Learning from your own stupid mistakes: 4 things I need to remember about screwing things up that might help you, too

 

At least 60% of the stuff on this blog looks at something someone screwed up and how to make it better. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a hypocrite, so it’s confession time:

I screwed up Monday.

(I bolded this because I needed to emphasize this and I’m not supposed to curse on the blog, the publishers tell me. However, if there ever was a time for a necessary f-bomb, it would be here…)

In my post on Emily Reise, I was paying a lot of attention to certain details, like what her company does and where she had previously worked so I didn’t get her in trouble with her boss. In doing so, I messed up the most basic of details: Her name, which I spelled “ee” instead of “ei” in the original post.

Making this error even dumber, I included what she said about getting a failing grade for misspelling a name back in her first writing class and how it made a difference in the way she approaches her work now.

I shipped her a copy of the post to look over for mistakes and she quickly sent me this message:

ReisePost

Seeing this felt like getting hit in the chest with a sledgehammer.

I apologized and quickly reworked it as best I could to grab back every error-riddled version from every area of social media I could. Still, I couldn’t fix everything, so I deleted and reposted stuff to try to fix it. Shortly after I did this, she sent me another message:

EmilyPost2

Nope. I’m just an idiot.

The point of this blog has always been to turn dumb things into teachable moments. So with a lot of egg on my face, I’ll be enjoying a dinner of crow, with a side of humble pie. In the mean time, here are the things I have to remember that might help you all as well:

If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right: As God as my witness, I have no damned idea how I managed to screw this up. I was pulling pieces out of her interview, checking on several websites and doing everything I normally do. This just happened.

The one thing that should have tipped me off was that something didn’t feel right.

When I tried to pull up her LinkedIn profile, I was having trouble finding it. (Because I spelled her name wrong.) When I was looking at our conversation on LinkedIn that got this whole thing rolling, something didn’t look right. (Because I spelled her name wrong.) Even in looking for the original interview, I initially couldn’t find it when I went searching for it in my email. (Because I spelled her name wrong!!!)

I should have stopped and thought harder about it, but nothing has been feeling exactly normal these days, so I kind of blew off my own thoughts and just published.

Next time, when something doesn’t look right or feel right, I’m giving it another look until I figure out what it is.

Everyone needs an editor: One of the major downsides of running a one-man operation on this blog is that I don’t get a second set of eyes on my work until it’s too late. (Granted, I often have a conversation with all the voices in my head before I publish, but it’s not the same as having a good editor.)

Aside from catching the typos and the grammar errors, good editors make you widen your view and think harder about what it is you screwed up so you won’t do it again. This is why I will always want folks like my copy editor, Jim Kelly, to work with me on my books. He is the guy who not only keeps me from referring to something as a “pubic speech,” but he’s also the person who can show me what I didn’t do right and how to avoid it in the future. (He remains the only person on Earth to get me closer to understanding “affect/effect” in my writing.)

As much as I appreciate the post-hoc editing of folks out there, I’d like to avoid screwing up in the first place. Good editors make that happen.

Admit it, fix it, move on: Speaking of screwing up, I have to admit that this particular screw up caused me physical pain.

I’m serious. My chest hurt when I got that message because I was thinking, “Dammit, how am I supposed to tell people what to do in their work if I’m screwing up myself?”

Well, for starters, I’m not on a lunchbox, so I’m going to screw up. That’s not an excuse or a justification, but rather a statement of fact.

Could I have told Emily, “Aha! I was just testing you!” and then made the switch? Sure.

But then I’d be exactly the chucklehead I’m telling other people not to be. As my State Journal editor Teryl Franklin told me once after the worst mistake (to date, knock on wood) in my career, “If you don’t deal with this, how will you ever be able to teach students what to do when they make mistakes?”

She was right. It’s important to not only fix the mistakes but admit that you screwed up in the first place. Honesty matters.

The hardest thing for me, actually, is the last part: Move on.

When I was a reporter at the State Journal, I had something like six or seven corrections over three years. However, they were all bunched in clumps and surrounded by about a half-dozen “near misses” that a copy editor or designer caught before the paper pressed.

The reason was simple: I was so determined not to make THAT MISTAKE again, that I would become myopic about it and miss a half-dozen other stupid things I should have caught.

Moving on means being able to figure out how to walk and chew gum at the same time again when it comes to writing and editing. Keep an eye on everything, realize that you’re not going to catch everything and try to prevent the stupid stuff from burying you.

If I ever figure out how to do that, I’ll let you know.

You learn more from your students than they do from you: Educators who keep an open mind always want to learn something new, and students provide that every day with their insights and experiences. Their inquisitive nature will get us to look at things in a different way than we normally do. They also have the ability to remind us of the things we told them that we need to remember more often.

Emily told me she keeps my textbook on her desk and that she uses her experiences in our journalism department every day that she plies her trade.

In the post, she also mentioned this: “Filak was right. You will always remember spelling that damn person’s last name wrong.”

Very true.

R-E-I-S-E.

Dammit.

Nursing, Social Media Experience and “Knowing I belonged:” How Emily Reise landed a digital marketing job during a pandemic

EmilyMugWith graduation drawing close, college students across the country are panicking even more than usual as they try to get a job in the middle of a pandemic. Even professionals with years of field experience are concerned about moving jobs or finding a career path as the coronavirus has made it difficult to find opportunities or stability.

Emily Reise a public relations and social media professional managed to navigate this new landscape amazingly well, landing her current position as a digital marketing coordinator for Nurses PRN in Appleton, Wisconsin about a month ago.

Reise majored in public relations and minored in environmental studies at UW-Oshkosh, all while undertaking four internships in her field. Upon graduation, she headed to St. Paul, Minnesota to work as a social media coordinator for Midwest Sign. After a year and a half, she was looking for a chance to come back home to the Fox River Valley, and found Nurses PRN.

According to its website, Nurses PRN is a staffing agency that connects clients and nurses “driven by the simple idea that better nursing care leads to better patient care.” The company notes that it has 500 active employees and fills approximately 6,000 shifts monthly for its clients.

Reise was nice enough to answer a few questions about what she learned as a student that she still uses and what she does in her new job:

 

You landed at Nurses PRN right in the middle of a pandemic and you are responsible for digital marketing content. I guess two questions that come off of that statement are a) What does your job normally entail? and b) What is life like dealing with this job now in the middle of this insanity?

“A normal day would consist of me taking leads from Facebook ads and ‘gifting’ them to recruiters in the company depending on the area they are staffing and the type of nurse they need. I am the main social media guru, so I make the content calendar, come up with content, strategize social media campaigns and monitor comments and messages. I also have my hands in email marketing, events, managing job boards, and helping edit and write website copy.

