GONE FISHIN’: Thanks a bunch edition

I came home from the UWO graduation ceremony Saturday afternoon, in which I saw way too many of our students graduate to feel comfortable about our enrollment numbers next year, to find a wonderful gift in the mail.

Earlier in the year, I was lucky enough to have Dr. Julie Wille Lewis invite me to Zoom with her students at the University of Central Missouri and her newsroom kids at The Muleskinner. It was the best part of that day for sure and probably one of the more fun things I’ve done during the mask era of education. She asked for an address to send a thank you, but what arrived was a giant box of amazing stuff:

Shirts, a bobblehead, a can cooler, copies of the paper, stickers and more. I felt like a kid getting a college package from home. The kids and Dr. Lewis wrote some wonderful notes as well that are now pinned to my corkboard at work.

As I take the annual summer blog break, I do so with a different feeling than I have the last couple summers. Exhaustion, anxiety, fear, anger and more have been the resting pulse so many of us have had over the past several years when we crash landed into that summer break we desperately needed. I know I’m not alone in the feeling that summer is often a time to just lick some wounds and try to reload for the next year.

This year, however, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude as to where my career has landed me. I really am just lucky as hell and I need to remember that.

  • Students sought me out at graduation because they thought I mattered to them.
  • Former students still look to me for life advice, even as they are long from the days of the disheveled teenager who couldn’t make an 8 a.m. under penalty of death.
  • The folks at SAGE keep my books active and out there instead of letting them just wither away and get lost in the bargain bin.
  • Many folks assign my books for their class, making a change that requires them to revamp a class, just to give me a shot. (Side note: It feels really weird when I hear people use my name and a number together as an assignment: “Hey, I read in Filak Chapter 5 that…” Weird.)
  • You all actually read this blog, something I never believed would happen when we launched it five years ago.

Above all else, I have folks out there like Julie Lewis who are doing wonderful things with themselves, and even though it’s been years (or decades) since I taught them, they still think of me kindly.

That’s a hell of a gift, and one for which I’ll always be grateful.

Have a wonderful summer. Weekly posting will resume in mid-June.

Vince

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

THROWBACK THURSDAY: 5 questions good professors will never stop asking their students

I went back to this time last year to see what I had to say about the end of a two-year stretch that was among the most difficult most educators have ever faced.

We were still in masks or online. Our students were an absolute mess. We entered the summer knowing nothing about what the future would hold for us or this virus. All I could remember about that time was that I was dead tired, completely drained of everything and in need of a week or 10 off to go lick my wounds and see what the fall semester would bring.

Mom always told me there’s a difference between people who teach and people who ARE teachers. The humanity, the empathy, the engagement all comes from that desire to help people become something more than they are when they first enter our classrooms. We want to bring out the best in others, even if we ourselves feel like we’re nowhere near our best.

If nothing else, this pandemic has really helped identify the wheat and the chaff when it comes to that dichotomy.

So, here’s a toast to the true teachers out there, the ones who continue to embody the themes typified in these five questions.

Enjoy.


 

5 questions good professors will never stop asking their students

A student showed up at my office around 7:30 this morning with a case of Diet Coke and a thank you card.

“I wanted to give you something to say thank you for being the best part of my semester,” she said. “You really gave all of us such a great experience.”

I was grateful she felt that way, but truth be told, it sure as hell didn’t feel like I was giving anyone a great experience. It was less like “Top Gun” excellence and more like, “Sully landing the plane on the Hudson RIver” survival. I found it a miracle that we made it this far and that nobody lost a limb in the process.

I know a lot of us in education feel like this year flat-out kicked our asses and that maybe our students aren’t getting the best out of us because of it. In an attempt to close off this year of weirdness, I found myself struggling for answers. After about a dozen attempts to write this piece, I decided that it’s less about what we know and demonstrate to our students that matters, but rather what we want to know and how we want to serve them that matters.

With that in mind, here are five questions I think good professors ask of their students, no matter the situation or how long it has been since we shared a classroom together:

ARE YOU OK?

I think most of us have asked this question at least 30 times a day over the past 18 months and really wanted to know the actual answer every single time.

Students often enter our offices with one specific need: A question about a test, a concern about a grade or a request for some sort of special dispensation on an upcoming deadline. However, great professors can see that there is usually something else going on underneath the surface as students mentally flail about like the feet of a duck that seemingly moves smoothly across a lake. There is a job that is overworking them, there is a family member who is leaning on them or there is a roommate who is sapping them of their will to live.

The regular people in their lives give them the “regular people” advice about what to do or how to cope or why they just need to suck it up. Professors tend to have a completely different angle on things because we’ve been around the block more times than a moron with a stuck turn signal.

In the game of life, Mom and Dad see their child as a piece on the board, moving toward a goal. Friends see fellow game-players who are trying to make it through unscathed. Professors not only see the whole board, but also every game that has ever been played in front of them over years or decades. We know not only what each move will do, but the six moves that can come after that initial choice that will allow us to better predict success or failure.

Still, tapping that resource can be tough for students who often thing we have more important things to do than help them with whatever is problematic in their lives. That’s why even just opening the door a little bit with “Are you OK?” can make a world of difference.

 

WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?

Professors who care put themselves out there for students because without those students, our lives would be pretty dull and relatively meaningless. Helping other people has been baked into who I am since I was a kid. If someone is working on a project, I have been taught to grab a hammer or paint brush and put myself to work. If someone is struggling, you offer assistance in whatever way you can. You don’t wait for someone to ask for help. You ask how you can make things better.

In classes, sometimes the help is easy stuff like, “Can you read my lead and see if I’m on the right track?” or “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take next semester. Can you look over my schedule?” Around this time of year, the help can be a little more taxing, but still pretty normal, like serving as a reference, writing a letter of recommendation or reassuring a parent that, yes, Johnny or Janie will get a job and, no, he or she won’t be living in your basement forever.

I have found some of the best moments in life come from helping my students, even when it had nothing to do with this semester’s class. I’ve taught students how to change their own oil and swap their car’s battery. I’ve fixed cars for kids who were about to get shafted by some greasy weasel at a 10-minute auto repair joint. Amy and I have brought freezer-ready dinners to students who just had babies and were overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being new parents. We’ve shared tips and given some kid-equipment to these folks as well. (That vibrating baby chair is a lifesaver some days, quite literally, one student told me.)

I’ve answered questions like, “How do you refinish a piece of furniture?” and “Can you tell me how bail bonds work?” (That one was a little dicey…) I’ve moved furniture and edited cover letters. None of it was a chore and thinking back on it makes me happy because these folks trusted me with whatever it was that needed doing.

The funny thing about this question? I find that once I ask it of a kid, I tend not to need to ask it again. After the first time, they’re the ones asking, “Could you help me with something?”

 

DO YOU KNOW HOW PROUD I AM OF YOU?

In the early phases, I tend to ask it on the simple stuff: You asked for help. You figured out how to properly attribute a quote. You got your first story published in student media. You got an internship at a place that NEVER gives internships to people from your school.

Once you graduate, you never stop being one of “my kids” and I don’t think I’m the only professor who feels that way about our connections with “our kids.” I watch from afar as you take jobs, move up the ladder and become leaders in the field. I see you start your own businesses, fight for social justice and make a name for yourselves. I’m proud to tell people, “I taught that kid!” when you show up in the newspaper (most times… Stay out of the police blotter…) or you are broadcasting on radio or TV. I am thrilled to let people know about your accomplishments and your awards and your growth as a professional.

However, you don’t have to do any of that stuff and I am still ridiculously proud of you. I’m proud of my students who have the courage to work through their mental health issues. I’m proud of my students who courageously battle cancer or overcome sicknesses and persevere. I’m proud of you for making amazing life choices to get married or to have kids or to go a completely different way. I’m proud that you are who you are and that you can stand on your own two feet and say, “This is who I am. Take it or leave it.”

When our paths first cross, so many of the students seem like newborn deer: gangly, gawky and awkward as they try to stand on wobbly legs in a world that seems far too fast for them. Somehow they learn to steady themselves and improve their overall presence. They get stronger and faster and better as they learn from doing things right and even more from doing things wrong. We’re there to guide them, but they have to do this on their own, otherwise, they’ll never be strong enough to make it when we’re not around.

When they actually put the pieces together, it’s something amazing to behold.

And it’s worth letting them know what a big deal that is.

 

WILL THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY?

