Dear students, Don’t let Everett Piper tell you that you suck.

For reasons past my understanding, this thing is making the rounds again:

The President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University gave a lecture to students they’ll never forget. Recently a student complained about a sermon that made him feel guilty and blamed the school for making students feel uncomfortable. This is not uncommon. Many universities now are so afraid of offending even one student, that political correctness has run amuck.

However, this University is based on religion and so one would expect that discipline, good character and personal accountability would be a big part of the curriculum.

Everett Piper, who is the President of the school, wrote a letter to the students admonishing them that playing the victim, blaming others and not admitting mistakes is not a way to live a productive and meaningful life. Here is the letter titled “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!”

Piper’s open letter originally made waves in 2015 when he first posted it and it suddenly went viral, thanks to his leveraging of social media and the talk-show circuit. Every so often, someone finds it again and posts it to a listserv or a Facebook feed and it starts to catch fire again.

Professors often deal with a wide array of students, but it is usually the best and worst ones that make the greatest of impressions. Thus, we tend to recall the kid who skipped seven weeks of class and then showed up for the final or the guy who swears his grandmother died 19 times in the semester to justify his frequent absences. Get about four professors in a room around this time of year and a game of, “I bet you can’t top this” will inevitably happen, as we tell tales about student baffling student behavior.

That said, this letter is total crap for a number of reasons. For students out there reading this, and who are tired of getting dumped on, here are a couple points to ponder before you let a guy like Everett Piper make you feel miserable during finals week:

 

Recall the Johnny Sain Axiom on Old Timers Day

Johnny Sain, a longtime pitcher and pitching coach, had a disdain for Old Timers Day, when out-of-shape old players would return and tell stories of their glory. He captured the reason perfectly and with a phrase you should always remember:

“The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

I don’t know Everett Piper personally, but if he’s like every other human adult I ever met, I’m fairly confident he wasn’t perfect at the age of 19. If I had a nickel for every mistake I made, stupid thing I said, dumb question I asked and wrong position I held in my college years, I could buy Earth and evict Piper from it. The point is to learn from those mistakes and help other people who are likely to make those mistakes as well.

I occasionally get a question that goes something like, “Wow, you work with college students? Don’t you ever feel jealous of them for (whatever freedom they supposedly have to drink like a fish, hook up every night or just have a metabolism that doesn’t reflexively add inches to my waistline every day)?”

The answer, “No and HELL no.” I remember living off of buckets of Ramen and those frozen chicken things that were probably part cat, but were 10 for $5 at the local convenience store. I remember having to decide between another beer and laundry money. I remember the anxiety associated with asking people out, trying not to screw up a relationship and having to listen to The Cure for hours on end after each break up.

Would I care for a return to crappy apartments where the heat was controlled in only one unit, brown water that came out of the tap and a basement that smelled of god-knows-what? No thank you. I survived the first time and I’m lucky I got out with 10 fingers and 10 toes. Remembering that is what drives me to help you get better.

Too many people eventually get older and develop selective amnesia, thus allowing them to tell kids, “When I was YOUR AGE, I (never/always) did (whatever)…” and really believe it. I’d bet every dollar in my pocket against whatever Piper has in his that there were times when he whined as a student or groused about something being unfair or complained about how he felt without thinking about how it would sound to other people.

It’s not that we have too many trigger warnings or that too much stuff is gluten free or that we can’t say “Merry Christmas” to anyone without starting a culture war these days. Those are all strawmen, just like Piper’s student at the front of his letter.

The fact is, there have always been good things and bad things that people exalted or wailed about in life. It’s just the people doing it now have forgotten how much they hated hearing about their grandparents explaining how ungrateful “kids in your generation are these days,” which is why they do it to other people.

Keep that in mind if you ever end up the president of a university and you have an urge to yell at a kid for standing on your lawn.

 

Consider the Source

In journalism, we teach people to look at the source of the information before we consider how much weight to give it. Sure, from the outside, Everett Piper may look like the shining beacon of greatness upon the hill of glory, but consider the following information before you worry what he thinks about you:

He grew up in a town of about 8,000 people and attended a nearby private school of about 2,000 people in late 1970s/early 1980s, when you weren’t required to hock an internal organ to pay tuition. Upon graduation in 1982, he took off for the work world, as you can see below:

PiperExperience

So he graduated at the age of 22/23, immediately went into academic administration and never left. Not exactly the story his university tells about him:

A native of Hillsdale Michigan, Dr. Piper grew up in a family that valued hard work, a mindset he carried with him as he moved from industry into pursuing a college degree.

Not sure how much “industry” work he did between the ages of 18 and 23 while in school, but he wasn’t a returning student, or a single parent, or a GI Bill kid, or any of those other kinds of folks I see on a daily basis who work their asses off to survive. He might or might not be the prototypical example of a guy who thinks he hit a triple when he was actually born on third base, but he’s also isn’t a latter-day “Rudy,” either.

Piper’s proud defense of his university not being a daycare seems a bit suspect, as he is making money off the deal. He turned his “catchphrase” into a nice cottage industry of castigating the youth and yelling about the snowflakes on his lawn.

The university even promotes the purchase of this stuff on its website. (What was that story about Jesus and the money changers in the temple? Oh, yeah…)

Also, consider this line from his letter to the masses:

If you’re more interested in playing the “hater” card than you are in confessing your own hate; if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn; if you don’t want to feel guilt in your soul when you are guilty of sin; if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.

(The emphasis on those two statements is mine.)

If the irony of that first line doesn’t send your hater-ade filled soul into laughing fits, I don’t know what will. It’s easy to “arrogantly lecture” people, as Piper has clearly shown with his letter doing exactly that. Also, instead of dumping all over the kid who came to you with this concern about a Bible passage you likely understood far better than he did, why not help that little snowflake “humbly learn” what it meant instead of using the kid as a strawman to bolster your self-serving position?

(Side note: When someone tells me that something “actually” happened and “I am not making this up” in successive paragraphs at the front of a story, I’d bet money that person is making something up.)

(It’s even more amazing than when you have the ability to monetize your grousing…)

The second line (and any other similar phrase) always annoys me when it comes from people in a position of advantage. When is the last time University President and Almighty Deity of Knowledge Everett Piper was called out for his horsepucky? Probably back when people were rocking popped collars and jamming out to Duran Duran. It’s easy to say that people need to be confronted when you possess the power and position to do so, without fear of retribution.

And if all that hasn’t convinced you, read his Twitter feed. The guy has a transphobic Chuck Norris meme up there (as one of his many anti-LGBTQ tweets), called incoming house Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a clueless child and referred to universities (all except for his, I’m guessing) as “bigoted, Intolerant, ill-liberal, inconsistent and closed minded.” Not exactly the bastion of intellectual argumentation I’d expect from a guy who reflexively calls himself “Doctor” more times than you’d hear it on a Thompson Twins’ Greatest Hits album.