“Landing a job in the middle of a pandemic, especially in the nursing field, is chaotic to say the least! Everything is abnormal and changing which demands a ton of agility when approaching ads and job boards. Certain jobs are streaming in because of layoffs and furloughs that normally we never had an excess of. This floods the ads and gives us tons of leads we may need or not need depending on facility need. This forces me to jump in and start making decisions whether to shut off ads, make new ones, or edit the creative or copy. There is no ‘normal’ right now and no directions on how to adjust social media ads for nurses when there is a global pandemic.”

 

How did you land a job during this time of absolute uncertainty, given all the cuts to everything and how it seems like the economy is going to hell in a speedboat? What was it that drew you to this company and what was it that got them to find you as the perfect fit?

“I was looking for a new opportunity back home in the Fox Valley since I was living in the Twin Cities. I chose a day in March and interviewed with five different companies. Nurses PRN was the first company I interviewed with. By the end of the interview I remember telling them, ‘I am at a 10, I want this job- hire me today!” (They didn’t hire me that day.)

“I knew I belonged there because of how laid back and enthusiastic the marketing team was about their jobs. I clicked instantly with them. I found out later they were looking for an upbeat person who wasn’t afraid to express new ideas. Luckily, I can talk to a brick wall… I felt I connected well and after working for many companies, I now know that company culture and the people I work with is the most important factor for me.

“I got the job the next week and had to finish my current job. Two weeks after I put in my two weeks, though, the COVID-19 pandemic was heightened and I was worried they would move my start date back. Instead, they shipped a laptop, work phone, and training manuals right to my house so I could start remotely. Even though it’s not perfect, I’m so thankful to have a job during these uncertain times and working for a company who takes risks and cares enough to let me start on time.”

 

In your career to date, what are some of the most important things you learned in college in terms of being prepared to do this work? In other words, what “tools” were the most important things that college put into your “toolbox” for your career?

“Learning to write for blogs, website copy, and press releases has proved to be invaluable in my career. At my previous job, I wrote around 49 blogs in the year of 2019 alone. Now I mostly edit other people’s written work but taking Writing for the Media taught me to always comb through everything with an eye for detail.

(I still remember the day I got my assignment back from you and I went and cried in your office because I got an F since I spelled the lady’s last name in the story with an “a” instead of an “e.” You called that a major error and said I will always remember to double check details like that and never changed the grade. WELL, YOU WERE RIGHT! I STILL TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT!)”

 

Right about now, a ton of students are looking for jobs and there is always that fear of “Oh, dear Lord, what happens when I can’t get a job?” As someone who graduated not that long ago (and who I know had some of those jitters at certain times), what kinds of advice can you give the kids who are graduating and worried about what will be out there for them, especially given our current situation?

“One of the biggest chunks of advice I can give grads, especially during the pandemic, is to be open minded. I thought I was going to be working for a sustainability company doing public relations. Now I’m working for a nurse staffing company as a marketer.

“I realized that the largest factors in finding a job you love isn’t just about the industry you are in, but the work you are doing, the people you work with, and the overall company culture. Don’t be too picky, if you think you would like the job duties, apply for it!”

 

Cheap  (and kind of self-serving) question: If Emily “now” could go back in time and talk to the Emily who was just starting her degree (with a “Writing for the Media” class), what would you tell her?

“I would say, ‘You’re right, you won’t be a journalist, but you will use these skills every single day in your career.’ Writing is something all employers crave in marketing and PR employees.

“I had to do multiple tests during interview processes to prove to the employers I knew how to write a press release or blog. I write for the media daily whether that be for social media, website copy, press releases, or blogs.

“Also, Filak was right. You will always remember spelling that damn person’s last name wrong.”

Throwback Thursday: “He’s dying anyway.” (A primer on how not to do PR)

Given the number of people having to speak to the public these days about a crisis, it would seem to be a good time to look back at this post about how to avoid looking like an idiot.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman gave an interview to Anderson Cooper the other day, and her missives about opening casinos as the coronavirus continues to spread managed to befuddle the veteran newscaster. CNN even posted a story on “The 20 most bizarre lines” from it.

My favorite of the bunch? “We offered to be a controlled group.”

When an incredulous Cooper asked Goodman if she really was willing to make the citizens of Las Vegas a control group for the coronavirus by reopening everything and seeing what happened, Goodman admonished him not to put words in her mouth.

“I offered to be a control group and I was told by our statistician that we can’t do that,” she said.

I’m sure the citizens of Las Vegas will sleep better after that clarification…

In any case, here’s a post from a year or so ago that shows not only when interviews with the media go bad, but also how you can avoid these problems with some common sense and decent PR skills.

“He’s dying anyway.” (A primer on how not to do PR)

If I had a nickel for every stupid thing I ever said, I’d wouldn’t need to work anymore and I could probably eradicate world hunger. This is one of the many reasons I have a lot of respect for good public relations practitioners: They manage to keep on message, make key points clear and connect with an audience in some of the more difficult situations out there.

In discussing public relations with my buddy Pritch (a member of the College of Fellows and a decades-long PR professional and instructor) a number of years ago, he told me that one of the more underrated elements of PR is honest empathy. It’s hard to get across a message while still realizing that there are other forces at play, many of which can be painful for others. I translated this into “be humane” in one of the books and several lectures, and I think it sticks well.

I thought about this when this story broke about a White House staffer’s reaction to Sen. John McCain’s stand against confirming CIA nominee Gina Haspel:

“It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” press aide Kelly Sadler said about McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel at a meeting of White House communications staffers, according to an unnamed source cited by The Hill’s Jordan Fabian.

McCain is battling brain cancer and is unlikely to win that fight, according to all available information. As we noted in the book, the accuracy of a statement like “He’s dying anyway” isn’t the issue, but rather the fact it makes Sadler sound cold and calloused. Even worse from a PR perspective, she has now become the news and that news is clearly negative.

Consider the following thoughts as a short primer on the idea of keeping yourself out of trouble:

 

You are like plumbing: We talk in most of my classes about good media professionals being conduits of information, moving content from valuable sources to interested audiences. I often equate this to being like plumbing: The water exists at Point A and you want to drink it at Point B. You don’t really know how every single thing works, but you just want it to work.

Perhaps more to the point, the only time people notice plumbing any more is when something goes wrong. If the water in your tap comes out in a lovely shade of beige, like mine did in my first college apartment, you notice it. When a pipe breaks under the house and starts spraying water all over the crawl space, like it did when we lived in Indiana, you notice it. When it’s running fine? I don’t think, “Man, that toilet can FLUSH! So awesome!”

