So what is your doctorate in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

Mrs. Thatcher, Simon Warner and me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

China: land of contradictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

A mentor’s passing

Chris Welles, a longtime editor at BUSINESS WEEK and former teacher of mine, died the other day. Chris Roush, who edits the blog Talking Biz News, ran the piece below.

I suspect it is one of many tributes to come about Welles, a major figure in business journalism.  I had occasion to write about Welles myself a few weeks ago. He and another former BW editor, Ron Krieger, introduced me to the foreign world of business journalism in 1980 at the Columbia J School. It’s not too great a stretch to say the pair changed my life.

Welles asked tough questions of business people, making for penetrating journalism. He had a hand in much of the best work BW published. Only time will tell, but I believe that BW peaked during Welles’ time there.

Some profound thoughts here by a former editor for us all at BW:

Ex-BusinessWeek editor Shepard fondly remembers Welles  — 2010.06.21

Talking Biz News asked Steve Shepard, the editor of BusinessWeek from 1985 to 2005, for some thoughts about business journalist Chris Welles, who worked at BusinessWeek for 13 years and died this weekend.

Here is what Shepard, now the dean at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, had to say:

“Chris Welles was a genuinely good guy with a journalistic soul. He very much believed that it was the job of the press to hold people in power accountable for their actions and to ferret out wrongdoing. He spent his career doing that, first as a writer, then as a senior editor at Business Week. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Chris was probably the premier business writer around, the guy who did the tough stories.

“In his early years, Chris was one of the regulator writers for Institutional Investor, an innovative magazine about Wall Street in the 1970s. He specialized in narrative accounts of shennaigans, abuses, and downfalls. He was also a very successful freelancer, contributing to New York magazine, among others. From 1977 to 1985, he headed the Walter Bagehot Fellowship Program in Business and Economics Journalism at Columbia University. I had served as the first director (1975-76) and Soma Golden the second (1976-77). The program ran into financial difficulties during Chris’s tenure, but he fought to continue it and eventually weathered the storm. Now called the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship Program in Business and Economics Journalism, it has just finished its 35th year as a mid-career opportunity for business journalists.

“When I was editor-in-chief of Business Week, I jumped at the chance to hire Chris in the mid 1980s as a senior writer specializing in investigative and narrative pieces. Though he was soft-spoken and always polite, he was a tenacious reporter with a passion to get the bad guys. I eventually promoted him to senior editor in the finance department because I figured his impact would be felt more by having him work with writers every week rather than write a piece himself every couple of months. And I wanted him to teach the next generation of upcoming reporters. Chris took to editing like a fish to water, passing along a lot of knowledge about finance, a lot of wisdom about reporting complex stories. He was respected and liked by his colleagues.

“Like Lou Gehrig in 1939, Chris started losing some of his skills, and nobody knew why. He was eventually diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and retired from Business Week. It was a tragedy for him and his wife Nancy, and a terrible loss for all of us. He took business journalism to a new level, setting the bar ever higher for the rest of us. He has left a legacy for all of us to honor.”

Baby Steppes: Memories of Kazakhstan

I’ve not yet seen Paris, but how many seasoned travelers can boast of spending time in cafes in Almaty, Astana and Karaganda? Clearly, I’ve got a leg up on veteran globetrotters.

Our three-week stay in Kazakhstan, for an eight-student photojournalism trip, was nerve-wracking at times. Reservations and credit cards were foreign ideas in some hotels and cold-water walkup flats in crumbling Soviet apartment blocks were the norm. Being unable to read street signs or tell taxi drivers where you want to go (my Kazakh is as good as my Russian) was also unsettling. And long, dusty bus rides and rickety train rides through the barren steppe gave us far too much time for reading.

But then there was the magic of the place. There were, for instance, Almaty’s “random taxis,” where you stick out your hand and, voila, some guy happening by in an old Lada or somesuch with an invariably cracked windshield stops to whisk you away (with the help of hand-signals and mumbled Russian). There was the city’s Green Market, an immense bazaar where you can buy just about anything. There was Panfilov Park, a gorgeous island of green that commemorates 28 Almaty soldiers who died fighting Nazis (immense memorials, including an eternal flame that brides and grooms pose near on weekends).

Almaty, the financial center and biggest city in the country, is a pedestrian-friendly place of tony shops, nice parks and rising new apartment towers. A leafy, cool place that stretches downward from the snow-covered Tian Shan mountains, the city was great for a morning run. It’s a busy town. It is home to the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange (KASE), the most visible sign of the nascent capitalism that could – if managed well – turn the country into a substantial regional force.

