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.

Will the Net Save Books?

BookshelfArtSo, the Net is supposed to be fatal for books, right? Why plow through a couple hundred dead-tree remnants when you can just watch a 1:15 video? And, if you want to wade through a lot of prose, can’t you do that online through Nook, Kindle, etc., even if such outfits kill profit margins for publishers and savage bookstores?

Well, such questions seem reasonable nowadays. But, as a first-time author I’m discovering how the Net also opens the world – literally, the world – to writers and publishers to develop audiences for their work. No longer is book marketing a matter of running around the country and lecturing or just reaching out to reviewers. It’s a far, far better thing than that.

UnknownOccasionally, I Google my book title – “Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa.” It’s amazing what comes up. The book doesn’t come out until May, but already Amazon and online retailers all over the globe list it.

Folks in New Zealand, for instance, can pre-order on fishpond. And fans of Albany Books Ltd., “your neighbourhood bookstore” in Delta, British Columbia, Canada, can find a listing on the outlet’s site. So, too, can Canadians in London, Ontario, by checking out the Creation Bookstore site. Amazon sites in the U.S., U.K. and India are carrying it, as well.

Others round the globe are on the bandwagon. Angus & Robertson, a “Proudly Australian” site, intrigues me, as do Landmark Ltd. an Indian site, and Loot Online in Tokai, South Africa. Then there’s Waterstones in the U.K.

And some sites are segmented by market, with intriguingly different prices. eCampus will let folks buy or rent the book ($15.30 to buy, $14.40 to rent, so you make the call on the difference). Another college-oriented site, knetbooks, rents it for $14.26 if you return it by June 20 (slightly higher if you keep it til the end of July). FreshmanExperience retails it for $15.30. Amazon carries it for $13.71, marked down from the $18 jacket price. (One suspects all these prices will bounce around over time.)

AnaLouise Keating
AnaLouise Keating
But it’s not just retailers who have discovered the book. AnaLouise Keating, a professor at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, tweeted about it in early March, linking to a review she posted on goodreads, where she gave it five of five stars. Her review: “”Iowa” and “New Age”…the terms can seem like quite a juxtaposition, and Weber provides an interesting, useful discussion. Definitely worth reading.” (Thank you, Dr. Keating!)

Back in January, the book made a splash at Before It’s News, a blog by “a community of individuals who report on what’s going on around them, from all around the world.” The folks there listed it as one of 35 noteworthy new books. Hey, I’m not complaining.

UIPAnd bloggers with special interests in the area are plugging it. Evolutionary_Mystic Post runs a long description of the book and (now I’m blushing) of me. Looks like the material came from the University of Iowa folks, to whom I am much indebted, as well as from my bio material on our university site.

The folks in Iowa, no doubt, get the credit for loosing this stuff on the world. I must especially thank editors Catherine Cocks and William Friedricks, Managing Editor Charlotte Wright and Marketing Manager Allison Means. But I’ve been doing my part, too, as they counseled. I’ve developed my own website for the book, at transcendentalmeditationinamerica.com, as well as a Facebook site. The FB site is a handy spot to post newsy things that pop up around the topic, such as a recent riot among Indian meditators whom the TM Movement brings to Iowa to meditate for world peace. (Interesting irony there).

So, there will be lectures and book-signings and the traditional stuff. But, thanks to the Net, there’s so much more. Will the Net kill books? Not on this evidence.

Eastward ho! China beckons

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

I’m stoked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned. Should be one heckuva trip.

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 …

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.

Kazakhstan: Divine Thoughts

Religion seems to be a modest affair here in Kazakhstan, tolerated if not exactly encouraged. Almaty features a stunning Russian Orthodox Church, interestingly located in the heart of a park dedicated to World War II soldiers. The park, filled with oversized monuments including an eternal flame, seems very Soviet in style. And so, it’s perhaps fitting that the Russian Orthodox Church is there. It’s as if it’s making a statement about the centrality of all things Russian, whether in history or culture.

It was intriguing to spend some time in the church yesterday. Women, and a few men, would come into the ornate church, kiss icons, light candles and make elaborate signs of the cross on themselves. Most of the visitors were older folks, most looking more Russian than Kazakh. I suppose they were praying for relatives and friends and they found something helpful in visiting the icon-filled space. Perhaps the bevy of images of saints and of Jesus and the place’s general solemnity was comforting. Most seemed in need of something, an understandable thing, of course.

