Souffle’d: How Twitter outrage helped kill part of a student media contest and why that makes no sense

The photography portion of a college journalism contest got 86’ed this week after the National Press Photographers Association pulled out, due in large part to Twitter outrage.

The contest was the brainchild of Michael Koretzky, who worked with NPPA, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Collegiate Press and the Society for News Design to launch the College Coronavirus Coverage awards. The goal of the contest was to reward college journalists who were doing quality reporting, writing and photography on the coronavirus epidemic.

Anthony Souffle, a photojournalist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, tweeted his displeasure regarding this:

SouffeTweet

As with most things that happen on Twitter, others decided to hop on the bandwagon:

HobbyTweetCohenTweetSafeCoverageTweet

Shortly after this, NPPA announced it would be withdrawing its support for the contest. Souffle then tweeted his pleasure regarding the success he had in engaging in cancel culture:

NPPATweet

For its part, the CCC killed the category after one week in operation, with Koretzky explaining why it was doing so and noting that the Twitter-gasm had no impact on the move.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve known Koretzky for almost two decades now and he’s guest blogged here. He has come up with some real hum-dingers when it comes to college journalism, ranging from the First Amendment Free Food Festival to the Interviewing the Undead event. He’s also had a few moments that left me shaking my head. I’d liken him to Reggie Jackson: He hits a lot of homers and those go a long, long way. He also strikes out more than a bit, but he gets his money’s worth out of the swing.)

I reached out to Souffle via Twitter to ask him about all this and he never got back to me. I figured if I asked, Koretzky would probably tell me a ton of stuff, as he’s always has before. However, instead of turning this into a point-counterpoint between these guys, I figured I’d take a different look at this.

First, based on his pinned tweet, it’s clear Anthony Souffle hates contests of all stripes:

ContestSouffleTweet

I definitely agree with him on the point of doing the work for your audience and not for contests. I know I’ve said that at least a couple times on this blog. If you’re doing journalism for the awards, it’s like buying an airline because you like the little bags of snacks they give out during flights.

Second, I agree that putting yourself in harm’s way is never a great idea. The two rules I push when I lecture or present on crime and disaster coverage are simple: Stay calm and stay safe. Taking really stupid risks for the glory and the gold is, well… really stupid. (I live in a state where we’re having in-person voting today and I think THAT is really stupid, too…)

That said, I’m not a huge fan of Twitter’s ability to get a bandwagon of people together to rage at something and I’m even less of a fan of cancel culture. Instead of debating those points, however, here are the three underlying premises that seem present in Souffle’s argument that are extremely problematic:

COLLEGE JOURNALISTS ARE DUMBER THAN OTHER JOURNALISTS: The coronavirus is pretty much all every journalist is covering these days, so to call it newsworthy would be a massive understatement. It is the job of journalists to cover newsworthy stories and convey them to their audiences in ways that are relevant, useful and interesting. College journalists are journalists and thus are not immune to this concept.

I often tell students that when they graduate, they don’t get the “grownup brain” at commencement. In other words, the university doesn’t flip a switch and suddenly you somehow become someone better, smart, faster and cooler once you graduate. Some college journalists are less-equipped to handle certain things than some professionals. They also are less experienced than people who have worked in the field for decades.

However, they’re not idiots.

Many programs have quality advisers who help the students prepare for their work and then guide the students as they craft their stories and edit their photos. These people are experienced and can provide some safety measures when the occasional student goes off the rails. In addition, college students are living, breathing adults who have the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else.

They have done amazing work covering floods, hurricanes and more. And to the folks who say, “Well, there’s a roadmap for covering those things…” well, there wasn’t a roadmap to covering mass shootings on college campuses in 2007 when the crew at Virginia Tech was pressed into service. There also wasn’t a roadmap in 2008, when the folks at Northern Illinois did it. Nor was there a roadmap for covering the “Unite the Right” rally, which the Cav Daily did amazingly well. All of these were dangerous stories and all of these could have led to serious harm.

In reviewing the entries that made the one photo contest the CCC did complete, Koretzky noted that most of the photos were similar because of the precautions students took in doing their work. In short, they knew what they were doing. Assuming that they’re going to wander out into traffic because they’re students is insulting to their work and their efforts.

COLLEGE JOURNALISTS WEREN’T ALREADY COVERING THIS: One of the key arguments against the CCC contest is that putting this out there would somehow inspire student journalists to run out and cover the COVID-19 crisis. Also, this assumes that student journalists closed up shop and gave up on being journalists when schools went to an online-only format.

Not even close.

College media folk have been exchanging messages and emails for more than a month, trying to figure out how best to do this as the crisis began to build. Even more, most student media outlets are doing what the pros are: Writing, editing, broadcasting and working from various locations while sheltering in place.

The Student Press Law Center has a list of more than 100 campus media outlets that are doing or have done coronavirus coverage during the outbreak, and that number has grown exponentially over the past few weeks. It’s also safe to assume that even more publications have done work but haven’t made the list yet.

The students are doing exactly what the Twitter-shamers are telling them to do: Serving their communities. The awards are tangential at best.

THIS WAS THE THING THAT MADE AWARD-SEEKERS GO GA-GA: Even if I were to grant the premise that awards drive students to do journalism, and in this case particularly risky journalism, I would still argue that Souffle is drastically overestimating the power of this particular contest.

Not to disparage the CCC in any way, but if students planned to put life and limb on the line for an award, it sure wouldn’t be this one. The ACP Pacemaker and the CSPA Gold Crown are pretty much the big dogs in college media, with the Hearst competition falling in there somewhere for accredited schools. In addition SPJ, NPPA and SND all have contests each year that carry some serious cache with award-seekers.

I somehow doubt students were thinking, “Man, there’s no way I’m going out to shoot photos of anything in this pandemic… wait… a contest I never heard of before is giving out CERTIFICATES? YEAH! Let’s go see if I can get a pic of an ICU patient coughing on me!”

Students who plan for awards the way my kid plans her birthday party (a year in advance and in great deal) were going after this anyway, so to get all in a lather about this one contest is spurious at best.

 

“Journalism faculty should be the most prepared for this kind of move:” Why you’re probably doing better than you think you are in teaching during the corona-pocalypse

My department had a video-conference faculty meeting on Friday, combining my two least-favorite things: buggy online video chats and meetings. This one was more productive than most because we were examining the good, the bad and the ugly we faced during our first week of online-only education in the wake of the corona-pocalypse.

The common theme seemed to be this: We’re doing better than we thought we would, and our students keep telling us we’re doing better than all of their other classes.

This seemed to be a common theme among the various educators’ social media groups I’ve been watching and joining. The more “general” groups have a ton of chaotic, the-sky-is-falling, holy-hell-we’re-all-gonna-die-doing-this posts about things like taking attendance in class or proctoring exams. The journalism groups had more of a “OK, how do I get X to work in Y environment so the kids get the best experience?” vibe to them.

Thanks to an expert in the field, I realized this wasn’t just a self-serving observation.

Maksl1_web_400x400Late last month, we had an interview with Adam Maksl on the blog, where he talked about how best to operate in this online-only, COVID-forced environment. Maksl, an associate professor of journalism and media at Indiana University Southeast, is currently serving as a Faculty fellow for eLearning Design & Innovation in IU’s Learning Technologies division (a unit within its IT organization, University Information Technology Services).

