Africa, more than just a bend in the river

DanShotAfrica1After visiting Uganda and Kenya for a bit more than a week, I am sure of one thing: what I don’t know could fill an encyclopedia. It would be presumptuous of me to claim anything but the most superficial knowledge of Africa. This is true, even after I was fortunate to spend most of the time learning from true world-class experts in the Horn of Africa, courtesy of the fine lecture series put on by the Reef Valley Institute.

But I feel compelled to share a few thoughts. Gary Kebbel, a colleague at school who has spent more time on the continent than I, told me before I went that Africa can change you for life. Similarly, my daughter, Abigail, who spent a semester in west Africa, found that the place changes one’s views of many things, from ghastly poverty to the often-trivial things we in the First World regard as problems.

It will take time before I can tell whether my short stay in Africa – in mostly privileged conditions – will change me. My semester teaching in China in 2011 certainly did that, though four months is a lot longer than 10 days. But I must admit that I have a slightly broader outlook on things from just this short stint – a wider outlook on the U.S., as well as on the rest of the world.

So, here are a few impressions from someone who parachuted in:

First, life in Africa can be brutal and is, at best, a daily struggle for millions of people. Folks in the Horn area and elsewhere are subject to famines, terrorism, war and disease. The poverty in Nairobi and even in smaller places such as Entebbe takes one’s breath away. People scavenge waste heaps for recyclable material and then someone sets fire periodically to the dumps to pare back the volume, tossing off smog-boosting smoke. Many in Nairobi live in dire slums, in huts topped by corrugated steel, because it’s far too costly to snare an apartment. The photos here, shot by my son, Daniel, offer a glimpse of those in Uganda who are relatively better off.

The dilemma of such poverty in Africa is a riddle. When one looks at how China has lifted millions out of destitution and built a solid middle class over the last 30 years – after Chinese leaders opened their economic system to capitalism – one can only wonder why the same phenomenon hasn’t occurred in so many parts of Africa. Why have manufacturers such as Foxconn not flocked to the Horn to take advantage of cheap labor, building iPhones for world markets and providing jobs? Why have local entrepreneurs not done the same?DanShot2Africa

It may be that the stability insured by the Chinese political system allowed for growth and that leaders in the often volatile African countries cannot deliver that same security. Will entrepreneurs invest millions in plants when one can’t be sure of who will be in charge and whether revolution might unsettle everything? The last 50 years in many of the Horn countries have been marked by repeated changes in governance, with upheaval, cronyism and self-dealing by leaders, compared to which China’s Communist Party has been an oasis of stability and continuity. Where would you invest if you ran a multinational or even were a homegrown entrepreneur?

On this front, there are grounds for hope, though. The Chinese, as it happens, are expanding their military presence in Djibouti with plans for up to 10,000 soldiers to be based there. Can the capitalists of China not be far behind? Would Foxconn, for one, see this a great spot to escape the comparatively high wages and labor shortages on its home turf? I’m persuaded that nothing can lift the living standards in places such as Ethiopia, Somaliland, Uganda and Kenya more than factories that can provide jobs and income for thousands. It will take stability to bring in such factories, to draw investors.

How ironic would it be, though, if the Chinese, aided by their military, ride to the rescue and bring heightened living standards to Africa when longtime capitalists from the West have failed to do so? Indeed, the northeastern corner of Africa is awash in nongovernmental organizations staffed by well-meaning Westerners who offer helping hands and hearts in the region – and who do vital work, especially in health. But they can’t hold a candle to the roaring dynamo that capitalism has been for China, a place unhelped by NGOs for most of the last few decades. Still more irony there.

Second, I was struck by what life in a police state is like. Nairobi, in particular, is a place where both the wealthy and the just-above-poverty level folks live behind cinderblock walls and concertina wire, usually guarded by security service people in military-style uniforms who pack submachine guns. Heavily armed men are everywhere. They make for a dystopic panorama straight out of end-of-the-world sci-fi movies. One can have a wonderful life, I imagine, behind such walls. But who really wants that? Who wants to emerge to see squalor not far from the tall gates?

In the U.S., many people have electronic security systems in their homes and some wealthy people live in gated compounds or on estates surrounded by fences. But most of us live in open neighborhoods where one skips a few steps across a lawn to front doors and windows that would take nothing but a small hammer to defeat. That, to me, is a far better way to live than to exist in a perpetual state of insecurity and fear, unable to stroll around a neighborhood on cool evening or feel comfortable taking a quick run.

Yes, crime is a problem in the U.S. and, yes, the proliferation of guns is a true tragedy. But in Uganda and Kenya, guarding against theft or home invasion is a daily challenge that changes the look and feel of cities. Everywhere I went in Nairobi, I walked through metal detectors and had guards run mirrors beneath the cars I was in, and I grew inured to the sight of young people in fatigues carrying weapons that could take out a pack of attackers. In Nairobi, one goes nowhere without a driver and no one goes out at night.

Who could possibly want that sort of life? It’s no wonder that so many Africans look to the U.S. or Europe for far better opportunities and for simple safety. And, if one wants to see an argument against income inequality and in favor of the development of strong middle classes, just check out Africa. The gap between the haves and have-nots is a Grand Canyon and that, and the desperate levels of poverty, make for awful insecurity and crime.

DanShotAfrica3Third, the people I came in contact with were uniformly delightful. A friend who has spent years in the region said that while the U.S. and the West in general provide a “transaction-based society,” where people buy and sell services and vanish from one another’s lives, the African societies in the Horn especially are “relationship-based.” People want to get to know one another, not merely do business. Take the time to ask how people are doing, this friend said, and you will get by far better, even in the most mundane things. Security guards in Nairobi would see books I was carrying and start conversations about them, and not short ones. A driver and I had long chats about the importance of education, along with local and international politics.