The people who enter my class tend to have a lot of questions. If they stick with me for the rest of the degree, they tend to have even more. I’m not sure if this means I inspire them to think critically and question their surroundings, or if I’m just confusing the crap out of them.

However, most of the questions they ask are geared toward a tangible outcome: “What do I need to know for the test?”  “Is it worth it to double major?” “Will this help me get a job?” “Is the salary for this job enough to keep me alive?”

These are all the questions we’ve been trained to ask in the college setting and they all make sense: You want to pass the class, graduate, get hired and earn enough to survive. The one thing that we tend not to think about in a real concrete way is if what we are doing will make us happy. Going through school always seems to feel like this scene from “School Ties:”

It took a long time for me to figure this out, but most of what makes life worth living and jobs worth taking is the degree to which you actually like what you’re doing. Dad always told me that if you find a job you love, you’ll never really work a day in your life. It’s mostly true, in that I have found that not every day is an Academy Award-winning performance and there are some days that are a lot better than others. However, when something makes me happy, I look forward to doing it. When something doesn’t, I tend to avoid it or do a half-assed job at it.

Students often tell me that they want to go to law school or grad school or start their own business or change majors or a million other things. The thing I immediately want to know is, “Do you think this will make you happy? If the answer is yes, plan well, hedge against failure and work like hell at it. If the answer is no, think again about why you want to do this at all.”

A lot of things that might make you happy aren’t going to be the smartest of choices, (“I want to start my own company where I blow bong hits in the lungs of people’s pets and post the videos on YouTube…”) which is where those other caveats come in. Still, we tend to consider the importance of happiness in inverse proportion to all the other things that are far less important than if we will really like what we’re getting ourselves into.

 

YOU KNOW I’M ALWAYS HERE IF YOU NEED ME, RIGHT?

I have now spent more of my life teaching college than I have not being a college teacher, and it doesn’t matter where I taught you or how long ago it was, you’re never really going to get rid of me.

The best part of my life is hearing back from students who have long since stopped needing my help on a test, my advice about an internship or my signature on a course override card. They have written more stories, covered more events, taught more classes, run more organizations and probably make more money than I ever have. However, when they really do need something, I’m thrilled to death when they show up in a chat or an email

A former student who is in her 40s sent me an email a few weeks back, asking if I’d support her effort to take a job at a big-name university. She has a doctorate, advising credentials that are amazing, a record as an elected public official and a lot more, so she needs me in the same way a Kardashian needs more publicity. However, I told her I was more than happy to do whatever she needed: Serve as a reference, write a letter or drive somewhere and talk to those people about why they’d be stupid not to hire her.

Another student got in touch a few years back when a source was threatening to sue him. I found the threat ridiculous and that his employer wasn’t doing more to support this kid, so I dug around and found some legal help that not only got the source to back off, but pushed the media outlet to leave the story alone.

I’ve refinished furniture for them as wedding gifts. I’ve seen their kids grow up in pictures and videos they post on social media. I’ve offered them condolences and heartfelt messages when they lose a parent or a loved one.

I’ve bought T-shirts and doodads from students who have started their own businesses. I’ve bought Girl Scout cookies from the children of former students, only pausing to think, “How in the hell are you old enough to have a kid who’s a Girl Scout?” (No matter how old they get or how esteemed they are, my students are eternally trapped in my mind’s eye somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22, showing up for an 8 a.m. bleary eyed and likely hungover.)

I’ve lit holy candles in my church for students recovering from cancer. I’ve prayed for all of them at one time or another, just because I figured they needed it.

Before we part company any time we connect, I always try to remember to let them know, “If you ever need me, you know I’m here for you, right?” I mean it every time and I know I’m not the only professor who feels this way.

If there’s one thing I hope they all know, it’s that the answer to this particular question should always be “Yes.”

Life 101 (Part II): Everything you wished you’d known before you graduated but nobody told you

What Am I Doing With My Life?

Monday’s post looked at the Life 101 issue of looking for and getting your first career job out of college. If you missed it, you can see it here.

Today’s post takes a look at things that go beyond the job hunt that recent grads told me they wished someone had told them before they graduated.

 

WELCOME TO WHEREVER YOU ARE:

I got a note from a former student who asked me about how to deal with “bad things.” She had recently graduated and was about nine months into her first career job. She was living in another state, in a small town in which she had never heard of prior to taking a job she loved.

After a few false starts of me guessing at what she meant, I picked up on a thread in her responses and asked, “Wait a minute. Are you feeling lonely?”

Bingo.

She had been actively involved in clubs, sports and other stuff while building an immaculate GPA at UWO. She was always on the go and always known wherever she went. Now, she was in a completely new place where she knew no one and she didn’t know how she was supposed to feel.

I had fewer friends, fewer interests and fewer people who knew/liked me when I made my first big move, but I felt similar pangs of anxiety. After my dad helped me move in, he spent the night before saying goodbye and leaving the next morning.

After he left, it dawned on me: Nobody here knows me at all.

(Side note thought: I could die in this apartment and nobody would notice until eventually I missed a rent payment or someone caught a whiff of decomp.)

I went from running constantly from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. every day to working a nine-hour-a-day job and going home to… what? I took a lot of walks, bought groceries at normal times of day and generally looked for a place to fit in. It wasn’t easy, and apparently that was something others faced as well, given some responses I got from my former students:

It takes AWHILE to transition from being a college student to a working adult. Give yourself time and grace when going through this transition and don’t doubt your worth. You’ve got this.

 

Envision your life outside of work when considering a job – If you’re outdoorsy, does it have great trails? If you dig X, does it have X? The city has to pass the vibe check, or you’ll depend too much on work to bring you all your happiness.

Others noted that life got a little weird for them, living somewhere new, knowing nobody around them and generally losing that entire support structure of friends and family they’d taken for granted.

Friends and family are still there for you, just in a different way. It’s also an opportunity to spread your wings. Think about when you landed on campus four (or five or six) years earlier and how you didn’t know a damned thing about anything. It’s like that again, which sucks. That said, you survived and thrived in that once before, so the precedent is there for you to succeed.

 

WELCOME TO ROOKIE BALL

One of the hardest transitions people often make is from being the big cheese to the lowest of Limburger.  It hit me hard when I took my first pro gig.

At the student newspaper, I didn’t get much editing. People generally said, “You’re great!” or at the very least, they had bigger problems to fix, so I kind of skated by with the assumption that whatever I was doing was fine.

When I got to the Major Leagues, I got a rude awakening. A lot of my copy was getting hacked and slashed. My source material was being questioned. My use of quotes was second-guessed. My overall ability to do a good job was under constant scrutiny.

At the time, I needed help, guidance and support, but I had a boss who had either no interest or no capability to provide those things:

(This editor can’t be bargained with. She can’t be reasoned with… And she won’t stop until you realize you suck!)

I eventually gained my sea legs, but I never forgot what it felt like to get my ears boxed in on a daily basis. Apparently, neither did some of the folks who responded to my post:

 

Imposter syndrome is real and it is awful.

 

Nobody knows what they’re doing… They’ve just been working through it longer than you have. Hang in there.

 

Being the newest person means everyone else has a leg up in some way… Be ready to work weekends and holidays.

 

You have to know what the rules are first before you break them.

 

It’s tempting when you’re new to think folks with more experience have everything figured out. The truth is everyone is making it up as they go along on most things.

 

In kind of pairing these previous two thoughts, something else a student mentioned resonated with me when it came to being the new kid: You’re often the youngest kid by a stretch.

The student who got me thinking about this issue told me she had this weird age gap thing. She was too old to connect with the people she covered (high school athletes) and yet too young to really connect with the people she spent time with (colleagues and the athletes’ parents). It felt like there was nobody her age to connect with.

For the majority of my career life, I was always the youngest person in the room. I was 21 when I got my first gig in a pro newsroom, 22 when I got my first teaching gig, 24 when I got my first professor/editor gig, 28 when I got my first tenure-track gig and so on…

Those early years were awkward, in that I often had nothing in common with my coworkers. The people at newsroom parties  were talking about kids and soccer games and 401K accounts. Conversely,  I was like, “Hey, uh… is that beer over there free for, like, anyone to take?” I was told rather bluntly that if I was caught “associating” with students, my boss would hide strap my ass to a pine rail and ship me out of town.

It wasn’t the easiest of situations in those early years, but it was even harder because I had nobody to talk to who was going through the same thing. Maybe that’s why still tell my students my door is always open, even after they graduate.

I know it sucks to be the rookie.

