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.

Is the Internet making college kids dumber?

Kids say the darndest things, don’t they? Certainly, college kids do on weekly current events and readings quizzes.

You may think, for instance, that the CPI is the Consumer Price Index. And you would be sure of that if you just read it in a text assigned for the day’s class.

But to one of my 28 students in Reporting I, it is the Corporal Payment Index. To another, it’s the Compared Probability Index. To a third, it’s the Current Percentage Index.

One of my favorites, though, is the College Placement Index. Problem is, I’m not sure where the author of that one would place. Still, we must give her and the others points for inventiveness, no?

Indeed, it may be that these kids, mostly freshmen and sophomores, have been getting points for inventiveness for years. They had to make decent grades to get through high school and into a Big Ten university after all. It just appears that their high school teachers didn’t make them work too hard for those grades. Certainly, the kids didn’t learn how to give the text, say, a quick scan before a quiz.

Do I sound exasperated? Well, these kids plan to go into journalism and you wouldn’t know that from the acquaintance some have with current affairs. It’s not just that one of the most common measures of the economy eludes them. It’s that they don’t appear to read the news much, even when they know they will be asked about it each week.

It wasn’t Egypt that defied the U.S., for instance, by saying it would put 19 Americans on trial in an investigation on nonprofits. No. According to one of my students, it was Canada. Canada! For another, it was – stunningly – “Newt.” To a third it was “Obama.” Did they even read the question?

Who is the Palestinian president? Okay, so maybe an answer like “Muhamed” or “Hussein” is conceivable. But “Gadafi?” “Addis Abba?” “Aasad?” “Hafnet?” And, my favorite, “Netanyahu” (courtesy of two students).

Yes, kids in or barely out of their teens may be forgiven for not knowing the names of leaders of places they have no connection to. But not when those names are on the front page of the New York Times a day or two before a quiz drawn from that page. The paper is free on campus, including just two floors down in the J School, not to mention available online. They know where the answers are before walking in every week. They don’t have to look much beyond the headlines.

I should be able to shrug this all off. Chalk it up to high school teachers who themselves may not even read newspapers anymore – it’s a generational thing, isn’t it? These kids have Facebook, YouTube, ESPN and Entertainment Tonight instead of newspapers. And nitty-gritty stuff like the names of national leaders just washes over them.

But because they do have such a wealth of information, they should be the most well-informed generation ever. They have a zillion free news sources on their computers. They have Jon Stewart. They have TV and radio everywhere, including on their computers.

And yet some say Israel blamed “Palestine” or Iraq or Syria (two students) for bombing Israeli personnel in the capitals of India and Georgia. We may be at war with Iran before the year ends and these kids won’t have clue about what led up to it.

It’s as if the information glut has made them dumber. All those warring countries just blend together in some kind of mashup. The kids don’t need to separate it out or know anything because they can Google it. Their heads can remain blissfully empty, undisturbed by the information overload.

Chinese vice president Xi Jinping in Iowa
But what about common sense? Is it sensible to say the vice president and likely future leader of “The Senate” arrived in the U.S. on Tuesday, Feb. 14? How about “Congress?” Or, “Syria?” And could Johnson and Johnson be selling “shoe” implants abroad even after the FDA rejected sales in the U.S.?

With answers like that, can they wind up among the leaders of journalism tomorrow? Sadly, unemployment may be their more likely fate. But they won’t be counted among the ranks of “discouraged” workers. At least four say it is “lazy” workers the government doesn’t count as jobless because they’ve stopped searching.

Yes, I try to put myself back into the head of a 19- or 20-year-old as I work with these kids. All these annoying little things on quizzes, I know, may take a backseat to getting through Spanish or getting into the right sorority or, as is true for many kids, working too many hours a week to study. Maybe fights with girlfriends or boyfriends keep them from focusing on school. Or maybe there are real problems at home that plague them.

But, really now, can the CPI be the Calculated Projected Index, the Central Population Index or the Chief Production Index? No points for inventiveness, I’m sorry to say. Instead, they need to read the papers and crack those books to get through my class. They have their work cut out for them, and so do I.

Smart or sophomoric? BW’s ‘edgy’ cover pushes the envelope

What words come to mind when you look at the image from the latest cover of Bloomberg Businessweek?

For my Reporting 1 students at the University of Nebraska, the words include “amusing,” “comical,” “creative,” “clever,” and “intriguing.” Most of the 30 students in the two sections of the course liked the image and thought it just fine for the book. They would agree with the folks at The Atlantic who suggested it was “edgy.”