Here was his take on journalism and education in an online environment, as well as why you are probably doing better at this than you think you are:

You mentioned to me that you saw education moving to online is somewhat similar to what journalism saw in its move online a few decades back. Can you elaborate on that a little bit and explain what you think we can all learn from that previous experience as we engage in this one?

“Both journalism and education have traditionally been the gatekeepers to information. Neither industry is like that any longer. The same forces – technology and markets – affected and continues to affect both sectors. The difference is that journalism was more exposed to the market earlier. Education is where journalism was maybe a decade or so ago, so we as journalism educators should be especially willing to adapt because, frankly, “we’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends.”

“If you really think about it, modern journalism, distributed through online channels, is very similar to education, especially digital/online education:

  • Teachers are to students as journalists are to audiences. Teachers/journalists create content that their students/audiences engage in and find value in.
  • We work for similar pro-social goals. We create content and opportunities for engagement to help people improve their lives and interact with the world around them.
  • The tools are often the same. Good teaching is often good storytelling, and online teaching uses the same technology tools as digital journalism.

“Journalism faculty should be the most prepared for this kind of move. Also, this rapid move online can actually be an opportunity for journalism faculty to model to their students the lessons we emphasize in our classes and the adaptability students must have as they enter the workforce.”

In addition to Maksl’s points, I’d like to chip in one more:

WE IMPROVISE, ADAPT AND OVERCOME EVERY DAY: Most fields expect the best and plan for the worst. Journalism is almost the exact opposite, except we don’t really get “the best” in most cases.

Sources we need won’t return our calls. What someone told us at 9 a.m. turns out to be “not quite accurate” at 9 p.m. Art falls through, committees table things we planned for our leads, computers crash on deadline and more. This is what we are expecting on any given day. Even more, those “perfect” days in which everything falls into place are often the most stressful because we’re constantly thinking, “Yeah… This won’t hold…”

We have been trained to understand that the broadcast will start at 10 p.m., the newspaper will go to press at 1 a.m. and failure is not an option. We can’t run a blank spot on page one, throw a box of crayons in the bag and tell the readers, “Here. Draw your own damned news. We couldn’t get it done.” We don’t have anchors tell us, “Our top story fell through, so John and I are going to bullshit for three minutes until the meteorologist finds his pants and get to the set.”

Making it work is what we do, and this isn’t going to be any different.

 

Throwback Thursday: How to report and write a quality obituary

President Trump said in a recent press briefing that somewhere between 100,000 and a quarter-million people will likely die in the U.S. of COVID-19 before everything is said and done.

Given that grim prognosis, especially considering the source, today’s “Throwback Thursday” post takes a look at the issues surrounding obituary writing. These stories can be among the best and worst pieces you will write as a journalist.

The goal with an obit, as is the goal with any story, is to provide an accurate picture of the subject of the story. This can lead to some wonderful tales and some dark places.

Hope this helps in navigating both.

Obituary Writing: Telling truths, not tales, in a reverent recounting of a life

In a discussion among student media advisers, one person noted that obituaries are probably the second-hardest things journalists have to do frequently. (The hardest? Interviewing family members about dead kids.) When a person dies, media outlets often serve as both town criers and official record keepers. They tell us who this person was, what made him or her important and what kind of life this person led. This is a difficult proposition, especially given that people have many facets and the public face of an individual isn’t always how those who knew the person best see him or her. Couple these concerns with the shock and grief the person’s loved ones and friends have experienced in the wake of the death and this has all the makings of a rough journalistic experience.

The New York Times experienced this earlier in the week when it published an obituary on Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon Church. The Times produced a news obituary that focused on multiple facets of Monson and his affect on the church. This included references to his work to expand the reach and the population of its missionary forces as well as his unwillingness to ordain women and acknowledge same-sex marriages. The obituary drew criticism from many inside the church, leading the obituary editor to defend the choices the paper made in how it covered Monson. (For a sense of comparison, here is the official obituary/notification of death that the church itself wrote for Monson.)

You will likely find yourself writing an obituary at some point in time if you go into a news-related field.  Some of my favorite stories have been obituaries, including one I did on a professor who was stricken by polio shortly after he was married in the 1950s. I interviewed his wife, who was so generous with her recollections that I was really upset when we had to cut the hell out of the piece to make it fit the space we had for it. Still, she loved it and sent me a card thanking me for my time.

Some of my most painful stories have also been obituaries. The one that comes to mind is one I wrote about a 4-year-old boy who died of complications from AIDS. His mother, his father and one of his siblings also had AIDS at a time in which the illness brought you an almost immediate death sentence and status as a societal pariah. I spoke to the mother on the phone multiple times that night, including once around my deadline when she called me sobbing. Word about the 4-year-old’s death had become public knowledge and thus she was told that her older son, who did not have AIDS, would not be allowed to return to his daycare school. Other things, including some really bad choices by my editor, made for a truly horrific overall situation in which the woman called me up after the piece I co-wrote ran and told me what a miserable human being I was. She told me the boy’s father was so distraught by what we published that he would not leave the house to mourn his own son and that she held me responsible for that. Like I said, these things can be painful.

No matter the situation, there are some things you need to keep in mind when you are writing obituaries:

  • Don’t dodge the tough stuff: Your job as a journalist is to provide an objective, fair and balanced recounting of a person’s life. The Times’ editor makes a good point in noting that the paper’s job is to recount the person’s life, not to pay tribute or to serve as a eulogist. This means that you have to tell the story, however pleasant or unpleasant that might be. One of my favorite moments of honesty came from hockey legend Gordie Howe who was recalling the tight-fisted, cheap-as-heck former owner of the Detroit Red Wings:

    “I was a pallbearer for Jack,” says Howe. “We were all in the limousine, on the way to the cemetery, and everyone was saying something nice, toasting him. Then finally one of the pallbearers said, `I played for him, and he was a miserable sonofabitch. Now he’s … a dead, miserable sonofabitch.’”

    It’s not your fault if the person got arrested for something or treated people poorly. If these things are in the public record and they are a large part of how someone was known, you can’t just dodge them because you feel weird. Check out the Times’ obituary on Richard Nixon and you’ll notice that Watergate makes the headline and the lead. As much as that was likely unpleasant for the people who were closest to Nixon, it was a central point of his life and needed to be discussed. In short, don’t smooth off the rough edges because you are worried about how other people might feel. Tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

 

  • Avoid euphemisms: This goes back to the first point about being a journalist. You don’t want to soften the language or use euphemisms. People don’t “pass on” or “expire.” NFL quarterbacks pass and magazine subscriptions expire. People die. Also, unless you can prove it, don’t tell your readers that the person is “among the angels” or “resting in the arms of Jesus.” (Both of these euphemisms ended up in obituaries I edited at one point or another. They obviously didn’t make it to publication.) Say what you know for sure: The person died.