It was extraordinary to see how friendly and engaging — and often well informed — the people I came across were, especially about the U.S. Indeed, it surprised me to have people fretting over strained race relations and the turn in politics in the U.S., probably a product of watching CNN.

Finally, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the Horn of Africa. Will the walls ever come down around the compounds? Certainly, in places such as Nairobi there is development, the construction of grand complexes of housing, offices and shopping in areas such as the Westlands, not far from the foreign embassies. But will there be enough, and will it provide well-paying jobs for enough people? And, in Somalia, we are seeing steps toward governance, perhaps toward reestablishing a central state, even as Al-Shabaab controls so much territory. Will the clans who run the place find a way to share power in the interest of all, not just some?

The daily struggles of so many people in the region, the persistent income inequality, and the troublesome politics make it tough to see anything but a slow course upward. This part of the world certainly is unlike most of what we see in the U.S., even in areas hard-pressed by globalism’s downsides. And it’s far different from China or other parts of Asia. One can only wish the Horn’s leaders the kind of wisdom and opportunity it will take to find the economic engines the place so desperately needs.

Tenure is more than a job for life

TenureMountainThe letter was short, barely filling a page. But the message, for me, was a big deal. The vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln let me know this week that I had successfully run a 5 ½-year long gauntlet and qualified for tenure.

I choked up. I felt like a 17-year-old getting accepted into the college of his dreams. The news about what technically is called “continuous appointment” meant more to me than I had expected. It meant more than just job security; it meant I had been accepted by my peers, my dean and the people who fill the upper reaches of my Big Ten university as someone they’d like to work with for as long as I could command a podium in a classroom.

That acceptance, that ratification of my role as a mentor to young people, that endorsement of my teaching and research skills – it was like getting my first car or going on a first date. It summoned up sepia-colored images of my father – someone who had not even graduated from high school – calling me and an academically inclined sister his little professors. We were the ones who pulled As, the ones he could see in classrooms, occupying places he respected.

I was surprised at my own reaction, though, partly because I’ve been conflicted about tenure. After all, I managed to stay 22 years at my last job, at BusinessWeek, without it, and had worked at three other news organizations before without it. At each place, I was only as good – and secure – as my next story. My job security depended on shifting arrays of bosses and the economic health of my employer. And that seemed fine to me – even just, if one believes healthy capitalism requires dynamic labor markets where jobs must come and go, where there is no room for sinecures.

For years I’ve been sympathetic to a view that a former colleague at BusinessWeek put into writing recently. Sarah Bartlett, marking her first anniversary as dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, complained that the “tenure system can create a permanent class of teachers who may not feel much pressure to constantly refresh their skills or renew their curricula.” Tenure, she suggested, would atrophy programs rather than create the “vibrant academic cultures” that journalism schools, in particular, need at a time of great industry ferment.

SkeletonBut does tenure serve mainly to shield those who would resist change? Does it do little more than protect aging old bulls and cows who should long ago have been turned out to pasture? Does it guarantee that hoary old fossils will dominate classrooms, spouting outdated and irrelevant approaches? Does the pursuit of tenure, moreover, drive aspiring faculty members to do pointless impractical research that doesn’t help the journalism world or the J schools themselves, as Sarah also implied?

Well, I look around at my tenured colleagues at UNL and see the opposite. As one pursued tenure, she wrote a textbook for training copy editors. Sue Burzynski Bullard’s text – “Everybody’s An Editor: Navigating journalism’s changing landscape” – should be standard fare in any forward-looking J school. Because it is an interactive ebook, the now-tenured Bullard is able to – and does – refresh the book regularly. Another colleague, John R. Bender, regularly updates “Reporting for the Media,” an impressive text that he and three colleagues wrote. It’s now in its 11th edition. A third colleague, Joe Starita, produced “I Am A Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice,” setting a high bar for storytelling and research that contributes to an emphasis at our school in journalism about Native Americans. This was Starita’s third book and he’s toiling on a fourth, even as he inspires students in feature-writing and reporting classes.

And that productivity by tenured faculty isn’t limited to written work. Starita teamed up with multimedia-savvy journalism sequence head Jerry Renaud to shepherd the impressive Native Daughters project about American Indian women. Bernard R. McCoy, a colleague who teaches mainly (but not exclusively) in the broadcasting sequence, has produced documentaries including “Exploring the Wild Kingdom,” a public-TV effort about the most popular wildlife program in television history. Another of his works, “They Could Really Play the Game: Reloaded,” tells the story of an extraordinary 1950s college basketball team. And he’s now working on a production about WWI Gen. John J. Pershing.

Tenure doesn’t mean that creative work ends or innovations in the classroom cease. Each of my colleagues has had to adapt to the digital world. Some still prefer to teach in older ways – one quaintly requires students to hand in written papers that he grades by hand, for instance. But even he teams up with visually oriented colleagues to guide students to produce work as today’s media organizations demand it. Charlyne Berens, a colleague, and I teamed up with the Omaha World-Herald just last spring to guide students to produce a 16-part series that boasts print, online and multimedia elements, The Engineered Foods Debate. Charlyne, who recently retired as our associate dean, wrote several works, including “One House,” about the peculiar unicameral Nebraska legislature, and another about the former Secretary of Defense, “Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward.”

tenuretelescopeAs for me, the pursuit of tenure gave me the impetus to write my first book, “Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa.” I’m now working on a second book, exploring the reasons that drive people to join cults. I’m also developing curricula for business and economic journalism instruction that I hope will serve business school and J school students, including those interested in investor relations. The pursuit of tenure also drove me to develop research for academic journals, encouraging me to look into areas as far-flung as journalism training in China, as well as such practical work as the teaching of business journalism, the challenges of teaching fair-minded approaches to aspiring journalists, and the pros and cons of ranking journalism schools – all topics for forthcoming journal publication.