Get the information that matters from Point A to Point B in its best possible form and you’re doing the job well.

 

You aren’t the news: The 1980s show “The Fall Guy” follows the adventures of a TV and movie stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter, thus getting into all sorts of danger and wacky mishaps.

Perhaps the only enduring thing about this program was the theme song, in which the show’s star, Lee Majors, sings about life as an “Unknown Stuntman” with lyrics like:

I might fall from a tall building,
I might roll a brand new car.
‘Cause I’m the unknown stuntman that made Redford such a star.

If you do your job well, people behind the scenes will know your name, appreciate your professionalism and use the information you provide to them. However, you will never BE the news. Your clients may bask in the spotlight thanks to your hard work. Your organization might succeed because you did the dirty work. Your company may have a sterling image that you built, brick by brick. However, you are the unknown stuntperson who needs to make them look so fine.

 

Stop. Think. Then Speak: One of the hardest things in the 24/7 news cycle and the constant demand for information is the ability to pause before communicating without looking like a weasel. It often feels like if we don’t have an answer RIGHT NOW, we are clearly scrambling for some well-worn cliche or a bit of BS. However, once you open your mouth or send a release or do anything else, you can’t get it back, so it pays to be on top of your game.

Collect yourself before you speak on something. Think about who might hear what you have to say or share what you publish. Some PR professionals have told me when they have something they have to say, they imagine their grandmother was in the audience. I often tell students that there is no crime in not knowing something, so instead of going rogue, tell the people, “I don’t know the answer, but I will find it out for you.” As long as you live up to that promise (and it isn’t the answer to every question), you should be OK.

 

Stupid is eternal: Mardela Springs, Maryland is town of about 350 people in the western part of the state and the only reason I remember it is because of Norman Christopher, who was a town official in the early 1990s. Christopher famously brought attention to this tiny hamlet with his explanation as to why he couldn’t reach county officials on Martin Luther King Day:

He reportedly was explaining to other commission members why he could not reach county workers by telephone Jan. 20, the King holiday. “I forgot no one was working. Everyone had Buckwheat’s birthday off,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Times in Salisbury. Buckwheat was the stage name of a black child who starred in the “Our Gang” comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s been more than a quarter century since he made that comment and I still remember it as a “What the hell was THAT?” moment when it became news. In a similar way, I will never forget Justine Sacco and her “hope I don’t get AIDS” tweet, that we feature in the book.

Sacco has managed to find work recently, as IAC brought her back on board for a separate venture. In looking back at all of this, she had a pretty decent observation for anyone involved in any form of media:

“Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life.”

Kelly Sadler worked on a number of projects before and will likely have many more years of professional work in the future, but this might hang around her neck like an albatross for a while. If you think about anything stupid you have ever said, imagine that being the one thing people remember about you and then act accordingly.

 

Corona Lite: A few strange and humorous media moments of the COVID crisis

Amid the doom and gloom associated with the coronavirus outbreak and its subsequent impacts, there have been some moments of levity, oddity and general head shaking emerge from the darkness.

Here are some of those moments:

THE PERILS OF WORKING FROM HOME, BROADCAST EDITION:

As many of us have found, it’s not easy working from home. Between slowed internet and a full house, finding ways to stay on task and get work done is tough. It can be even tougher for broadcasters, as they not only have to look professional, but they’re constantly live, regardless of what’s going on around them. A reporter from WKBN in Youngstown, Ohio, learned this the hard way, as his cat became part of a report on local businesses adapting to shelter-in-place protocols:

CatButt

As you can see in John Oliver’s weekly segment on “Last Week Tonight,” the cat spends the entire live shot making sure its butt is ready for its close up.

However, the winner for lack of situational awareness in broadcast news has to go to Melinda Meza of KCRA in California. During a segment on how to cut your own bangs that was shot in her bathroom, Meza captured a full frontal nude shot of her own husband in the mirror:

 

MezaShowerShot

The shot, blurred here for decency sake, almost broke the internet. To be fair, I didn’t know how many broadcast double entendres there were, until I saw the “best boy,” “key grip,” and “main package” jokes that flooded Twitter. If you don’t believe this actually aired, here’s a live clip in all its glory. Don’t say I didn’t warn you beforehand.

 

FIRST PURCHASE: COPY EDITORS

With print revenues taking an even heavier beating during the coronavirus outbreak, the corporations that own newspapers are slashing staff, even as the need for more writing, photography and editing surges. Nothing could be more instructive of this need than the plea for help that ran in the Green Bay Press-Gazette the other day:

NameHere

As Name Here clearly states, knowledge is essential to democracy. Careful editing is probably a close second…

 

I HOPE THEY HAD ACCESS TO AN APPROPRIATE TOILET PAPER SUPPLY:

Certain typos keep me up at night while I’m writing a book. The “public/pubic” one is always a bit harrowing, but after seeing this headline from Tennessee, I’m definitely removing the word “shift” from my vocabulary:

LegoShift

That’s got to be one impressive Number Two that Baby Yoda took to make that many visors. The Force is clearly strong with this one. As is his daily supply of soluble fiber…

 

IF IT’S NOT PURE IRONY, IT’S REALLY, REALLY CLOSE:

The debate over opening the country without a vaccine for the coronavirus has reached peak rage mode on social media. John W. McDaniel of Marion, Ohio, was among those who thought it was stupid to keep everything closed:

McDanielObit

A month later, he made the news:

An Ohio man who dismissed the coronavirus pandemic as a “political ploy” and ripped his state’s lockdown as “bulls–t,” has died of COVID-19, according to reports.

John W. McDaniel, 60, passed away last Wednesday in Columbus — exactly a month after reportedly firing off a series of angry messages about the contagion.

“Does anybody have the guts to say this COVID-19 is a political ploy? Asking for a friend. Prove me wrong,” he wrote on March 13, according to the Sun.

 

JACK IS DEAD. LONG LIVE JACK:

In reporting a story on Jack Allard, a 26-year-old two-time All-America lacrosse player, anchor Bill Ritter somberly intoned that Allard had succumbed to the illness and died. He then rolled the video in which New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy proclaims Allard has survived and was released from the hospital. As Murphy made this proclamation, the video showed Allard walking out of the hospital to applause from a small gathering of people.

Ritter did the best he could to salvage that, noting “I feel horrible. Jack is very much alive. Jack, we love you.”

This is why I never would have made it in TV news, as my reaction probably would have been, “Oh… Well, Shit!”