 

  • Double down on accuracy efforts: People who are reading obituaries about loved ones and friends are already on edge, so the last thing you want to do is tick them off by screwing up an obituary. I don’t know if this was just a matter of newspaper lore or if it was a real thing, but I was told more than once at a paper where I worked that there were only two things that would get us to “stop the presses:” 1) we printed the wrong lottery numbers and 2) we screwed up an obituary.
    True or not, the point was clear to me: Don’t screw up an obituary.
    Go back through your piece before you put it out for public consumption and check proper nouns for spelling and accuracy. Do the math yourself when it comes to the age (date of birth subtracted from date of death) and review each fact you possess to make sure you are sure about each one. If you need to make an extra call or something to verify information, do it. It’s better to be slightly annoying than wrong.

 

  • Accuracy cuts both ways: As much as you need to be accurate for the sake of the family, you also need to be accurate for the sake of the public record. This means verifying key information in the obituary before publishing it. The person who died might told family and friends about winning a medal during World War II or graduating at the top of her class at Harvard Law School. These could be accurate pieces of information or they could be tall tales meant to impress people. Before you publish things that could be factually inaccurate, you need to be sure you feel confident in your sourcing.
    Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t be shaking the family down for evidence on certain things (“OK, you say she liked to knit. Now, how do we KNOW she REALLY liked knitting? Do you have some sort of support for that?”) but you should try to verify fact-based elements with as many people as possible or check the information against publicly available information. Don’t get snowed by legends and myths. Publish only what you know for sure.

 

  • Don’t take things personally: Calling family, friends and colleagues of someone who just died can be really awkward and difficult for you as a reporter. Interviews with these people can be hard on them as well as hard on you. I found that when I did obituaries, I got one of three responses from people that I contacted:
    1. The source told me, “I’m sorry, but I really just can’t talk about this right now.” At that point, I apologized for intruding upon the person’s grief and left that person alone.
    2. The source is a fount of information and wanted to tell me EVERYTHING about the dead person. I found that for some of them, it was cathartic to share and eulogize and commemorate. It was like I was a new person in their circle of grief and they wanted to make sure I knew exactly why the person who died was someone worth knowing.
    3. The source was like a wounded animal and I made the mistake of sticking my hand where it didn’t belong. I have been called a vulture, a scumbag and other words I’ve been asked to avoid posting on this blog. One person even told me, “Your mother didn’t raise you right” because I had the audacity to make this phone call. I apologized profusely and once I hung up, I needed a couple minutes to shake it off. I knew it wasn’t my fault but it wasn’t easy either.

Your goal in an obituary is always to be respectful and decent while still retaining your journalistic sensibilities. It’s a fine line to walk, but if you do an obituary well, you will tell an interesting story about someone who had an impact on the world in some way. I like to think a story about this person who died should be good enough to make people wish they’d known that person while he or she was alive.

WAY too hot for teacher: How to avoid getting Zoombombed and 3 other things to think about while building your online courses

NOTE: The following video has extremely offensive language in it. It is posted here only to demonstrate the kinds of things people have had to put up with as a result of Zoombombing. Viewer discretion is advised. So are headphones.

During a discussion of how best to serve our students in this time of forced distance learning, a journalism professor in a discussion group made the following statement:

“I don’t understand why people would not be synchronous while also recording for asynchronous if they have a tool that does it easily…” 

The glorious world of the internet answered that pretty well for us this week, as instructors everywhere were introduced to the concept of “Zoombombing”:

Like many professors across the country who’ve been displaced from college campuses because of the coronavirus pandemic, Lance Gharavi suddenly found himself teaching his spring semester courses at Arizona State University online using the Zoom meeting platform. His first Zoom session for an approximately 150-student Introduction to Storytelling course went terribly wrong.

Right off the bat, he said, one of the participants used a Zoom feature that lets a user display an image or a video in the background in order to show a pornographic video.

“I didn’t notice it until a student on chat said something about it,” said Gharavi, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theater. Participants were using fake screen names, some of which he said were very offensive. “The chat window became incredibly active. Most of the comments were not on topic. They were vulgar, racist, misogynistic toilet humor. I would barely even call it humor.”

Instructors aren’t alone in this issue, as a friend of mine noted regarding a Society for Professional Journalists digital meeting:

On Friday, SPJ’s executive director hosted a Zoom meeting with members. But they all saw a member no one wanted: A random man logged on and put his genitals right up to the camera.
Apparently, this is a side effect of the pandemic shutdown. It even has a name: Zoom bombing.

In case it’s not obvious, there’s a reason people get in more trouble on live air than they do when they record a program and run it on air after its been edited. It should also be obvious that you’ll run the risk of having to redo the whole thing instead of just archiving it if some twerp decides to use “Debbie Does Dallas” as a background during class discussion on Zoom.

To prevent Zoombombing, Zoom offers several hints and tips for people setting up their classrooms and meetings, including locking the room, using the waiting-room function and controlling screen sharing. If you are looking at using this tool to teach in a virtual setting, these are great bits of advice and they aren’t that hard to enact.

This approach to teaching feels like whack-a-mole: A problem pops up, we hammer it down with a solution and then, bam, another problem pops up. This is likely the nature of online learning for us for a while as we try to figure out how best to do this as classes progress. It’s like fixing a car while we’re driving it at 100 mph down a bumpy road.

Whether you’re going synchronous or asynchronous, using Zoom or posting lecture notes, well-prepared or running around like Beaker with his hair on fire, consider these three key points in how best to make your classes successful:

 

MINIMIZE FAILURE: One of my favorite stories about legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks was the one told in “One Goal” about his first national championship at Minnesota. After his team won it all, his players were celebrating loudly in the locker room, having a fantastic time. A friend went looking for Brooks, whom he later found sitting along in a hallway, completely drained. The line in the book said it all:

“They had succeeded. He had avoided failure.”

This may seem to be a dark and depressing way to look at life, but when it comes to trying to launch a series of online classes in the middle of a semester with almost no lead time for them, it’s actually the best way to look what you need to do.

This isn’t the time to break out six new digital platforms you’ve never used before in hopes of “jazzing” things up or because everyone else out there is yammering about what they’re doing. It isn’t the time to build a new educational philosophy, based on some BS eLearning journal article you read out of desperation. It isn’t the time to prove that you’re better, stronger, faster, cooler or whatever else because you’re terrified that your whole class is going to hell in a speedboat and you have no control over it whatsoever.

Now is the time to rely on the bedrock principles and simple teaching techniques that got you here. If you have platforms that work and have always work, use them. If you have been successful with certain types of exercises, tweak them a bit and stick with them. Be honest with your students and tell them that you’re going to do X, Y and Z but that’s about it.

You don’t have to hit a grand slam here. A base hit wins the game, so choke up on the bat and protect the plate.

 

RIGHT TOOL, RIGHT JOB: As I struggled to learn statistics, Steven Osterlind of Mizzou was a godsend. He looked like the uncle who showed up to Thanksgiving and would do that magic trick where he pulled a quarter out of a kid’s ear. He was always smiling and helpful, even as students like me were as dumb as a brick.

I kept trying to use more and more complex statistical measurements to find answers to my research problems. This guy, who knew more about stats than any 15 people I know, pushed me in the other direction: Simpler tools, better results. His motto was one in which the simplest tool was usually the best.

I like the theory of “right tool for the right job,” and I’m a huge fan of simplicity when it comes to those tools. If I want to hang a picture in my living room, a hammer and nail works just fine. I don’t need to fire up my air compressor and load up a nail gun.