The other day, a group of us visited a mosque not far from the church. It was quite different. For one thing, we saw only one woman in the place and she wasn’t praying. Men, instead, were the supplicants and many were fairly young. There were no icons, only a wall with elaborate swirls and writing at the front. There were no chairs, only carpet for prayer (silent, but an active affair, with much standing, kneeling and prostrating). Sarah Tenorio, who took the photo below, and Elizabeth Gamez were allowed in and, as a mark of liberality here, were not required to cover their hair. We later learned that the mosque was built since Kazakhstan declared independence from Russia.

And today a few of the students are visiting the Mormon church services here. This place is far more low-key, based in the bottom floor of a nondescript apartment tower block far from downtown. There are few signs even noting its existence and, true to Mormon style, no crucifixes (they prefer to focus on the risen Christ, I was told by one of the missionaries there). The group, about 130 or so folks including a number of young Americans who incongruously call themselves “elder” or “sister,” is keen to sign up more members here.

We’ve been told that the authorities here are not fond of such small churches. They tolerate Islam, perhaps because it’s such a big part of the culture of Kazakhs, and they seem to value Russian Orthodoxy, perhaps for the statement it makes about the importance of things Russian. But recently there was a campaign against a Hare Krishna group from Russia that set up a compound outside town. We were told the place is being bulldozed after some legal action, since a local developer wanted the land. One could imagine that other small groups keep their profiles low to avoid similar troubles.

My guess would be that religion has not taken as powerful a hold here as in some other Central Asian spots because of economics and decades of official atheism under the Russians. On the economic front, if the system meets basic needs and provides a bit more for the people they may not feel as keen a need for something transcendent. Kazakhstan has developed a substantial middle class, it seems, and it’s not surprising that religion would be a light affair with many of those folks. Further, one imagines that students in Russian-controlled schools were discouraged from zealous practice and religious leaders were relegated to largely ceremonial roles.

The big question, though, is whether Kazakhstan can hold firm against the Islamic tide that grips others not far from here. Muslim groups in China, Uzbekistan and even parts of Kyrgyzstan have grown quite assertive, worrying both the local systems and folks in Moscow and Washington. Russia has had huge problems with Islamic terrorists, who seem to regard it as poorly as they do the West. Will affluence, if it comes, lead to Saudi-style revivalism, where the sons of the rich look for meaning following fiery imams and even the likes of Bin Laden? Or, will downturns in the economy, if they come, lead people to extremism? With the Kazakh president here expected to pass the baton in a few years, and the economy suffering from some real-estate induced trouble lately, all sorts of things could bubble to the surface unless the transition is handled well. It all bears watching.

Kazakhstan — Day One!

Call it a Kazakh stew (or borscht maybe?) Our opening day yesterday in Kazakhstan was marked by Third World confusion, a string of encounters with police and a short struggle with sleep in an overcrowded apartment I’ve taken to calling our Pink Palace. This was followed by a plunge into a sprawling open-air bazaar (see Travis Beck’s pix right and below and Patrick Breen’s fabulous goat head pix at the bottom of this post), visits to an ill-maintained cathedral-like mosque and a discreet Mormon church, and finally dinner with some really intriguing folks. All this in under 20 hours.

The beginning was anything but auspicious. Shortly after midnight, we all got off a wonderful Lufthansa flight where crisp, cheerful attendants plied us with free wine and spoiled us with us damp towels after surprisingly good meals. (Those efficient Germans have it all over the folks at United). Outside the gate, our hosts met us, bleary-eyed but excited after we’d been in the air or in terminals for over 24 hours straight. (This included a few hours at O’Hare and a couple more in Frankfurt’s airport, which is an overblown Ikea, decorated in bright colors and naked industrial ceilings and equipped with odd little smoking booths). After our endless time “Up in the Air,” we were like kids who badly needed naps but were jumpy from too much sugar.