The enthusiasts offered other terms, too. “Fun,” “simple,” “funny,” “different,” “unique,” “surprising” and “attention-getting” were among them. Some said it would encourage them to buy the magazine if they saw it on the newsstand – which, of course, is what a cover should do.

“I love this cover,” said one student, who at 23 is a couple years older than most of the others. “If I saw the magazine, I’d grab it. I love the tie-in. It’s definitely an attention-grabber.”

Another concurred, adding a thought about the cover language. “If the title was about a merger, there’s no way I would pick it up. This I would pick up,” she said.

Many found it funny. “It’s fun. I like the design. It’s a mature joke,” she said.

Of course, opinion wasn’t unanimous. A solid minority, including some who found the image entertaining, thought it “inappropriate” for a national business magazine. Some even worried about kids seeing it on the dining-room table or newsstand. Two found it “distasteful.” While saying she found it “slightly inappropriate,” one hurried to add that she was not offended.

And some were just perplexed. “It’s just a couple airplanes,” said one. “Airplanes can’t have sex.” Another said he couldn’t get the image at first, since it looked like a couple planes colliding or flying in tandem. And one, blushing, said the word that came to mind was “sexual,” and she added that the idea was “disconnected.” She asked, “why refer to two plane companies as sexual?”

Classy alternative?
While most students in this sophomore-level class thought the image was a winner, some faculty thought it, well, sophomoric. Echoing the blusher, one sixtysomething prof puzzled over the idea that everything nowadays seems to be cast in sexual terms, especially among folks south of 25 (or, I’d add, south of 40). A longtime newspaper photo editor-turned-teacher argued that manipulating photos just isn’t kosher even if it’s dubbed a photo-illustration (which this wasn’t) because the technology makes the images too believable.

Some, by contrast, thought the image just fine — so long as it suited the target audience. One, who led the art designers at New York Newsday and The New York Times before returning to Nebraska to teach, was reminded of provocative covers Newsday would run to pop off the stands next to the New York Post and the Daily News. And another, a veteran of the New York bureau of the Miami Herald, thought this would, indeed, help the magazine stand out, adding that images of humping animals are not uncommon, so why not?

Outside of school, a friend at National Journal volunteered this (sans capitals, in a Facebook exchange: “it’s funny, it’s original, it makes the point instantly, it’s not actually icky (planes don’t really have sex, people!), and it makes me much more inclined to pick up the magazine than photo of a white dude in a suit or a photo of an airport. sometimes the worthiest stories on the most important topics are really hard to coverize, and i’m sure the writer is glad they found a solution. i wish i had more ideas like this for national journal.”

When I argued that the image might fit The Onion but not BB (or BW, as we veterans prefer), he added that we might see such an image on New York, Slate or The Economist. He might be right about that, since The Economist proved even more edgy, with camels — back in 1994. Of course, that was before the British pub became the force to beat in business magazines and, maybe, had less to lose.

So, gentle reader, what say you? Does an image of jets in flagrante suggest witty, smart, authoritative and sophisticated? Or is it just a ripoff of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show that offers sass instead of style? Does it suggest hip or, rather, desperation to look hip? In the end, do boinging Boeings reflect well on a national business magazine?

China: students think journalism can change the world

Every once in a while, I am knocked flat by the students in China. They ask for more work on top of the piles I already require. They call journalism heroic because it can really change things. Today, one pointed to Upton Sinclair’s masterwork, “The Jungle,” and the development of U.S. food regulation, saying China needs to follow suit. And some know more than I do about America – such as one today who discussed tensions between the First and Fourteenth Amendments to our Constitution.

I’m getting spoiled here.

There are many things to love about teaching in China. I could start with the craving here for my specialty, business and economic journalism. These kids know what matters in the world and they know it’s not sports or entertainment. Every week, 30 motivated students come to class to wrestle with high concepts like comparative advantage and more pedestrian ones such as earnings per share. Each time, they’ve read the several chapters I assigned, as proved by the perfect scores (including answers to extra-credit questions) many get on my quizzes. They ask smart questions that make me think, some sending me to the reference books for answers. They pay attention. They can’t get enough of it all.