 

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES

Of all the advice the hivemind chipped in with, this insight needs to be screamed from the top of every mountain:

Try not to compare yourself to your friends who have seemingly better jobs. Instead of resenting the job you have, see what you can do to make it better – to make yourself better at it so you can easily move onto the next position.

During my doctoral program, I researched in the area of Social Comparison Theory, which examines the way in which people try to figure out how they stack up in a particular area of life by looking at other similar people in their area. I also watched it  play out on a daily basis there as I taught kids at the journalism school.

It was a constant game of keeping up with the Joneses. If Bobby got a front-page article, Suzie needed to get the top article on the front page. If Jane wrote 40 stories in a semester, Carl needed to  write 45.

It got even worse when they went after internship and employment opportunities. If Marco got an internship at a 75,000 circulation daily, Maria had to get an internship at a 100,000 circulation paper. If Nellie got a gig at a top 50 market TV station, Willie had to get one in a top 20 market.

I watched this transpire long after I left, with former students chasing each other up the golden ladder for no real reason other than to prove some level of superiority. I saw students leave perfectly good jobs to take on jobs that didn’t fit them because one of their peers had moved up a rank or got a gig at a larger publication.

In one case, a great student left a job where he was perfectly suited and wonderfully gifted as an editor in a smaller publication to chase other jobs that made no sense. He eventually ended up doing night cops at a paper in Kentucky, working for a mentally unbalanced night editor and feeling miserable.  When I asked why he took the job,  he cited two reasons:

  1. The paper’s circulation was huge, comparatively speaking to his previous job.
  2. One of his former cohorts had gotten a gig at some place “better” than where he was.

This made no sense unless you understand the competitive nature of the school, the kids and the field. I eventually got him to see that “better” is in the eye of the beholder.

I have friends that make more money than I do, but I wouldn’t trade positions with them under threat of death. I have friends with classier titles and bigger offices, but they also have more problems, or at least the types of problems I hate dealing with. I have friends who do a lot of things that, on paper, sound like they’re living a much “better” life than I am. However, I get a lot of stuff that can’t be measured on a spreadsheet and I’m relatively happy with a great portion of my life.

Every day is not an Academy-Award-winning performance,  but it’s what I found works for me. I figured out that chasing someone else’s dream or trying to prove superiority by making myself miserable in my career made no sense.

A few other folks who chimed in on this topic made similar statements, saying they wished someone had told them to just worry about themselves and not chase the dreams of others. They finally figured out that comparing themselves to their former classmates made no sense and it made them miserable.

Once they settled in and just enjoyed being themselves, they found happiness.

 

THE FINAL ADVICE LIGHTNING ROUND:

Some of the best bits of advice didn’t really fall into a perfect category but it was so worth keeping, I figured this would be a good way to do it. So here comes the lightning round of advice:

 

Ask questions, ask for feedback, ask for what you need to succeed in a position and know that they hired you for a reason. And if that still isn’t working out, find something else that you love to do.

 

Know your worth and celebrate your accomplishments, achievements, and recognize the significance of your contributions. Don’t downplay them.

 

It’s very rare that in reality something is as high stakes as it can feel in the moment. After a fuck-up that felt career-ending for me but in retrospect did not matter in the slightest in the big picture, my boss told me “we’re not curing cancer.” And that’s stayed with me – very little is life or death, at the end of the day.

 

Your career is not your identity. It’s a reflection of you but it does not define you.

Well, that might not be everything, but I hope it’s a start.

If you have any other questions, comments or concerns, feel free to hit me up on the contact page.

Otherwise, have a great summer and best of luck in all you do.

Vince

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

Life 101 (Part I): Everything you wished you’d known before you graduated but nobody told you

life depressing funny college - 8102692096

(It’s not really that bad. You just need a few hacks here and there to soften the situation.)

A student showed up in my office a few weeks back with a big smile on her face and the peptic energy that only comes from wanting to tell someone else the best news in the world.

“Dr. Filak! I got a job!” she said, a mix of glee, elation and relief pouring out of her as she explained what she did and how this worked and where she was going to be employed.

I listened and congratulated her multiple times before I asked the inevitable question: “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but what was the offer?”

She proudly told me how much she was making, which was a decent amount. She wouldn’t have to steal Splenda packets from local diners or live on Ramen for every meal, that’s for sure.

When I asked how the negotiation for that amount went, she said, “Oh. They just gave me the salary they were going to pay me. I asked my parents if that was good money and they said it was, so I took it.”

She noticed the look on my face. “Oh no!” she said. “Did I do bad?”

“No,” I said. “But you could have done better…”

I then explained the whole process of salary negotiations to her and she realized something nobody at this institution had ever taught her: Salaries ARE negotiable. So are so many other things.

If universities are good at training students to develop skills that will help them get their first career jobs and put them on the path to a fully adult life, they absolutely suck at helping students make the transition from college to that life. I know this from my own experience, as well as that of colleagues and former students, so I thought a good wrap up for the semester would be one final lesson for the group: Life 101.

I asked the hivemind of folks I trust through various social media outlets and connections to tell me one thing they wished they’d known before they left school that they found out the hard way once they got into the “real world.”

Today’s post is the first of two that look at issues beyond graduation, focusing mainly on getting a job and the reality of that first job.

Tomorrow’s post will look at the life issues you face once you get out and become “a grown up” that you probably won’t see coming.

I hope this helps:

THE JOB SEARCH

There are few things more anxiety-provoking and terrifying than looking for a first career job out of college. You have put in the time and energy to pass the classes. You got the grades they said were going to propel you forward. You got involved in every activity someone said would “look great on a resume” and you worked at student media, internships and part-time gigs to fatten up your experience.

You put yourself out there and… crickets…

As a college student, I feared my parents’ basement. I constantly heard of students who did “all the right things” but ended up living back with their parents in a basement because they couldn’t get a job. I mentioned that to several students and several currently employed former students and the vibe was the same:

“I was scared to death that I’d done all this work and I’d be living back home in the basement. I never had a problem with my family, but I damned sure didn’t want to be back there as ‘that kid.'”

“I knew I could go home. I just didn’t want to. I wanted to be a grownup.”

I have said this before and the people who have experienced it have told me I am dead on with this analogy. Those who haven’t tell me I’m crazy. Then, they experience this and they convert to my way of thinking:

Your first job search is a lot like a bad dating experience: You are ready to go, so you put yourself out there. People are ignoring you and it feels awkward. You don’t know what’s wrong with you, so you get really worried.

Then, someone shows an interest and you have that kind of, “Cool. We should hang out. Let’s exchange info” moment and you get really excited. You start imagining how nice it’ll be and your mind takes you on flights of fancy regarding this relationship.

Then, you don’t hear from them for a while and you start wondering what you did wrong and why they aren’t calling. You start questioning everything you’ve done to this point. You wonder if you should reach out, but you don’t want to look needy.

Eventually, you’ll start to get angry with the, “OK, screw you. I don’t need you thing.” You give up, only to hear from that person shortly after that, with the person giving you a true and great reason why it took so long to reach out and that they really want to see you in a day or two, so let’s set this up…

And then you’re like, “OHMERGERD! I LOVE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW!” but you play it cool and the cycle begins again…

As I’ve told more than a few sobbing students over the years, “It’s not you. You are good. The right people just haven’t figured that out yet. It’ll happen. Trust me.”

(In completing the analogy, that’s what my mother used to try to tell me each time I got dumped in high school… She wasn’t wrong, but the situation still sucked.)

 

THE JOB OFFER:

The first career job offer is something most people never forget, and I certainly remember getting my job offer from Mizzou.

Well, I remember most of it.

At one point when I was being offered the job and told about what this involved, I think I passed out on the phone. Blood was pounding in my ears, my chest felt like it was going to explode with joy like a frickin’ Care Bear and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.

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When the first offer came, I took it. No questions asked. I was so happy to be getting that job.

About two years later, my boss called me into his office and told me, “I need to let you know something. I totally screwed you.”

He explained that when he hired me, he gave me the lowest lowball offer he could, figuring I’d negotiate my way up to something more reasonable. When I didn’t, he was over a barrel. He couldn’t just give me more money, but he also knew I didn’t know any better.

(To be fair, he then told me he was getting me connected with the grad program so I could go after a Ph.D. It was a fair trade in the long run.)

He was a good guy and it never occurred to me that he had lowballed me. He then gave me the best advice I share on a regular basis, “Never take the first offer. Always negotiate for your worth.”

Of all the things people mentioned in their responses to me, salary negotiations were the most important:

“Journalism is not a ‘calling.’ It’s a business. Negotiate your pay. Don’t work for less than you’re worth. Think 5-10 years down the road.”