Forgive me for beating my own chest. I don’t mean to. I am humbled by the work that my colleagues at the J school and across the university do. It is an enormous honor for them to consider me a peer and, assuming that the university’s regents in September agree with our vice chancellor, I expect that I will spend the next decade or so trying to live up to that.

So what is your doctorate in?

hey-honeyNot long ago, newspaper editors thought the idea of a reporter getting a college education was about sensible as horns on a horse. Applying a slightly different comparison, New York Tribune founding editor Horace Greeley displayed a notice in his paper’s office saying: “No college graduates or other horned cattle need apply.”

Nowadays, of course, college degrees are basic requirements for journalists. Indeed, a former city editor of mine who had left our little New Jersey daily was denied advancement at Newsday a decade or two ago because he lacked such a degree, never mind his ample skills as an editor. The thinking, one presumes, is that only someone who has been broadly schooled in the textbook-learning on offer at university can bring to bear the intellectual breadth needed in a modern news operation.

Fair enough (except, of course, to my frustrated former editor). But what are the limits to creeping credentialism? Should a master’s degree now be the threshold requirement for a journalist? Beyond that, what should the credentials of a teacher of journalism at a university be? How about a dean? Is a Ph.D. a minimal requirement for a professor or a J school administrator?

DeanImageThis all comes to mind as we at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln ponder five candidates for the deanship at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Three boast doctorates, while one stopped at his master’s degree and another topped out academically with a bachelor’s. While the first three earned advanced degrees, the latter got their educations on the job, leading impressive advertising and news operations, respectively. (Indeed, all are impressive for differing reasons.)

So which one is best equipped to run a J school? Naturally, one cannot judge them on paper alone. To their credit, the members of our school’s selection committee did not toss the resumes lighter on academic credentials. Instead, they invited the contenders to pitch us on their ideas for how to run a school that aims to supply talented, well-rounded journalists and advertising and PR people to industry – a particular challenge as the industry changes fast around us and the demands for technical skills grow.

The open-mindedness of the committee members may reflect the makeup of our college faculty, a wondrous blend of sheepskin and shoe-leather. All of us have master’s degrees, but relatively few have doctorates. Those without the high-level academic pedigrees honed their craft in years of experience in such places as the New York Times, Newsday, The Miami Herald, The Detroit News, The Denver Post, The St. Petersburg Times (and Politifact), BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal and TV stations in markets such as Detroit and Omaha, as well as ABC News. Nebraska is a place where students learn from people who’ve gotten their schooling in the trenches as well as the classroom.

big10-11-nav-logoThe decision, of course, on who will take our mantle won’t really be made by that faculty. We get to weigh in. But, ultimately, the choice will be made by top officials at UNL, most of whom have earned Ph.D.s (though our chancellor’s degree is a juris doctor). Will they demand the Ph.D. union card, consciously or otherwise? Should they, in fact, given that research is a growing requirement for J schools to shine? And, does Nebraska’s entry into the Big Ten demand the credential, not only of our dean but of more faculty members over time, as well? Will the college be taken seriously alongside the likes of Northwestern if we don’t go toe-to-toe on the credentials front? What does it take to run with the big dogs these days?

For wisdom, readers might turn to a report issued last October by the Columbia Journalism School. It traces the growth of professionalism in the field and details longstanding tensions between industry and academia, along with the strains between journalism programs and the higher reaches of universities. “Very few schools are dominated by faculty members who have either journalism degrees or PhDs in communication. And many dean searches turn into contests between a journalist and an academic,” says the report, “Educating Journalists: A New Plea for the University Tradition.”

A.J. Liebling
A.J. Liebling
The authors argue for boosting the quality and quantity of graduate professional education in journalism. They say they hope this would lead to a master’s degree in journalism or a doctorate in communication becoming a standard credential for a journalism faculty member. Taking care to argue for top-quality instruction, they remind readers of Greeley’s thoughts and those of another journalistic icon, A.J. Liebling. The latter blasted his J school training (at Columbia) as boasting “all the intellectual status of a training school for future employees of the A&P.”

On requirements for deans, however, the authors punt. That may be fitting since one of the three authors, Nicholas Lemann, led Columbia for a decade even though his formal education didn’t go past a bachelor’s degree (he was busy cutting a deep swath at the Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker). Indeed, Lemann’s successor at Columbia, Steve Coll, likewise didn’t spend more time in a classroom than needed for a BA, but instead put in his time writing seven books while laboring at The Washington Post and The New Yorker. Coll took the helm at Columbia just this year.

So what qualities will prevail at CoJMC? Will the Ph.D. be the price of entry to the deanship here and, increasingly, at J schools across the country (except at that titan in Morningside Heights, which improved a lot since Liebling’s day)? In time, will a doctorate be mandatory for tenure-track positions at all such schools, as it is already at many that are not as enlightened as CoJMC?

Stay tuned.

The college hunt gets personal — open letter to a niece

BelushiDear Sam,

So, senior year is hard upon you. That means prom, a top spot in the cheering squad, maybe a full-court press in calc to buff up that transcript. And, of course, it’s time for you and colleges to get serious about one another.