I ask them to compare coverage in different publications. Using Power Point presentations graced with artwork – leaves that flutter and drop is my favorite so far – they stand in front of the class and break down stories in such pubs as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, as well as China Daily, and offerings by Reuters and Bloomberg. They discuss quotes (quality and quantity), numbers and levels of sources, variety in viewpoint. They apply every metric you could imagine, from numbers of paragraphs to the use or lack of use of active verbs. They talk about substance and style alike. Their textual analysis skills could humble Ph.D students in literature.

And these students, master’s candidates, do it all with a sense of innocence, earnestness and openness I rarely see in my undergrads at home. Not once have I heard a sarcastic comment. There’s none of the jadedness, boredom with life or cynicism that afflict American post-adolescents. And it’s not that they are naïve: one went undercover as an intern at his newspaper to work for many weeks in the alienating factory environment of Foxconn, a major manufacturer whose mind-numbing workplace culture may have led to a rash of suicides. He got a series of pieces out of it. Others talk of how police have beaten journalists. Still others talk admiringly of instructors whose investigative work has broken new ground in China.

It reminds me of the 1970s idealism that got me into journalism in the first place. Remember those days. We didn’t worry about the Internet. Instead we yearned to imitate Woodward and Bernstein. We weren’t plagued by phone-hacking or the likes of Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass and R. Foster Winans. Instead, we wanted to make a difference, tilting our lances against the dark forces. After journalists helped end the Vietnam War, we thought we could change the world.

Now, these kids are not so naïve as to think they won’t face a tough go if they plan to dislodge corruption in high places. They quote editors who’ve told them journalists must move fast to stay a step ahead of the censors. Indeed, the government periodically comes out with lists of topics that no longer can be written about. Chinese journalists don’t seem to compete with one another so much as they do with their official overseers. Maybe the kids know so much about the First Amendment because they lack such a hallowed (and often threatened) guarantee.

There are many other things to love about the kids here. There’s their candor. Consider this email one sent me the other day:

“Dear sir,
On the reporting for assignment 3, i have rewrite the article based on your suggestions, but as my English is not so good as others, so maybe there are still some mistakes in it. Advices is always welcomed and in fact, the more, the better.
I have learned a lot from your class and your detailed notes gave in our homework. So responsible and patient a teacher you are that i am extremely moved by the wonderful work you have did for us.
We love you, dear teacher.
Thanks and best wishes.”

How many American professors get notes like that? I’ve gotten thank-you notes from good, hard-working Nebraska students, but none have touched me quite so much as that one did. Once, too, the students liked a class so much they applauded at the end. How can a teacher not preen a bit? That kind of thing makes you feel like you are making a difference.

This week, I visited another school in Beijing, the University of International Business & Economics. A group of students and I had a wonderful chat on topics ranging from whether China had become too money-hungry and culture-blind (a politely contentious topic among the students) to discrimination against women in the workplace to concerns over American journalists getting smitten with billionaires and losing their feeling for working-class people. Clearly, they were smart, engaged students.

Nor have I ever felt quite as much like a rock star as I did in Chongqing, a sprawling central China city I visited a few weeks ago. Some 80 students – undergrads – turned out for a talk about business and economic journalism at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law. For nearly two hours, we talked about journalism. They broke into applause when I answered “no” to the question of whether I had ever been pressured by a political official over something I wrote. My journalism school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is setting up exchanges of students with SUPSL and I hope to host up to five in Nebraska in the spring. I can’t wait to see their reactions to life in the U.S.

Finally, there are the personal things. One student who had dug around the Internet found out that I like to run marathons. So last Sunday morning the student and two friends and I set out for a four-mile run around campus. It was the longest distance the kids had ever run and they felt great about it. For my part, I felt great that they did. One pronounced my running outfit “sexy.” It would have been nicer, of course, if that compliment came from one of the girls in the class, but, hey, it’s nice from anyone. Hearing it from a student more than 30 years younger than me is music to aging ears. That’s what happens in China — these kids strike just the right chords.

China: land of contradictions

As we walked to lunch with faculty and a couple administrators the other day, we passed demonstrators holding a sit-in outside the Tsinghua administrative offices. Their placards told of how they wanted more money for the destruction of their homes, which was planned to make way for faculty housing. Our hosts, chagrined by the protest, nonetheless noted that this was an example of free speech. These people, it seemed, had a right to make their grievances known.