Then the confusion began. Our hosts – remarkably accommodating and genuinely nice folks who all are Kazakh members of a Mormon church here – didn’t know exactly where our four apartments were. So we set out to find them and the police adventures began. First, our three-car convoy was stopped when we came upon a minor car accident and one of our drivers had to sign papers agreeing to be a witness. Then we were pulled over when another driver made an illegal U turn and was ticketed for it, a 45-minute ordeal. Finally, in two separate groups, we were quizzed on foot outside the apartments and had to produce our documents for curious police who wear really odd up-tilting oversized caps. It all felt very Soviet.

And, ah, the apartments. The first was in a crumbling Soviet-era concrete tower block where the elevator didn’t work, leaving us to walk up nine floors of unlighted steps and broken floor tiles. Thank G-d for flashlights and cell phone lights. A second place was too far away from the others. The final two were decent, though oddly appointed (the Pink Palace, in the “Deluxe” tower, features textured tinted swirls on the ceiling, dotted with little spotlights, and an inner support wall that rises to the ceiling in 10-foot high S curves. Kinda Vegas-y, but we now call it home). It has a wonderful East-facing window that overlooks a hilly stretch of the city.

After shuttling from one apartment to the next in the pre-dawn hours, we decided to change plans. We dumped the idea of four places for the 10 of us – four girls in one, four boys in the other and Bruce and me in one each. Instead, we squeezed into two one-bedroom places. Two of the boys and I share a living room and two of the girls have the bedroom in the Pink Palace. Same for Bruce.

It’s actually worked out fine. As Elizabeth Gamez, Sarah Tenorio and Patrick Breen and I all chatted chummily last night, it occurred to me I’d feel mighty lonely in an apartment by myself. That would be especially true if it was a lot further than just down the hall away from the others. The only downside is we need to be discreet as we stumble around the lone bathroom at shower and bedtime.

Our body clocks are totally screwed up, understandably since we’re 11 hours earlier here than Lincoln. We are literally on the other side of the globe. We got set up in the final apartments shortly before sunrise and some of us managed just about three hours of sleep, if that, before our hosts arrived at noon to take out us on the town. Nonetheless, our visits to the street market and mosque went well. We stopped, too, for lunch in an odd place where they served a deceptively appealing pink lemonade-looking drink that turned out to be an oozy paste made with potatoes. Uck! Pastries were tasty, though.

Dinner was fascinating at the Edom restaurant. Our 10 were matched by 10 or local and expat folks, including a saucy and pleasant BBC reporter, an Uzbek, I think, and her British Al Jazeera stringer hub, a former UNL exchange student and two girlfriends who work for an agency that helps poor kids, a couple Internews gents who work to liberalize media laws here, our driver-translators, a journalism instructor here who hails from Washington state and a few other folks who had some good story-idea advice for us. Talk of politics, disabled-rights activists and the revolution in nearby Kyrgyzstan dominated my end of the very long table.
Some of the folks seemed to like making connections with one another almost as much as with us.

Almaty is exotic, to be sure. In places it resembles photos I’ve seen of Ho Chi Minh City with stretches of odd-looking shack-like houses hemmed in by high sheet-steel fences. In other places, top-flight stores offer pricey designer-name brands but the shops are often garishly lighted with a lot of neon. Signs with racy images of girls pitch perfume and such in English, Russian and Kazakh. The place is an odd admixture of Russian culture (the Russians have dominated here since the early 1900s at least) and American influences, with a touch of local flavor. Internet addresses pop up on billboard ads, showing how small the world is becoming.

Clearly, there is a lot of money here. Fancy new buildings are replacing the tumbling-down Soviet concrete piles that still sprawl three or four stories up on many of the streets. Indeed, a big real-estate bubble here, fueled by easy lending and high oil prices, has gone bust. Our Pink Palace, luxurious by Kazakh standards, isn’t even finished, but people are living in it and renting out places to the likes of us. And the streets are jammed with Mercedes-Benzes, Peugeots and BMWs, along with beaten-up old Soviet cars. We’re told people who can’t afford to buy houses buy status cars instead.

There are lots of trees, lots of Soviet monuments (visionaries gazing into the revolutionary future) and flags marking the recent 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. The war-end celebration, last weekend, was a big deal here, since Kazakhstan contributed lots of soldiers and industrial might to quash the Germans. It also seems to give people a chance to salute the pervasive Soviet influence, which independence has apparently not diminished much. Red Stars and hammer-and-sickle symbols are dotting the city.

