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.

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.

Do you remember when …? No? Join the club

A confession: I’m terrible with names. I can meet people at parties and forget their names in two sips of a gin and tonic. I’ve tried associating qualities with names: Sally is long and tall, Roxanne leaves a red light on, Bruce favors blue jeans and white T shirts. No luck. Faces are fine. Names, a problem.

I suspect I’m hardly alone in this. But, believe me, it’s not a good thing in a journalist. It’s no better in a teacher, who has to contend with as many as 50 new fresh-faced undergrads every semester. Making matters worse, half the kids sport the same long dark hair-dos and rarely wear anything but jeans.

So, it was interesting the other day when a group of us were talking about the tricks of memory. One fellow vividly recalls watching the Beatles debut on Ed Sullivan in a relative’s house, even remembering his position in the TV room. Problem is, his relatives didn’t live in that house at that time. Another friend mentioned how memories can’t be divorced from the words we use to describe them, so they’re shaped – perhaps distorted – by language. For my part, I fretted that I have few memories of my deceased parents’ faces, but instead recall photos of them.

It’s as if we don’t remember things first-hand. Incidents, people and places are all mediated through words or images. As Paul Simon might say, thank God for Kodachrome. It brings us those nice bright colors (or used to).

More peculiar, I think, is that many of us tend to recall bad things more easily than good or, at least, are affected more by nasty recollections. I have clear memories of slights or troubling childhood events and can summon up unpleasant images in a flash. It takes a bit of work to bring up the happy events.

Does this say something about one’s attitude toward life? Is a naturally happier person more likely to live in a world of upbeat memories? My friend, the Beatles fan, is a happy sort and has no trouble summoning up such a happy time, even if it didn’t quite happen that way. By contrast, does the dour person plague himself with bad recollections just to keep some dark guilt-inspired cloud hovering?

Perhaps we can blame the teachers, nuns, priests, rabbis, etc., who tortured us into profound feelings of guilt about our faults. They could take the tiny flaws in our character or behavior and grow them into gaping holes, making them loom large in person and in memory.

Certainly, personality seems to play a role in what we remember. I know several people who’ve grown up in the same houses with the same parents and yet seem to have had very different childhoods. Their recollections vary wildly, as the happy person bubbles over with cheery memories while the dour one only recalls the bleak moments.

As I chew over these things – oddly enough, on Memorial Day — I’m looking at a group of photos my wife and younger daughter have gathered. They’ll be used in an upcoming bridal shower for our older daughter. In one picture, that blonde-haired blue-eyed beauty, not quite of walking age yet, looks intently at a camera, dandled on the knee of a grinning dad with a full head of hair. Can that possibly have happened? Why is that sublime moment, an ordinary one really, lost to time except for a photo?

In another photo, all three kids stand before a fence with the Statue of Liberty far off in the distance. My gosh, were they cute. The youngest, who just beamed at her college graduation, flashed a smile to die for some 17 years ago or so. And can that handsome little guy on the left possibly be a military officer today, all grown up and serving at the moment in a dangerous place?

Lately, I’ve been photographing lots of things, in part because I need to develop a better facility with multimedia techniques. Job requires it. But my younger daughter and I just got back from a trip to the Grand Canyon in which she got pretty irritated at the camera. Why ruin the experience, she asked? Why do we want to take pictures anyway? Why not just enjoy the moment?

These are fair questions. But, graybeard that I am, I argued that pictures are not for showing friends where you’ve gone – nobody does that anymore. No, pictures are the ways we freeze time, which otherwise passes all too quickly. For a 22-year-old, the passage of time is inconsequential. For her father, it’s a different story.

Someday, she’ll dig through all those photos in our basement or troll through image banks on Facebook or its equivalent. She’ll laugh and weep at the memories they’ll conjure up. Will they be accurate memories? Probably not. But will they be true? In their own way, no doubt. Now, about those names, if anyone can recall some good tricks for keeping them in mind for just a semester or so …

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.

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.