It seemed a lot like home. But, then at lunch, we got some friendly advice from a Party official who is a fellow academic. Be mindful of what we say in class, we were counseled. Chinese students, especially those from the countryside, give teachers enormous deference in this Confucian society. Moreover, with social media alive and well in China – through local knockoffs of Facebook and Twitter – anything we say may find an audience well beyond the classroom. Privately, say what you want. Publicly, be discreet. There’s a difference in China between the private and public realms.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. But, what a perplexing country this is. On the one hand, it has embraced so much about the West. Just look at the soaring skylines in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And consider the recurring 10 percent-plus annual growth rates that put the U.S. and the rest of the economically turbulent West to shame. The Chinese are setting the pace for the world.

School of Economics and Management
Their passion for capitalism is obvious. The school of economics and management here is a towering modern compound fronting on the strip of stunning buildings that adorn a stretch near the main gate. Inside one of the several buildings, portraits of Nobel Prize-winning economists make a long line in the lobby – seemingly, all are Americans, including New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. By contrast, the university’s school of Marxism is tucked off in a less impressive quarter of campus, housed in a small, older building. I’ve heard Marxism is regarded as a matter of philosophy, nothing quite so practical as economics and management. Certainly, there’s no doubt who these folks want their students to look up to.

Merit is also prized here, whether in school or in government. To join the Communist Party, our colleague explained, one must be in the top of one’s class academically. The Party is for the elite, those who can lead the country, and getting through the application process is tough and time-consuming. Only about six percent of the 1.3 billion people in the country qualify for Party membership (a surprising share, even if that amounts to 80 million folks).

Indeed, the Party leadership is composed of practical men with impressive academic backgrounds. Some have graduated from Tsinghua, with degrees in subjects such as water engineering. The current president, Hu Jintao, is an alum. The children of some of these men now study at Western institutions such as Harvard. These are bright people who, it seems, take seriously the need to intelligently manage a country where vast numbers still live in poverty a world apart from privileged city-dwellers. They seem to want to spread the wealth and manage the growth of their country well.

And yet, there is a limit to how far western approaches go here. I bumped up against it the other day, when I wanted to shoot some photos at a central athletic field on campus. Large numbers of students paraded about the sprawling field in military uniforms. Military training, a student here told me, is required of all freshmen. Indeed, days earlier I saw similar troops of students marching around campus and singing songs of loyalty to the nation. It was reminiscent of years ago in the U.S., when students had to go through ROTC training on many campuses.

Struck me as interesting. But a fellow in a black athletic outfit thought otherwise. “Delete,” he told me politely — but firmly — as he appeared out of nowhere. This was arguably a public place, and certainly would have been considered so in the U.S. Further, he was not in uniform and didn’t say who he was. But I was in no position to argue. I am, after all, a guest in this country and must behave as one. I certainly don’t wish to offend my hosts, whose graciousness has gone above and beyond.

School of Marxism
Odd thing is, other military events on campus seem to be fair game. For instance, I was able days before to photograph a flag-raising ceremony conducted by young people in front of the main administration building. Chinese people were similarly taking photos. That, it seemed, was acceptable even as the larger parade was not.

So, every once in a while, I expect I’ll run into reminders that the rules are different here. As long as I am a guest, I will comply. Anything else would be ungracious, to say the least.

An American in Beijing

Each morning, I hop on my bike and trundle over to the journalism school at Tsinghua University. The ride takes me a bit over a mile through what may be the prettiest campus in the world. Streets lined with tall trees, dazzling colorful gardens, striking sculpture and stunning modern buildings that loom hard by hovel-like worker quarters and sleek dorms. Depending on the time, I may be joined by hundreds of other cyclists, mostly students rolling along silently to class. For an American, it’s an alternate universe.

Like much that I’ve experienced in my two weeks in China so far, my daily routine here is by turns delightful, intimidating and fascinating. When the sky is blue and the sun shines, little could be more intoxicating. When it’s smoggy and my chest feels heavy in the haze that sits just a few hundred feet away, it’s something else – LA in the fifties an LA native here told me. The tai chi practitioners doing their meditative ballet in a garden spot near a pagoda-like park building are hypnotic. So, too, is the guy playing a Chinese flute in the trees nearby. But spending 90 minutes in a bank trying to make a deposit is anything but charming – and neither is the bank guard striding up and down with a menacing baton (and this is at the center of campus!). And showers when the hot water goes out are, well, bracing.