You’ve checked out a few places already. A couple big state universities, a few state colleges – most of the places touchingly within 50 miles or so of home. You’ve probably pored over their websites, talked to folks there and maybe chatted with a teacher, coach or guidance counselor about your options. You and your parents may have checked out finances to figure out what you can afford, perhaps gotten some info about aid and scholarships.

It’s a good start, Sam, but – with any luck – not the end of the game. Let me lob a few thoughts your way. Take these from a grizzled uncle who has been around the academic block a bit, between attending a few schools, teaching at three universities and, most important, seeing three of your cousins go through the same sleuthing sessions you now are involved in.

 First, talk to more people. Start with your extended family. At least nine of your cousins have been through the mill already, in undergrad and grad schools. Some went to big, private, urban or suburban schools (Boston University, Columbia, Stanford). Some opted for smaller private schools (Bucknell, Stevens, Pomona). And some chose big public schools (West Virginia, Rutgers, Michigan State, University of Oklahoma). Some went to community colleges for a while. Find out what they liked, what they hated. They’ll tell you, in spades.

 Think about your aunts and uncles. Shockingly, they can be helpful and they’d probably talk with you. Their alma maters include Rutgers, Columbia, Colorado State and the University of Toronto, among other places. One is now pursuing a Ph.D. Even if they natter on about goldfish-swallowing, panty raids and ukulele-playing, they might have a few useful pointers to share.

College101 Visit more places. You must pick up the vibe on a campus to figure out whether you’d like to spend four years and lots of Mom and Dad’s money there. One cousin visited Georgetown and was turned off. Why? The girls dressed like they were at a fashion show or were stalking husbands, not like they were there to learn. Blue jeans, please, and forget the makeup. For her, Harvard’s holier-than-thou attitude was fatal for it. Another thought Berkeley’s refusal to let her stow her luggage in the visitor center for the tour was a killer sign that it wasn’t all that user-friendly. A much smaller, more indulgent school outside LA couldn’t have been more obliging, by contrast.

 Think broadly. Why limit yourself to a tiny corner of the country you’ve known all your life? The U.S. is a big place and on- and off-campus life, socially and intellectually, in the South, West and East differ. Want to climb mountains and ski on your weekends? Think about Denver or Fort Collins. Want to learn really good manners? Think about Atlanta. Want to hear people talk funny? Think Boston. Why just New Jersey, Delaware or even Pennsylvania? Sidenote to Mom and Dad: It took us a while to accept the idea of our youngest in far-off California, until we realized it was just a plane ride away, just as Massachusetts and New York were for the other two.

 Look at the US News and World Report rankings, but look deeper. Some schools rank high overall but may not be so strong in the discipline that interests you. If you really want to dig into schools, check out the websites for particular departments. Are the faculty distinguished? Indeed, will you ever see the senior faculty or, as often happens, will you be taught by grad students?

Collegemaze Figure out what you want. Visits are crucial. Big urban schools are great for some folks (one cousin went to a small high school, so wanted thousands of classmates.) Smaller, more intimate colleges are better for others (after a big public high school, another cousin craved a small liberal-arts spot). Want Division One athletics? Could be exciting, but how much time do you really want to spend on the field? Unless you are quarterbacking the football team, it won’t be all there is to life in school (one cousin quit the D1 track team she’d pined for when she learned it meant no other after-school activities and not all that much time for schoolwork). Small fish in big pond or vice-versa – what works for you?

 Think about life after class. If you pick a big school, a sorority can make a cold and daunting place more intimate. It can also give you lifelong friends, the chance to learn leadership and offer great academic and social support, not to mention a nice place to live. At a smaller school, the dorms may be just fine.

 If you like the idea of a big place, find one that offers “learning communities.” These groups, which bring together like-minded students to study and sometimes live together, make a sprawling campus smaller. You might find lifelong friends there, too.

Sam, there’s a lot more to picking a place where you’ll spend some important years than just popping in on a few nearby campuses. Would you buy the first blouse you see on a rack? Would you limit yourself to just a few stores in the mall? How about the first CD in the bin? (Oh, I forgot. Nobody does that anymore).

Times do change, of course, Sam. But find out what wrong turns (and right ones) others who’ve been down the road have taken. And, whatever you do, shop around. One last thing — don’t sell yourself short. Pick a range of schools, but make sure to aim high. To mix metaphors (something a good English teacher will mark your down for), cast your net wide. Once you’ve applied to a lot of places, you can still go to the school down the block. It won’t move, but in coming months your hopes may.

Love,
Your uncle.

Academic journals: not The New York Times, but sometimes better

UtS_covSI.inddFor journalism profs who hail from the mainstream media – or the public prints, as they were once known – academic journals seem foreign, a bit intimidating and, maybe, a touch esoteric. If one has written for, say, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Time magazine, small, densely written and heavily footnoted quarterly, biannual or annual pubs with modest audiences seem a world apart.

But I am learning that such journals, like good poetry magazines, can be more fascinating and engaging than pubs that cater to the mass market. Rather like Indie music compared with the mainstream stuff, the world of the academic specialist can be a rich and intriguing place. It’s a welcome alternative to the fluff, panic and tawdry gabble that dominates Big Media.

Consider Utopian Studies, a biannual edited by Nicole Pohl of Oxford Brookes University and produced by folks at the Penn State University Press. Its latest issue includes a piece by Alireza Omid Bakhsh, an assistant professor at the University of Tehran, called “The Virtuous City: The Iranian and Islamic Heritage of Utopianism.” Bakhsh discusses the Shiite Utopian vision of Abu Nasr, who lived approximately from 870-950 and wrote about cosmology, man’s physical and spiritual nature and the structure of society. Who knew? And, if not for Utopian Studies, who outside of Iran would?