The place is heavily Muslim with a dash of Russian Orthodox. Islam here, the Sunni variety, is on the light side, though. When we visited the mosque, the folks there made accommodations for us – Sarah and Elizabeth didn’t have scarves, but they still were let in and allowed to take photographs. First, like everyone we had to go to washing areas in an outbuilding where we were told to use little stalls to wash our ears and tushes, then to another outbuilding where men sat in front of faucets to wash their hands and feet and, if needed, clear their noses. Then we went into the mosque, removed our shoes and were allowed to shoot pictures. Travis Beck and Patrick both shot a fellow outside who complained that they were stealing part of his soul, and then he demanded $10 (which he didn’t get).

Inside, scattered guys prayed. Their style: touching the ears, kneeling, prostrating themselves and then getting up again to repeat the standing, kneeling and prostrating – all that before a giant greenish mural with prayers on it. Overhead, a giant chandelier hung from the high ceiling and the beautiful carpets graced the floor, but otherwise mosques are surprisingly empty places, with no chairs and a curious staircase-structure next to the big mural in the front for the imam to lead group prayers.

On our way back, fortune-tellers spun their tales to individual clients in a wide park-like median strip not far from the big market area. Fascinating place, Almaty. It has the feel of what I imagine New Delhi to be like, with thriving market areas, too many people and cars going every which way. It’ll be a grand spot to spend the next four or five days.

Kazakhstan: The Tale Begins

So today, the adventure begins. We head off to Kazakhstan. E-tickets in hand, bags packed, passports in our secret waistband pouches (designed to never leave our bodies to stave off pickpockets and such). This will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for eight high-energy journalism students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a colleague here and me.

But what a headache getting to this point. First there was that nasty business in Kyrgyzstan. Even though we had read up on the country, listed stories we planned to tell and developed contacts for them, mapped out a detailed travel plan, etc., the folks there decided to go and have a revolution. It’s that “hopey, changey thing,” I guess, since the economy there was in the Dumpster and corruption reigned. Bottom line for us: fascinating stories there, sure, but it’s a no-go on safety grounds.

So, we’re going next door. We’ll pop in on a country akin in size to Western Europe, a place of forbidding desolation on the steppe and remarkable beauty, in places such as the Red Canyon of the Charyn River. Ah, doesn’t that sound like something out of a fantasy! Just check out the image of Lake Kaindy on the top of this post. Much of the country, in fact, sounds like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” One imagines traveling the countryside like Hobbits on a crucial mission. Certainly, Kazakhstan sounds nothing like the place Sacha Baron Cohen satirized in “Borat,” an image Kazakhs are understandably keen to erase.

We’ve moved fast to get up to the speed on the country. Replicating our Kyrgyzstan research, we’ve reached out to contacts in the last couple weeks, developed tentative story lines and done our best to nail down an itinerary. There will be much to tell: unlike Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is relatively well-off, enriched by natural resources including oil and uranium. It has modern cities in Almaty, the financial capital hard by China, and in Astana, the political capital, more centrally located. Urban wealth and rural poverty should make for intriguing contrasts.

There’s also a ton of history there that influences the place today. As a longtime Soviet Union member, until independence in the early 1990s, the place was a favorite dumping ground for Stalin. The remnants of Gulags endure not far from Astana and Russian survivors of the exile camps and their descendants still live in the area. A bit further from Astana is Semey, a place where the Russians tested nuclear weapons, leaving a population that to this day exhibits the genetic problems and deformities spawned by radioactive contamination. It’s the reason Kazakhstan has renounced nuclear weapons, selling its uranium for peaceful uses, it says.

Politically, the country is run by a former Soviet Kazakh leader who remains remarkably popular. Nursultan Nazarbayev, we’re told, has brought economic stability and a general level of comfort that has some folks calling Almaty the Singapore of Central Asia. While not as free a place as many countries in the West – with restrictions on the press and little political debate– it is nonetheless a thriving state-directed capitalist economy that seems to do right by most of its citizens. It has a stock exchange that I’m hoping to visit in Almaty and its capital, Astana, rose Brasilia-like by design at the instigation of the national leader.

Religiously, it sounds like a fascinating place, too. As far as I can tell, the people follow a modernized version of Islam. We intend to visit Saudi-funded mosques to test this theory. I suspect the radicalism that infects other stans, notably Uzbekistan, is missing from Kazakhstan. It sounds something like Turkey.