Then there’s the food. So far, I’ve eaten fish that has stared back at me (mackerel, actually) while avoiding donkey meat and black fungus (a mushroom, I’m told), and I’ve downed lots of odd vegetables (who knew cabbage could be spiced so well that it’s actually good?) For an omnivore, this would be a delight. They put lots of everything in everything, and there have been a few things I’ve downed that I haven’t quite been sure of. For my picky tastes, it’s a challenge – though I have found much pizza, Progresso and Campbell’s soup and the sugariest cereals around at the grocery store. My teeth would not survive a year of this stuff.

It’s an adventure getting around this city of 17 million or so souls. The broad boulevards lined with towering glass-and-steel office buildings and condo complexes here do have red lights at the intersections, but they seem only advisory, especially to the hordes on bikes. It’s a wonder that there aren’t injured cyclists and furious motorists everywhere, since it’s a battle royal everywhere on the crowded roads. Yet somehow the natives are comfortable with it; everywhere, girls sit sidesaddle on specially built seats behind their pedaling boyfriends, How they stay on, looking quite contented, is a mystery to me.

Communicating with people has been surprisingly easy, though. Somehow, the shopkeepers know how much to charge me and I know how much to pay. I know now how to order hot black tea – “hong cha” – and I can understand when they say “here” or “to go.” Pointing works just fine for the pastries at Starbucks, a haunt of expats since it has free Internet and pricey tastes of home. I have even managed in the Subway sandwich shop to get tuna subs with the fixings I like. And moving about town on the real subway here – an ultramodern graffiti-free system – is easy, since it sports lots of English, including in the announcements of stops. The only problem is that the crowds would make a New Yorker feel claustrophobic. And the scents are, well, unusual.

Beijing is cosmopolitan in a way that no other place is, I think. It seems like a city eager to open itself to the world. Lots of expats. Lots of shops, including very pricey ones, that cater to them. Apple is huge here and Adidas has a big shop. There’s a high-rise mall loaded with such places. Grocery stores here stock goods familiar to westerners (though the Wal-Mart here is like no other I’ve seen, with shouting butchers and fishmongers hawking their wares, which are spread out on counters in the multistory store). A honcho with Wal-Mart China, a friendly former U.S. Foreign Service guy I’ve spent a little time with, told me the outfit is designed to serve the local markets and I did have to look elsewhere for food I wanted. Still, there is Pizza Hut (nearly fine dining here, with long queues to get in) and French bakeries.

I am looking forward to getting a better handle on this place, which can be overwhelming at times. My students – probably the most diligent and eager I have ever encountered – will teach me a lot about it. I am keen to see the journalism they produce. And I’m thrilled about the prospect of seeing more of this at-times magical place. Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace – all await me once the students go on a nine-day holiday in early October. Already, students are lining up for precious railroad tickets home. The trains will be jammed and, I hope, I may have the Beijing sights to myself and just a few zillion others.

Eastward ho! China beckons

The Chinese embassy has made it official now. My visa for a semester-long teaching gig at Tsinghua University in Beijing just popped in the front door. So it looks like a year’s preparation will pay off with a nearly four-month stay beginning Sept. 8.

I’m stoked.

The program, organized by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., and backed by my Dean, Gary Kebbel, and the far-sighted folks in the administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is thrilling. I get to teach two classes to budding Chinese journalists, grad students in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua. They are keen to learn about business and economic coverage and about multi-media journalism.

For my part, I get to learn first-hand about the world’s second-biggest economy as it pushes even further into the global limelight. It will prove to be a fascinating, if paradoxical place, I expect. A “developing country” that is nearly 4,000 years old. The U.S.’s biggest creditor and yet a place with one of the lowest per capita incomes on the planet. A planned economy that seems to work, mostly anyway.

The university I’ll teach in is commonly ranked among the top three in the country. China’s current president, Hu Jintao, studied and taught at the 100-year-old school. Its journalism college, however, dates back to just 2002, as this technologically minded university — sometimes called the MIT of China — is still developing its humanities offerings. The ICFJ, led by China hand and former BusinessWeek colleague Joyce Barnathan, has been involved there since just 2007. I’m told the students at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication will include some of the brightest kids in China, the likely leaders in their organizations in the future. I’m hoping they will challenge me as much as I challenge them and that, in my small way, I can make some lasting impact that will affect they way they see – and influence – the world.

It’s a daunting prospect. Will they behave like American students – in good and bad ways? Will they question and argue, for instance (probably not, I’m told, since deference to the teacher is a Chinese cultural trait)? Can I teach them about the cut and thrust of good journalism? Will they understand American-style journalism at all, or have a wholly different notion of the mission of media? Just think about how much some major pubs in China get quoted here as, more or less, the voice of officialdom.