 

“Don’t count on the editor who hires you to have your economic interests at heart. You should be prepared to negotiate for the pay you need to live, and expect them to expect you to negotiate because it may be a LONG TIME before you have as much leverage to get yourself more money than when you have the initial job offer.”

 

“Know your worth and don’t settle just to get hired and have a job. A LOT of companies are hiring, so test the waters and see where you feel valued.”

 

“Agreed with everybody who said negotiate your starting salary. Do some research of similar roles in the area and don’t just take the first offer that comes because you’re scared/excited just to get one, which is what I did.”

In addition to negotiating salaries, people noted that they wished they’d negotiated for extra vacation time, an earlier start for health insurance, improved hours/requirements and other bennies that they thought were just written in stone.

Another person noted this “look forward” in life as crucial:

Take whatever 401k match is offered, even if you can’t contribute anything else right away.

 

WELCOME TO THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (OR NOT)

When I went to my college orientation session about 30 years ago, the people there told us that we would likely change jobs about six or seven times in our lifetime. At that point, they meant that we would likely climb the corporate ladder, maybe switching companies within our field, but essentially staying put.

According to recent data, Millennials will change CAREERS almost six times in their lives. People now tend to stay with an employer for an average of three or four years, even with opportunities for advancement. This shifts the entire paradigm of how to look at your first job. Here are some thoughts from the hivemind:

“Paying your dues” is an outdated concept. Don’t let your parents, employers or friends convince you otherwise.

 

The quality of the job and the people you work with are far more important than the location.

 

Having a different approach to teaching and research is a GOOD thing!… Students need to know there’s many paths towards your goals in life. Do what works for you.

 

You don’t have to stay in the first job you get after college forever. It’s okay to change your mind or realize it’s not something you enjoy.

 

(I wish someone taught me how to deal with) not starting exactly in the position you want and how to be content with the growth process. Your degree does not always land you your dream job immediately.

This last point leads us to the unfortunate truth associated with taking that first job…

 

YOUR JOB MIGHT SUCK

As much as the dream job might be just a dream, it doesn’t mean suffering and pain should be your daily life at work. Everything from toxic workplace environments and weird bosses to feeling lost and becoming undervalued can make that first job you were so excited about feel like an abusive relationship.

I’ve worked for bosses that I would step in front of a bus for, because they were so helpful, supportive and just entirely amazing. I have also worked for bosses I wouldn’t feel bad about nudging into path of oncoming freeway traffic.

The folks who chimed in on this had similar experiences:

Your boss makes all the difference for how well you do in your first few jobs. Take your first job based on how well you vibe with the boss.

 

I once told my son that if he ever has a job where the manager/supervisor/head honcho etc, comes over and parks his butt on your desk, smiles and says, “we’re all like family here”…….Leave.

 

Also that just because things aren’t perfect, it isn’t necessarily your fault:

 

Your first job isn’t your only job. Sometimes it legitimately sucks and that’s OK. It’s not an indictment on you or your work.

 

Always work toward aligning what you want to do with what your job/career actually is, while still getting your current job’s work done of course. But always keep working toward doing what you want to do, even if your first job out of school isn’t your dream job (it won’t be).

The one caveat I’ll offer here is the one based on my own sense of paranoia: There’s nothing wrong with leaving a job because it’s not what you want or need. That said, have your next move already to go upon your decision to quit.

I equate it to the old “Tarzan” movies when he’s swinging from vine to vine across the jungle. Don’t let go of one vine until you have the other in hand.

TOMORROW: Life, or something like it, after college.

 

THROWBACK THURSDAY: The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

A colleague posted a venting missive about a student’s grade-grubbing attempt at extra credit that caught my eye:

No I won’t negotiate your grade. No you can’t have “extra credit” considering you failed to do all of the 15 extra credit assignments during the semester. No, you’re not “ridiculously close” to an A with an 88.11%.
I promise you a news director when you graduate will not Grade your stories on a curve either you did it or you didn’t.
Also, I still don’t have obituaries from the two students who had grandmothers die and they couldn’t take the final, which was open for 50 hours.
The missive clearly hit a nerve, as many of us decided to chime in with our own, “OK, I can top that…” versions of student chutzpah.
In honor of the end of the semester and the myriad insane things professors are dealing with, I decided to bring back this classic that covers a lot of weirdness with some mirth and a few tips.
Enjoy.

The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

Growing up as a Catholic kid, who spent way more time near nuns than is now recommended by the FDA, I found the concept of hell horrifying. Conceptually speaking, it was a place of fire, brimstone and evil where you went after you had sinned without repenting, angered God through evil acts or accidentally ate a Slim Jim on a Friday during Lent.

Later in life, I asked a priest who was a little more “new school” about the faith for his views on eternal damnation. He told me it was probably more of never-ending sorrow and sadness than the torture outlined by those who grew up before the Vatican II era. It was a a longing and pain for better things and regret over what we should have been. In other words, hell is more individualized and accounts for what we did and who we were.

If hell hits somewhere in that “sweet spot” between those points, I’m sure I know exactly what I’ll be getting myself into if I’m not a decent human being. Since I’ve invested most of my life in teaching and journalism, I know that hell will involve reliving certain conversations I’ve had with students over the past 20 years that continue to sap my will to go on.

So without further ado, I bring you the five conversations journalism professors have in hell and how you can help us avoid them while we’re still alive:

 

CONVERSATION 1: SO WE NEEDED THE BOOK?

Look, I get it. Textbooks are expensive. In fact, the entire premise of this blog is that textbooks cost too much, change too often and usually have the lifespan of a mayfly. That said, we assign them for a reason: They actually contain stuff you’ll need to know. This is particularly true for books like the AP style guide. Here was an actual conversation I had with a student half way through the semester:

Student: How much are these books?
Me: What do you mean?
Student: This AP book, how much does it cost?
Me: About $20-25. Why?
Student: It must not have been listed on the criteria for the class. I think I’ll go buy it though.

OK, let’s pretend that I hadn’t mentioned it about 10,002 times already and that I didn’t include it as a required book in the syllabus and that I didn’t mention this as a MUST HAVE for the class (as in, “If you are broke, don’t buy the textbook, but buy the AP book.) AND that it wasn’t stocked at the book store.

Every other student in that class had the book. What, they were clairvoyant and just figured I wanted them to have it?

Making things weirder, a student in the very next section of that class, sitting in that very same seat asked the EXACT SAME QUESTION about the AP book, swearing he had no idea that this thing would be important. I think I need to call in some sort of holistic medicine person to burn sage on that chair or something…

Still, this pales in comparison to the year I told the students in WEEK 12 that they should bring their AP style guides to class, only to have one student reach into his backpack and whip his out. “GOT IT!” he said, proudly displaying the book he was supposed to have read by that point in time.

It was still shrink wrapped.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Buy the books and read them. If you are REALLY broke (as in, stacking pennies for Ramen broke) and you CAN’T afford them, talk to the professor and see what is absolutely essential and what you might be able to dodge. However, do this somewhere before the midterm.

CONVERSATION 2: I LOOKED EVERYWHERE!

The constant yelling of old people (read: me) about “damned kids these days” come from the fact that we often wonder how hard students really tried before giving up all hope and saying, “Just give me the answer.”

Damned Kids

Case in point, here was a conversation I had about a midterm question in which students were asked to rewrite a lead on one of four stories. Each story included a specific time peg, so I told students to use the day specified in the story (e.g. The game happened Saturday, so use “Saturday” as your “when” element.) when they wrote their lead. About an hour into the test, here was the conversation:

Student: I know you said that there is a time element we need to use with each of these stories, but I honestly can’t find one in this story I’m using.
Me: OK, pull it up and let me see. (he does)
Student: I looked through this whole thing and there’s no time element.
Me: Really?
Him: Yes, I can’t find it anywhere.
Me: Read the first sentence out loud for me.
(Silence)
Him: Oh.

Yep. Right there in the lead was that elusive time element he sought. I suppose I was lucky the student didn’t have trouble finding his pants before showing up in class…

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Don’t give up so easily on figuring things out. There is something to be said for figuring stuff out on your own. Print it out or magnify the text or whatever you need that will help you consume the content. Also, if you really CAN’T find the content, when you ask, do so in a way that doesn’t immediately insinuate your professor is an idiot who failed to include the content.