When it comes to thinking about the tools at your disposal, consider this theory. Some classes need video because they require you to show process and activity. Others could get by with audio podcasting only. My students don’t need to see me and I can get away with still images.

I saw someone in a “COVID teaching discussion group” discussing PowerPoint and how to find ways to get student free copies of it. Do they need access to your PowerPoints for any reason or could a set of PDF’ed slides do just as well?

As we talked about with assignments before, try to find the essential elements of what is most important for your students in your class. Then, use the tools best able to deliver those elements with the least amount of complexity.

Another thought? Ask the students what they have and what they would like to get. Several faculty members did email surveys or Doodle polls to find out what made sense for their classes.

(I asked my students once about moving to video and a student told me, “I like the audio podcasts. I put them on right before bed and after an hour, I’m ready to sleep.” I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that…)

 

THE HAM STORY: I swear this came from a priest in a sermon, but after all these years, my memory has blurred a bit. Still, it’s the story I tell all my students when the time comes for them to learn how to think for themselves:

“A newly married couple is having dinner together at home for the first time. The woman is making ham and before she does anything else, she cuts two inches off of each end of the ham.”

“The man asks, ‘Why did you do that?’ The woman replies, ‘It’s my mama’s recipe and you always loved mama’s ham so I’m following the recipe.'”

“Later that year, the couple is at the woman’s parents’ home for Christmas dinner. The mother is making ham and she starts by cutting two inches off each end of the ham.”

“The man asks, ‘Why do you do that?’ Mama replies, ‘It’s grandma’s recipe and everyone loves grandma’s ham so I’m following the recipe.'”

“Grandma arrives for dinner and the man asks, ‘Grandma, your recipe says to cut two inches off of each end of the ham before you start. Why do you do that?'”

“Grandma replies, ‘Oh! I never had a big enough pan to hold a whole ham, so I wrote that down to remind myself to cut two inches off each end so that it would fit the pan I had.'”

The lesson? Sometimes, something makes sense at the time, but it outlives its usefulness, even as people blindly continue to do it.

I asked people who use Zoom to do their lectures why they use it and I got a lot of “That’s how I was taught in grad school” kind of responses. The same was true of going synchronous for learning, using specific reporting lessons and other similar things. I have no idea if Zoom is the best tool or not. I also don’t know if those approaches were any good or not.

The problem? It didn’t seem like the folks answering the questions did either.

As much as now isn’t the time to break out a whole new approach to things, it doesn’t hurt to question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you come to a satisfactory answer, you’re in great shape.

If not, maybe it’s worth a second look.

 

Happy Birthday, Dad: 4 valuable things I learned from my father that might help you, too

DadSuit

It might be hard to believe that a guy who dressed like this could have valuable advice, but trust me, he always does.

(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode.

Also, if this or anything else I’ve ever done has helped you in any way, please feel free to wish my dad a happy birthday in the comments section. I’m sure it would be appreciated. -VFF)

As my daughter was going stir-crazy the other day, whining loudly about missing her friends, her extracurricular activities and even in-school classes, I told her the one truism I hoped would keep her sane:

“You can’t focus on the things you can’t do because of social distancing. You have to focus on the things you DO get to do. Otherwise, you’ll go batty.”

For me, an introvert with a long-standing aversion to social situations, this has been an easy adage to espouse and obey.

Until today. Today is my dad’s birthday.

Like everyone else in this country, Dad is stuck at home with limited contact to the outside world, for fear of contracting a virus that is decimating people at an incredible rate. While this “wait this out at home” rule is rough on a lot of people, it has to be killing my dad, who earned the family nickname of “No-Line Frank” for his disdain of waiting in line for anything. (It probably isn’t any great shakes for my mom, either, as she’s isolated in the house with him like this for at least another month.)

I wish with all my heart I could jet down I-41 and give him a big hug (and a nice bottle of Drambuie) today. The fact I can’t saddens me to the point of distraction. That said, he would be the first one to tell me it’s fine, not to worry and that I should get back to work.

My parents were and still are instrumental in who I am and what I do in life. In honor of dad’s 76th birthday, here are four “Filak-isms” he taught me that helped make me who I am and likely will help me make it through this pandemic unscathed:

HUSTLE WHILE YOU WAIT: I can’t remember when he first said it to me, but I rely on it almost daily: “The best things in life come to he who hustles while he waits.”

Although Dad later told me he heard this in a Credit Union seminar or something, I still attribute it to him because he not only said it, but he lives it. I often joke that I’m a “human twitch” when it comes to keeping busy, constantly writing books, teaching classes, refinishing furniture and doing almost anything else anybody asks of me.

Compared to my dad, I’m a piker.

I can’t remember the last time I saw him watch a whole ballgame or TV show without getting up and looking for something to do. He might be cleaning out the junk drawer in the dining room or sorting some baseball cards or looking for something in the basement, but he’s constantly on the move. Seeing this always inspired me to find more stuff to do and to keep looking for new opportunities to make the most of my time.

If you’re always hustling, the good things will come your way.

 

DON’T BRING SHAME ON THE FAMILY: I know I’ve explained this before, but it bears repeating. Dad told me this when I went off to college and decades later, it still rings true. “When you go out there, have fun,” he said. ” But, don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”

The sheer tonnage of stupid things I avoided doing in college, simply based on that bit of advice, could stop a speeding locomotive from moving another inch forward. Even now, when I considered doing something, I would imagine the headline “UWO Professor Arrested for (Fill in whatever stupid thing I thought about doing)” and immediately decided against doing that stupid thing.

Whether it was being a success or just avoiding failure, the goal was pretty simple: When Dad saw someone he knew at the grocery store, it would be great if the person didn’t start the conversation with, “Hey, yeah… Heard about your son… Geez… That’s not good…”

 

YOU ARE NOT AVERAGE: In fifth grade, I came home with five C’s on my report card, much to the dismay of my parents. Dad was less than pleased that I wasn’t living up to my potential, whatever that was, and he pretty much knew full well that I fell short because I wasn’t giving a crap.

We were in the middle of a “silent supper,” thanks to my transgressions, when I finally broke the silence with what I thought would be a pretty good argument for my folks to not be so upset: “I read the report card, and it says that a C is average, so-”

Dad cut me off in a firm tone, “You are NOT average.”

I got the point. I could do better. And I knew it.

From that moment, I didn’t get another C on a report card until I hit my freshman year of college. In that case, it was more of a scheduling mistake than a lack of effort, because I took an introductory zoology course that served as the “weed-out” class for the veterinary medicine program at the U.

It’s always easy to take it easy, but that’s not the right way to do things. I was lucky enough to get a set of tools and the ability to use them in a way that matters. I was also lucky as hell to have parents who wouldn’t let me slide because I was good enough to get by or because other people’s kids were doing something worse.

Once that got stuck in my head, I realized that it’s important to always push beyond average whenever possible.

 

FINISH THE WORK FIRST, DRINK BEER LATER: Dad always believed in the separation of work and relaxation. He once told me about my grandfather and how he liked to do part of a job and then relax a bit and then go back and do more of it. Dad fell into the mode that my great-grandfather espoused: Finish the work first, drink the beer later.

