional! Think before you tweet: Do I want some future potential employer, or some future source, or a professor, reading these words?

The idea for the class-tweeting exercise came at the end of a Knight Digital Media Center blog post on teaching mobile journalism, which some enthusiasts call the most important journalistic tool to emerge in recent years. More sober observers point out the limitations of live-blogging (of which live tweeting is a subset), the most critical being the lack of context or analysis. In my view, live blogging is one more tool in the journalist’s expanding toolbox, useful during breaking news events but far less so during speeches or talks. Few lectures are of such white-hot importance that every thought needs to fly through the twittersphere the moment after it is uttered. Some people seem to thrive on that hothouse sense of immediacy, but I find its breathlessness forced. I’d rather wait an hour or two, or a day, and read a considered report on a lecture, context included.

Today’s journalism students must understand media policy and business

I began my previous post with a story about my first, feeble attempt to discuss net neutrality in Journalism 24/7, my course on the changing news industry,  planning to segue into a response to Nick Lemann’s recent “Dean’s Letter” in a Columbia J-school alumni publication. Lemann’s letter addressed the importance of teaching journalism students about media policy, but I never got to it. Instead, I wrote about how that teaching blooper (what students might call an epic fail) taught me an important lesson about pedagogy, one I’ve used to great advantage in the years since.

And now to Lemann’s letter. Lemann, Columbia’s dean since 2003, writes that his attitude toward teaching students about media policy has evolved. His letter begins: “For most of my life as a journalist, I was blissfully, even willfully, ignorant about media policy.” But, he continues, Continue reading

Great moments in teaching: leveraging student participation

With just a month’s notice, I’d been assigned to a brand-new course, JRN 301: Journalism 24/7, in the second semester of the very existence of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. The course topic: the changing news industry. My idea for that day’s class: Discuss net neutrality.

Sometimes – less now than in years past, thankfully – but sometimes, like all teachers, I think, I fail to allot sufficient time to class preparation and suddenly it’s class time and I’m forced to wing it. This was one of those days. The term “net neutrality” had been showing up frequently in my online reading (read: cramming) as I struggled to get a handle on the turbulence of the news industry in the late 2000s.

I got to class and began talking, using the skimpy notes I’d thrown together. It wasn’t more than two minutes into my “lecture” that I realized I was hopelessly lost. Could not talk about net neutrality. Had no backup. An hour left of class! What to do? Continue reading

An ideal journalism curriculum for undergraduates?

The consensus on preparing tomorrow’s journalists is this: They have to be able to do everything: write well, handle digital still and video cameras proficiently, edit photos in Photoshop, edit video with FinalCutPro, produce podcasts, produce slide shows, blog, promote themselves and their employers on social media. Have I left anything out?

And underlying those skills, there’s more – the skills that journalists have always needed, the reporter’s fundamental mindset. Tomorrow’s journalists, like today’s, like yesterday’s, need to spot stories in the world around them, find out what’s been published or aired on those stories, figure out new angles and follow-ups, research people and topics, synthesize information swiftly, write quickly and gracefully, revise their own and others’ copy, analyze and use numbers, conduct all kinds of interviews, be prepared to wrestle with ethical dilemmas, possess a broad knowledge of history and current events, meet deadlines. Accuracy, brevity and clarity, the ABC’s of journalism – they sound simple, but much study and practice are needed to achieve them.

From an educator’s standpoint, a key question is this: How do we weave the fundamentals and the technology together in a curriculum that not only teaches students to compete in today’s media job market but also how to think and reflect and write? The follow-up questions come thick and fast. Do we start by teaching students how to shoot and edit video? Do we have them produce stories in multiple platforms from the beginning? Or do we start with a focus on the fundamentals, the writing, research, interviewing, revising and numeracy skills? Is it possible to do everything at once?

The answer to that last question is the only easy one: No.

Spread the material too thin, try to cram too much too fast into students’ brains, and you end up with students who can do nothing well. There may be a superficial technical glibness, but the content, the storytelling, suffers. The ability to tell important stories accurately, quickly and clearly comes first. The platforms come second. And writing is still the best way for students to demonstrate their mastery of putting a story together – whether writing for “print” or writing “broadcast” scripts or writing directly for the web. (Those are air quotes. Nearly all “print” and “broadcast” work ends up on the web at some point.)

My dream journalism curriculum looks like this.

Continue reading

University media relations: help or hindrance for j-schools?

College and university journalism schools offer their students a built-in community to cover: the institution that houses their program. A campus offers practice in covering politics, budgets, race, education, crime, social trends – in short, many aspects of life in the wider world.

The institution’s media-relations personnel can play a key role in helping – or hindering – journalism educators who use the campus as a teaching tool. They can help students find scholarly and administrative sources for their stories, whether for class assignments or for the student media, or they can use their power to block access and prevent students from gaining needed reporting and interviewing experience.

The argument can be made that students must learn to deal with recalcitrant media-relations personnel, whom they will surely encounter as professionals. But questions arise: When does learning this lesson cease to be useful? What is the responsibility of a university administration to aid in the pedagogical efforts of the journalism program it sustains? Where the relationship has been problematic, have the parties resolved tensions and established useful working relationship? If so, how? What makes a good working relationship possible?

At Stony Brook, the opening of our School of Journalism in 2006 coincided with the departure of the university’s longtime spokesman, a former Newsday sportswriter. His replacement was the Continue reading

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
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