Then there are the personal issues. Will the government particularly care what I have to say in the classroom or on the Net? Will it pay attention in either place? There are so many academic visitors to China from the U.S. nowadays that keeping track could be impossible and pointless for folks in official ranks. The Chinese want what we have to offer, especially in areas such as business and economic journalism. They think it a crucial skill as their business communities grow and globalize, and they’re right about that.

I’m going, however, as much as a student as I am a teacher. I’ve always felt that missionaries were fundamentally arrogant, assuming that they were bringing the truth to the ignorant masses. I’m a bit contemptuous – though usually more amused — when they knock at my door. So I’ll pack a sense of humility along with my syllabi. Yes, I can teach my young charges some useful skills – just as I do back home in Nebraska – but I expect I’ll learn far more from them and their country. China, after all, does have a few years on us in the U.S. as a civilization.

I plan to keep a blog of my experiences. This opportunity will vastly enrich me as a teacher, not to mention how much it could broaden my worldview. The three-week trip colleague Bruce Thorson and I took to Kazakhstan with eight students last year was good preparation. It gave me a sense of how people in a developing place look on us in the West, and on how they look on life in general. I expect to get more than a glimmer of that in the coming semester and look forward to sharing that both here and in classes to come.

Stay tuned. Should be one heckuva trip.

Driven to distraction in the academy

Here are a few surprising things about life in the academy. Grading is nearly a fulltime job, distraction is the steady state of things, and knowing whether your students have learned anything is a lot easier than proving it.

On the first point, there’s never enough time during the work week to do a good job of grading and critiquing student work. Now I know why elementary-school teachers spend good chunks of their weekends cozying up to student papers.

It’s a matter of adjusting your calendar. I’ve taken to giving my kids deadlines at 5 p.m. on Fridays. That way I figure I may get their work back to them in timely fashion. I’m not whining about this (though it taxes my wife’s patience). But few folks outside the academy understand this. All they see are summers off and a few lectures a week. Would that it were only so!

Grading, by the way, may be the most challenging part of the job. In journalism instruction this amounts to editing a lot of stories every week. That means finding holes, looking for the great quotes, checking for the sound structure, the seductive lede, solid nut graf, good kicker, etc., even as you suggest — but avoid dictating — rewrites. By comparison, my editing buds at Bloomberg Businessweek work intensely on two or three pieces a week – including takeouts – which now sounds like a day at the beach.

Many of the papers, moreover, are the work of, um, loving little hands that have a long way to go. They’re novices and that’s why they’re in school. Our job is to be tough but encouraging, which is a challenging balancing act. I had to give a 22 to a piece the other day and offer a detailed criticism to explain the poor grade. But will that student come back with something better or shrug it off as a blown assignment? So far, on her first rewrite, she’s done mostly the latter. That led to me kicking the piece back to her and suggesting she take a closer look at all those margin notes I made. We’ll see how it turns out soon.

Taking a hard line with students isn’t easy. Some of my colleagues make Marine drill sergeants look like pushovers. One started a basic reporting class this semester with a full classroom of students and is down to nine. The kids who couldn’t handle the tough grading washed out; they must hope they’ll take the class again with someone they expect will go easier or they’re just leaving journalism. Another colleague who has taught for a couple decades can count those he failed on one hand with several fingers to spare. The Gentleman’s C was a saving grace for many, I suspect.

I figure there’s got to be a middle-ground, a golden mean. Sure, most of our kids aren’t ready yet to handle the growling city editors and magazine section editors I ran across. And some never will be. But I figure part of my job is to make them ready for that. And I don’t have to be an SOB to get them ready for SOBs. I just have to point out the flaws in their work and grade them accordingly, showing them how to make fixes. They’ll learn whether journalism is for them even without a high washout rate, I figure.

Indeed, some of the work that the kids do can make your day. I live for those moments when a piece comes in that almost ready for prime time. One fellow this week did a story comparing drinking-related crime in Lincoln with other places, quoting the local police chief and making it all timely by talking about a recent expansion of the drinking day to 2 a.m., an hour more than before. Good stats, disturbing records of car accidents with booze involved. The piece is solid.