But the journal is also modern. Another piece, “The Business of Utopia: Estidama and the Road to the Sustainable City,” by London-based King’s College geography researcher Federico Cugurullo, argues that eco-cities can be bad socially and ecologically. Cugurullo probes current development strategies in Abu Dhabi to make his case.

Still another contribution looks to the past to shed light on the present. “’New Year’s Dream’: A Chinese Anarcho-cosmopolitan Utopia” examines a 1904 story by intellectual Cai Yuanpei that designs a better world. The piece, by UCLA Ph.D. candidate Guangyi Li, analyzes the theme of national and world revolution in the tale to broaden our understanding of utopianism and anarchism. Hear echoes of Mao and the less starry-eyed visions of modern Chinese leaders?

hjmr20.v012.i01.coverUniversity presses and houses such as Routledge produce a bevy of such journals. Academic groups such as the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication produce still others, ranging in their focus from advertising education and electronic news to international communication and magazines and new media research. Such journals can look at their topics with a wide lens or a narrow one, and both can be intriguing.

Consider the Journal of Media and Religion, co-edited by Daniel A. Stout of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and published four times a year by Routledge. A piece in its latest issue is titled “Mapping the Landscape of Digital Petitionary Prayer as Spiritual/Social Support in Mobile, Facebook, and E-mail.” Authors E. James Baesler and Yi-Fan Chen, both of Old Dominion University, examine how people pray, surprisingly, in the three media. Another piece, “Seeing the Light: Mormon Conversion and Deconversion Narratives in Off- and Online Worlds,” probes the online discussions of “questioning and former Mormons,” comparing them with testimonies of the faithful. Author Rosemary Avance is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania who also hangs her hat at the University of Utah as a Mormon studies fellow.

Fascinating stuff.

specializationUnless one is focused on certain specializations, of course, one is unlikely to ever hear of such journals. I learned of the two I’ve mentioned, along with many others, from Signe Boudreau, a delightful reference librarian and associate professor at the University of Nebraska. Signe is helping me plumb the journal world to see where my academic interests might find outlets.

Thanks to Signe, I now have pieces under consideration in both these journals. They spring from my research on a Utopian community of meditators in Fairfield, Iowa. My book on the group, titled “Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa,” is slated for publication next year by the University of Iowa Press.

The work published in such journals sometimes goes mainstream, of course. Making economics journal articles accessible to a mass audience, in fact, was a favorite assignment for me in grad school, thanks to my journalist-turned-economist professor, Ron Krieger. That exercise helped me in writing both at newspapers and magazines. More typically, of course, journal authors wind up quoted as experts on some topic timely enough to make headlines. Savvy journalists, it’s clear, do well to pay attention to this corner of publishing – and they are likely to find it pretty darn intriguing.

Mrs. Thatcher, Simon Warner and me

ThePrimeMinisterThanks to the Prime Minister of England, Simon Warner and I met 33 years ago. Now, because of that PM’s death and the marvels of the Net, we’ve met again – electronically at least. And in that lay an intriguing tale of media, globalization and winding career paths.

Credit Margaret Thatcher first of all. The feisty Conservative lioness, derided or admired as “the Iron Lady,” was running the U.K. when I was lucky enough in 1980 to be chosen for a journalism exchange program created by the English-Speaking Union. Chartered by the Queen, the E-SU promotes friendship among English-speaking peoples and had enough clout to get me into 10 Downing St. to sit with the PM for a while.

Imagine what a thrill this was for a 25-year-old reporter for a little New Jersey paper, The Home News. Mostly, I wrote about small-town mayors and the occasional county official. Now, I would get to interview a sitting PM, one who cut a swath culturally and politically almost as big as that of her buddy, Ronald Reagan. Some loved her, many hated her and I’d get to write about her.

The ways of politicians can be mysterious, of course, so things didn’t turn out quite as I expected.

Simon, right in the photo above, was the first surprise. Someone decided a young American reporter should be paired with a young British reporter for a sit-down with Mrs. Thatcher. That was no problem, of course. We met at 10 Downing St. on the big day, July 14, equally excited about our big interview. Back then, exclusivity wouldn’t matter much, since we worked on different continents.

But then, as we waited in an anteroom, the PM’s PR man delivered the bad news. The London media were in high dudgeon about a couple young journos – one an American! – getting access to Thatcher when she had no time for them. Some reporter even wrote a snarky piece about it (long before anyone heard the word snarky). So, the conversation would have to be off the record. No notebooks, no tape recorders, no interview story.

simon_warner09Weeks of boning up went out the window, but, okay, we’d meet anyway. And we did. We had a fine time, talking mostly about innocuous things, such as her son’s adventures around the world. Mostly, Simon and I listened, unable to get a word in edgewise with the imposing Mrs. Thatcher (not that she needed us to, of course). Simon’s editors, with the help of a local Member of Parliament, later negotiated the chance for him to write about the conversation a bit for his paper, The Chester Observer. I got a piece for my paper out of the visit, but just shared my impressions of the PM and spelled out her successes, failures and fights in office. Happily, we could run the photo of the meeting.