 

AND FINALLY… MY DEEPEST REGRET

We had a department meeting earlier in the month, as it was clear things were not going back to normal any time soon. Several of our classes had to be canceled for the fall term, due to low enrollment. We had heard rumors of furloughs on our campus, which came to fruition this week. Other schools also dealt with similar cuts, freezes and layoffs.

We realized we’d be down one-fourth of our faculty for at least a year, due to retirements. Questions regarding the need to move maybe our entire program online for the fall or longer bounced around before my boss asked those of us gathered via Collaborate Ultra this question: What are you most worried about right now?

After a long pause, I broke the silence:

“Well, I really wish I hadn’t left that bag of baby carrots in my mini-fridge in the office. Those things are going to develop language skills before I get back there.”

 

“The dog ate my jump drive and gave it the coronavirus!” A professor’s plea for honesty in the age of COVID-19

Since the beginning of education, students have offered educators false reasons for missing assignment deadlines. “The dog ate my homework,” later became, “I ran out of loose leaf,” which begat “The printer ran out of ink,” which led to “My floppy disk/Zip disk/thumb drive got corrupted,” which came along with “My computer got a virus” and of course “I SWEAR I uploaded the right file…”

One tried and true excuse has been that of illness or death, which unfortunately hasn’t taken a break during this time of coron-apocalypse. A fellow educator asked this question in a “pandemic education” group:

Sorry if this has been posted by another….rcvd an email from a student asking for advice on how to handle their two roommates lying to profs about family members having the virus to get extensions on class work.

Is anyone asking their students for documentation? Or is it the honor system for the most part?

My initial question, naturally, was, “What the hell is wrong with people who would falsely claim this, especially now?”

During a regular school year, I get it: You’re hung over. You overslept. The Packer game went into OT on Monday Night Football. Claiming illness isn’t the end of the world.

In fact, when it comes to missing class, I don’t have an attendance policy. I’m like Planet Fitness: You paid your monthly dues to be here, but if you’re not here, I’m not losing any sleep over it. You get the results you deserve based on your efforts.

What I never understood was when a student would falsely claim something catastrophic to get out of a jam. That never sat well with me.

I vividly remember one encounter with a student who showed up in my office to tell me she was going to miss class later that week. She obviously had been crying and she was visibly shaken by something.

“My grandfather died…” she began, as she started to cry again. I found a few renegade napkins in my desk drawer and handed them over as she tried to compose herself. “I’m going home tomorrow for the funeral and I’ll be gone the rest of the week.”

I offered my condolences, told her to take as much time as she needed and that we’d catch her up when she was ready to return. What she said next blew me away:

Her: “When I get back, I’ll bring you a copy of his obituary.”
Me: “Why?”
Her: “To prove where I was. My other professor said he wouldn’t accept an absence without it.”

I couldn’t fathom that, not even having watched this scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” about 100 times. Asking for proof, something I would do as a matter of course as a journalist, seemed beyond the pale in this situation. I told her not only did I not need it, but that I didn’t want it.

“If you felt you had to lie to me about the death of your grandfather to get out of my class, you have problems that I can’t solve,” I said.

The idea that someone would lie on that grand of level for such an insignificant reason as my class just boggles my mind.

I think a large part of it is that I work in a field in which credibility is our stock and trade. If you throw away your credibility, it’s not like a boomerang. In fact, it’ll never come back. In trying to train students to be honest and clear with their sources and their editors, I’d like to think they learned how to be honest and clear with me.

Another part of it goes back to something I wrote a few years ago about why it’s a stupid idea to lie to your journalism professors. We’re like a mix of bloodhounds and pit bulls: We dig into something until we’re totally satisfied and if we find malfeasance, we’ll burn you so bad you will wish you had died as a child.

I’ve caught students lying to me (or lying in general) more times than I care to count. In most cases, they get in a jam and they try to cut a corner, figuring they’re doing something I’ll never manage to catch. Maybe that’s true, as I’m sure several former students are reading this and thinking, “You think you’re so smart, Filak, but I totally pulled one over on you…” However, I like to think I’ve got a pretty good batting average, and even if I don’t, lying this way is like passing a cop as part of a group of speeders: Even if he’s only going to get one of you, it totally sucks if it’s you.

Here’s the thing I think students need to understand: Your professors are all screwed up, too, right now.

We’re working from kitchen tables and basement work benches with makeshift equipment. We’re not on our regular schedule, either sleeping too much or not enough. We’re failing at various tasks, despite our best efforts.

(For some reason, I keep linking the wrong podcasts to the wrong days. The same kid gets there first each day and emails me about it, with a “Sorry to bother you again…” note. I tell him the same thing each time: “You’re never a bother and thank you for helping me find and fix this.”)

We’re watching the same news reports that terrify everyone else and we’re not above being scared of something ourselves. Friends and family are locked away from us. People we know are losing jobs and businesses. Our health, which a lot of people take for granted each day, is now a constant sense of fear, with every cough or sniffle leading us to retrace every step we took over the last two weeks.

We’re clinging to as much as we can that’s normal, and it feels like every day, more of that normalcy slips through our fingers.

And we have no idea when, or even if, that normalcy will return.

I can’t speak for all professors, but I would bet dollars to doughnuts that we’d be much more willing to extend deadlines, offer help and do anything else students need in this time of crisis without anyone giving us a false sob story.

The truth is much more viable at this point in time:

“I had trouble getting online because there are five of us in the house, all trying to livestream a lecture at the same time.”

“I got called in to the grocery store and I had to work a double, because someone else was sick.”

“I’m trying not to worry about everything right now, so I played XBox until 3 a.m. and I overslept.”

“I haven’t seen my family in more than a month and it bothers me to the point of distraction.”

“I lost my job and I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”

“I just can’t. I’m sorry.”

Professors are as human as anyone else. We want to understand and help.

Just be honest.

Why being a “self-deceived animal” could make humans extinct this time

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel spent the better part of the weekend defending itself against allegations that it doctored a photo of an “Open Wisconsin Now” protest to include a Confederate battle flag. In doing so, the media outlet showcased the clear the primary problem citizens are having these days in dealing with a pandemic that doesn’t have to care about their opinions.

The Journal-Sentinel ran this shot from a protest in Brookfield on Saturday, in which more than 1,000 people gathered to protest the extension of a “Safer at Home” order until late May:

ConfederateFlag

A woman the paper didn’t identify posted this image along with a similar image her daughter shot in which a plaid-shirt-wearing guy in a baseball cap was holding a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, sans the Stars and Bars. This coupling of images quickly made the rounds on social media:

Even though the woman later deleted her Facebook post after realizing her assumption was incorrect, the images had already been shared by many, including Facebook user Ken Hadler.