 

Don’t Let These Guys Win

The problem isn’t that Everett Piper exists or that he has created a nice little business out of shaming college students with the tone of a high-strung school marm. The problem is that he isn’t alone.

Each generation likes to blame the one before for its problems and dump all over the one after it for not being perfect. As mentioned earlier, people like to get together and complain about how “a student did something you wouldn’t believe…”

Like any other stereotype, it contains a kernel of truth. Like any other stereotype, you can beat it. And like any other stereotype, you should call it out when you hear it.

Don’t let Piper and his ilk decide that you damned kids and your hippity-hoppity music are ruining this world and that if we could just get “Happy Days” back on the air, life would be good again. Don’t let this guy sell books off of the assumption that you will crumble or melt or whatever the comparative is that Piper or the next chucklehead uses to deride your generation. When someone decides to grump in your general direction, use your finely honed interviewing skills to pick apart their self-serving rubbish and demonstrate your intellectual journalistic superiority.

Sure, there are self-absorbed twerps in college who will claim their goldfish’s death merits a six-week extension on an already late paper. There are also dingleberries out there who misapply triggers and trigger warnings to mean anything they would prefer to avoid, as opposed to the actual medical situation they are.  There are plenty of examples of students that make us shake our heads until we develop neck cramps.

However, when you see something like this, written by someone like Piper, take a moment and smile. Think to yourself, “Gee, it must be so sad to think so little of the people you are supposed to help that your best approach to dealing with ONE QUESTION is to publicly rip AN ENTIRE GENERATION to shreds with a letter and then go write a book to pat yourself on the back for being superior to anyone under the age of 22.”

Then, go back to working hard to be better than this guy is. Commit yourself to being the antithesis of what he purports you to be. In other words:

“I have no hope of keeping my job:” What happens when an award-winning journalist works with student journalists who do actual journalism at the University of North Alabama.

Scott Morris, the media adviser at the University of North Alabama, is exactly the kind of person anyone would want overseeing young student journalists.

In his almost 30 years of professional experience, he has served as a reporter, sports editor, city editor and managing editor and received numerous awards while doing so. He earned the Carmage Walls Commentary Prize as well as state and regional awards for investigative reporting and various forms of commentary. While editor of the TimesDaily in Florence, Alabama, the paper won more than 60 awards in his last three years there including First Amendment, Freedom of Information and community service honors.

With a wide array of experiences, good management expertise and a stalwart sense of the importance of First Amendment values, Morris has provided students at UNA with invaluable opportunities to learn writing, reporting, editing and publishing over his past four years at the institution.

Which is kind of a problem for administrators who don’t like those meddling kids

ALABAMA — The University of North Alabama is ousting the student media adviser after the student paper published a story critiquing the school’s administration. The move has sparked sharp condemnation from journalism and First Amendment groups and the campus publications board.

In September 2018, The Flor-Ala reported the administration improperly withheld public documents about the resignation of the vice president of student affairs. A week later, the journalists, members of the communications department and The Flor-Ala media adviser Scott Morris met with University Provost Ross Alexander.

According to Morris, Alexander was angry about the Sept. 6 article and the meeting was tense. On Sept. 26, the provost informed Morris that the student media adviser job description had been changed, and Morris is now unqualified for his position.

In an email interview last week, Morris laid out a timeline of the events that led to publication of the story.

“Managing Editor Harley Duncan told me in late July that the university had fired (he technically resigned, we learned later) the vice president of student affairs, and university police had banned a professor from campus,” Morris said. “Duncan said he was trying to find out more by talking to university public relations. In the meantime, my boss, department of communications Chair Butler Cain, called me and told me that Provost Ross Alexander was willing to talk to Duncan about the situation.”

Alexander spoke with Duncan, but he didn’t discuss the situation or what had happened in regard tot he professor or the VP. Instead, Alexander asked Duncan to “wait a few weeks” and then Alexander would explain everything. Instead of letting the news get stale, Duncan kept digging and kept looking for other sources.

“The provost called Duncan back a few days later and said the VP had resigned to seek other opportunities,” Morris said. “He told Duncan not to ask anyone else any more questions about it.”

In other words:

Instead, Duncan did what journalists always do when human sources stonewall them: He filed open-records requests. The university denied the requests TWICE on grounds that the personnel files requested contained “sensitive files.”

“Duncan and I talked again, and he decided to try to determine if the university was breaking the Alabama Open Records Act,” Morris wrote. “He talked to a media attorney who confirmed the university was violating an opinion written by former state Attorney General Jeff Sessions concerning personnel files.”

With that information in hand, the Flor-Ala ran the story, “Administration denies public records, in direct violation of attorney general opinion” in its Sept. 6 issue.

“On Sept. 13, Duncan, another editor, department Chair Butler Cain and I met in the provost’s office,” Morris said. “We talked generally about all parties making an effort to have a good working relationship. Then, Provost Alexander flipped over the Sept. 6 article that he had on the table and said it contained ‘several inaccuracies.'”

When Morris asked about the inaccuracies, Alexander noted several things he didn’t like, but that weren’t inaccurate.

(Side note: This is a common approach among administrators and other people who don’t like what you write as a journalist. It’s also how “fake news” became a term people use to describe things that don’t jibe with their preferred world view. When someone tells you that you are “wrong” or “inaccurate” in a story, ask the person to explain what is wrong and why it is wrong. About 80 percent of the time, you’ll find the person has equated to “I don’t like that” to “That’s not right.”)

Shortly after the meeting, the administration started shifting the ground under Morris. A Sept. 19 email from Dean Carmen Burkhalter to the HR department told officials there to put Morris’ performance evaluation on hold.

A week later, Burkhalter met with Morris to tell him his position was being eliminated and replaced with a tenure-track job that required a Ph.D., something Morris didn’t possess and could not achieve before the job was to be filled. He met with his department chairman, Butler Cain, who said he hadn’t heard about this change, nor had he made this as a recommendation.

“I told Cain, it sounded like a knee-jerk decision by Provost Alexander because of the article,” Morris wrote. “He said he didn’t know, but ‘it could be.’ Cain has since circled back to support the provost 100 percent. He said this has nothing to do with retaliation, although I’m not sure how he would know that since the provost didn’t bother to include him in the decision.”

Nothing to do with retaliation. Right. Just like I’m sure Sonny Corleone just happened to catch a toll booth guy on a bad day:

 

In the mean time, College Media Association officials announced that UNA was under censure for its actions against Morris.