What I learned from this was not only the importance of a strong work ethic but also the idea that I could find joy in completion of work. Seeing things get checked off a list or looking at a well-done job brought me happiness that could far exceed the joy of a brief respite and the knowledge that I had to do more work.

Even more, the beer always tasted better when I knew I was done for the day.

Thanks for everything, Pop. I love you.

Dad

 

 

 

“Focus on things that are important:” A message to my students during the coronavirus outbreak.

My chair had the great idea of doing a video in which we all recorded a short message for our students, for whom Monday will be the first day of online-only classes. Here is what I hope to be a calming and yet amusing message to anyone who knows me:

For those of you still in the middle of a class build, feel free to check out the Corona Hotline for Instructors page and grab any lessons, exercises or helpful tips you find there. If you want to share anything, feel free to contact me through the site and I’ll get you hooked up.

Be safe and be well.

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

Adjusting expectations, avoiding tech overload and teaching effectively online in the wake of COVID-19: Advice from an eLearning expert

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Adam Maksl

When the “move everything online” chaos created by the coronavirus hit college campuses in Indiana, Adam Maksl became one of the most popular people around.

Maksl, an associate professor of journalism and media at Indiana University Southeast, is currently serving as a Faculty fellow for eLearning Design & Innovation in IU’s Learning Technologies division (a unit within its IT organization, University Information Technology Services).

“I work with a group of highly talented instructional designers and technologists focusing on digital teaching, especially in online classes,” he said in an email interview this week. “My job is essentially to try to work with faculty across IU’s seven campuses and help them think more innovatively about how they teach with technology, especially in online classes.”

As both an expert in online course development and someone who has been working nonstop to help folks keep teaching in this unprecedented time, Maksl has been helping to develop key best practices for educators. He’s also trying to prevent instructors from burning out or trying to do too much.

He was nice enough to answer some questions that might help you as you continue to make the move to an online-only classroom:

Q: You teach online courses, including media law, so you have some experience in this area. What are some of the things you build into the online version that help you minimize any problems that might occur without the face-to-face component and what are some things you do that accentuate the value of online learning?

A: “I’ve designed and taught six journalism courses fully online at IU Southeast (Intro to Mass Comm; Reporting, Writing & Editing; Communications Law; Media Career Planning; Social Media Strategies; and Data Storytelling & Visualization) and another two when I was a Ph.D. student at Mizzou (a mass comm theory seminar and a grad reporting class). I’m currently teaching Communications Law online. Three of those IU Southeast courses have received certification from Quality Matters, an organization that helps universities establish quality-control guidelines and reviews courses for adherence to those guidelines.

“When people talk about online teaching and learning, they generally mean asynchronous teaching and learning, where instructors and students are not online at the same time and interaction among students, the content, and instructors does not take place in real-time. Though I’ve taught many classes synchronously in person, most of my online experience is asynchronous. What most instructors are talking about in response to COVID-19 is replicating synchronous face-to-face classes by conducting them over distance using tools like Zoom.

“That’s an important distinction, because the value of most online learning often is in the asynchronous nature of most of it. For most learners, the biggest value of online learning is not the ability to take classes from far-away universities (despite the fact that “online” and “distance” education are sometimes used interchangeably, most online learners enroll in colleges within 50 miles of their homes). Rather, it is the ability for students to “time-shift,” placing their school work where it fits in their busy schedules, between work, family life, and other modern challenges.

“The reason I mention all of this is because I think many face-to-face faculty might be inclined to use tools like Zoom to simply try to plan synchronous class sessions in their rapid move online. On one hand, it might seem most natural because; after all, they are used to teaching synchronously. It’s also, perhaps, the lightest lift when they’re only given a few days to make the transition. However, we need to realize that in all the stress, the technological inequities, and other challenges students may face in this environment, allowing for flexibility and time-shifting is perhaps even more important now.

“Perhaps the most important piece of advice for teaching online, especially in asynchronous environments, is that faculty need to be explicit about what their expectations are of students. In journalism, we often talk about the importance of the words we use because “perception is reality” and that we have limited opportunities to make our words clear to our audiences. We should adopt that mentality for our teaching online. We should also try to anticipate what students’ questions or concerns might be and address those ahead of time, because in an asynchronous online environment we can’t adapt to non-verbal queues like we can in a face-to-face environment.

“Try also to use your learning management system (e.g., Canvas, Blackboard, D2L, etc.) consistently and clearly. Practice what we know from publication and media design and development, and make sure the navigation in your course makes sense. You want your students — who are already stressed because of the broader COVID-19 crisis and probably have lower cognitive load — to devote their time and energy to your course content and not trying to figure out how your course is structured. That’s actually good advice in the future, too.

Q: You mentioned to me that when the virus hit and people started to need to go online down by you, you and your folks got extremely busy. That makes sense. What were some of the biggest concerns faculty members had in regard to moving everything online and what kinds of things could you provide to help them out?

A: “I think early on, the concerns were about technology – how do I use this tool to transition what I’m doing in the face-to-face environment online. What we tried first to do is get them to realize in this environment, they might have to adjust their expectations for students (and themselves). Not to lower them, but to adjust them. We also wanted to encourage faculty to be flexible in their plans and how they implement them.

“For example, some people were concerned about attendance – how do I take attendance in a Zoom call, for instance. We tried to encourage faculty to think about other ways to address engagement, rather than simply attending, since the factors to do so could be impacted by so many things, like tech, living situations, health, which are variable in this kind of environment.

“We also suggested to faculty that if they had a tool they’ve used before to do something, keep using that tool even if we were showing them something else. This is not the time to learn a whole new system or to add bells and whistles to a class if the new tool is not absolutely necessary.

“IU has had a website for years called keepteaching.iu.edu, and in the last couple weeks, we’ve added a lot of resources to it (I’ve helped a little, but this is the work of many other folks so I can’t take any credit for anything on here). There is a list of specific strategies that align with the primary functions of a class (getting material to students, delivering lectures, assessing work, etc.), which provide good strategies.”

Q: What would be kind of your strategy for faculty who are trying to move things online? In other words, I’ve been hearing random platitudes like “Work smarter, not harder” or “Just be flexible.” What kinds of concrete pieces of advice can you offer to people as they move all of this over in a short amount of time?

A: “Sometimes there’s some truth in the platitudes (maybe not the “work smart, not harder” one). But flexibility is key. So is being clear and explicit with students about your goals and expectations.

“There are tech solutions to some of the problems we’re facing, but before we get to tech solutions, it’s important for a faculty member to understand the principles by which they are making the change. In my own class, which is fully online this semester already, I lightened the load a little for students (with their input), and I was clear about why I was doing that. I think in a period of social isolation and social distancing, we need to be even more connected to our students than we might have been before. That connection and interaction can go a long way.

“As for specific tips and tricks.

  • Be clear about your expectations and communicate them (thinking of your students as a journalistic audience)
  • Avoid synchronous solutions (and if you use them, make sure to provide opportunities for students not able to attend those meetings to participate, such as by viewing recorded videos or reading a transcript).
  • Avoid tech overload (especially with many ed tech companies seem to be falling over themselves to try to get people to sign up for their services). Keep it simple, for your own sake and as well as for your students’.
  • Keep in mind that this kind of emergency situation has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities, especially those relating to technology access, so really do be flexible. Try to design your course to build that flexibility in without having to require students who are less privileged to keep asking for accommodations.
  • Try to develop assessments that don’t rely on proctoring, especially live proctoring. There are both tech limitations (such as the fact that some students may not have the necessary devices) and logistical ones (such as the fact that there are simply a finite number of human proctors in the world). Maybe create open-book tests or assessments that measure application of course concepts and not simple recall of facts.