Trust me, this is a great fear of many instructors and there are days we can’t remember what we ate for lunch, so screwing up a test is always a possibility. We then panic when you are “so sure” that whatever it is you’re looking for isn’t actually there. Finding out that, no, it actually is present and, no, we don’t have early onset dementia, is both a relief and a moment of “What the hell is wrong with kids these days?”

 

CONVERSATION 3: I KNOW YOU SAID X, BUT…

Rules are put in place to assure fairness, standardize procedures and give everyone guidance on how to proceed with a test, an assignment or a project. If you want to curdle a professor’s soul, explain to him or her that, yes, you understand rules exist for all those reasons, but the rules really only apply to other people.

Student: I know you said we can’t interview relatives for this assignment, but I was wondering if I could interview my mom.
Me: OK, what does your mom have to do with (the story topic)?
Her: Well, she’s a parent of a college student…
Me: But that’s really not what the story is about and even if it was, there are like 14,000 students on this campus, many of whom have parents. Does she have some special insights that none of the others would have had?
Her: Um… I don’t understand what the problem is. Why can’t I just interview my mom?
Me: Again, she has nothing to do with the story and I need you to get out of your comfort zone and interview people that you don’t know. It’s a skill you’re going to need as a reporter.
Her: So that’s a no?
Me: Yes. That’s a no.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Start by assuming that the rules, however arcane, have a reason behind them. Envision that “Karate Kid” moment where Daniel realizes that he hasn’t just been an indentured servant, but rather has been learning karate:

Also, realize that we WILL give people special dispensation for certain things, but it has to be germane to what we’re doing and provide a rare glimpse into something no one else could provide. If you’re doing a story on what it’s like to be an NFL referee and your uncle is an NFL referee, we might think, “That would actually work.” However, if you’re doing a story on how bad parking is on campus and you want to interview your best friend because he owns a car, think twice before asking on that one.

Nothing sounds worse to a professor than a student essentially saying, “Look, I know you told me what to do here, but you have to understand that rules don’t really apply to me because I want to do it my way and obviously that’ll be better for me, so can you just rubber stamp my demands? Thanks!”

CONVERSATION 4: HEY, DID I MISS ANYTHING?

Professors have a ton of stuff to do and most of them feel like they’re not doing it well enough to make anyone happy. The ability to focus well enough to deliver a two-hour lecture on something you will need to know to succeed in the class is the Educational Dream of the Millennium.

When you blow it off, fail to take notes or get way too into a SnapChat battle with your roommates during lecture, it can be irritating to us. When you then ask us to “fill you in” on what you “missed,” We tend to have this reaction:

Actual email:

I was just wondering what exactly the group interview project is again and what needs to be turned into you by Friday! I don’t quite remember everything you said at the end of class yesterday so if you could remind me that would be great.

At least that guy showed up, unlike the student who blew off class, skipped an assignment she knew about and then sent this:

Sorry, I was not able to attend class today. What did I miss? When is the interview paper due?

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.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Go to class. If you don’t go to class, get notes from somebody before asking us to rebuild a lecture for you. If you went to class and forgot to write something down, ask a classmate. If you are going to class, writing stuff down and still failing to remember major things, seek help immediately.

CONVERSATION 5:

Me: Hello? Anyone out there?
Voice: Welcome to hell. I am Lucifer, the fallen one, evil incarnate, the lord of the underworld. Do you know who you sinned against to land you here?
Me: Do you mean, “Do I know against WHOM I sinned to land here?”
Voice: Oh great. Another journalism professor. Y’all are down the hall, third door on the left.

Helpful tips for student media outlets that want to cover the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade situation

A draft of a Supreme Court majority opinion regarding the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked late Monday night on the Politico website. The 98-page document, written by Justice Samuel Alito, would reverse the nearly 50-year-old precedent of Roe v. Wade and eliminate the constitutionally protected right to abortions in the United States, if it remains unchanged when the court formally renders its opinion.

I have a hard time imagining that many student media outlets wouldn’t have a vested interest in covering this situation as it unfolds. With that in mind, this post does not aim to direct the opinion of those students, nor to take a stand on the issue itself. The point of this post is to provide student journalists with some help in navigating some truly risky waters when choosing what, when and how to present information to their readers on this topic.

First, let’s start off with a few key things you need to be aware of before you even start thinking about publishing something here:

  1. You will not change most readers’ minds about anything on this topic. Most of what people think and believe about this issue will have been codified in their minds, hearts and souls long before you showed up. A good friend, who was perhaps prescient, posted this explanation from The Oatmeal of why it’s hard to change minds or get people to listen on certain issues the other day and it bears a look. Trying to move the needle on this issue among readers is going to be as successful as bailing out a sinking boat with a pasta strainer.
  2. There aren’t two sides to this. There are many facets. Certain topics tend to bring out the extremes when it comes to public opinion. Yes, there are probably people out there who believe that life begins when a man unhooks a woman’s bra. Conversely, there are probably people out there who believe there should be free abortion punch cards available at Starbucks. Those people do not represent the majority of people who have an interest in this issue. If you want to dig into this issue, you need to look beyond the loudest voices screaming threadbare talking points. It’ll take work.
  3. This is not law yet. This is a leaked first draft of a document that the public wasn’t supposed to see, at least not based on tradition and protocol. The information, including how many justices voted to make this a majority opinion, who they are, how tied to this they are, how much they support the language and more, is not codified through official channels or publicly declared by the court itself. A lot can happen in multiple aspects of this case, including what the final opinion looks like, if Congress will make moves to solidify abortion rights and other things nobody has thought about yet. When covering this issue, it’s crucial to keep that in mind when making declarative statements, asking questions of sources and writing content (particularly headlines where space limits can lead to fact errors).
  4. You are running out of semester. TV shows can be great when they use the “cliffhanger” approach at the end of a season. News doesn’t benefit from that kind of situation, so be aware of how much time you have left to cover this topic, how many issues you have yet to publish and how those things should factor into your approach here. A half-baked “get-er-done” story that runs in your last issue can likely lead to more harm than good when you lack the ability to correct any errors, follow up on any developments or otherwise continue telling the story. You might have one shot at this, so make sure it does what it needs to do.

With those things in mind, here are some tips and hints on how to approach this topic:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: If it sounds like I harp on this every time I write something, it’s only because that’s exactly what I’m doing. This isn’t the time or the issue where you should assume everyone is “exactly like me” or guess about how much of your readership feels a certain way about the topic. Even within the newsroom itself, people probably hold differing views on if this is the best thing or the worst thing ever to happen in this country. It’s also likely that many of those views will come as a surprise to folks once they are vocalized.

One key thing to do is to really assess who reads your paper and what matters most to them. In a case like this, it’s a little too late to do a readers survey, but you can look for some breadcrumbs that might be out there for the finding. Some private, religious schools might clearly lean more pro-life, but look around for pockets of dissent. Some liberal, public schools might lean more pro-choice, but look around for pockets of dissent.

Look for groups on campus that have voiced their opinions on topics before and see how large, engaged, involved and representative they are of the larger whole. Look for previous coverage in your publication of this issue to see who is out there and what they had to say. Talk to people in the newsroom and the classroom about this with the idea of finding out not just what they think, but also what their roommates, friends, teammates and peers think.

Get a handle on what kind of room you will be playing to when you publish your work.

RESEARCH LIKE HELL: You are looking at the possible reversal of a court decision that likely is older than some of your professors. In the nearly five decades since the court handed down its ruling in this case, a lot of stuff has happened. Your going to want to be the smartest person in the room on this topic before you start interviewing people and writing stories.

Learn as much as you can about the original case, the ruling and what changed because of it. Look at the other challenges to it over the years, including the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case of 1992, to see what has transpired over the past 50 years or so. Look into the history of abortions within the United States to figure out what happened during times when the procedure was legal and illegal. You’ll likely need to spend some serious time digging into this, but the last thing you want to do interview someone without having a full view of the facts. This is one topic in which the stakes are too high to risk getting snowed by a source with a bias.

Here are some tips and hints for potential stories:

LOCAL IMPACT: The court ruling, if it becomes final in its current form, would essentially kick the decision of whether abortions should be legal back to the states. States have had widely varying laws regarding this procedure, as you can see from the series of maps from the Washington Post. Figuring out what will happen to your readers will matter a great deal in how you approach this topic. Some states have laws that go into effect the minute the Court reverses Roe. Others have laws that remain on the books from decades ago that simply stop getting overridden by the Feds. Others are looking for laws that will remove or improve access to abortions once all of this gets sorted out.