“I can’t tell you how much the censure means to me,” Morris said. “It was much-needed validation at a time when my own department chair and dean would not stand up for what’s right. I don’t think the censure will have any impact on my employment, but I believe it has opened the eyes of a lot of people at the university and in the community. Since the censure, a few faculty members have had the courage to speak up and question the university’s actions. Many others have told me privately that they support me but they are scared to say anything in public because they are afraid of Provost Ross Alexander.”

Others in the media covered the issue as well, noting that free speech and free press rights are getting bulldozed at the institution. Morris, for his part, has tried to stay above the fray, guiding the students who find themselves in the unenviable position of covering the news while also being the news.

“The students were concerned about how to fairly cover an issue that involved themselves and their adviser,” Morris said. “They decided to get a student media adviser from another university to advise them on this story so there would be no conflict of interest on my part.

“In the middle of it, Cain sent an email to me basically telling me to keep my students in line. He wrote: ‘I do ask that students with The Flor-Ala be reminded to think carefully before venting their spleens in the paper or in the online edition. I understand they are likely upset, and I’ll make myself available to speak with them. I’m just wanting them to avoid doing something rash.'”

(Venting their spleens? It’s rare that a phrase has me simultaneously visualizing a 19th Century medicine man and a mob guy running a protection racket.)

With the intense glare of outside eyes, UNA is attempting to engage in revisionist history regarding Morris’ situation. In other words:

 

“They are using old emails and a memo from 2014 to claim that they have planned to change the adviser’s position to tenured faculty for years,” Morris said. “In fact, all those old emails and memos say is that we agreed to move student media from student affairs to the department of communications, and the unit would continue operating and being funded as it had in the past…”

“One of the most gratifying things that happened was when Dr. Greg Pitts, the former department chair who is at another university now, went on the record disputing the provost and dean’s contention that this move had been in the works since 2014,” Morris added. “Pitts told several media outlets: ‘If anybody asserts that the discussion to change Scott’s position started in 2014 with me, I would simply say that claim is false. At best, it is a wrong conclusion based on the kind of working relationship I wanted to see the department have with student media and The Flor-Ala. At worst, it’s a distortion that gets attributed to me because I am no longer on the faculty.’”

As a longtime journalist and a rational human being, Morris said he knows that this situation will not end well for him at UNA.

“I have no hope of keeping my job,” he said. “The administrators seem intent on sticking to their actions and their dishonest explanations for those actions. Honestly, I find their behavior cruel and repulsive.”

As for his experiences with the staffers at the Flor-Ala, Morris said the juice was worth the squeeze.

“The direct work and relationships with students are among the most gratifying experiences I have had in life,” he said. “I love the students’ enthusiasm and their willingness to “take on the man.” But I would also add that learning how so many people in academia — including those with tenure — just kiss ass to self-serving administrators is so disappointing. I suppose I was naïve, but that part of the equation shocked me. People who teach the First Amendment rights in the hallways and classrooms are afraid to defend it when it involves a personal risk. They should just shut up and teach students how to write press releases instead of pretending to know anything about journalism.”

3 reasons why censoring student media is the dumbest thing you can do as an administrator

The students at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, just got a top-notch education in the area of journalism, censorship and the power of shame this week. The school newspaper, The Herald, published an in-depth, investigative story that details the questionable transfer of several football players to another high school. The story also highlighted some questionable behavior on the part of administrators and athletic officials in regard to this situation.

Naturally, the school district was shocked by this, so district officials decided to kill the messenger:

An Arkansas school district suspended its high school newspaper and threatened to fire the teacher who advises it after student journalists wrote a story criticizing the transfer of five football players to a rival high school.

“They are like, ‘Well, you raised an uproar, we’re going to try and silence you,’” Halle Roberts, 17, the editor-in-chief of the Har-Ber Herald, told BuzzFeed News.

Censorship of any newspaper flies in the face of freedom of the press, however, administrators often feel they have the right to do so for a couple erroneous reasons:

  1. They are the adults. The students are kids. They believe that in the power dynamic, adult trumps kid.
  2. The Hazelwood decision, which administrators have come to misinterpret as carte blanche to censor.
  3. The principle of “ostrich syndrome,” in which people believe if they stick their head in the sand, nothing bad can happen. Thus, if we can just shut people up and nobody can see the problem, it doesn’t exist.

What followed was pure outrage from pretty much the rest of the media world. Buzzfeed News, the Associated Press and Teen Vogue covered the story as did the local publications in Arkansas. The Student Press Law Center got involved and agreed to repost the stories as a public service so anyone could read them.

Eventually, the school district caved, and the students were allowed to put the story back online. Communications director Rick Schaeffer explained the district’s rationale in a particularly bloodless way:

“After continued consideration of the legal landscape, the Springdale School District has concluded that the Har-Ber Herald articles may be reposted,” he wrote. “This matter is complex, challenging and has merited thorough review. The social and emotional well-being of all students has been and continues to be a priority of the district.

In other words, this only “merited thorough review” after you played a game of chicken with the students and not only did they fail to swerve, but they were driving a tank and you were on a bicycle.

Nice save.

Look, the larger problem here is not that the students had to go through all of this, but that this could have been easily avoided if the administration understood the law, realized how media works or just Googled “censoring HS paper goes to hell.” To inspire future administrators to avoid these problems (and also to help you find ways to push back against censorship), here are a few thoughts that should help keep the important stories front and center, despite the ways in which they embarrass school folks:

 

Stop Fighting Fire With Gasoline

The whole reason that administrators attempt to censor student media is because whatever the students published is drawing embarrassing attention to the school. Administrators surmise that if they can kill the message (or the messenger), the attention will stop coming and things will go back to normal.

Simply put, that’s as stupid as trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline.

The first thing that a group of media students will do when you attack them is to make a bigger issue out of it. If they’re good enough to pull together an investigation like this one, they’re not going down without a fight and they clearly have no fear. The more you try to crack them in half, the stronger their resolve will be. That means… Wait for it… more negative attention on your school.

Now, not only does your school look like garbage for whatever the students uncovered, now EVERYBODY is looking at what they uncovered. Furthermore, additional stories are now emerging about the attempt to censor the publication and how lousy the administration is in attempting to beat up on these kids.

People who never even HEARD of your city or your school now know it for all the wrong reasons. Truth be told, even though Springdale, Arkansas is “The Poultry Capital of the World,” I never knew it existed until this censorship debacle hit my Facebook feed.

If you want to avoid problems like this, don’t let stupid things happen in your school in the first place. If you want to avoid making them worse, don’t compound the original stupidity with more of your own.

 

Student Media Kids Have Bodyguards

Administrators are the kings of the castle when it comes to the school itself. Who gets a hall pass, who gets early release, what the dress code needs to be and more are all at the behest of the principal or other similar administration officials. That sense of power can lead to all sorts of things, not the least of which is the assumption that might makes right.