Fast forward to this past week. Touched by Mrs. Thatcher’s death, I tracked down Simon, with just a few clicks on Google (smiling in the head shot to the right here today). He rose through the ranks in journalism, becoming arts editor at a couple regional papers in the 1980s, did media relations in arts and education, and became a live rock reviewer for The Guardian during the 1990s. He earned a master’s in popular music studies, then a Ph.D., and now serves as a Lecturer at Leeds University. He’s a prolific writer, with at least five books about major cultural figures dear to Boomers. These include “Rockspeak: The Language of Rock and Pop,” “Howl for Now: A celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s epic protest poem,” “The Beatles and the Summer of Love,” “New York, New Wave: From Max’s and the Mercer to CBGBs and the Mudd Club,” and his latest, the just-issued “Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture.”

text-and-drugs-and-rock-n-rollThe similarities in our career paths intrigue me. We both wound up working for national pubs and both wound up leaving workaday journalism for the academy. Though I spent my career mostly in business news, we also both have written about popular culture and figures important to fellow Boomers (my book about the legacy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles guru, and his followers’ community in Fairfield, Iowa, is due out early next year). We’re both fans of the Beats (though I mostly left them behind in high school, while Simon has dug deeply into those folks and the long shadow they’ve cast. Gotta love the photo on his latest book cover).

Nowadays, we both also wonder about the future of journalism. Simon emailed me about it: “The media business remains close to my heart but how can print survive? Transatlantically, the great newspaper empires are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Can paywalls work? Can Internet advertising eventually bridge the losses to income that traditional papers, with their shrinking readerships, are suffering? The Guardian, to which I contributed for several years, is attempting to raise its US profile but can that bring dividends? Meanwhile, the middle-market Daily Mail is proving a web hit, of course, overtaking the NYT in terms of visitors!”

Also like me, Simon blogs. He wrote about his media adventures in 2009 in his “Words of Warner.” Interesting read.

So, we’ve enjoyed somewhat parallel lives on different sides of the Atlantic. Their arcs don’t quite reflect that of Lady Thatcher, who lived on a far grander stage, of course. But, at a nice point for all of us, our paths crossed. And now, thanks to the same technology that is upending the media, Simon and I get to say hello again. I plan to buy his latest book, snapping it up as an ebook I can read on my iPad. Small and surprising world, isn’t it?

Kids Say the Darndest Things — Part 2

Art Linkletter would be impressed. My new students in a pair of Reporting I classes this term are lively and inquisitive. Words such as “entertaining” and “surprising” come to mind, too.

A note from one:

“…in the assignments you have a folder called reading assignments, and it says for ‘Aug 30 Bender, Chaps. 3, 4; Math Tools, Foreword, Chaps. 1,2’ so by next class we need to do the [autobiographies] about us, read all of that plus the D&SH and the new york times and the journal start everyday?”

Yup. Welcome to the NFL. (where, I hope, you will also learn to capitalize when appropriate.)

From another:

“… Though my name appears as …. and my sex as female in your records, I go by … and use masculine pronouns (he/him/his). If you have any TAs, could you please alert them of this so that my homework, quizzes, and tests are graded correctly?”

That’s my ‘welcome to the NFL’ for 2012.

And from a third:

“I was wondering if I took some notes over the two chapters if I would be able to use those during the quiz? Just a thought.”

Why, then, dear, would there be a quiz?

Ah, college life. As I enter my fourth year in the classroom, it’s still intriguing and challenging, at times even exhilarating. The students are a blend of enthusiasm and rough edges. Their candor is refreshing; their openness, invigorating. Their naivete, in some cases, is touching.

Most don’t know their places in the world yet. So my job, in part, is to help them find their footing, at least in journalism. Some will make their way in that arena, while others will take our classes as preparation for law, social work, education or whatever floats their boats.

With a Herculean effort of memory, I can understand where most of them are. I was a college sophomore myself once and didn’t know quite where I would fit. The path before me was hazy and intimidating, even if exciting. Life was a roller-coaster of emotions and choices. Schoolwork, sometimes, seemed overwhelming.

I expect to challenge these kids, just as they will test me. Yes, dear, you do need to do all that reading, and lots more. No, I don’t have a problem calling you whatever you’d like me to call you. And, no, you can’t treat every quiz as an open-book affair. Even in the Google era, students must commit some things to memory, must absorb facts and insights from texts.

If I do my job this year, I may help some of these bright-eyed kids clear away the haze that hangs before them. In the end, that’s really what education is about, isn’t it? It’s what makes grading, dealing with bureaucracy and working through the weekends worthwhile.

Should be a good year.

Ying Chan discusses budding Chinese journalists

The Columbia Journalism Review online ran a Q&A I did with Yuen Ying Chan, one of the foremost journalism educators in China. By turns steely and gentle, smart and tough, she was a delight to talk with. It was a privilege meeting her.

After 23 years working in New York City journalism, including a seven-year stint at the New York Daily News that netted her a Polk Award, Yuen Ying Chan returned to her native Hong Kong. There, in 1999, she founded the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, and as its director began turning undergrads and grad students into working journalists through Asia. Soon after that, she turned to mainland China, where she set up the Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication at Shantou University, which now serves some 640 undergrads. Chan spoke about journalism and journalism education in Hong Kong and China with Joseph Weber, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who recently taught in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University, under the auspices of the International Center for Journalists.

One impression I have about China is that students don’t ask, ‘Why?’

It’s rote learning. It’s endemic. They don’t challenge authority. They are taught to listen, to follow. So that’s part of the culture, the system. It’s the worst of Confucianism, plus Communism—the authoritarian respect for authority and not challenging authority. Students in mainland China schools cram in too many courses. They have had top-down teaching—the antithesis of critical thinking—for 12 to 14 years before we get them.