Hadler shared the side-by-side images Sunday morning and accused the Journal Sentinel of doctoring its photo.

“Shame on you Milwaukee Journal Sentinel!” he wrote. “Taking a photo from the Open Wisconsin rally yesterday and photoshopping the Confederate flag in there?”

He refused to respond to messages providing proof the image was legitimate and had left his post up as of 8 p.m. Sunday; it had been shared 87 times.

As the paper demonstrated in its analysis, it turned out there were at least two flag-toting guys wearing flannel and jeans, one of whom was actually carrying the battle flag and one who was not:

DontTread

Even though the paper demonstrated in painstaking detail how this was not a fabrication, I would wager that a large swath of people will continue to believe it was. It would be easy to say this is a case of distrusting “the media,” but it goes well beyond our field and our concerns as journalists.

The problem comes from people having a constant desire to not actually be right, but rather to feel they are right. In a culture of personal affirmation, reality can be an inconvenient distraction to those who have become myopic in their world view.

As the folks from The Foundation for Critical Thinking noted, humans are the only “self-deceived animal.”

Author Tom Nichols, who wrote the book, “The Death of Expertise,” explained that the sense of how “we” know more than “those people,” can be extremely dangerous, especially now:

Nichols’ speech unwinds several key problems that bear examining:

  1. People don’t want to be told they are wrong.
  2. People don’t like thinking other people know more than they do.
  3. People have mistaken the need to have an opinion on a topic with the need to be informed on a topic before having an opinion.

These three things, taken together, create an environment in which insularity of thought and ego-protective measures drive our participation in social engagement. If you’re not tweeting or chatting or snapping or sharing something, you don’t exist. The more distinct or more vociferous we are in that participation, the more attention we get and with that attention comes support from people who also want to be seen and heard.

Taking time to become informed means other people are “getting there first” on whatever topic is trending this nanosecond. Stopping to think, “Maybe someone else knows more than I do,” is to limit one’s participation, thus losing out on likes, clicks, shares and more.

Being wrong? Not possible.

In most cases, the idea that a meme from “Aunt Rose in Schenectady” is full of crap doesn’t really matter. Whether she knows how much money we spend on foreign aid or if a Confederate flag got PhotoShopped into a protest picture won’t cause any real harm. Thus, she gets to feel superior and we get to enjoy the rest of the day without answering 27 emails with misspellings in them.

The problem comes in when expertise really does matter, people aren’t ready to hear it. Much like the child who never heard the word “No” from a parent, when “these insufferable know-it-alls,” as Nichols called them, face contrary information from an expert source, they freak out.

I remember having an unfortunate conversation with a former friend of mine that went this way and it bugs me to this day.

Josh was a guy who worked at the local auto parts store and had a lot of experience with vintage cars. He was an expert in this area and was a huge help to me in restoring the Mustang. When I wasn’t sure I could rebuild a carburetor, he actually paid for a rebuild kit out of his own pocket and then wrote down his phone number on the back of my receipt.

“Follow the directions, take your time and you’ll be fine,” he told me. “If you have a problem, call me at home and I’ll come over and help you.”

When I called him for help on the carb, as well as a dozen other things, he was always helpful and right as rain. He knew exactly what caused certain problems and exactly how to fix them. His expertise was invaluable.

However, during the 2016 presidential election, he had posted several completely fabricated stories about “the media.” I tried to explain to him how these things weren’t accurate. I found reliable media sources that clearly illustrated he was wrong. Each time, his response was some version, “No, you’re just getting snowed under. I know I’m right.”

Perhaps foolishly, I tried to explain that I had background in this. I went to school for this. I research these topics. I teach on these topics. I’m an expert on this thing. Trust me.

Each time, I was rebuffed and dismissed.

Finally, I tried to put it in terms he would understand: If you were trying to tell me how to fix my carburetor, because you are an expert, how would take it if I kept telling you, “No! Carburetors are just a myth! They are a lie told to you by the deep-state auto industry to keep you ignorant!” instead of accepting your expertise?

He prattled on about the media. I blocked and unfriended him. I still hate that it came to that.

The larger point is that there was no downside to his argument for him. If he was wrong, which in his mind was inconceivable, he could go on with life. If I was wrong with about the carburetor, I could set my car on fire, so I took his expertise to heart.

True experts don’t know everything about everything. They know everything about one thing. I wouldn’t ask Dr. Anthony Fauci how to set the timing on a mid-1960s Ford small block engine any more than I would ask Josh how to combat COVID-19.

Fauci knows viruses. Josh knows Fords.

This is why it can be maddening when non-experts on a topic get license to put forth their own plans and ideas as if they merit the same consideration of those plans outlined by experts. For example,  Tavern League of Wisconsin President Chris Marsicano recently proposed the “soft reopening” of local bars and restaurants in the state. The proposal included the following items:

  • Requiring all employees to wear masks and gloves
  • Practice social distancing of 6 feet
  • All tables 6 feet apart
  • No tables of more than 6 people
  • Reduce on-premise capacity by 50%
  • Outdoor eating and drinking with 6 feet distancing permitted
  • No salad bars or self-serve buffets
  • Eliminate paper menus
  • Eliminate all table condiments

On their face, if you want to see the restaurants reopened, these items appear reasonable. They rely on things health experts have noted to be valuable (masks, keeping 6 feet apart) and they look to eliminate shared contagion opportunities (buffets, table condiments).

In reading this, though, I started thinking about things like who would enforce the rule of the six people per table or what would happen at shared areas like bars. I thought about people who go out to eat with others they haven’t seen in months and then share a table. Shared appetizers or drinks would concern me.

Then again, I’m not a public health expert. However, neither is Marsicano.

His LinkedIn page shows that he has a high school education and 37 years of experience in running a supper club. Unless Delavan-Darien High had some sort of advanced communicable disease course I’m unaware of, I don’t know what would make this guy think he knows more than the scientists and health experts advising the governor.

To be fair to Marsicano, saying he’s not a medical expert doesn’t make him a bad person or otherwise worthless. If I wanted to open a restaurant or bar and run it well, I would strongly consider apprenticing with him, given his nearly four decades of success in the business.

The only way we’re going to make it through this pandemic, as well as whatever the future holds, is if we can find ways to push experts to the forefront of our coverage and to find ways to make people believe them. This may feel like trying to get the dog to take a pill, but it’s worth the effort.

 

Throwback Thursday: What you can learn from an “ecom Dude” who violated copyright and bitched about it

Based on yesterday’s post on copyright infringement, I thought it might be worth it to dig up this gem from the past and outline some of the key things pertaining to how copyright protects people from having their work stolen. One of the major concerns I had was that people would see the lawsuit from the post and think, “Hey, cool! Now I can take whatever I want from the internet without a problem!”