OK, but what happens when you aren’t the strongest person there anymore? What happens when the kids realize this and figure, “Hey, we just need a bodyguard…”

The bad news for you is that they already HAVE those kinds of folks and they aren’t remotely afraid of you. You lack power over them and they have no problem saying, “OK, you wanna play? Let’s play.” These “bodyguards” are folks like the Student Press Law Center, which has a mission and purpose to stand up for students getting messed around by overreaching administrators. These “bodyguards” are journalists at the local and national media outlets, who value the kids’ efforts and disdain censorship of all kinds. (Plus, they probably remember getting messed over by an administrator during their time as students and didn’t like feeling helpless.)

If you decide to step into the ring with the students and do something dumb like this, the students will have plenty of people at the ready who will do everything in their power to make you really regret it.

 

This Is Not Your Father’s Censorship

A few years back, I spoke to a school board in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where the student publication had been censored and the last line I left them with is one that should ring in your ears forever: “Control is an illusion.”

In the days of Hazelwood (1980s), when an administrator dropped the hammer on a student publication, that was pretty much the end of it. If the paper wasn’t allowed to print something, the students had virtually no other way to get that story out to the public. You were the gatekeeper and you slammed the gate.

That’s not how anything works anymore.

The minute you decide to censor the paper, pull the piece off of the paper’s website or whatever else you think will stop the story from gaining traction, the kids have 12,148 other ways to get this thing out there.

Case in point: The Herald’s story was reposted to the SPLC website so everyone on Earth could read it. People in the student media community were tweeting links to the story everywhere. Someone took a photo of the print edition and it was making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. I’m sure you could get a T-shirt made with the whole story on it at CustomInk, if you put your mind to it…

The point is, control has always been an illusion, but now more than ever, you have no control over content. The more suppression you attempt to impose, the harder people will work to share the information you want to suppress.

In summary, you need to realize that trying to censor student media these days is like trying to grab a fist full of Jell-O: The harder you squeeze, the less successful you are. If you really want this thing to go away, do the smart thing: Applaud the work of the students, tell whoever asks that you’re looking into it and fix the problem if you can.

It’s the adult thing to do.

That’s not what I meant, but it is what I wrote: The perils of not rereading your headlines

In the state of Wisconsin, we have an interesting few weeks after our midterm elections. Democrats won both the governor’s office and the attorney-general’s race while both branches of the State Legislature remained in the hands of the Republicans.

Before the power of the governor and attorney general transition from Republican to Democrat, legislative leaders called a lame-duck session to make some “last-minute adjustments” to the rights and responsibilities of the offices they will no longer control. (Side Note: The fact that one party is doing this or not doing it is inconsequential to me. I don’t like it because it seems hypocritical, given the rage that Republicans expressed when Democrats tried a similarly dumb session in 2010 as power was shifting. Both of these things are inconsequential to the point I’m making, but I figured it was fair to toss that out there.)

After a late-night/early-morning marathon session, the House and Senate voted mainly along party lines to do get some things done that they felt they couldn’t get done once the transition of power was complete. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel as done a great job of covering each iteration of this from top to bottom, but it appears their efforts might have been undone with a lousy headline:

ScaleBackHead

The story clearly points out that the lawmakers did reject a bill to protect pre-existing conditions. It also makes clear that the lawmakers did scale back Democrats’ power in those aforementioned offices. However, that’s not what the headline says. It appears to say that there is one bill that was rejected and that bill would have protected pre-existing conditions AND scaled back Democrats’ power.

Pretty much anyone following this would have seen that change as a big deal, because it would have been a 180-degree flip for the Republicans in the Legislature. Pretty much anyone following this would have ALSO figured that there was a better chance of outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker riding into the chamber at 3 a.m. on a unicorn, before leading both sides in an impromptu version of the gang dance from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video than that flip occurring.

That said, “Aw, you know what I meant” isn’t a legal or professional defense against a mistake like this. If you don’t believe me, reconsider our discussion of this gem:

Handjob
(They never had this program when I was in school…)

Here are three simple tips for making sure you don’t goof up a headline:

  1. RTFS: This stands for a number of things, but “Read The FULL Story” is probably the least offensive version of it. In most cases, you run into problems when you only read a few paragraphs and figure you can nail the headline. In some cases, that’s true, such as a bare-bones inverted-pyramid story on a baseball game. However, most things are more nuanced than “who beat whom and what was the score” so make sure you give yourself the chance to read through the whole thing before you start writing the headline.
  2. Have someone ELSE who isn’t involved in the story read the headline: Many problems in writing come from a writer who has a lot of knowledge of a topic assuming too much about what other people might know. Other problems stem from the “you know what I meant” syndrome that writers fall back on after they fall on their keys in public. I’d bet that most people who read the Pratt Tribune didn’t think the kids were really getting a “first hand job” either, but again, that’s why a second (or third or fourth) set of eyes on your writing will help make things better.
  3. Focus on helping your readers. The first time I read this headline, I thought, “Hey, maybe all the attention got to them.” Then, I read the story and realized that I was wrong, which made me angry at the situation and angry at the headline writer. Part of it felt like it might have been just a late-night goof, but the other part of it felt like, “Just put a headline on this thing and people will read it anyway.”

    We usually get ticked off at click-bait heads like, “How to make $1 million in a day!” or “You’ll never guess how good THIS STAR looks after a stint in prison.” However, we’re pretty good at this point about ferreting out the clearly weaselly heads and we kind of get over it. In a case like this, it’s a trusted source that looked bad, and that can do more damage than a particularly hyperbolic head in a lousy publication.

 

Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

Trigger warning: Don’t read this near breakfast, lunch, dinner or especially a snack table.

 

After almost a semester of media writing, some of my students still have trouble finding the lead for their pieces. I get the “held a meeting” lead, the “chronological order” lead, the “date it happened” lead, “firefighters arrived at the fire” lead and a dozen other cliche or problematic leads we discuss in the books.

Of all the stories I dealt with on Friday, whether I was grading papers or sitting through meetings, only one of them really nailed the point of getting to the point.

And it started with vomit.

Zoe spent the whole day at school, where she had tests and homework to make up from her extended Thanksgiving break. She then volunteered to serve dinner to help raise money for the high school’s madrigal choir, as part of her eighth-grade service requirement. It was about 10 p.m. when I picked her up from the school and this was our conversation:

Me: “So how was your day? How did the tests go? How was the dinner? Did you get to wear a costume? What kinds of things did they serve? Was it fun?”
Her: “Mason puked at the end of the dinner and a couple other kids were feeling sick too.”
Me: “Um…”
Her: “I didn’t eat anything so I didn’t puke, but after Mason puked, everyone else seemed to feel like they were gonna…”
Me: “YEAH! HEY! Let’s see what’s on the radio…”

Say what you want to about the subject matter, but she nailed that lead.