Q: What would be the one big thing you’d want to tell professors, teachers and other instructors in terms of dealing with this move to online? What’s the best advice you can give them?

A: “If I were to have to boil it down to one thing, especially for journalism and media faculty who are likely to read your blog, it would be that faculty should try to frame what they’re doing in the move online to what they teach students to do in their classes. The skills journalism and media programs teach are highly applicable to online teaching, so recognizing those compatible skills may give journalism and media faculty more confidence in their ability to rapidly move online.”

The Junk Drawer, Coronavirus Edition: Sympathy for the strippers, Drive-Thru confessionals and more stuff for educators

JunkDrawer

I swear that there used to be hand sanitizer in this thing…

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need. Since I can’t seem to find anything out there that isn’t in some way related to the COVID-19 epidemic, today’s version is going to turn into the skid and go with it:

THE CORONA HOTLINE FOR INSTRUCTORS HAS MORE STUFF FOR YOU: Since we launched The Corona Hotline a week or two ago, we’ve been adding all sorts of exercises, examples and helpful tips for journalism instructors who have to move to distance education during the outbreak.

I just popped in a couple more exercises, including one that has students analyze partial quotes and a writing assignment they can do from wherever they are: A localization of the coronavirus. Local angles on this topic are everywhere, from local businesses trying to survive to students in “regular” jobs like cashiering who are now viewed as essential.

 

SIX FEET APART IS SORT-OF SEXY: One of my favorite journalists, Emily Bloch, once again demonstrated that thinking outside the box can lead to some fun stories, even in the time of corona-pocalypse. Her look at how social distancing has impacted the adult entertainment industry is a fantastic read.

My favorite quote: “We’re promoting Cash App tipping for our entertainers and gift cards are available to support us,” Moore said.

She also did a story on the other end of the spectrum: A priest was hosting “drive-thru confessions” in her area. “Yeah, hi… I’d like a number six with cheese, please, and forgiveness for tipping a stripper with a gift card…”

 

TECHNICALLY, I GUESS I COULD HAVE STAYED: Like most universities, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh has shut down for the semester. Only essential employees were required to be on campus starting last week Monday, but the chancellor did announce that faculty who felt a compelling reason to be on campus could be given special dispensation from their deans to work from their offices.

Since the place was basically a ghost town, and I have a mini-fridge full of Diet Coke there, I asked for that approval and got it. I was in the middle of recording a podcast Monday, when I heard a knock on my door and then a key hit the lock. As the door opened, I saw a giant man standing there in what looked like a full-on gas mask.

Guy: “Uh… You’re not supposed to be here…”
Me: “I have dispensation from the dean to work from my office.”
Guy: “Well, we were told no one would be here and we’re chemically disinfecting the whole building so you being here kind of defeats the purpose.”

I looked into the hallway and saw another guy with a huge chem tank spraying clouds of something into open offices, so I grabbed my computer, two binders of stuff and a spare keyboard and left.

I’m told the place will be safe in about 2-5 days.

 

SAVE YOUR BREATH ON THESE SENTENCES: A technique I give to students who want to know if their lead is too long or too “heavy” is to take a normal human breath and read it out loud. If you feel tight in the chest when you’re done, I tell them, it probably needs a trim. If you run out of air, you definitely need to take another shot at it.

Since standard leads are in the 25-35 word range, it’s clear that the Washington Post is trying to kill us all:

President Trump, under growing pressure to rescue an economy in free fall, said Monday that he may soon loosen federal guidelines for social distancing and encourage shuttered businesses to reopen — defying public health experts, who have warned that doing so risks accelerating the spread of the novel coronavirus or even allowing it to rebound.

That’s 54 words, which means find a way to start whacking that thing in half. Another Post story on the topic did a better at this when it came to the lead:

President Trump on Monday said he is considering scaling back steps to constrain the spread of the coronavirus in the next week or two because of concerns that the impact on the economy has become too severe.

Apparently, though, the writers suddenly realized they were writing for the Post and did this in the second paragraph:

But loosening restrictions on social distancing and similar measures soon probably would require him to override the internal warnings of senior U.S. health officials, including Anthony S. Fauci, who have said that the United States has not yet felt the worst of the pandemic, according to several people with knowledge of the internal deliberations.

Another 54-word sentence.

 

HOME SCHOOLING AT ITS FINEST: Zoe’s stuck here with the rest of us, trying to keep up on her school work. Yesterday, she came to Amy with this question:

Zoe: “I think I got this. A compound sentence is one that has two independent clauses and could be two complete sentences. A complex sentence is one that has a dependent clause and an independent clause, right?”
Amy (turns to me): “Well, doctor?”
Me: “Yes, that is correct.”
Zoe: “I knew I had it backwards…” (she leaves)
Me (in a whisper to Amy): “I was totally guessing…”

Throwback Thursday- Thanks Mrs. Shebesta: An appreciative ode to our teachers in the time of COVID-19

As we’re all panicking to put our stuff online and kids are now starting to grind out work at home, I thought this would be an appropriate post for Throwback Thursday.

Parents are now figuring out that teachers weren’t lying about their kids’ behavior at school. They also have figured out that it takes a lot of “staying on top of things” to make sure students get work done. Teachers are doing Herculean work to get everything figured out and make sure these students aren’t worse for wear when they move on to the next grade.

Also, students at the college level are now starting to understand that professors really do care about them and are willing to make tremendous personal sacrifices to make that happen.

I wrote this for teacher appreciation week a few years back, thanking a teacher that, without whom, I’d never be anywhere. I’m also quite certain I’d probably have fewer books written and at least two fewer carpal tunnel surgeries under my belt.

Hope it inspires you a bit as we all move forward in this mess.

Thanks, Mrs. Shebesta. (An ode to teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week.)

If you can read this, thank a teacher.

If you’re being forced to read this, blame Mrs. Shebesta.

Cheryl Shebesta taught typing at my high school, back when you learned how to type on top-of-the-line IBM Selectric typewriters that required you to use correction film when you made a mistake and pull out the “ball” of text when you wanted to change fonts. My freshman year, students were given an elective option for their schedule and my parents figured that, given my atrocious handwriting, typing might be beneficial to me.

(Yes, these things really existed, and they taught me to appreciate computers…)

I learned how to type by banging out pages of a’s and s’s and d’s and f’s on those old clunky machines as Mrs. Shebesta cranked up the latest Duran Duran songs, so we learned how to type in rhythm. When she would time us, I could bang out upwards of 55 words per minute without an error. I learned how to keep my eyes off my fingers, as looking at your hands was an unforgivable sin.

Over the years, I became like a lapsed Catholic of typing. Without Mrs. Shebesta’s watchful eye, I often would peek at my fingers or make more errors than I cared to. My speed lapsed a bit, as I was more often typing from my own thoughts than I was copying from a book page or a letter I needed to replicate. Still, without her, there is no way I’d be anywhere in life and I sure as heck wouldn’t be a journalist, a blogger, a teacher and an author. Typing is a skill I use every day and it’s one with which I could not live without.