We’re not as well-prepared as I’d like to be, though, given the short prep time we’ve had, we’re better off than we might be. We have apartments reserved in Almaty, have made contacts there and in other cities we intend to visit and have a general itinerary. But we will make a lot of decisions on the fly, based on the guidance of folks we meet. Essentially, we will ask where the most intriguing stories are and pursue them. This will be a journalism of discovery.

My colleague, Bruce Thorson, is nonplussed by the lack of a detailed roadmap. His experience in South Africa and Kosovo, on prior reporting trips, involved thorough preparation and then the need to toss it all out once on the ground. As in wars, battle plans prove useless once the fracas begins. We’ll meet folks in Almaty and Astana, he says, who will lead us where the news is. And, indeed, we both have reached out to a good number of folks who are amenable to helping.

So, unless the volcano in Iceland gets in the way – a lingering cloud, ahem, on our route through Germany — we’re off shortly to Omaha, Chicago, Frankfurt and Almaty. We leave in the early afternoon today and arrive a bit after midnight Almaty time on Wednesday. United and Lufthansa will carry us literally half-way round the world from Nebraska. Should be a great ride.

The Debut

This blogging business is all new to me. But then so much in my life now is all new, as well. New house, new town, new job. That’s why this effort at an Internet journal could be intriguing. Certainly, it will be novel.

In August, I left the world of working journalism for the world of the academy. After 22 years at BUSINESS WEEK and 13 years at other pubs, I put in my last day as a paid reporter — as chief of correspondents for that wonderful pub in the end — and joined the University of Nebraska as an associate professor. As I left Chicago for Lincoln, I took up the art of teaching journalism to fresh-faced undergrads. I did so all too well aware that my field is undergoing some of its most wrenching change ever.

I’ve learned a lot in just one semester already. For one thing, I’ve come to take a longer view, as academics are supposed to. That means seeing that change is actually the norm in journalism. All the Internet-driven and recession-pained ferment of late seems to many to be something terribly new (and terrible, in fact). And yet, newspapers and magazines have been rising and falling for decades, if one takes in the long sweep.

Evidence of that? Time was, not so long ago, when cities such as NYC and Chicago had a half-dozen dailies ferociously competing for readers. Along came radio and TV, and the numbers shrank. As for magazines, remember Look and Life? They soared and flamed out, like so many other pubs. Journalism, in fact, has been a field in tumult ever since print was put on paper and sounds and pictures thrust into the air.

Now, does the Internet change things even more? Well, it certainly accelerates change. I can’t recall a more unsettling year in the history of newspapers as this past one, for instance. So many gone. The change is certainly horrendous for people thrown out of work, as over 100 of my colleagues at BW were when Bloomberg bought the magazine a few weeks ago.

But, taking the long view, what the Net has wrought is not unprecedented. To cast things in a personal light, of the four media organizations I worked for since my college days, two were sold and continue to publish — The Home News in New Brunswick, N.J., now a Gannett newspaper, and BW. Two others died — Dun’s Business Month, which perished years ago, long before the Net, and, as of this year, the Rocky Mountain News. I personally have seen both Net-induced ruin and change that has nothing to do with the medium.

The Net seems to be doing for media (and information generally) what the printing press did when it debuted. Does the term “sea-change” get at it a bit? And yet, Gutenberg opened vast new opportunities. So, too, will the Net.

Over their careers, my students will be writing for both new and old media. My job now is to prepare them for that world, an already-fascinating realm and one that is rich in creativity. Over time, I believe, this world will prove at least as lucrative as print journalism was (never so much as other fields, but not bad. The compensation has always been such intangibles as access to all tiers of society and a heck of a lot of fun, adventure and, for some, even danger. The latter prospect is the kind of thing that gets a young person’s juices going; strange thing, isn’t it?)

So my purpose in this blog is to chart the changes I see. Along the way, I will share stories from my new life as an academic. For an ink-stained wretch, the world of leather elbow pads and chalkboards is wholly new and intriguing. (Actually, it’s more like a realm of rumpled sweaters, computer-aided visual displays with overhead projectors, and whiteboards). I aim to share this new world with whoever out there may stumble upon this space.

I hope this effort proves as entertaining and informative to readers as I expect it will prove to me.

JW