It didn’t matter that the kid threw up at the very end of the day. It was the first thing she noted.

It didn’t matter how cool the costumes were or how much she worked or even if she finished her test. Those things happen all the time. Vomit, however, is odd, immediate and has an impact (pun intended). You could even argue conflict (stomach vs. gullet) fits in there and that fame will now follow “that one kid who puked at the madrigal dinner.”

It seemed that every time someone decided to “reverse course on food consumption,” that’s all the kids talk about. I remember picking her up from 4K one day and all I heard about was how “Katie puked on the snack table during morning snack, so we couldn’t have snack and I was hungry, but they wouldn’t let us have snack because of the puke on the snack table.”

She nailed the 5Ws and 1H pretty well there. She also aided and abetted my desire to avoid Goldfish crackers for a few months.

The point is that kids don’t bury the lead and quite often they figure out what it is that makes something memorable pretty quickly. Somewhere along the way, we lose that ability or we figure that since it’s college or formal writing that we need to stuffy up the structure and lead into the key elements with 19 other things before we get to the “Great Snack Table Debacle of Tuesday Morning.”

When you strip away everything else, lead writing is basically just this: Tell me what happened and tell me why I care. Look for action, uniqueness, immediacy and relevance.

In short, look for the “vomit moment” and you’ll be in pretty good shape.

 

George H.W. Bush deserved better leads for his obituary (Plus tips to help you write one of these things well)

Obituaries are tough pieces to write for a number of reasons:

  1. The event that necessitates an obituary (someone dying) rarely happens at a predetermined or convenient moment.
  2. Sources are often grieving or in some other way impaired, leading to difficulty in getting accurate or quality information from them.
  3. It might be the first time a person is put in the public eye via your media outlet and it will likely be the last. Thus, accuracy becomes even more of a paramount interest than it is in every other piece you do.
  4. When you are writing on a famous person and everyone is watching, if you screw up, you’re going to take that mistake with  you to your own grave.

On the other hand, the lead for an obituary should be pretty simple because it’s hard to miss the point: Somebody died.

Noun-verb. Throw in a few accomplishments. Get the “when” right. Keep it to the 25-35 word range. Don’t include a fact error. Easy peasy, lemon-squeezy.

Which is why it was baffling to see how so many publications swinging wildly and missing like crazy when it came to reporting the death of George H.W. Bush this weekend.

If you want to see what happens when you pack too much random stuff into a lead and forget the point, take a look at the Washington Post’s attempt: 

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, was a steadfast force on the international stage for decades, from his stint as an envoy to Beijing to his eight years as vice president and his one term as commander in chief from 1989 to 1993.

This lead is meandering 51 words, and yet did you notice that something is missing? Yeah… the fact he died. Also his age. You’ll need to read down to the THIRD paragraph for those tidbits.

 

Not to be outdone in trying too hard, here’s the NY Times take on the death of 41:

George Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, who steered the nation through a tumultuous period in world affairs but was denied a second term after support for his presidency collapsed under the weight of an economic downturn and his seeming inattention to domestic affairs, died on Friday night at his home in Houston. He was 94.

I tell my students to read their leads out loud and if they run out of air before the end, their lead sentences are probably too long. This one is a lung-busting 63 words, or almost double the maximum for decent leads and had the run-on sentence feel of an over-sugared 4-year-old telling someone about a day at an amusement park.

The bigger issue is that including everything possible about this guy, they failed to help people focus on a specific thing or two that really mattered.

USA Today went with the two-sentence lead:

HOUSTON — George Herbert Walker Bush, the president who managed the end of the Cold War and forged a global coalition to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, has died at age 94. In a political career that spanned three decades, he lost his bid for re-election and lived to see his son win the Oval Office.

Not bad in terms of the key elements of who he was and what he did that mattered, but this could have easily been trimmed down to make for one good sentence.

 

Bush’s “hometown paper” decided to go with the “mega-link” approach:

George Herbert Walker Bush, whose lone term as the 41st president of the United States ushered in the final days of the Cold War and perpetuated a family political dynasty that influenced American politics at both the national and state levels for decades, died Friday evening in Houston. He was 94.

I’m a huge fan of hyperlinking, but when about 80 percent of your lead is a link, why should I bother to read your story here? Chance are, the most important stuff in your lead is covered in that other piece.

 

Not sure what to make of The Telegraph’s detail-oriented approach, but it is distinctive:

George HW Bush died surrounded by family and friends after a last meal of soft boiled eggs, yoghurt and fruit juice as Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor, sang Silent Night at his bedside, it has emerged.

The phrase “last meal” makes it sound like he was being executed or that the meal itself did him in. Also, “it has emerged” has both a creepy and odd sense to it. Not sure why…

The best of the bunch came from CBS, who properly prized brevity and clarity. Here’s the CBS website’s lead:

George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, whose long life in the public sphere was defined by service to his country, has died. He was 94.

Of all the leads I could find, this one nailed the guts of the story perfectly without overdoing it with details. The guy lived for 94 years, held some of the most influential positions in the country and took part in some of the most important events of the century. We’re not going to cover all of them in the lead, so give me a solid focus and move me on. Good call.

When it comes to writing leads for obituaries, think about a few basic things:

  1. Focus on the noun-verb elements (person died) and then build outward with the “where” and “when.” Start there so you don’t forget it.
  2. “Why” should reflect why this person mattered. Most important people who receive news-style obituaries will have some claim to fame, so focus on that. If you find that there is too much “fame” to handle all the key famous incidents, look for a common theme among the fame, as the CBS lead did (lifetime of public service covers his military service, his various posts in various aspects of government and his later life work with Bill Clinton on Haiti and other similar projects).
  3. “How” is important to some extent, depending on the cause of death and the degree to which it was a logical progression of life. When you have a 94-year-old man with a degenerative disease, a quick mention in the lead works if you feel the need or you can push it down deeper into the story and not lose anything. If a 21-year-old star athlete dies in the prime of his life, the “how” will likely become the central focus of the piece.
  4. Tell me a story. The best obituaries are the ones where you learn something about someone that makes you wish you had known that person during his or her life. That’s where the lead comes in. If you can focus that clearly on that “gee, I’m glad I know that” element in the lead, you’ll have a great story that grows from it.

Throwback Thursday: Earning the fungus on your shower shoes

One of my favorite early posts involves a Filak-ism I grabbed from the baseball movie “Bull Durham,” where Kevin Costner is explaining to Tim Robbins that things are different in the majors than they are for him now in the minor leagues.The line about “earning the fungus on your shower shoes” is a good one to remember. It’s also important to remember that just because you earned the right to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD do that thing.The reason more seasoned writers get the leeway they do in terms of breaking with style, writing in something other than third person, skipping the occasional attribution and other things that will cause your grade to suffer is because they can rationalize their choices appropriately.

