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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Pistol-packing teachers: now that’s an idea

When a Nebraska state legislator introduced a bill the other day that would open the way for teachers and administrators in schools in the state, including universities, to carry concealed guns, I’m not sure he fully appreciated how visionary the measure really was. It is, without doubt, one of the most far-sighted, politically astute and economically savvy pieces of legislation ever to be floated in Lincoln, Neb.

This bill, sure to be resisted by those blinkered pantywaists in Omaha and the university community in Lincoln, could transform the state’s economy and put Nebraska on the global map. It ought to be cheered from the Iowa border to Colorado. Let’s examine the implications.

First, school districts and the university are straining under budget pressures these days. If teachers and administrators could tuck Glocks under their vests, legions of security guards could be let go. Indeed, the campus police force at UNL and every other university campus in the state could be disbanded. When every academic is packing, criminals are sure to stay out of the classrooms, dormitories and poorly lit passageways traversed by coeds late at night. Think of the massive and instantaneous budget impact. Billion-dollar state budget shortfall? Gone in a flash of gunpowder!

Consider, too, the intellectual and financial benefits. If freshly armed professors chose to settle their disputes like men, instead of in those insufferably genteel discussions at faculty meetings, we’d have a lot fewer faculty members after a while. Odds are, too, that the survivors would be the brainier right-thinking types. Many of the rest are probably tenured, so this move would deal with that problem nicely, too. We’d save a bundle on inflated salaries and wind up with quick-thinking profs who have their heads on screwed on properly.

Sure, there could be some minor problems. Teachers drawing down on one another outside crowded classrooms or in faculty dining areas might be a bit disruptive, at times messy. But students adapt to just about anything and we do have janitors for a reason. Let’s not let such small issues hobble us.

Politically, moreover, this is a brilliant move. A bill like this forces legislators to put their convictions out on display for everyone to see. Not sure if your legislator is a Second Amendment champion? This’ll out him. And this way, we could rid ourselves of the overeducated urbanites who hide behind those wrong-headed complaints about gun violence and crime. You know, many of them are following secret agendas inspired by Moscow and Beijing to disarm Americans anyway. This bill will eventually force them out as voters see their true colors.

The measure is also an economic stroke of genius. When Nebraska becomes a place where real Americans can stride around with holsters heavy and hearts full, more Americans will want to visit. Eventually, many will move here. Our kind of people will desert those decadent and dangerous cities on the coasts and flock to the rolling prairie, where they can fire at will at anything that disturbs them. Our population will swell, first with tourists and then with permanent newcomers.

Don’t underestimate those tourists, either. This is Nebraska, after all – a place where six-shooters on both hips were once commonplace. With no trouble at all, we could recreate the glory days of the Nebraska Territory. People would wander the streets even in places like Lincoln looking for low-down varmints to eradicate. Our bars could reinstall those nifty swinging panels on their front doors. Men could play poker, curse, drink and spit a lot while busty women saunter around in fluffy skirts. Think of the possibilities of evoking a time when real freedom existed in the state and our country, when we didn’t rely on slick lawyers and worry about Miranda Rights and such.

What, you say, this is supposed to be the 21st Century? Gunfights have gone the way of player pianos.  Now, we have laws and police and courts and such. Poppycock. It’s weaponry we all need. The bad guys are packing, after all, and the only way for decent folk to counter that is to carry even bigger guns. Let’s hope our legislators don’t stop at concealed handguns, but let us have assault weapons in our elementary, high schools and colleges. With any luck, someone clever on campus could develop a concealable bazooka – why are we paying those academics anyway, if not to come up with nifty new things? Indeed, Nebraska could become a Silicon Valley for weapons-makers.

But, really, what we should hope for is the ability to drive tanks to campus. Legalize armored personnel carriers and you’ll really scare off the bad element. They would also guarantee all of us right-thinking folks good parking spaces.

This bill, put forward in the wake of a tragic high school shooting by a mentally troubled student, is certainly evidence that some legislative leaders in the state have been bred and reared right – isn’t it? Then again, it could be a sign of maybe a little too much inbreeding in somebody’s family.

Making business journalism sexy (almost)

Looking for ways to make business journalism come alive for students? How about creating scavenger hunts for juicy tidbits in corporate government filings? What about mock press conferences that play PR and journalism students against one another? Then there are some sure bets – awarding $50 gift cards to local bars for mock stock-portfolio performances and showing students how to find the homes and salaries of university officials and other professors – including yourself — on the Net.

These were among the ideas savvy veteran instructors offered at the Business Journalism Professors Seminar last week at Arizona State University. The program, offered by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, brought together as fellows 15 profs from such universities as Columbia, Kansas State, Duquesne and Troy, as well as a couple schools in Beijing, the Central University of Finance & Economics and the University of International Business and Economics. I was privileged to be among those talented folks for the week.