Um… No…

The Mashable case is a small sliver of what can happen in terms of copyright, so I wanted to make sure people had a better understanding of the majority of copyright law. (Or at least whatever majority I can bring to bear. I had, let’s call it, a somewhat “difficult” undergraduate law experience…)

The only thing that saddens me about this update from 2017 is that the original video of this guy talking about how horrible photographers are in claiming copyright is now deleted. I remember watching it the first time and thinking, “This is like watching a random frat guy who forgot his speech was due today trying to BS his way through a law school presentation.” Anyway, the main points still hold so enjoy.

What you can learn from an “ecom Dude” who violated copyright and bitched about it

I often tell my students that I learned more by screwing up than I ever did by doing things right and that no mistake is worthless if you learn something from it. It turns out that not everyone has that same experience with errors, often learning the wrong lesson from making a dumb decision.

Dan Dasilva is a “YouTube celebrity” and an “internet entrepreneur,” two terms that are pretty vague and meaningless. He also has a website called “eCom Dudes” where he operates “a collective group of individuals and coaches as well, that we come on and we share what’s working now.”  (Truth be told, I watched his intro video about four times and I still have no idea what he does or how it works. We’re bordering on the “Underpants Gnomes” model of commerce at this point.)

Dasilva took to YouTube recently to complain about a lawsuit that a photographer filed against him for copyright infringement. In most cases, people who violate copyright and are sued learn a valuable lesson: Don’t steal people’s stuff. Dasilva, however, seems to have learned something else entirely:

To put it into context, the reason I was sued was because I used a picture that I found on Google Images. Now, I should have known better, yes, in my position I should know better. But, again, I never really thought that there are malicious people out there that all they do and this is what I want to tell you is that there are people out there maliciously put pictures on the Internet.

They copyright pictures that they take and what they do is they’ll get like a copyright on it, and they’ll put it out on the Internet, and it’s freely available on the Internet if you run a Google search their image will appear… And they have a team they’ll have like three or four people who are searching the Internet for their image to find all the sites [that use the images without permission]…

His business model is taking photos and suing people for a settlement.

In other words, photographers create photographs. Other people then take those photographs and use them without permission, in violation of copyright law. The photographers then sue to protect their work and receive settlements based on those copyright violations. In Dasilva’s world, this is somehow a “malicious” racket that is meant to entrap people like him and bilk him of his hard earned cash. And what he apparently learned from all of this is that you have to be careful to avoid these “malicious” individuals and instead use “lesser quality” images from Creative Commons.

Dasilva didn’t name the “malicious” photographer with whom he settled the case, but other sites posting on this issue have done so. Nick Young, whose actual “business model” appears to be taking stock photos for a variety of uses, runs his photography business through nyphotographic.com. (I emailed Young and asked him for a short interview about all this. If he gets back to me, I’ll update and post it on the blog.)

Young’s website is upfront about his usage rules:

I allow some of my series of images to be used on a free basis in return for an attribution link back to my web site, I do this as it provides useful advertising for my business:

These images are offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license and if you want to use the images for free it is very important you follow the terms of the licence. Underneath each image are the details needed to fulfill the conditions of the license and also a link to the license so you can read for yourself the terms of the license.

Should you not wish to follow the terms of the license then please purchase a rights managed license through this site which does not require any attributions.

Many of the complaints surrounding Young’s quest to control his own work fall into two basic categories:

  1. He only charges small amounts of money for some of his photos (one poster noted a $9.95 rate), so suing over the use of these images for upwards of six figures is clearly a scam.
  2. He is shooting “generic” images of food, computers and other “stock” items, so it’s unfair that he can copyright these shots and make money off of people who just want to use them on their websites.

Let’s unpack the first premise in some other legal venues and see if this makes sense in any other way:

  1. It’s unfair that I had to pay a $1,000 ticket for stealing a $1 candy bar from the store. I mean, it was only a $1, so that fine shouldn’t be so high.
  2. It’s so mean that this guy who parks his 2004 Honda Civic in outside my office locks his car and takes his keys with him. I mean, there are TONS of cars around here, there’s nothing special about this and I just want to use it to get home in time to watch the Packer game.

First, the rate (the cost of the image or the candy bar) is based on you doing the right thing and paying for something you want up front. The fine (the lawsuit or the ticket) are in place to penalize you in a way that prevents you from doing the wrong thing again. That’s why tickets for speeding or illegal parking or other similar things are really high. If we dropped all speeding tickets to the price of a gallon of gas, the roads out near my house would look like “Death Race.” The penalty is supposed to teach you a lesson, something Dasilva clearly did not learn

Second, the guy OWNS the material. He paid for gear, studio time, the subject matter (fruit, eggs whatever) and other overhead to shoot that image. He also paid for an education that helped him become good at this. The whole reason people are taking his images is because they are GOOD PHOTOS. If you think the images aren’t worth paying for, you go try to shoot a bowl of fruit or a dozen eggs or whatever and make it look as good as Young can. It’s not that easy and therefore, you are paying for his TALENT not just the PHOTO. Just because you’re used to people letting you ignore the law, it shouldn’t become a stunner when someone catches you and penalizes you. It’s no more of a defense than telling the cop who pulled you over, “Officer, I know it’s only 25 mph out here, but nobody ever ticketed me for going 50 on this road before, so this is really unfair!”

One other thing that you should consider about copyright: It’s not always about money. The goal of copyright is to provide you with a legal right to control your work. Let’s say I take a photo of my kid (she’s really cute) and I register the copyright  (which you don’t have to do for it to be copyrighted, but it is essential if you want to ever sue over that right), I control how it’s used.

So, if a guy from a white supremacists website comes to me and wants to buy that photo for use on his blog, I have the right to say, “No.” Without copyright laws, and a means to enforce them, that photo could be used to promote child trafficking, white supremacy, gluten-free breakfast cereal and McDonald’s burgers (the last of which would really be horrifying to me). I don’t think that Young is worried about his photo of carrots will be used nefariously to promote a “master race,” but if he is, that’s his business.

Literally.

Copyright goes wrong for photographer, thanks to Instagram’s terms of service

Copyright law has never been a simple thing, but in the pre-digital era, it was often easier to determine who owns what. In the days of darkrooms and contact sheets, photographers were able to develop negatives, make prints and track the physical movements of their work.

However, thanks to digital copies, social media and the “sharing” of content, it can often be difficult for some people to figure out what is and what is not a fair use of something, let alone who has the rights to do what with a photo, a graphic or a piece of video.