Are schools of journalism on the mainland changing that, by inculcating critical thinking?

In Shantou we do. Students are very outspoken. We were able to host a lesbian activist, Helen Zia, for a week. She’s a civil-rights activist and a former executive editor of Ms. Magazine. We had an open debate on lesbianism, where Zia showed a film about relationships and talked about her own marriage. The room was packed. Shantou is different. We try to teach journalism the way it should be taught.

Which is how?

Which is critical thinking, seeking truth from facts, challenging authority, discipline, good reporting and writing. We do it. It’s not easy.

Do you get official pressure?

It’s not so much official pressure, but more the Chinese bureaucracy. In Shantou we can get away with more. It’s a public university but it’s funded two-thirds by Li Ka-shing [a wealthy Hong Kong businessman]. It’s almost like a privately funded public university.

What about the rest of journalism education on the mainland, in terms of promoting critical inquiry?

It’s very uneven. At Shantou, we have students doing investigative reporting.

What are the limits in investigative reporting?

You can’t talk about Tibet; there’s no exposing the Politburo or their sons’ and daughters’ business interests; no discussion of June 4 [1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre]; no Taiwan; no Xinjiang protests [a 2009 uprising in a region in western China]—those are drop deads. And then you have room to navigate. The space is opened and closed. There are no set rules, but there is a system of censorship in place, and also self-censorship. For instance, the rebellion in the village of Wukan [an anti-corruption protest that began last year] is all over the news in Hong Kong. It’s censored on the mainland but Wukan was all over the weibo, China’s miniblogs. That was despite government efforts to censor. Reporting the Bo scandal has been banned in Chinese papers. But students can climb the so called Great China Firewall to access international websites. I can read students cynical comments in their own weibo. This is a generation of digital natives who are savvy with using information to get the information they want.

I’ve been surprised at how much the China Daily discusses pollution, which is a great embarrassment.

They have to compete for the market. There’s a tension between the market forces and the forces of authoritarianism. But it’s not just China Daily. Environmental stories, such as pollution, are on the official agenda.

What are the differences in your approach in Shantou in mainland China and here in Hong Kong on the issue of censorship?

Most of the students [in Shantou] will work in the [mainland China media] system. If they work in the system, they will have to know the rules and the boundaries. We teach them that they need to equip themselves as much as possible to push the limits. You need to be good. The better you are, the better you can deal with the limits. We try to let them know where there are limits. It’s very challenging. China is in transition. It’s full of good stories and for them to report and write about that, that’s their job. The challenge is to deal with reality, not to succumb to it, and the keep the North Star, the values of journalism. We try to do that.

There seems to be more life left in print here than in the US.

We are facing the same digital transformation. Students have to understand digital. But in a country of 1.3 billion with a long newspaper-reading tradition, even a tiny percentage of newspaper readers can sustain print longer than it can in smaller countries.

What are the prospects for your students?

It’s an exciting time to be in journalism in Asia now. Our students go into internships all over the world. They go into international and local media, Chinese- and English-language. They also get internships in media companies across Asia and around the world. Many internships grow into jobs.

What kind of work do your students do?

They do grassroots reporting on community issues. You know the scandal about overcrowded school buses? They went to do a story on school buses in Shantou. They found a 19-seat bus that was packed with 46 students. It’s on the website. Isn’t that a good story? They did another story on a flood in the city. It speaks a lot about municipal management. They do profiles. They do multimedia. That’s why they are getting jobs.

As for investigative work, when I taught a course on “enterprise reporting” at Shantou, students investigated the e-waste dump nearby that was killing the river in the area. Students worked in teams and do a lot of shoe-leather reporting up and down the polluted water. Their article was published in a leading daily in Beijing. This year, students reported on stories such as the plight of the children of migrant farmers or overloaded schools buses in the area.

Chinese students go into journalism with a lot of idealism ad a strong sense of mission. They want to speak up for people and to fix the problems in society.

Foul mouths and young minds

How offensive is too offensive?

Today, while giving presentations about authors, a student screened a trailer for “The Wire” for all the Reporting I class to see. And hear. And hear, they did. The F word, the N word, even the C word.

The student blanched, as did I. I did my best to tell these 19- and 20-year-olds beforehand, as the video started, that this was likely to be strong, and I remarked afterwards that it certainly was. But, frankly, I was stunned at how vile it was. I hadn’t seen the trailer, though I had seen – and loved – the series on HBO.

Fortunately, the visuals were tame, unlike those in the show. But the effect of the words, repeated frequently, was nearly as potent. Ugly racist terms, ugly sexual terms, ugly sentiments in general. I faced a group of bug-eyed students who didn’t know quite how to react.

David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun journalist who created the show, was trying to reflect real life on the rough streets. How else do cops, drug dealers, politicians and union bosses talk, after all? The language shouldn’t be cleaned up if it’s to be authentic – or at least seem authentic. Can’t fault him for that. And in watching the show, all five seasons, I constantly was struck by how true-to-life he made all those flawed people seem.

But, while I give Simon kudos for “The Wire” and my student praised his real-life book about murder in the city, “Homicide,” that doesn’t mean the language needs to be showcased in a sophomore-level journalism class in Nebraska. There are ways to talk about the talk without listening to the talk.

Am I a prude? Am I naïve about what my young charges hear on a daily basis? Am I too PC?

Coincidentally, in the same class we talked about Bernie Goldberg’s book about political bias in network TV. In one section, Goldberg dismissed a colleague’s preference of the term “Indian” over “Native American” while faulting another for labeling the flat tax idea “wacky” – both items evidence, in Goldberg’s mind at least, of bias and excess political correctness in mainstream media. That led to a good debate in class about whether journalists worry too much about PC language and whether we need to bother with it.