I thought about the most influential teachers I ever had today because this is National Teacher Appreciation Week. I often refer to Steve Lorenzo, who taught my first journalism class in college and was a man whom I desperately wanted to impress. I also think back on people like Esther Thorson, who advised me throughout my doctorate and would constantly beat the heck out of my work for my own good. Many others provided me with “a moment” at a time I needed it to move forward and eventually get where I am today.

My mom taught grades 3 through 8 for 45 years at a school that often served the kids of factory workers, immigrants and the working poor. Teachers at other, richer schools often talked about their lavish Christmas or end-of-the-year gifts, while mom taught more than a few kids who wore the same clothes to school every day and at least one who slept on the couch of a drug house. Still, the times a student would stop by and thank her or provide her with a tiny token of appreciation meant the world to her. I still remember how she treasured a box of candy canes a young Hmong girl bought from a dollar store and gave to Mom for Christmas one year. It literally was the thought that counted and it counted a lot.

I know it can seem self-serving here to say, “Thank a teacher this week,” but the truth of the matter is that most of us do this job because we believe in it and we hope we helped you in some way. For the longest time, two of my diplomas were stuffed under my bed next to some old football cards and my doctoral “sheepskin” was stuck on a bookshelf under some old Sports Illustrateds. However, the thank you notes I got from students were pinned to my walls, covering every inch of wall I could give them.

This week, as our students are getting ready for the summer or to graduate, a number of them have stopped by to say goodbye. The kids I thought I had little more than a tangential affect on have told me how much the writing class they took with me helped them. The students who groused about me CONSTANTLY have said things like, “I really hated your grading, but you REALLY made me better at this.” You don’t have to turn in an Academy Award performance when you say “thanks.” Just be honest and let the teachers who mattered know they did so.

I honestly don’t know where Mrs. Shebesta is right now. Last I heard was Florida, but that might be wrong. However, as I type this up, I can still hear this song playing in my head, so I learned to type on rhythm, even though I literally have none of my own to speak of. Also, every time I make a mistake typing, I think back to that wretched correction film we had to use, thus spurring me on to think before I type (another maxim of Mrs. Shebesta).

So thanks, Mrs. Shebesta. I appreciate you more than you know. And so do all the teachers after you who could read my papers, thanks to your hard work with me in typing class.

How to motivate your students and meet their psychological needs in an online, Coronavirus educational world

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Clearly, these guys didn’t get the “Social Distancing” memo…

Professors are scrambling to find ways to provide content for their students as most universities have closed for at least a week or two as this Coronavirus outbreak suddenly became very real for a lot of people.

Several Facebook groups filled with instructors, advisers and professors with names like “Pandemic Pedagogy” and “Teaching in the Time of Corona: Resources” have provided a place for resource sharing and camaraderie for these folks. How to meet the needs of the students has become a crucial issue for instructors, as they discuss everything from technology to personalized interaction.

I won’t say I have all the answers, but I might have a few key suggestions based on research I’ve been doing for about 20 years now. I’ve been researching college students’ experiences with various forms of education through the lens of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a motivational theory built on the concept of need-satisfaction.

This post will lay out how SDT works, explain the basic tenets mean to you in this educational environment and provide you with some simple instructional suggestions that can help you help your students.

My first study in this area looked at how students felt connected to classes and felt they learned best based on the tenets laid out in SDT research. The most recent one a colleague and I completed here at UW-Oshkosh looked at how students fare in online courses compared to face-to-face instruction in relation to SDT motivation and psychological need-satisfaction.

I could geek out all day about the scholarship here, but for the sake of simplicity and putting some tools in your toolbox, let’s cut to the chase. (If you have a passion for digging deeper when we all aren’t running around with our hair on fire, get in touch with me and I’ll give you some good citations from people a lot smarter than me.)

Motivation operates on a spectrum: We have things we just love to do for the sake of doing them (intrinsic motivation), things we do because we value the outcomes (internalized motivation), things we do out of “guilt” or other such notions (introjected motivation) and things we do because we are forced to do so (external motivation). The better the motivational driver, the more likely people are to feel their psychological needs are met.

SDT touches on three basic psychological needs: Autonomy, competence and relatedness. When these are fulfilled, people tend to enjoy activities more, they tend to get more out of those activities and they tend to become more successful at accomplishing tasks. Let’s look at each need individually in a quick way:

Autonomy: This isn’t about letting people do whatever they want, but rather allowing people to feel as if they have some sort of control over potential outcomes. Controlling actions undermine autonomy, and thus limit enjoyment and engagement. The best ways to support autonomy are to offer choices when choices are possible and to explain why choices aren’t possible if options aren’t available. Additionally, perspective-taking behavior (“I know you feel this is unfair and I understand…”) can also support autonomy.

Competence: People have an intrinsic need to feel effective in their environment. Competence is attained when people take on and master meaningful tasks. Continued movement toward a goal, even throughout periods of failure, will allow individuals to feel more competence as they continue to understand how to improve during each subsequent effort. When people feel as though they can’t succeed at a task because it is too difficult or because they cannot discern why they are failing at each attempt, competence is undermined and they will give up on becoming good at something. Once they succeed at the task enough for it to become rote, they’ll move on to larger and more complex challenges.

Relatedness: Other researchers have talked about the concept of “belonging” and this fits here in similar ways. People want to make meaningful connections to people they value or want to impress. When they feel a social distance or a lack of connection, relatedness is undermined, thus leaving them less likely to succeed at tasks and progress toward meaningful outcomes.

The three needs work the way that multiple factors contribute to other forms of growth. Richard Ryan, one of the originators of SDT, once analogized the three needs to how water, soil and sunlight contribute to the growth of a plant. One of those might keep the plant barely alive. Two of those will help the plant grow. All three, in an optimum blend, will allow the plant to thrive.

A great deal of SDT research has been done to support these tenets in fields ranging from sports and leisure to education and business. The studies I mentioned initially merit concern for us in this time of Corona-pocalypse for a couple key reasons:

  1. The initial study (Filak & Sheldon, 2003) found that generally speaking students rated their experiences in a class higher if they felt their autonomy and competence needs were met. They rated their experiences with the professor higher if they felt their competence and relatedness needs were met.
  2. A follow-up study Ken Sheldon and I did (Sheldon & Filak, 2008) found that each need mattered and manipulations of the satisfaction of those needs could lead to negative performance outcomes. (In our case, the scores participants in an experiment earned playing a game of Boggle.)
  3. The last study I mentioned (Filak & Nicolini, 2018) found that in general, students in an online setting rate lower on the satisfaction of all three needs than did students in traditional classes, even if they took the online class of their own volition. That matters because online classes essentially have lower need-satisfaction to begin with, even under optimal motivation (intrinsic or internalized). We’re operating under extrinsic motivation, so now we’re coming up to bat with an 0-2 count.

With that in mind, skipping past decades of cite-worthy research, here are some things to think about in terms of ways to support these needs as you build your classes for this “alternative-delivery format” or whatever they’re calling it:

AUTONOMY SUPPORT

Offer choice whenever choice is possible: Autonomy support relies on the person in the lesser position feeling some level of control. In this situation, it feels like NOBODY is in control. As we move classes online, the goal of standardization, academic rigor and other similar things can lead to much more controlling behavior than we might tend to use in a standard classroom.