Things got more complicated in some ways this week, thanks to a court ruling on the use of embedded content: (h/t Kelli Bloomquist for the head’s up on this)

A court ruled yesterday that Mashable can embed a professional photographer’s photo without breaking copyright law, thanks to Instagram’s terms of service. The New York district court determined that Stephanie Sinclair offered a “valid sublicense” to use the photograph when she posted it publicly on Instagram.

The case stems from a 2016 Mashable post on female photographers, which included Sinclair and embedded an image from her Instagram feed. Mashable had previously failed to license the image directly, and Sinclair sued parent company Ziff Davis for using Instagram embedding as a workaround.

A large part of this ruling came down to the user agreement associated with Instagram:

“Here, [Sinclair] granted Instagram the right to sublicense the Photograph, and Instagram validly exercised that right by granting Mashable a sublicense to display the Photograph,” rules Wood.

Wood comes to this conclusion by discussing how Sinclair agreed to Instagram’s Terms of Use when creating her account. Those terms granted to Instagram “a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to the Content.”

Wood writes that because Sinclair “uploaded the Photograph to Instagram and designated it as ‘public,’ she agreed to allow Mashable, as Instagram’s sublicensee, to embed the Photograph in its website.”

In other words, you agreed to let us do certain things with your stuff, so you can’t complain when we do it. Sinclair argued that it’s an unfair choice photographers must make: They either give up some rights to their work or avoid being on one of the most dominant visual-sharing platforms.

The degree to which this will be the start of something bigger remains to be seen, but it does add yet one more wrinkle to the question of who owns what and how much trouble you can get in by engaging in which online activities.

The Junk Drawer: “Wiry Women” and “pole workers” edition

JunkDrawer

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

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes. Hope you find value in it:

 

A “Wiry” Winner
A few months ago, we talked about gender bias in writing when Judge Jill Karofsky, a candidate for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, was described in a profile as “a wiry marathon runner who has completed two Iron Man competitions” and was also a state doubles champion in 1982.

Just as a follow up to this story, she ended up winning the election, despite the fact it was the source of about 812 lawsuits and intervening attempts to move it around due to the COVID situation.

Speaking of the elections…

 

Editing matters, politics edition.

Given how hotly contested things were out here, we had a lot of local writers banging away on their “hot takes” on the topic. We also had national attention on us. One of the frequent mistakes I saw was involving an unfortunate homophone.

This is an example of “people working the polls.”

Pollworkers

This is an example of “people working the poles.”
PoleworkersPlural

Know the difference before a friend asks you to be a worker of one of these things. Coincidentally, one of our good friends was a “poll worker” who was sent a kit to help run her polling place. It contained a bottle of vodka, with the word “hand sanitizer” written on a label that had been pasted over the vodka brand. Apparently, that was the best they could do to deal with the coronavirus out here…

Speaking of the coronavirus situation…

 

Editing matters, coronavirus edition:

A former student of mine sent this to me. It was posted on the door of her apartment complex. Her note? “I’m glad you taught me to read things carefully.”

CovidNoticeFAIL

 

Speaking of “that’s not quite what I meant…”

A student turned in her writing assignment on the coronavirus with the following quote:

“We were nervous in the sense that we were very cautious and did not want to touch anything or expose ourselves to others unnecessarily,” she said.

I know what she meant, but I really needed a laugh at that point, especially in terms of the “expose ourselves to other unnecessarily” element.

And, finally, speaking of needing a laugh…

 

Are we just not doing “phrasing” anymore?

I told this story for years and it bordered on the apocryphal, because it seemed too ridiculous to believe.

We got a call over the scanner of an armed robbery at the Olde Un Theater, our local porn store. Jeff Barnes was one of the best reporters I ever had in terms of jumping all over a story and he was on it. (He convinced the local county fire protection folks to give him a volunteer pager so he could be out to the scene faster than other reporters. He also once covered a forest fire and the tires on his truck almost melted when the path of the fire switched.)

As he was running out the door, I half-teasing yelled, “Don’t forget. If you want a byline story on this, you need two sources…” I knew full well he’d get the cops and that was it, given that a) we rarely got a second source on breaking news like this and b) who the hell was he going to interview at a porn store?

Sure enough, Jeff came back with a story that had two sources. He manged to find a guy who admitted he was in the porn palace, was willing to give his name and gave us a line about the guy yelling at him that he needed to hit the floor or the guy was “going to blow your (expletive) head off.”

Jeff then asked the cop about this and got the cops to repeat for him a sanitized version of the “blow their heads off” line, which we then used in the story and the headline.

After a while, nobody really believed that story, except me and my buddy Steve, who was on the copy desk that night. However, I mentioned it on Facebook about a year or so ago, someone found Jeff Barnes and Barnes confirmed it. Better yet, he found the clip in his old portfolio and sent it to me.

Take that, doubters:

OldeUnTheater

 

“Well, unfortunately, we’re not landing on the moon, are we?” How “Apollo 13” thinking can get students and educators through this coronavirus disaster.

Fifty years ago, the crew of Apollo 13 headed toward the heavens aboard a technological marvel of engineering and chemistry, with the expectation it would explore the Fra Mauro crater. What appeared to be a routine mission took a potentially deadly turn on April 14, 1970, when command module pilot Jack Swigert stirred the oxygen tanks, as per NASA command, and an explosion rocked the ship.

The following three days were a series of unforeseen dangers and calculated risks, as the astronauts and mission control navigated a high-wire act unlike anything anyone had ever imagined. For a space program steeped in by-the-numbers calculations, it was a harrowing set of best guesses and duct-tape solutions. For the crew, frustrations grew as each solution seemed to create an opportunity to just fail in some other way.

By the time Swigert, Fred Haise and Jim Lovell splashed down in the South Pacific on April 17, 1970, the act of getting three men home alive from what was supposed to be a routine mission had likely become one of the most memorable feats of modern history.

I fell in love with this story during my college years, when a good friend lent me Lovell’s book “Lost Moon.” It became even more a part of my life (and I’m sure many other folks’ as well) when Ron Howard and Tom Hanks turned the event into a blockbuster film. If anything typified my love of the underdog and the sense that when stuff goes wrong, you figure it out, “Apollo 13” was it.

The value of the lessons from this space epic are particularly salient in today’s educational environment, where we start to see how the coronavirus pandemic has led to some uncharted waters for students and teachers alike. I thought a lot about this, after a friend posted this story about students complaining about their current educational situation. One line in particular got to me:

“Sitting in my own home, and not in a gorgeous classroom paid for by rich donors and students’ tuition — that’s not what I was promised,” Warren said.