Everyone else will be talking at the federal/macro level on this. You should explain it at the local/micro level. This could entail everything from what your student health center is allowed to provide to if any private businesses in the area provide this service and will no longer be allowed to do so.

Your job is not to tell people the sky is falling or the world is finally going to be right. Your job is to factually outline what it is that has happened, will happen and could happen if this draft becomes final.

UNPACKING “UNPRECEDENTED” AGAIN: If COVID taught me anything, it was to hate the word “unprecedented.” However, this situation has rolled out more cases in which that word will likely apply. Start looking at them:

  • Talk to local legal scholars about the leak. Folks are initially saying this “has never happened in modern history.” That’s a dodge within a couch of an argument, given “modern history” could be anywhere from post-Civil War era to since last Tuesday. Find out from people who study this stuff how rare this actually is, what the value/problem with such a leak can be and the likely impact the leak will have on the final draft.
  • Talk to local experts in history and law regarding an overturn of this nature. How often does the court fail to apply precedent in a situation like this? What issues have seen this kind of shift before? What results usually occur in a situation when the Court zigs like this, both in terms of the decision at hand as well as other cases that could follow?
  • Talk to local political experts to see what kinds of steps the executive and/or legislative branches might take in response to this judicial decision. There is already a rumbling about getting rid of the filibuster and trying to crank through something in the House and Senate that would counterbalance the court decision. Pro-choice advocates have noted President Joe Biden’s relative silence on the issue, as well as his history voting on the topic. Will he look to define his presidency with a move on this topic? I don’t know, but I’d surely ask someone smarter than me about it.

HISTORY TRIP: Generations of people have existed in a world in which this topic was hotly debated, but also clearly codified into law. Generations of people also lived through a time before Roe v. Wade, so it would be valuable to find out what things were like back then.

Most of what I have heard falls into oft-repeated phrases like “back-alley procedures,” “under-cover-of-night travel,” “unscrupulous and dangerous” and more. What that actually means in terms of true history is beyond me in many cases, so finding people who can better provide context, truth and history will be helpful. (The 19th did a piece on this topic not too long ago that followed women’s memories through their experiences in the pre-Roe era, if you are interested.) Professors at your school who study history, women’s studies and other scholastic areas that traverse this topic could be helpful, as could sources who were involved in either side of the struggle back then.

It would also be interesting to look at both current and historical data regarding the number of overall procedures that occurred in your coverage area, if that is available. The thing most people forget in talking about overturning Roe v. Wade is that it won’t eliminate abortions. It will just make them illegal and harder to come by. The numbers might tell a story both “back when” and “right now.”

PERSONAL STORIES: This is one of those that really has a strong risk/reward element to it. It is highly probable that you have students at your school who, in some way, connect strongly to this topic. How they connect, what they are willing to share and to what degree the reporter can work with these sources will determine the overall value of something like this. If you are unsure as to how to proceed with this, I strongly recommend you talk to your adviser, smart professors who have experience in the field and other journalism folk who can help guide you.

FINAL NOTE: The one last important thing to keep in mind on something like this is that the duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. You might do an inordinate amount of work, only to find a weak or wobbly story that might not do the job you had hoped it would. There is no rule in journalism that dictates you publish it and take your chances. In many cases, caution is the better part of valor. This is probably one of those cases if you feel the story isn’t where it needs to be.

That said, don’t let fear of public reaction dissuade you from running a quality story. This is one of those topics where you will inevitably upset someone, so disabuse yourself of the notion that a well-reported, well-researched, factually based story will garner universal applause. If it’s good, run it.

Potential solutions for grade debates between students and professors

As the end of the semester draws near, grades tend to become a topic of consternation among students and professors. Students tend to worry about the outcome of their course work as it relates to their ability to graduate, move on or keep that ever-important GPA on the up-slope.

Professors, on the other hand, find themselves buried in grading, often wondering why we didn’t just show movies and mark attendance for 15 weeks. As we slog through the work we brought upon ourselves, students are questioning, begging and cajoling, all in desperate hopes of nudging grades just a little (or in some cases, a lot) higher.

I can’t solve every problem (or most of them) on the blog , but here are a few random ideas I have for making life a bit easier on all of us in regard to the grade debate.

Take them as seriously as they seem…

The “Peace with Honor” grade: I’m sure most students have failed to put in an appropriate amount of time on an assignment at some point in time. I’ve noticed this usually happens on essays or longer-form writing pieces, where the student figures if they pour enough BS into a Word document, the professor will decide to give them at least a few points.

The problem is that professors are often stuck when it comes to grading these papers, even with a quality rubric. We don’t know if you were having difficulty with the assignment, so we need to point out the errors in detail to help you for the next one, or if you just didn’t give a crap, so we’re wasting time telling you things you knew, but just didn’t do.

Thus, I propose a “Peace with Honor” grade approach.

When a student knows they are behind the 8-ball on an assignment, instead of BSing us to high heaven and having us wade through your BS, a student can write something simple like, “I know I should have dealt with this assignment better, but I’m not wasting your time trying to fake it.”

The professor, in gratitude, will fail the student with a specific amount of points (I’m a fan of 40-50%), with the idea that not having to comment on every stupid thing the student could have written will save time and defer carpal tunnel surgery.

 

The “I’m Better Than This” cease fire: In journalism, we care what you can do, not what your grades are once you graduate. To that end, many professors will encourage students to participate in student media to sharpen their skills and gain experience.

In more than a few cases, this is like encouraging someone to “just try” some cocaine so they can get a bunch of stuff done quickly. The students quickly become addicted to the newsroom and their GPA heads downhill like a stock market graph of the Great Depression.

Professors often start getting weaker work from those students because they’re running the paper or the radio station or the TV station. Suddenly, classes have become something of an fifth or eighth priority in their lives.

For some professors, this can become irritating because we KNOW you can do better at this work. For some students, this can also become irritating because they KNOW they are better than what the grades they get keep reflecting.

A potential solution is this cease-fire approach: I’ve told more than a few students, “Look, I get it. I once skipped six weeks of classes because I was dedicated to the student newspaper. I know why you’re disappearing like a kid running after a red balloon in a Stephen King novel. I also understand I’m not a top priority, so let’s try to make peace with this.

“I will promise not to ride you mercilessly about how crappy your work is in here, if you promise not to piss and moan about your lousy grades. We’ll get you through this alive, and once you end up running a professional newsroom, just make sure you keep your alma mater in mind for potential internship candidates. And don’t make GPA a requirement for successful applications when you’re running the show.”

 

The “One-Point, Death-Grade, Elevator-Pitch Shimmy” Approach: At the end of a semester in which we grade hundreds of papers across multiple sections and various courses, the computer will eventually spit out a number that correlates to your grade. In more than a few cases, that number will be riding juuuuuuuusssst on the line of a potentially life-altering edge.

For example, if 75 is the demarcation line between a C and a C-, and you need a C or better to continue in your program, you might find yourself sitting at 74.89. The difference between having to start all over with a course or be able to take what you’ve likely scheduled for next semester hangs in the balance of a professor’s attitude regarding rounding, grade-grubbing and the degree to which they want to tolerate you again.

Here’s the best I got for what I would consider “death grades,” the line between pass/fail, advance/retake or B-/C+ (It’s hard to sleep at night knowing you were THAT close to a B of any kind and came up short.): If you’re within a point or two of that death grade, we professors promise to tell you before we file. You have 24 hours to make up a 30-second elevator pitch that would convince us to buy your argument for a better grade.

If you use the words “deserve,” “worked hard,” “need this to graduate,” or any other whiny bull-pucky, you’re done. Gimme at least one or two concrete reasons that I told you were relatively important to this class that you learned or did that make you worthy of me shimmying  up your grade a tad.

My discretion in the end, but I gave you a chance.

And finally…

 

The “But I Tried Really Hard In This Class” Resolution: When your grade is somewhere in the vicinity of the Mendoza Line and you missed so many classes that I almost called in an Amber Alert on you , it’s kind of ballsy to make the claim of effort.

That said, numerous students do this every year, so here’s the best solution:

Good luck with finals and we’ll see you next time!

THROWBACK THURSDAY: The journalism films you should watch if you want to be a journalist (Part I)

Today in my reporting class, we’re watching the first film on this list, “Judging Jewell,” so I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at what I had here.

I’m still pretty locked in for my first, third and fourth picks. Given the more recent films I’ve seen and the suggestions of the hivemind, I might slip “The Post” in there for either two or five. I still like them both, but I did broaden my horizons.