Almaty’s financiers could help enrich a population that, despite the rise of a middle class, is still relatively poor by western standards. At $1,322 yearly, Kazakhstan’s per capita income ranks it 94th globally, just below Tonga but well ahead of China, according to NationMaster.com. By contrast, each resident of No. 1-ranked Luxembourg boasts an income of $37,500. Some 1.26 million people live in Almaty and, income issues aside, it felt like most of them were shopping in the Green Market when we were.

Astana, for its part, is an enormous World’s Fair. The new capital city, which officially became the seat of Kazakhstan’s federal government in 1998, is much more of a car place (fancy cars predominate, too, for the status-minded Kazakhstanis). Giant buildings with stunning architecture are great to look at, but challenging to get to. It’s pretty, glitzy and new. In an odd way, it has a Washington-like feel, with monumental buildings and a feeling of power, but nowhere near as intimate as Almaty. If Almaty — population over 700,000 — were New York, Astana would be D.C.

Still, Astana has huge promise. From its spanking-new Eurasian National University, where we met with journalism instructors facing many of the same issues we do at UNL, to the wonderful new U.S. embassy, the place seems fresh and new. That freshness could help sweep away the old Soviet apartment blocks over time. Some of those five-story apartment blocks, with their steel doors, security locks, overgrown common areas and sewer smells, made South Bronx highrises seem palatial. One hopes most such places will disappear in Almaty and Karaganda, as well.

In some ways, Astana is a bold, optimistic statement. Just think about the religious nature of the place. A gleaming mosque, a stunning synagogue, Roman Catholic and Russian churches coexist, with representatives sometimes meeting in a huge glass pyramid built to celebrate the world’s religions. It all reflects the ebullient attitude of the country’s founding president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has kept power since Kazakhstan emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991. His long reign has been helped by the nation’s vast oil and mineral riches (despite sometimes questionable elections, he seems popular and the big question mark over Kazakhstan’s future is who will come next once the 70-year-old leader steps aside).

Then there’s Karaganda, the regional center where we spent our final week. There’s something tragic about the place, probably because it was shaped by the KarLag system, part of Russia’s Gulag internal-exile system. Many people in Karaganda, it seemed, had ancestors connected in some way to the KarlLag, as prisoners, exiles or guards. And folks there, even the Russians, still seem suspicious of Russian things – most notably, blaming rockets launched from the Baikonur space base for headaches, high blood pressure, joint pain and weather changes.

Outside of Karaganda, we visited the village of Dolinka, where barracks and other buildings from the KarLag remain. The place seemed desperately poor to Western eyes, but residents don’t seem to feel that way (and there were plenty of satellite dishes on ramshackle houses). Indeed, I’ll never forget the young Russian college student who was appalled at my suggestion that it was a poor town. Her friend lived there, she said, and didn’t think it poor at all. Poverty, it seems, is relative (though running water, heat and the chance to get an education would seem to be handy universal barometers).

Karaganda is a place where Peace Corps folks and missionaries are reaching out in earnest to the local population. Saving souls or helping people think well of America is certainly not a bad thing. Already, the public seems enamored of things American, as reflected by the constant stream of music videos in cafes and restaurants, as well shop names (U.S. Polo Assn. has an outlet there). College students in an English club, which is helped along by U.S. aid, were fascinated to hear us talk about the U.S. Western cultural elements dominate: I’ll never forget the boy in Dolinka, about 10, who strummed his crude homemade guitar and talked about Pink Floyd.

Perhaps my favorite memory of Karaganda will be the city’s sprawling downtown park. There’s a delightful amusement park, where we challenged our nerve on a rickety old Ferris Wheel that looked like it hadn’t been oiled since the fall of the Soviet Union. And one of the students, Megan Plouzek, and I got to run an impromptu marathon around the park (14 circuits approximated 26.2 miles, and I managed five while Megan logged about eight, covering more than 15 miles). The marathon was the brainchild of a local American former college athlete now working for a missionary group, and drew about 15 competitors.

Kazakhstan seems very much a country still emerging. Its economic system, dependent on natural resources, needs to diversify. Its educational system, despite such dubious features as college students occasionally paying teachers for grades, offers a way up for the people. Its government-funded foreign-study programs, which pay full-freight for students who qualify in exchange for five years work back in the country, represent a smart bet on the government’s part.

But I believe the country will make a mark globally over time. Already a regional powerhouse in Central Asia, it could ride its oil wealth and strategic location between China and Russia to great things. I suspect Americans will hear much more about the place in coming years, and it makes me feel like we got a ground-floor view. Paris can wait.