We bandied about ideas for getting 20-year-olds (as well as fellow faculty and deans) excited about business journalism in the first place. The main answer was, of course, jobs. If they’d like good careers in journalism that pay well, offer lots of room to grow and that can be as challenging at age 45 as at 20, there really are few spots in the field to match. These days, with so much contraction in the field, business and economic coverage is one of the few bright spots, with opportunity rich at places such as Reuters, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones and the many Net places popping up.

The key, of course, is to persuade kids crazy for sports and entertainment that biz-econ coverage can be fun. The challenge is that many of them likely have never picked up the Wall Street Journal or done more than pass over the local rag’s biz page. The best counsel, offered by folks such as UNC Prof. Chris Roush, Ohio University’s Mark W. Tatge, Washington & Lee’s Pamela K. Luecke and Reynolds Center president Andrew Leckey, was to make the classes engaging, involve students through smart classroom techniques and thus build a following. Some folks, such as the University of Kansas’ James K. Gentry, even suggest sneaking economics and (shudder) math in by building in novel exercises with balance sheets and income statements.

Once you have the kids, these folks offered some cool ideas for keeping their interest:

— discuss stories on people the students can relate to, such as the recent Time cover on Mark Zuckerberg or the May 2003 piece in Fortune on Sheryl Crow and Steve Jobs, and make sure to flash them on the screen (at the risk of offending the more conservative kids, I might add the seminude photo BW ran of Richard Branson in 1998)

— scavenger hunts. Find nuggets of intriguing stuff in 10Ks or quarterly filings by local companies or familiar outfits such as Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, Buffalo Wild Wings, Hot Topic, The Buckle, Kellogg, etc., and craft a quiz of 20 or so questions to which the students must find the answers

— run contests in class to see who can guess a forthcoming unemployment rate, corporate quarterly EPS figure or inflation rate

— compare a local CEO’s pay with that of university professors, presidents or coaches, using proxy statements and Guidestar filings to find figures

— conduct field trips to local brokerage firm offices, businesses or, if possible, Fed facilities

— have student invest in mock stock portfolios and present a valuable prize at the end, such as a gift certificate or a subscription to The Economist (a bar gift card might be a bit more exciting to undergrads, I’d wager)

— follow economists’ blogs, such as Marginal Revolution and Economists Do It With Models, and get discussions going about opposing viewpoints

— turn students onto sites such as businessjournalism.org, Talking Biz News, and the College Business Journalism Consortium

— have students interview regular working people about their lives on the job

— discuss ethical problems that concern business reporters, using transgressors such as R. Foster Winans as examples. Other topics for ethical discussions might include questions about taking a thank-you bouquet of flowers from a CEO or traveling on company-paid trips, as well dating sources or questions about who pays for lunch

— discuss business journalism celebs, such as Lou Dobbs and Dan Dorfman

— discuss scandals such as the Chiquita International scandal (Cincinnati Enquirer paid $10 m and fired a reporter after he used stolen voicemails)

— use films such as “The Insider,” “Wall Street,” and “Social Network” to discuss business issues

— use short clips from various films to foster discussions of how businesses operate. Good example: “The Corporation”

— team up with PR instructors to stage a mock news conference competition pitting company execs in a crisis against journalism students. Great opportunity for both sides to strut their stuff.

We also heard helpful suggestions from employers, particularly Jodi Schneider of Bloomberg News and Ilana Lowery of the Phoenix Business Journal, along with handy ideas from Leckey and Reynolds executive director Linda Austin, a former business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. My biggest takeaway: run some mock job interviews with students and teach them to send handwritten thank-you notes.

And we were treated to some smart presentations by journalists Diana B. Henriques of the New York Times about the art of investigative work (look for her new Madoff book), the University of Nevada’s Alan Deutschman about the peculiar psychologies of CEOs (narcissists and psychopaths are not uncommon), the University of Missouri’s Randall Smith’s view of the future for business journalists (it’s raining everywhere but less on business areas). We got some fresh takes on computer-aided reporting, too, by Steve Doig of the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as on social media by the Reynolds Center’s Robin J. Phillips.

For anyone interested in journalism, especially biz journalism, it was a great week. As I take the lessons from ASU to heart, my students will be better off. My thanks to the folks there.

There, there, dear: do tears belong in the classroom?

In “A League of Their Own,” that wonderful 1992 film, a young woman player makes a dunderheaded toss and breaks into tears as coach Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) yells at her. “Are you crying?,” he asks, stunned. “There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!”

Boy, can I feel for Dugan. So far, I’ve had to deal with four incidents of tears in school. One time, I believe, the bad toss was mine. In the other cases, well, I’d point to hormones, undergrads facing job-like pressure for the first time or sheltered young women beginning to discover the world isn’t such a kindly place.