Choices in and of themselves tend to be meaningful to performance because the individual feels that sense of self-volition. When Ken Sheldon and I did our “Boggle” study, we had three copies of a Boggle grid available for participants: One pink, one blue and one yellow. In one condition, we controlled the choice (“You have to do the blue one.”) where as in the other condition, we offered choice (“Pick which ever color grid you want.”). The participants couldn’t see what was on the grid until they picked it or got it.

The people who got choice reported higher levels of autonomy and performed better. The kicker? All three grids were the same.

If you can offer students options for learning (“I recorded a podcast lecture and I’ve also provided the notes I’ve used to record it.”) or performing (“You can do the homework, quiz and test whenever you want and in whatever order you want as long as you make the deadline.”), the students will likely feel less controlled and perform better.

 

Explain when choices aren’t possible: Some classes CAN’T offer choices for individualizing experiences for students. If you have a class of 350 freshmen who are trying to get through an intro class, not every student can get what he or she wants or needs. When choices aren’t possible, simply explaining that in advance and telling people WHY those choices aren’t possible can make a difference. (“I know some of you would prefer a video lecture, but because not everyone has enough bandwidth to download or view those, I am going to have to do audio only.”)

That example includes a key element of autonomy support: Perspective taking. When people feel as if their voices are being heard, they feel as though they are taken into account within key actions. When they don’t feel that, they tend to perceive themselves as little more than a cog in a machine and thus feel less likely to think they matter.

Competence

This is the one need that we found connects to both how the students perform in a class and how much value they ascribe to their instructors. The underlying element here is that the students need to feel as though they are getting better at something if they are to feel any level of achievement. Consider the following suggestions:

 

Minimize potential failures in non-academic areas: The biggest concern my students had (and judging by the posts others have made, I’m not alone) was that they were going to not be able to “do the class.” That kind of broke down into two areas: The ability to be successful in the class outcomes (writing better, reporting etc.) and the ability to successfully navigate this new environment.

Taking the second problem first, you can minimize anxiety here by minimizing potential opportunities for failure. This means thinking about your delivery methods. Do all of your students have high-end internet, or at least high end enough to get the materials you want to give them? Are your students familiar with the platforms you want to use to convey information? (If I hear the “Zoom vs. Better than Zoom” argument one more time, I might scream…) Are your students capable of connecting with you in the time and manner in which you want? (This is why I push asynchronous learning over synchronous options.)

If you can put up the “bowling bumpers” on simple things like this and keep your environment more familiar to them (Canvas, BlackBoard whatever) as well as something simpler (This is in the eye of the beholder, but traditionally in terms of insane complexity VR > synchronous video > asynchronous video > podcasting > text-based stuff) you will help them feel more competent.

 

Fewer assignments, more drafting: As this is primarily for writing folks, this might already be on your radar, but it bears repeating. The more they obsess about the number of assignments they “have to” (read: extrinsic motivation) do, the less they’re going to feel competent on any one of them.

Ungraded drafts allows you to provide them with corrections without penalty and thus improve (read: gain competence) on a given assignment. This will also help the ones who worry the most feel more relaxed about trying something without fear of failing an assignment. If you had five assignments with one draft each, cut it back to three with two drafts. Same amount of work, but better overall results with improved opportunities for competence-building outcomes.

I have also found that I’m more able to stand firm on the “No, you can’t just rewrite it because you don’t like the grade” argument because they HAD chances to rewrite it. They just didn’t take them.

 

Positive reinforcement with corrective options: Competence building comes from knowing what you did right, so you can replicate it, and what you did wrong, so you can fix it. It takes longer than just noting “Awkward” on a paper, but it’s worth it in this environment, because the student can’t see or connect with you (we’ll get to that in the next need).

The explanations do not need to be long-winded diatribes on what worked and what didn’t, but rather simple reinforcement. (“Good lead. See how active voice made that sentence work better?” or “Nice use of a quote there. The state rep said what you couldn’t without looking biased.”) You can also explain problems simply as well. (“Passive voice undercut your point. Readers want to know WHO did the deed.”)

 

Relatedness

This one becomes extremely valuable because the students feel cut off from pretty much everything they knew in regard to their lives up to this point. They don’t have school. Many were shipped out of dorms to go home, leaving behind roommates and friends. They don’t have those “third places” one of my old editors used to talk about where people they knew gathered: The gym, the bar, the dining hall and more.

They are going to be more hungry for connectivity than at any point in life. Know it or not, you matter to them at this point more than almost anyone else for a few key reasons:

  • Most students in our classes (read media/journalism/broadcast etc.) are taking them as part of a major or a minor. This isn’t like that medieval basket-weaving course they had to take as part of their gen eds. The class has value to them and they know they want to be good at it.
  • You are impressive. You have managed to do what a lot of them want to do (write for the media, go into PR, be a reporter etc.) so you are the person to whom most of them want to connect, at least compared to that medieval basket-weaving professor.
  • You already connected. You spent seven weeks with these folks and they formed some sort of bond. Even if it’s not a “Goodbye Mr. Chips” situation, it’s something that they now feel they’ve lost.

Here are some things you can do to create relatedness:

Start “We”ing things: One of the key components of relatedness involves feeling bonded to the people who matter to us. One of the simplest ways in which this happens comes down to collective pronouns like “we” and “us.”

Students who freak out about this new class process and hear “you’re going to be fine,” are given relief initially, but then start thinking, “What does (HE/SHE) mean by that?” When students are told “We’re all going to be fine when this is over. We are going to make it work,” they get a sense of collective identity and shared responsibility. You can lay out what you plan to do and how they can help you accomplish that. You can lay out what they need to do and how you plan to help them accomplish that.

It sounds simple and it is, but it works.

Personally connect in a meaningful way: Professors always worry about the idea of “oversharing” or “getting too close” to students. Those are completely reasonable concerns. That said, there are simple ways to connect with students that will help them feel that their need for relatedness is being met.

For example, if a student emails you and asks about something having to do with the class, it can’t hurt to ask, “How are you doing at home?” Students will often end emails to me with something vaguely personal like, “I’ll try to get this done tonight, but I have to watch my little cousin and that means way too many episodes of ‘Arthur’ on TV…” In my response, I try to reference that when possible:

  • Hi Jane, Hope you didn’t hit “Arthur” overload the other day…
  • Hi Jane, I know what that’s like. Zoe used to watch “Maggie and the Ferocious Beast” nine hours a day when we’d let her…
  • Hi Jane, How cute! How old is your little cousin?

These simple things say that I’m viewing our emails as more than a class-based transaction-style relationship. It’s something simple but it works.

The autonomy and relatedness need are often “handcuffed” in the literature in terms of perspective-taking actions (“Yeah, I know that can be rough…”) but the goal here is to let them know you value them as people and you want to connect with them.

Not all of these will work perfectly and this isn’t all of what SDT has to offer. However, I hope this will give you a starting point as you start working on your classes for the Corona-pocalypse 2020. If you have questions or want more information on how to apply this to your situation, feel freeto contact me here.

Best always,

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)