I might also slip in one of the Fyre Fest documentaries, in that although they aren’t “journalism” films in the purest sense, they do demonstrate the importance of social media as a driver for social interests. Plus, it touches on how little reporting can go on with some stories, like those that made Billy McFarland an wunderkind. Or, to quote someone from one of the films, “I guess it doesn’t take much to fool a reporter these days.”

Still, read on and enjoy.

 

The journalism films you should watch if you want to be a journalist (Part I)

Journalism films are all over the place lately, as are documentaries about journalists. It seems like if a film can include a typewriter, somebody smoking indoors and a sense of “taking on The Man,” it’s on a screen these days. Seth Meyers did a fantastic send up of this on his late-night show:

 

In the 1970s, “All The President’s Men” became the “must-watch movie” for journalism students. When I was in college, we gravitated to “The Paper,” as we all seemed to know random guys like Randy Quaid’s character who bordered on insane. (One of my newsroom friends started calling me “Hackett” after Michael Keaton’s Coke-guzzling, workaholic character.) Now? It could be one of a dozen or more fictional, documentary or “based on a true story” films, so I dug back through IMDB and put out the question to the Hivemind on what was “required” watching for budding journalists.

Below are my “Top Five” films in no particular order with some rationale behind my picks. I tended to consider three things in each pick I made:

  1. Did I watch it more than once because I liked something about it?
  2. Does it give viewers something important in it, regardless of the genre or format?
  3. Do I think students would actually watch this if they weren’t forced to and actually enjoy it?

Those considerations knocked out a couple films for me that others picked up on. I’m also quite certain it will have people screaming at me that I’m wrong.

In any case, here we go:

1) Judging Jewell (2014, ESPN: 30 for 30) – At shade under 22 minutes, this story packs a lot of lessons into a short space. In 1996, a bomb shattered the peace of the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, killing 2 people and injuring more than 100 others. This could have been much worse had it not been for the heroic actions of Richard Jewell, a security guard who was working at the Games for AT&T. Jewell spotted the package and began moving people away from that area before the bomb detonated.

Jewell was originally considered a hero, but the media turned on him when public sentiment held that Jewell was likely the bomber. What followed was an 88-day “trial by media” that demonstrates what can happen when the race to get the story becomes all-consuming. (My favorite lesson comes from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which ran a line about how Jewell “fits the profile of the lone bomber,” and why attribution matters so much in news writing.) Jewell was eventually exonerated, as terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph was captured and confessed to the bombing. However, Jewell never really recovered. This is a sad story and yet a good cautionary tale for journalists.

2) Spotlight (2015) Critics have compared this film to the classic “All The President’s Men,” in that it shows how reporting can bring down a powerful institution. It also has similarities in the ways in which the journalists had to engage in real “shoe leather” reporting to make this happen. The critical nature of sources, fact checking, working around problems and other things journalists pride themselves on are on full display here. One of the more interesting things is the early resistance from within the paper when it comes to “going after” the church. Although, like most “based on a true story” movies, we know how it will end, the tension that comes from the fear of being wrong makes this both a tale of aspiration and one of caution.

 

3) Shattered Glass (2003) – In between his stints as a young Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen portrayed another character drawn to the dark side. Stephen Glass was a young, well-liked journalist at The New Republic when he engaged in a series of fraudulent behaviors that shook the magazine to its core in the late 1990s. Glass started by faking a few quotes here and there before eventually writing pure fiction and passing it off as fact. The epilogue of the film notes that 27 of the 41 pieces he published during his time at the magazine were partially or completely made up, not to mention fabrications he freelanced to a number of other publications.

Some aspects of the film, which is now 15 years old and based on an incident that happened two decades ago, don’t age well for younger viewers. The idea of having to use “every search engine on the web” to get information seems quaint, as does the discussion of the fear associated with an “internet publication going after a giant.” That said, the lessons are fantastic.

At some point in life, almost everyone has wanted to be “the cool kid.” Glass fell into that trap, as you can see in the “60 Minutes” interview below. He loved the attention and would do anything to get it, including wandering down a path of self-destruction.

I would also wager, most people also have found themselves in a jam at some point and thought, “If I just cut a corner here, I could get out of this alive.” Some do it and convince themselves they’ll “only do it this once.” Like most other things that are horrible for you, it’s never just once. If you take the Red Pill, you never hit the bottom of the rabbit hole. Even today, Glass is still dealing with his past.

4) The Paper (1994) – It’s fiction, it’s ridiculous in spots and yet it is one of the few films that captures the complete randomness of life in a newsroom. From the A/C that breaks to the guy who swears he has “Watergate” on every story, this is a funny story with a great cast. If nothing else, this scene just nailed it for me:

“Who the hell took my stapler?”

If I had a dollar for every time something in a newsroom made me laugh, I’d be able to fund all the newspapers in the world forever. This movie reminds me of that every time I watch it. Probably a biased pick, but give it a look and tell me I’m wrong.

5) Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017) – A wrestler, a sex tape and sleazy internet publication are at the central junction point of this film and perhaps the most important free-press case in decades. The movie looks at the trial of Bollea v. Gawker, which pits wrestling star Hulk Hogan (aka Terry Bollea) against an internet gossip magazine. Gawker was a publication that a lot of people hated for being mean-spirited and snotty, but it also went after “true things about bad people” to quote a former worker. However, at the heart of this case and this film are several crucial questions including, if a sex tape is news, who gets to decide that and what forces are at play behind all of this.

The film goes beyond the “guess who saw the naughty stuff” issue and digs into who was funding Hogan’s legal team, what other multi-millionaires are out there potentially undercutting press freedoms and what this means going forward.

 

Feel free to tell me I’m wrong about everything, if you so choose.

(2022 NOTE: Here’s the link to part II if you are interested.)

 

In God We Trust. Everybody Else Gets Recorded

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has found himself playing a lot of defense this week, as recordings of his calls in and around Jan. 6 hit the media. The recordings appear to directly contradict McCarthy’s frequent statements that he did not and would not tell President Trump to resign in the wake of the Capitol Riots:

WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) – Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, came under fire from some of his fellow party members, after an audio recording showed him saying that then-President Donald Trump should resign over the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot.

The comments, which McCarthy had denied hours before the recording emerged, could undermine his widely known ambition to become House speaker next year if Republicans take control of the chamber in November’s midterm elections, as expected.

We could spend an entire post with clips of politicians of every stripe saying they never said something, followed by audio or video evidence that shows they said that EXACT THING. It’s why this joke rings so true:

Q: How can you tell when politicians are lying?
A: Their lips are moving.

Instead, let’s talk about the importance of recording everything you can shake a stick at when you interview sources. Here are a few things to keep in mind while doing that:

Rules for recordings

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes that federal law allows you to record calls and other similar communication with just one party to the call knowing that the recording is happening.  In addition, 38 states have adopted similar “one-party consent” rules, which allows you to record someone without their consent. The other 12 states require that all parties involved in a phone call or other similar discussion consent to the recording. In almost no circumstance can you record a call to which you are not a party, a concept often referred to as wiretapping.

You can find a full listing of the states and their laws on recording on here on the committee’s website.

What you “can” do doesn’t include what you “should” do, in that trust and credibility play a pretty big role in what we do. Thus, ethically, it’s better to just ask people right up front if you can record the call or record them in person when you’re conducting the interview in most cases. If you’re trying to catch someone in a lie, that might not work, but if you’re interviewing the Queen of Corn Elise Jones about her exciting duties that go with the title, I doubt you’ll need to be surreptitious.

Also, for all the grumping journalism traditionalists do over email interviews (and I include myself among the grumps), the use of email does provide you with a written transcript of what the person said, so it’s a lot harder for them to cry foul when the stuff hits the fan over their comments.

What if a source says no?

One of the risks of behaving ethically is that someone might tell you not to record the interview. In that case, you have a few options.

Explain why you want to record them (to provide the most complete record, to back up your notes in case you misunderstand something, to allow you to be more conversational because you aren’t burying your head in your notes), in hopes that this will soften their stance.

If that doesn’t work, make the case that this is good for both of you because it protects both of you from having mistakes get into the public sphere. It’s also good to have that record for future examination, in case something needs to be looked back upon.

If none of that works, you’re kind of stuck between doing the interview without the recorder or not doing the interview. It’s a choice, but be ready to make that choice either way.

How best to record

Before you do any recording, you should have tested out your recorder in a few different environments. See what kind of range you get, the overall sound quality the device provides and if anything you would normally encounter in an interview would limit the device’s effectiveness. (If the source is playing with a pencil on the desk where your recorder sits, will you hear nothing but a series of TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP sounds?)