When an editor asks, “Why did you do this?” the experienced writer comes up with a pretty explanation for that decision. When I ask “Why did you do this?” to my beginning students, they tend to stare at me like a dog trying to do a calculus equation.

If you have a “why” answer and it’s a good one, you’re half way to earning the fungus on your shower shoes. To understand more about this, enjoy the original post below…

The 1988 movie “Bull Durham” features Tim Robbins as an up-and-coming phenom pitcher and Kevin Costner as a weathered, veteran catcher on a minor-league baseball team. Costner has been brought to this tiny outpost in Durham, North Carolina to teach Robbins how to become a major leaguer. This involves more than which pitches to throw or how to control his fastball. Life lessons are peppered throughout the movie, including this bit of wisdom:

In other words, when you make it to the pros, you can do things that you can’t do when you’re still learning the craft. Once you figure out how everything should work according to the rules, then you can start breaking them if you have a reason to do so.

The same thing is true when it comes to writing for various media outlets. One of the biggest complaints beginning writers have is that they have to attribute everything, write in the inverted pyramid, use descriptors sparingly and stick to a bunch of really strict rules. Meanwhile, when they read ESPN, the New York Times, Buzzfeed or a dozen other publications, they see everyone out there breaking the rules. In some cases, the writers shouldn’t be breaking those rules and thus they end up in trouble for not nailing things down, attributing and telling the story in a more formal manner.

However, when writers do break rules and it works, it is because they know what the rules are. In the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing book, award-winning journalist Tony Rehagen makes this point clearly:

Another aspect of writing like this is to understand that rules exist for the benefit of the writers, he said. Even though he knows he has more freedom as a writer, he said he doesn’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of doing so.

“Well, first of all, you sort of have to earn the right to break a rule,” he said. “If you want to lead with a quote, it had better be a damn good quote. If you want to bury the nut or (gasp) not have a nut graf at all, you had better have complete command of your story and have structured the hell out of it. That takes skill that even veterans don’t possess on every piece.”

To break a rule, you have to know what the rule is, have a reason for breaking it and break it in a way that improves your overall story. That’s something excellent writers like Rehagen earn over years of improving on success and learning from failure.

Start with the basics and master them before you start looking for other ways to do things.

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.

 

 

“What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” A good approach to accuracy in reporting and writing

Accuracy is key in everything we do, and that includes the proper use of terminology to describe crimes, accusations and other dicey topics. I groused about this a long while ago when I noted that the use of “allegedly” makes me twitchy.

As a night-cops reporter, and later a cops editor, I found myself parsing the language a lot, arguing with people who wanted to “simplify” headlines or sentence construction. As I grew into those roles, I realized that big differences exist between certain terms and that I’d rather have ugly sentences than wrong ones. If I’m a grump about this, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. Here’s Mark Memmott at NPR on the topic of legal terms:

There were several Web summaries posted over the weekend that flatly said Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. We should not be doing that in any stories, online or on air. NPR agrees with the AP that:

“Homicide is a legal term for slaying or killing.

“Murder is malicious, premeditated homicide. …

“A homicide should not be described as murder unless a person has been convicted of that charge.”

This kind of thing always takes me back to a great scene in the movie, “And The Band Played On,” which describes the Centers for Disease Control and its staff’s attempts in the early 1980s to understand how AIDS behaved and spread. Each time they would gather to analyze some data or discuss some infection patterns, they had to remind each other to stick to the facts, using a simple phrase: “What do we think, what do we know and what can we prove?” In other words, they thought they understood how the illness was transmitted, they knew about how certain people contracted it, but until they could prove something concrete, they had to work harder to nail things down.

Based on the facts available, we know Jamal Khashoggi is dead, as multiple agencies have confirmed this and provided evidence to that effect. We think Khashoggi was murdered, given that multiple accounts of this indicate that the attack on him was planned at least 12 days in advance of the incident. That said, until this is proven in a court of law, we cannot PROVE a charge of murder on any of the individuals involved. For now, we can say he is dead, someone killed him or that there is an investigation into a homicide. It may seem like splitting hairs, but that’s why we have AP as a rule book to help us out.

Memmott also goes into a discussion about the phrase “arrested for” in describing an individual and a crime:

Compare these headlines and you’ll see why “for” is a problem:

  • – “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested For Tampering With Nassar Evidence.”
  • – “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested, Accused Of Tampering With Nassar Evidence.

And these:

  • – “House Intern Arrested For Reportedly Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”
  • – “House Intern Arrested, Charged With Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”

His point, which I thoroughly support and frequently make, is that saying someone is “arrested for” something means we know they did it and they have been convicted at some point. It conveys guilt when something isn’t proven, much in the same way “allegedly” or “alleged” do.

Think about it this way: Your professor sees you messing around with your phone during a test and assumes you are cheating, thus he kicks you out of class. It turns out you just got a text from your mom that your dad was in a serious accident and is being rushed to the hospital. Thus, you were understandably worried and trying to find out more information.

In this scenario, you are an “alleged cheater,” in that “allegedly” means you are said to have been a cheater by someone (in this case the professor). It would be even worse if the professor announced that he kicked you out of class “for cheating on the exam.” Clearly in this scenario, you haven’t cheated, but either use of verbiage doesn’t make you look all that great.

In applying the “Band” approach, your professor thought you were cheating, he knew you were messing with your phone during a test, but he couldn’t prove you used your phone to cheat (and he would turn out to be wrong once he tried).

This is why attributions (see the “said” post from the other day) matter and it’s a much better way to go: “Beth cheated on the exam, professor Bill Jones said.” or “Professor Bill Jones accused Beth of cheating on the exam.” Both cases demonstrate the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra we espouse around here. The attributions keep you on the side of accuracy and prevent you from getting into trouble if something turns out to be not what it seemed.

The “What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove” approach goes a long way in helping journalists remain accurate, so give it a chance the next time you find yourself digging around in some murky territory.

 

Said: A perfect word and a journalist’s best friend

Said.

Four letters, one word, simple perfection.

As far as verbs of attribution go, not much else can compete with “said,” even though it seems every student I have taught has a burning desire to find something else to use. As much as I don’t like blaming educators at other levels for anything (Hell, I’m not going to teach ninth graders without combat pay and a morphine drip…), I remember seeing a poster like this in a classroom while judging a forensics contest and almost immediately broke out in hives:

SaidIsDead

The rationale behind this approach is that “said is boring, so let’s do something different.” I might also point out that riding inside a car that is driving down the proper side of the street is boring, but that doesn’t mean you should try roof surfing on your roommate’s Kia Sorento while driving 80 mph the wrong way on the interstate just because it’s different.

If you want to write fiction, feel free to give any of verbs things a shot; Nobody’s going to argue with you about an orc “warning” a wizard about something. However, in journalism,  you actually have to prove things happened, which is why “said” works wonders.