Other students have done pieces that surprise and delight. One looked into a Northwestern University study that showed that religious people tend toward obesity. She looked at local churches and how they’re trying to foster fitness among their members. Another student looked at a new gender gap, the imbalance between women and men in high school graduation rates and college attendance (57% girls on campus nationally and in Nebraska). Such intriguing efforts can make grading far more palatable, even on weekends.

Part of the reason there are not enough hours in the work week for the grade book is that every day is a laundry list of distractions. Some days, this is great. It reminds me of John Lennon’s line from “Beautiful Boy” that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. There are, for instance, the kids who walk in to talk about their schoolwork (a pause that refreshes because it’s fun to help them iron out assignments and ideas). Our policy at Nebraska’s J School is no set office hours, but an open door whenever we’re not in class. That can mean many surprise visits.

Then there’s email, that modern scourge. The damn computer delivers something else to deal with every few minutes, it seems. And each note requires a prompt response, of course. I do respond quickly to the dean’s notes, I must say. My wife and kids, too, get priority. For others, it’s a challenge.

It reminds me of a high school history teacher who taught us time-management long before Day-Timers made a bundle on the concept. Make a to-do list early in the week, update it often and hope you’ll have checks next to most items by week’s end. Works pretty well, though mine seems to expand every day. I have found that I can’t abide unchecked items, which means a good many-mile run each morning to work off the self-imposed pressure. I hope my kids do something similar and figure the ones who meet deadlines must be doing so.

Finally, there’s another area of academics that is a real challenge. It’s the proof of success. “Assessment,” a term of little endearment, isn’t easy.

Let me spell that out. Take my biz-econ journalism students, for instance. I know they are learning something. They knew nothing about publicly traded companies, earnings, Form 10Ks and 10Qs, etc. They couldn’t write about a company’s quarterly results before spending a couple weeks on the topic (indeed, developing a grasp of income statements, balance sheets, stock market performances, etc.) Hell, they didn’t know the difference between Nasdaq and the NYSE, or the many different animals in the stock and commodities exchange worlds, before we dealt with all that. It’s clear they’ve learned something.

But how much did they learn? What will they take away? How can I prove to outsiders, especially tenure-review committee members, that the kids have moved from Point A to Point B? Even defining those points, as well as measuring the gap between them, is a challenge. Lots of documents. Lots of rubrics and graphs.

Fortunately, at Nebraska some of us have help. A group of us – mostly tenure-track newbies – are working on a peer-teaching experience this semester that is aimed at getting at such answers. We met on Saturday this weekend (no time during the work week for such things) to draft a preliminary version of a statement aimed at measuring our progress.

I picked three students – one star, one middler and one challenged student. I monitor their progress via reporting and writing assignments and tests. Will it become clear that these kids have grown between January and May? Don’t know. Certainly, they’ve learned something, but quantifying and demonstrating their achievement isn’t as simple as recording how they’ve done on an end-of-term test – it doesn’t work that way in journalism or other writing fields.

For folks in the teaching game for most of their careers, a lot of this is workaday stuff. It’s routine. For me, it’s all new. I’d like to think I’m doing A work. But between the grading challenges, the many distractions and the challenge of measuring it all, it’s damn hard to prove that. There are many days when it makes running a national correspondent system for a magazine look easy.

Few straight lines in life or work

Career choices used to be simple. Go to school to be, say, a doctor, lawyer or reporter. Get your degree, apprentice as an intern, an associate or a budding Jimmy Olsen, and then ply your trade. In medicine or law you would make a lot of money and learn golf for when you retired at 55. But for growing numbers of us life rarely moves from point A to B anymore. Instead, we follow a long and winding road with some fascinating forks.

Consider Lynde McCormick, a colleague at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver in the 1980s. While working as a business reporter, Lynde wielded a deft touch with words. He had a sharp eye for big, broad stories and wrote weekly takeouts for a supplement we called Business Tuesday, doing packages the rest of us all wanted to do. Later, he rose to business editor, where — among other things — he waged war on adverbs. If it ended in an “ly,” he’d say, kill it. A Californian, he also had a weakness for fast cars and from time to time turned his hand to new car reviews.

Lynde’s career has taken some stunning turns since then. He left the Rocky for the bright lights at a TV channel the Christian Science Monitor experimented with and then joined Monitor Radio. An adventurer, he landed a job with CNBC in Hong Kong, a spot he loved. When CNBC pulled the plug in ’96 on its Hong Kong operation and merged with Dow Jones TV in Singapore, Lynde says, he moved back to Boston to serve as business editor at the Monitor’s newspaper. Meantime, his equally adventurous wife, Andrea, started a company that imported Chinese antique furniture.