People can get jittery when they’re being recorded. Interviews themselves can freak people out, so the idea that every word they say is being preserved for all time can make things a little more anxiety-provoking. (A broadcast student of mine referred to interviews that go to hell because of a recorder fear as the source having “red light syndrome.”)

That little red light on a recorder can be a powerful tool, so it’s best to keep it away from them. If you have a recorder that can pick up sound from a bit of a distance, you can keep the recorder in your hand and flip over a piece of your reporter’s notebook to cover the thing. Eventually the source will forget it’s there and relax, I would hope.

If that won’t work, I try to at least obscure the red light or place it in an unobtrusive space. The goal is for it to blend into the background. If your recorder is so weak that you almost have to lodge the thing into the source’s nasal cavity to get a decent recording, buy something better.

 

Best Practices for Recording

It makes a lot of sense to purchase a separate recording device if you have the ability and funds to do so. Depending on if you need broadcast quality audio or just something you can hear and understand, costs can range between $20 or so to upwards of a couple hundred.

It is possible to use your phone to record in a pinch, but a lot can go wrong, including an app that only records a few minutes because it’s a “free” edition (and they never told you that) or an app that gets knocked off any time you get a text or alert. Also, battery issues are pretty prominent when it comes to most of my students’ phones, as they’re usually on their hands and knees in the classroom before class, searching for a power outlet.

For recording phone conversations, that mini-recorder plus your phone on speaker works well for low-grade audio. If you have a landline, which most of you probably don’t unless you work in an office that has these dinosaurs, you can get a phone coupler for a couple bucks online that allows you to jack your recorder right into the phone itself. (In days before this technology, reporters would drill holes in their phones and wire in recording devices. It looked cool, but the tech was risky.)

In any case, here are some basic tips to help you out:

  1. Make sure your recorder is functional and ready for recording. Do a test recording, check the batteries, bring extra batteries and generally make sure this thing will do the job.
  2. Test the recorder in the environment you’ll be recording, when possible. If you have some annoying background noise, see if you can move the interview elsewhere or tell your roommate to turn down the Cardi B. for 20 minutes.
  3. Start the recorder before the interview and ask the person if they would allow you to interview. This seems counterintuitive, but the goal is to capture the person’s answer on the recording. If they say yes, the thing is already going and they didn’t see you turn it on or place it somewhere so they aren’t freaking out as much. Plus you have the confirmation on “tape.” (or whatever term we’re using for digital stick recorders)
  4. If the source says no and won’t change their mind, pick up the device and shut it off in front of them to clearly show you’re abiding by their wishes. It’ll help with trust and credibility. Then, be prepared for hand cramps.
  5. Keep the recorder going all the way until you are out of the presence of the interview subject. Even after you agree you’re “done,” things can come up or other questions can happen. You want those recorded.
  6. Immediately check your recorder after  you are outside of the interview to make sure it worked. If it didn’t, you can pour some additional work into fleshing out your notes while it’s still fresh in your mind. If you figure out what went wrong and now the recorder works, you might be able to run back in for a quick follow up question or two before the source is involved in something else.

Hope this helps. Any other suggestions or thoughts on this are always appreciated.

Vince

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

Action Snark: The $43 billion cost of a “platform for free speech around the globe”

Billionaire Elon Musk will spend $43 billion to acquire Twitter, the first step in taking the company private, according to multiple media reports released Monday morning.

What this means is in the eye of the beholder.

Business Today’s take, in part:

Musk wants to maintain this “free speech” status for Twitter so that he can, for all practical purposes, continue s%$t posting on the platform without consequences. If he owns the platform, he also does not need to listen to governments’ grievances. For example, what would Musk do if the Indian government demanded (again) that certain tweets be deleted and accounts blocked?

The New Yorker looked at this in a similar way, but with more of an “old boys’ club” vibe:

His acquisition quest appears to be less about increasing the company’s profits—“This is not a way to sort of make money,” he has said—than preserving Twitter’s capacity for chaos as a tool for himself and others to continue influencing their vast audiences without interference. “I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said, during a TED-conference interview in Vancouver, on April 14th. “Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.”

The once-and-future-king question for Donald Trump’s return to Twitter was the focal point of this Bloomberg look:

Musk has said he prefers to stay out of politics, but there are good reasons to suspect a Musk-owned Twitter would reactivate President Trump’s account. Beyond saying at TED that he wants to be “very cautious with permanent bans,” Musk applauded the former president two years ago when Trump supported Tesla’s plans to reopen a California car factory during the Covid-19 lockdown. And in a few recent tweets, Musk appears to embrace the right-wing, Fox News-bingeing perspective on various cultural flashpoints. (“The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable,” Musk tweeted last week.)

Time magazine might be rethinking the 2021 Person of the Year award they tossed at the tech billionaire, if this is their take on the problems with this supposed “free speech” move:

But many on the frontlines of the fight for democratic spaces online have questioned whether Musk’s move – if it is indeed serious, and if he can raise the required cash, and if the offer is accepted by the Twitter board – would undermine, rather than bolster, democracy. Employees of the platform and other experts have also spoken publicly about their fears that Musk may try to erode Twitter’s recent moves to protect marginalized users and tackle harassment and misinformation.

Since the explosion of social media usage more than a decade ago, researchers and technologists have forged an understanding of the ways that the design of social media sites has an impact on civic discourse and, ultimately, democratic processes. One of their key findings: sites that privilege free speech above all else tend to result in spaces where civic discourse is drowned out by harassment, restricting participation to a privileged few.

What is lost in all of this, at least for the moment, is the full understanding of what free speech is, how it works and why our traditional checks against some of the worst abuses will be lost in this move.

First, and we’ve only said this 10,242 times on this site, free speech is not the ability to say whatever you want, however you want and without consequence. From at least the U.S. perspective, it’s the ability to express yourself without fear of government interference. Private definitions of “free speech” vary widely based on who is making the definition and how speech is policed, censored or punished. I’m sure if you asked a citizen living under a dictatorial regime right now about free speech, that person would say, “Oh we totally have free speech here. We just have to watch what we say about XYZ.” Thus, the problem with this blanket term.

Second, people feeling like they’re given unfettered speech freedom are unlikely to think before they use it. This reminds me of the documentary I saw on the old “Action Park,” where the owners basically built a bunch of insanely dangerous rides and activities and told people, “You’re in control. Go for it.”

Thus, all sorts of things that Twitter’s guardrails used to prevent will now be unleashed in the name of free speech, leading to a ridiculous number of harmful things that none of us can stop, but most of us can foresee. When someone disagrees with someone else about anything from the political prowess of Joe Biden to the length of the foul lines at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium, we’re going to see the rage machine start to redline the engine. Suddenly, we’re all wondering how six people got stabbed to death in real life because nobody wanted to say, “Look, it was 315 down the line and stop calling that guy a lib-tard.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we have Musk in a position where his wealth overrides the free-speech system as it was intended to operate. In most cases, free speech carries with it responsibilities and consequences: We need to act responsibly in what we say about people, for fear of suffering legal consequences.

Thus, if some kid writes on Twitter that I’m taking money for grades, and this really gains traction and I get in trouble, I can sue that kid. If I prove the kid was negligent in his speech (or in some cases he knowingly lied), I can recoup financial losses and a court can assign punitive financial penalties to that kid. In short, free speech, when done poorly, can cost you.

Now, look at Musk. First, he’s probably got a function argument that he’s protected under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which tends to hold platforms blameless for user content.

Second, let’s say he screws that up and encourages bad action on the platform, what’s the penalty? If you sue him, he’s got enough money to legally bury in motions and documents you before you get anywhere near a courtroom.

If you manage to survive all that and win, a ridiculously high bar to clear, then what? He buries you in appeals until you go broke. IF you manage to get through all of that and still win an financial award from him, it’s not really a consequence for him.

This guy has what people who report on rich folks call “F— You Money.” It’s the level of wealth that essentially allows you to tell everyone around you “F— you” and not care. He literally had enough money to send himself to space because Earth is so last century… You think he’s going to worry what you’ll do to him if Twitter lead to the end of modern civilization? Gimme a break.

It’ll be interesting to see what all this leads to, much in the same way it’s interesting when you find that you left a Tupperware container full of noodle salad in your backpack in the back of your closet since freshman year. God alone knows what we’re dealing with, but it’s probably not something we’re all going to be thrilled with.