To be fair, it’s not just the students who are apparently tone deaf in this time of crisis. A note was floating around a few Facebook groups that support professors during the pandemic, in which a professor railed against his students for not showing up on time for a synchronous lecture. Another note was about “proper attire” for students showing up to class, explaining that sweats and PJs were just not acceptable on a Zoom call.

(Side note: I try to find something as obnoxious as possible to wear in each call, in hopes it will dissuade my colleagues from having them. Next stop, 1970s Hawaiian shirt!)

Also, and maybe it’s just my observation, but a lot of folks seem to want to hold a hell of a lot of meetings via Zoom or Ultra or whatever, in which we all kind of look at each other and talk things we can’t actually do now because we have no idea what’s coming next. The extroverts who are scheduling these things seem to be bouncing around like my dog when she sees a squirrel through our living room window.

(Side note: My response is the same to both: “Stop it. You’re not getting out there and even if you do, you’re not going to get the damned thing…”)

In hopes of saving my own sanity, and possibly rebooting the reality of people who are in full, “This isn’t what _I_ signed up for!” mode, consider these Apollo 13 tidbits that might put things in perspective. In kind of a “cheat-mode effort,” I grabbed the quotes and bits from the movie, which was tweaked and enhanced for dramatic purposes, obviously:

 

“Well, unfortunately, we’re not landing on the moon, are we?”

It boggles my mind that we have to say this at this point, but NOBODY signed up for this. Some students were planning for a beautiful final semester before graduation. Others were planning for a spring break trip with their friends to an exotic location. Hell, I was planning on being in Arizona to see my grandfather and celebrate his 97th birthday.

Instead, we’re all stuck at home, probably getting enough screen time to give us radiation poisoning.

One student in the IHE story noted: “We understand you still have to pay the professors, but that shouldn’t come out of our pockets,” Oganesian said. “If I wanted to go to an online school, I could go to an online school. I paid to go to class and sit in a lecture.”

And if I wanted to do nothing but record podcasts in my basement, I’d probably be exactly the loser my students already think I am. Clearly, neither of us is getting what we want, but we’re making the best of a bad situation.

Occasionally, frustration can build, but it merits remembering that we’re not landing on the moon now, are we? So let’s do what we need to do to make this thing work the best it can and worry less about what we planned for when the semester started three months ago.

 

“Let’s work the problem, people.”
“What do we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”

In every decent disaster or alien movie, the good guys come in fully stocked with all the guns, food, toys or whatever, ready to take on the the bad guys. Inevitably, something goes terribly wrong and suddenly the good guys are in deep sheep dip.

That’s when you see the scene of the remaining members of the team tossing a bunch of random crap on the table, explaining how much ammo or food or whatever they have left, and it’s never enough. That’s kind of where we all are right now.

It’s always easiest to see what’s wrong and when what’s wrong seems completely overwhelming, it’s always easiest to give up hope. Instead of thinking that way, it is imperative for professors and students to think, “OK, what do we have left here that works?”

Would it be easier if you could stop by my office and get some one-on-one editing? Sure, but now you’re working at the grocery story 12 hours a day, I’m on 26 frickin’ Zoom meetings that should have been emails and the frustration over why we can’t get some together time is really burning holes in our souls.

OK, what can we do that works? Let’s edit online in an asynchronous environment. I’ll move the deadline back a day for the draft, if you promise to respond to the edits with questions before then. First one to hit an epic disaster emails the other.

It’s like the other part of this clip notes: “Let’s work the problem, people.”

 

“There’s a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number 8. You’re talking about number 692.”
“We’re not going to do this. We’re not going to go bouncing off the walls for 10 minutes if we’re just going to end up back here with the same problems. Trying to figure out how to stay alive.”

 

We used to have to do this “crashed on the moon” exercise almost every year when I was in school. Maybe it was because space travel was seemingly more awesome then, or we had fewer CGI dragons or Kardashians to watch on TV. I don’t know, but when I mention it to my students now, they have no idea what I’m talking about.

The principle is simple: You somehow crashed on the moon or landed in the wrong spot and you have 15 items that survived. You need to prioritize them and determine which ones you definitely need to stay alive until help shows up or you can get to the right spot.

The idea was to teach critical thinking and problem solving through prioritization. It was also useful to help identify the psychos in your class, as they were the people who picked the guns first and shot the other people in the lunar party to keep the resources for themselves.

Priorities become crucial at a time like this, which is why it would behoove all of us to keep that in mind. Professors online who have taking this approach have listed a series of questions we should be asking students right now, such as “Do you have a safe place to hole up?” “Do you have enough food?” “Are you physically and mentally healthy enough to continue?”

At this point, showing up for a chem lecture at exactly 1:30 p.m. or whatever should be somewhere in the neighborhood of number 692 in terms of priorities.

The frustration of professors is probably misplaced anger and anxiety as well. Getting booted out of my office so they could disinfect the whole building kind of threw me for a loop. I’m also trying to remember that students are now in a completely new environment, so it’s not just laziness or a bad hangover that might lead to a missed deadline. It can be hard working in a new environment, as I can attest to, given the make-shift office I have in the basement of my house.

Frustration can lead to anger and people boiling over at each other. Professors are often control freaks, um… sorry… “Type-A personalities.” When we suddenly lose control of our environment, we can get really into enforcing rules or cracking down on something. We can also feel hemmed in by all those other folks who seem to be on either the side of “The world is ending and we’re all going to die” or those who are like “Dude, watch me cough on this produce and freak everyone out!

Guess what? Ten minutes after we send back that snarky email to a student or we start screaming about a deadline, we’re right back where we started.

With the same problems.

Possibly blogging in a basement.

It’s not what we wanted or what we planned on, but it is what we have. It’s like the other great line in here:

“This piece of shit is going to get you home. Because that’s all we have left, Jack.”

 

“With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

According to Lovell, the Apollo 13 mission was dubbed “a successful failure,” in that the mission failed, but they managed to successfully dig themselves out of the disaster without having anyone die.

If you watch the final scene of the film in which Gene Kranz (the flight director played by Ed Harris) finally realizes that the ship is back on Earth and the crew is safe, you’ll notice he doesn’t celebrate. He slumps into a chair and presses his finger and thumb onto the bridge of his nose.

The guys were home. They were safe. The job was done.

We often imagine that success is an area in which we do something incredible. We provide the best class or get the best grades or create the best work anyone has ever seen. It’s even more amazing than whatever was the most amazing thing we ever saw.

The truth is that our finest hour is often the one in which the odds are long, the pain is real and success is about avoiding failure. Its when what “I” wanted or what “you” expected becomes what did “we” manage to do together when nothing good seems possible.