Then things got interesting. After a couple of years, he joined her business. The pair drove around the country, towing a trailer and doing antiques shows, as many as three each month. Eight years ago, they opened a gallery in Manhattan, The Han Horse on Lexington Avenue, to market furniture from the late Qing Dynasty (1700-1900) and pottery artifacts from as long ago as 206 BC. They continue to run it, even though the antiques business has been a tough go in recent years.

By something of a back door, the McCormicks also got into the restaurant business. They backed a friend who opened a spot in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn and wound up running it when he ran into personal problems. The Brooklyn Label serves espresso drinks that Lynde says are “amazingly good.” It’s gotten some good notices from, for instance, New York Magazine.

As his career has unfolded, Lynde’s reporting skills have come in handy. “I have constantly tried to gather as much information as possible, going to expert sources, listening to what they had to say, and then using the parts that made sense for our restaurant,” he says. “It’s a lot like writing a story – you gather the best information possible and then use your own judgment and intelligence to figure out how to use it.”

He also has developed a good sense of marketing and customer service — which might be helpful for journalists. “With both businesses, our philosophy has been that when someone walks through the door, the goal is not to sell them something but to make them want to come back,” Lynde says. “The result is that people, generally, like us… which has a lot to do with why we are still in business.”

Today, the Rocky is no more, a victim of the Internet and the great newspaper consolidation wave. The Monitor serves up its news coverage mostly online, a route many news outfits may wind up taking. And CNBC soldiers on. But the skills Lynde mastered at such places are helping him in ways he likely never imagined. I expect he has few regrets for the time he spent learning them.

For many journalists and journalism students, the road won’t be straight. But the views can make it damn interesting.

Student journalism — not just for laughs

Some 38 years ago, Jim Vallely was a New Jersey college student who had a knack for humor and a nice touch with a pen, but he wasn’t sure how to put the two together. Nourishing what he recalls as “a very faint ambition” to become a writer, he’d hang about the school newspaper office. Once, we published a piece he did called “Suicide note from a dog.”

Sadly, the piece seems lost to history. That’s sad because Jim, left in the photo, today is a prolific comedy writer in L.A. His credits are stunning: writer and co-executive producer of Emmy Award-winning Arrested Development, exec producer on Running Wilde, consulting producer on ‘Til Death, as well as various producing spots on The Geena Davis Show, The John Larroquette Show and The Golden Girls.

Jim is a big deal in the world of writing and production.

And this weekend he sent me a touching note crediting the launch of his stellar career to our paper and the piece about the dog. “I was published!, and I decided then and there to pursue comedy writing,” he wrote.

School newspapers can make a huge difference in people’s lives. That’s obvious for future journalists – as employers tell us when they’re considering intern candidates. Outfits ranging from local papers to the likes of Bloomberg put such experience at the top of their list. They want to see the clips. They know there’s nothing like getting out, covering things and having to put your work out – on deadline and with an editor’s oversight — for the world to see.

But school papers also matter whether journalism is in your future or not. Writing, editing, getting a platform for commenting on the world is invaluable for anyone who plans to do anything involving pecking at a keyboard. It teaches you how to look carefully, think critically, organize your thoughts and subject them to the cut and thrust of public debate. Such skills are central to law, politics, teaching, business – really just about anything professional. It’s just also a hell of a lot of fun.

Jim went on to do standup work in New York in the 1980s. That, I’m sure, was his crucible. He honed his craft in a lot of tough rooms. He then found his way to L.A., where he’s been writing for TV for the last 25 years.

Thanks to the wonder of the Net, he tracked me down and wrote to remember our time as fresh-faced undergrads. We had spent a lot of time talking about writing, trying to figure out where our dreams would lead us. He recalls my urging him to specialize in something. “I asked you, ‘you mean, like humor …’ and you said yes,” Jim wrote. Thus, the dog piece.

Jim went on to specialize – in spades. He figured out what fit him and pursued it, despite, I’m sure, huge challenges. His gambles and his stick-to-it-iveness paid off.

But a school newspaper did mark a big turning point in the road for him. Students who don’t make room in their crowded college lives for it may never know what opportunities they are giving up. Think about that the next time you see a hilarious, award-winning show. Look, too, for Jim Vallely’s credit.