Still, I felt as flummoxed as Dugan did. Making girls cry is something only a true jerk would ever feel good about. This is so, even though a wiser colleague at Nebraska, veteran teacher and hard-boiled journalist Kathy Christensen, tells me tears come automatically with breasts. She shrugs them off.

Just under three semesters into my academic career, I don’t find the waterworks easy to dismiss. But, dear reader, you be the judge. Let me know if I blew it or could have handled these situations better:

Case No. 1 – I encourage an outstanding magazine-writing student to pursue an internship with Bloomberg Businessweek, my old employer. Before Bloomberg bought it, the mag had a tradition of taking on bright young interns, most of whom had no business training but who had lots of smarts. A colleague at the mag looks over her materials and says she’d be a wonderful recruit and he could use her skills in projects on business schools; he recommends her, as do I.

But, in myriad ways big and small, BW has changed. Bloomberg has her take a three-hour online test, parts of which are heavy on business knowledge (of which she has none, as everyone involved knows). She fails badly and folks there tell her she’s not a candidate. She comes into my office, crushed and weeping.

So I feel like a heel. I put her into a bad spot, after all, and she suffers for it. It also doesn’t help my credibility with the new BW regime.

Was I wrong? If students are willing to take a test and do badly, is it my fault? I warned her there would be business material on the test, even reviewed some general things with her. But I didn’t realize how much the game had changed. Seems to me I blew it. Did I?

Case No. 2 – As is my normal practice, I flash a student’s paper on the screen from a classroom projector. As a class, we criticize the work. I point out the positives and negatives of the piece, and suggest ways it could be improved. It’s pretty benign and no different from other critiques. We’ve had many such critiques that day. The class doesn’t say much one way or the other about it.

The student waits a bit after the lights come up, but then mutters to me, “you gave me a terrible grade on the paper, then humiliated me in front of everyone. I’m done. That’s it.” And she storms out, furious and in tears.

Her grade, a C+, was not on the screen, though her name was (regular practice in these editing and review sessions). Also, while rushing out, she informs me she will drop another class with me that she had signed up for the following semester and, later, she tops it all of by giving me a scathing evaluation at the end of the course.

Is it wrong to criticize students’ work publicly? The class involved peer-editing, so students criticized one another’s work in every assignment. And, in journalism don’t we face critics every time a reader opens a paper and curses about something he or she reads? In the end, I don’t fault myself for this one, but the drama did throw me.

Case No. 3 – A student has promised a colleague that she would deliver a finished video about a trip the colleague and I took with eight students to Kazakhstan in May. The students are no longer in our classes; some have even graduated, so we have no real sway over them.

The due-date comes and she hasn’t got the goods, but has several legit-sounding reasons. The colleague and I bemoan the fact that several students are behind – a hassle he has had in prior classes – and he gets a bit hot about the general problem. It’s a big thorn in the side for him.

The student, a smart and delightful videographer, breaks into tears. She then begins to apologize, explaining that it’s the time of the month for her (she really said that), she’s got problems with moving to a new city and she’s been working and traveling nonstop for weeks. My heart, frankly, goes out to her. I say, it’s not you that’s the problem here; it’s the general issue of how we can get students to comply with deadlines. I’m sure you will get your work done (which eventually she does, at least most of her work).

When I complain to my colleague later that we shouldn’t be making girls cry, he says, “They make themselves cry.” It’s not his problem, but theirs, he suggests.

So, was she being manipulative? Were we right to rant? Is a deadline a deadline?

Case No. 4 – A top student interviews with an internship recruiter. She says a couple silly things – including asking whether she needs to tell her soccer league that she can’t referee for a week during the internship – and strikes a tone the recruiter says is arrogant. In fact, he tells me afterward that he’s written “humility?” several times on his notes about her.

She comes by and I tell her I’m going to give her some no-holds-barred criticism about her interview. It won’t help her, I say, if I mince words, so I don’t. I tell her precisely what the interviewer had told me, and advise that appearing arrogant cannot help in such settings. You’ve got to seem humble, even it’s just for appearances. She breaks into tears, denies arrogance and says she was not asking for a week off for soccer. He misunderstood, she says, pleadingly.

This is one where tough-love was warranted, I believe. Still, the waterworks were troublesome. My own self-criticism: do mock interviews with students first from now on, giving them pointers that can spare them from making such mistakes. (By the way, she got the internship).

So dear reader, what say you? Are tears something teachers should slough off? Is it better that our kids shed them before they get into the workplace, where the consequences of mistakes can be far uglier? And how would you advise someone, still mystified by the half-adult psyches of undergrads, to deal with them? I’m thinking maybe I’ll just tell the kids that there is still no crying in baseball.