“Said” has four things going for it:

  1. It is provable: You can demonstrate that someone opened up his or her mouth and let those words fall out of his or her head. You don’t know if that person believes them or feels a certain way about them. You can prove the person said them, especially if you record that person.
  2. It is neutral: If one person “yelled” something and the other person “said” something, one person might appear angry or irrational while the other person appears calm and rational. It shifts the balance of power ever so slightly to that calmer source and thus creates an unintended bias. We have enough trouble in the field these days with people accusing us of being biased without avoiding it in the simplest of ways.
  3. It answers the “says who?” question: Attributions are crucial to helping your readers understand who is making what points within your story. It allows readers to figure out how much weight to give to something within your piece. Simply telling someone who “said” it helps the readers make some decisions in their own minds.
  4. You’re damned right it’s boring: Name the last time that you heard anyone actively discussing verbs of attribution within a story outside of a journalism class or some weird grammar-nerd drum circle. Exactly. “Said” just does the job and goes on with its work. Verbs of attribution are like offensive linemen in football: If they’re doing their job, you don’t notice them at all. When they do something wrong, that’s when they gain attention. “Said” is boring and it is supposed to be. Don’t draw attention to your attributions. Their job isn’t to dazzle the readers.
    (The one I’ll never forget was one someone wrote for a yearbook story about a student with a mobility issue: “Bascom Hill is a challenge for anyone,” laughed Geoff Kettling, his dark eyes a’sparklin’. It was quickly switched to “Geoff Kettling said.“)

Let’s look at the three verbs most students tend to use instead of “said” and outline what makes them dicey:

Thinks: This is a pretty common one, in that most people being interviewed are asked to express their opinions on a topic upon which they have given some modicum of thought.

“Principal John Smith thinks the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

First, unless you have some sort of mutant power, on par with Dr. Charles Xavier, you don’t know what this guy thinks. Mind readers are excused from this lesson, but for the rest of us, we have no idea what he actually thinks.

He might be doing this because he’s tired of bumping into kids in the hallway who don’t look up from their phones during passing period. He might be thinking, “All that charging going on in classrooms is killing our electricity budget. How can I get this to stop?” He might be worried about students taking videos of teachers smoking weed in the faculty lounge or beating the snot out of kids. We don’t know what he’s thinking. We do, however, know what he said:

“Principal John Smith said the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

Second, and more inconsequentially, you have a weird verb-tense shift when you go from past tense to present with “thinks.” You can’t fix this the way you would fix a “says/said” verb shift by going with “thought,” as that implies he previously held an opinion but has since changed it:

“Principal John Smith thought the banning of mobile phones in school would lead to improved grades for his students, but the latest data reveals a sharp drop in GPA across all grades.”

 

Believes: This one suffers from much the same issues as “thinks,” in that you can’t demonstrate a clearly held belief in pretty much anything. Just ask all those 1980s televangelists who “believe” in the sanctity of marriage and then they were caught fooling around with the church secretary or some sex worker named “Bubbles” or something.

I use this example in my class each term, where I tell them, “I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught.” They don’t know if I believe that, or if I just professed the same belief to my other writing class. They don’t know if I go into my office and break out the “emergency scotch” and weep for the future of literacy after teaching their class. What they do know is that I said that statement.

You can either use it as a direct quote:

“I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught,” Filak said.

Or, if you really have a passionate love of my believable nature, go with this:

Filak said he believes this is the best writing for the media class he has ever taught.

 

According to: This is the one I waffle on more than occasionally, with the caveat that it not become a constant within the piece. It also needs to be applied fairly to sources.

This attribution works well for documents, although the term “stated” works just as well:

According to a police report, officers arrived to find the butler trying to capture an increasingly agitated lemur that had already bitten one woman in the face.

Pretty simple and easy, and nobody (other than the one woman) gets hurt. Here’s where it becomes problematic:

According to Bill Smith, Sen. John Jones has run a campaign of falsehoods and negative attacks.

Jones said Smith is upset he’s behind in the polls and is desperate to make up ground.

When one source gets an “according to” and the other gets a “said,” you have a situation in which it sounds like you believe one person and think the other person is just yammering. It comes across as if to say, “According to this twerp, X is true. However, the other person clearly and calmly says something that is actually accurate.”

How do you avoid all of these problems? Stick with said. It’s like Novocaine: Keep applying it and it works every time.

That said, if you want to have fun with verbs of attribution, enjoy the ridiculous ones we gathered below for your reading pleasure. (Whatever happens, don’t blame me if you use one of these on your reporting final…)

“I just can’t shake this head cold,” he sniffed.

“I’m going to have to draw you a picture to get you to understand this,” he illustrated.

“Of course I’m chewing tobacco!” he spat.

“All I know is, I love doing a ton of cocaine,” he snorted.

“This is the saddest movie ever,” he cried.

“Bethany said I was being distant, but it’s her fault we broke up,” he ex-claimed. “And that One Direction CD is totally mine as well.”

“I love this vintage, but I can’t remember what vineyard it comes from,” he whined.

“I used to have a poodle named Princess, but my ex-girlfriend stole her,” he bitched.

“Get me the phone so I can get a hold of Mom,” he called.

“Whose dog is making all that noise?” he barked.

“My empty stomach speaks for itself,” he growled.

“Don’t forget my Post-Its!” he noted.

“I know, I know, I know,” he echoed.

 

 

The “Bessy” Awards: For achievements in student excuses, wild tales and general chutzpah

Around this time of year, student stress is high, as is the bar for what counts as an excuse for missing class, failing a test or other less-than-pleasant educational outcomes. Students have, for years and years, broken out the sagas of dead grandmothers and grandfathers as a way of getting out of classes and turning in homework late, even though that exact same grandparent died three times this year already.

However, faculty can attest to the fact that excuses rooted in deaths and dental emergencies rarely pass muster. To get a second look or a “I guess I could let you slide…” from a professor, it takes dedication to your story, a heavy dose of weirdness and some good old-fashioned chutzpah. Therefore, we here at the Dynamics of Media, in conjunction with the Hivemind, have decided to honor the students who put forth serious effort in their tales of woe with our “Best BS Excuses in Education” Awards, known now and forever as “The BESSYs.”

BESSY

Without further ado, let’s get into it:

IN THE CATEGORY OF STRANGE-BUT-TRUE

In all fairness, I have skipped a more than a few classes and come late for a few others. The best excuse was a true one: I was worried about making it to class during a freak snow storm, so I took my motor scooter from my off-campus apartment. When some idiot in a giant Buick hit the brakes for no apparent reason, I couldn’t stop quickly enough on the slushy streets of Madison and I slid directly under the rear of his car and wedged my head between his muffler and the pavement.