Well, yes, we do need to bother with it, I argued. If African-Americans prefer to be called such, the media need to do so. If Native Americans don’t like a term that Columbus or someone else erroneously bestowed on them, we have to respect that. And there really is no place in a classroom for the N word or really any of the other offensive terms that Simon’s show shouted.

So, I’m donning the hairshirt on this one. I popped an email of apology to my students, even though I had been almost as surprised by the video as they were. It may have been the student’s presentation, but it was my classroom, after all. I’m not going to fault the student, who was just trying to enliven her time in the front of the class. But I sure wouldn’t encourage that sort of video again.

Yes, they’ve all heard worse. Yes, as journalists they will have to develop thick skin on their ears as well as everywhere else. And, yes, I’m from New Jersey, where people can shame Marines even when talking about the weather. But my Nebraska kids don’t have to traffic in the classroom in what my elders used to call foul-mouth talk.

Once, when I was young, I had my mouth cleaned out with soap. At times I can almost still taste it. Now is one of those times.

Mud all around in DePauw journalism case

A friend, Mark Tatge, is in hot water because he showed students how to use the tools of investigative reporting on one of their own, a 19-year-old sophomore busted for drinking. The unsettling case raises questions about the duties journalists have to the truth, journalism teachers have to students and administrators have to teachers.

And like lots of unsettling cases, it’s messy.

Tatge, a former Midwest bureau chief for Forbes and textbook author with a distinguished record in the business, teaches investigative reporting as a visiting professor at DePauw University. To show students how to use public records, he handed out a public records packet about the arrest of a student athlete in January for public intoxication, resisting law enforcement, illegal consumption of alcohol and criminal mischief. According to journalism blogger Jim Romenesko, the 17-page packet included Facebook and Twitter profiles, along with court documents.

Devised as a classroom exercise, the case study has gone far beyond the blackboard. The DePauw student newspaper told the campus about it and blogger Romenesko delivered the news to his national journalism audience. The blog, Inside Higher Ed, has written about it. Needless to say, the student is embarrassed. And her mother lashed out at Tatge in a letter to The DePauw, accusing him of bullying, “wanting to create news,” and not caring whether a student or the school was damaged.

For his part, Tatge is troubled that the university has shown no support for him in this maelstrom. Academic freedom and the principles of journalism are at stake, he and his supporters have suggested.

Plenty of journalists and academics have offered backing in comments on Romenesko, though opinion is hardly unanimous. One critic said it was “totally inappropriate within the context of a student-faculty relationship. How about a little judgment?” A critic faulted Romenesko for printing the details, including running the student’s photo. Inside Higher Ed held off on identifying the student.

I’m reminded of what officials at Tsinghua University in Beijing warned me about the classroom last semester. The classroom, they say, is a public sphere in which anything you say can echo far beyond school, especially in the days of the Net. Therefore, be cautious of what you say there. Avoid sensitive topics, they counseled.

Tatge, I imagine, had no notion that this investigative exercise would have gone any further than the door of his classroom. For his students, it would be a powerful example of using public records in a way that hit close to home, as The DePauw suggested in its coverage. It would have more impact than doing, say, a patent search, he suggested.

Indeed, Tatge may have figured there would be no embarrassment to the young woman, who turned 20 a month after her arrest. She would not have even known about it if some friends in the class hadn’t told her of the discussion. Certainly, Tatge, would not have deliberately sought to put her in the stocks nationwide, to expose her shame far and wide. He just wanted to make a lesson in public documents real and meaningful for the students in his class.

But the questions this case raises are troubling. Should teachers worry, in the age of the Net, that everything we do in a classroom can be showcased to the world? Does that lead to self-censorship, a la China’s? Do we really want to stifle ourselves in the way teachers – and journalists — there must to save their jobs? At home, will administrators back up such faculty when the heat rises? Or will they cave under pressure?

On the other hand, shouldn’t faculty members feel obliged to shield 19-year-olds who do stupid things? Isn’t it the nature of kids to make dumb mistakes that in an earlier, less public, time would have been punished quietly? No teacher would deliberately hold a student up to nationwide scorn. All of us – Tatge included, I’m sure – feel our first duty is to educate students, not humiliate them.

It’s less a legal matter than a moral one. Legally, the student lost her right to anonymity when she was arrested. But does that mean she’s fair game in any classroom on campus? Does a teacher have a moral duty to protect students, even if the law permits exposure? Do teachers need to act more discreetly about their young charges?

At the end of the day, we can only hope everyone involved remembers a few key things. First, the student has to live with the consequences of her alleged mistake. It was she, not Tatge, who brought this grief down on herself. She, her mother and the school administration should keep that in mind. In an earlier generation, mom might have taken the daughter to the woodshed, not turned her wrath on a teacher and the campus newspaper. Indeed, it’s surprising that lawyers haven’t shown up yet.

Second, it was the police, not Tatge, who made the charges public in the first place. Once such charges are lodged, they are out there for all to see. They eventually will be adjudicated, raising still more opportunity for exposure.

Punishing the messenger here will not make the student’s problems any easier. Administrators need to back up teachers when the fault lay elsewhere to begin with.

Still, faculty members are not just journalists, not just messengers. The muddy part here is that teachers have other responsibilities to students – both those in their classrooms and others on campus. That’s a tough line to walk at times. Sadly for all involved, there’s mud all around on this one.