Fortunately for me, I was wearing a helmet. Fortunately for him, I was too worried about being late to call the cops, so I just yanked my scooter out of there and drove around him.

I will never forget the look on my TA’s face when he saw me, coated in slush, with a giant rip through my coat and a huge burn mark on of my helmet. As I yanked off the helmet to assess the damage, he just looked at me and said, “I don’t even want to know.”

As much as we’d like to blame all of weird excuses on today’s Millennials and their damned hippity-hoppity music, folks from previous generations weighed in with their best strange-but-true moments:

Well, I was a half-hour late to the final of (NAME’S) Law of Mass Communications because a pack of wild dogs wouldn’t let me out of my house at (ADDRESS), in 1972. I asked her years later and she remembered it, and remembered having to explain it to her as I walked in way late.

Occasionally, the truth bomb includes collateral damage that leads to throwing a family member under the bus:

A variation on the dog ate my homework: my grandmother has dementia and she threw my laptop into a trash compactor and destroyed all my work.

That said, the winner of the “I Don’t Even Want to Know” BESSY Award goes to this story:

My best one was real: New Jersey student couldn’t come to class for a week due to a court order that she not leave the state for a week (and she forwarded it).

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF “YEP, YOU GOT ME!”

Sometimes, it’s not so much the fact the student skipped, it’s that they got caught in the lie. My favorite story remains listed among the Five Conversations Journalism Professors have in Hell:

Perhaps my favorite one was years ago when I had a student tell me she spent six hours in the ER with a kidney infection and that she was way too sick to attend my 3 p.m. class. I explained I understood and that these kinds of things happen.

Later that night, my wife and I were at the local journalism bar and guess who walked in? Yep. The student.

She saw me, got a freaked-out look on her face and practically dove into the party room next to the entrance.

The conversation that followed the next class period was epic:

Her: Hi, I was wondering if I missed anything in class…
Me: Well, it’s been said that the appearance of impropriety is worse than impropriety itself, which is what I thought about when I saw you walk into the Heidelberg the other night, four hours after skipping my class.
Her: Oh! I can explain that!
Me: I’d love to hear it.
Her: Well, it was my friend’s birthday and I was feeling much better at that point so I just stopped by for a drink.
Me: With a kidney infection?
Her: Oh, yeah! I have my doctor’s note for you. Let me get that!
Me: (feeling aneurysm building in my brain, fueled by her complete lack of self-awareness) Um… That’s OK… Let’s just start class.

The desire to dodge and not get caught isn’t unique to this student. One former student fessed up to this moment:

When I worked in sports at (college-based media outlet), my dad qualified for an amateur golf tournament in Orlando and my family wanted us all to go, but it was last minute. I told the editor my grandma had died even though she hadn’t. The tournament was to be broadcast on ESPN, so I spent all week dodging cameras (I worked in sports, remember). Not an original story, but I thought it had a nice twist with the cameras.

However the winner for the “How Did You Know?…Oh…” BESSY Award goes to the cliche double whammy listed here:

A student needed to miss a week before Spring Break because her grandmother died. She forgot we were friends on Facebook and started posting photos of herself on the beach.

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF OVERSHARING EXCUSES:

Oversharing has been one of those things students tended to do for reasons past my understanding. Professors have shared more than a few stories of students who discussed the nuanced details of their vomiting, disclosed extremely personal medical problems or generally told us stuff we just DID NOT want to hear.

Case in point: A student in our newsroom once told a TA that nobody should steal her chair because her “genital warts are really flaring up.” The same student once noted that she had just broken up with her boyfriend, and despite his attempts at an amicable parting, she “wasn’t going to keep (expletive) him as a friend.”

I still feel the need to wash my ears out with bleach after hearing that…

A colleague at an Iowa institution shared a similar “bleachable” moment that turned out to be not as bad as it initially sounded:

Once got an email from a student informing me he wouldn’t be in class that morning because he “shit the bed.” At first I was like 😳 trying to get that image out of my head. Then I decided to google it and it turns out it’s slang for “really messed up.”

However, the Oversharing  BESSY Award, sponsored by the TMI Corp,, goes to the student in this story:

My Japanese colleague once completely freaked when a student told him she couldn’t come to class because of “anal bleeding.”

Also in this “Oh, dear Lord, that’s so gross…” division, we have a second category.

The “I Believe You Because I’m Too Disgusted To Check Up On You” BESSY winner  is a tie between these two students:

I had one who said he got sprayed by a skunk!

And

“I got my hair caught in a low-hanging fly trap.”

 

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF “HONESTY IS (USUALLY) THE BEST POLICY:”

It’s the simplest answers that merit the most respect from this professor:

Art students usually just tell the truth….”I overslept”.

 

That said, the winner for Best Blinding and Burning Flash of the Obvious goes to the student who once noted:

Seeing my family is more important than a 2:30 p.m. bio class the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Sorry.

OK. Ouch. At least is wasn’t in the kid’s major…

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF SINGULARLY LAME ACHIEVEMENT:

The “I’m Not As Cool As You Think” BESSY goes to a broadcast graduate with disdain for the weather:

I interned for the radio play-by-play guys for the Badgers my senior year. I was supposed to go to Mardi Gras with some friends so they knew I was going to miss a game or two, but I decided at the last minute not to go, but didn’t tell the radio guys. There was a basketball game the day after I was supposed to get back, but it was freezing so I didn’t want to walk all the way to the field house, so I told them I was too partied out from Mardi Gras and had to skip that game.

 

The “But I Was Just Thinking of Your Feelings, Professor” Award goes to two of my former students who told me this:

I always assumed that you would have rather (Yahoo 1), (Yahoo 2) and myself come up with a bullshit excuse to miss class rather than show up in the state we would show up in on Thursday mornings.

Yahoo 1 then chimed in to support this statement:

Fair point! We typically had double the beers in our system than we did hours of sleep by the time 8 a.m. rolled around

(It should be pointed out that Yahoo 1 is about to become a father for the first time. I weep for the future of humanity.)

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF “I’M KIND OF A BIG DEAL

Occasionally, name dropping or explaining you were doing something much cooler works out for you, as it did for this current professor who once showed up late for one of his courses:

I was very late to class once and the art prof looked pretty disturbed. I told her I had a good excuse–I was photographing the governor. She believed me but acted as if that was not a good excuse for an art class.

However, the Best Humblebrag Award goes to this student from a wealthy private school:

A student told her professor that she  “could not come to class because she was hosting a private trunk show for Isaac Mizrahi.

 

And finally, the Best Excuse Ever Award goes to the student who inspired the professor to note “I shit you not” after sharing this excuse with us:

Pimp C died so I will be missing class all week.”

 

Thanks to all the nominees and the audience. Hope to see you next year.