Throwback Thursday: How to report and write a quality obituary

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

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

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

Hope this helps in navigating both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“They had succeeded. He had avoided failure.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Adam Maksl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As for specific tips and tricks.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another 54-word sentence.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you can read this, thank a teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

Here are some things you can do to create relatedness:

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

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

It sounds simple and it is, but it works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best always,

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




Sports Event Coverage and Speech Coverage Exercises for journalism instructors who can’t send people to sports events and speeches, thanks to the Coronavirus


My favorite shirt… Again, I was born for this…

Hope the Corona Hotline page is helping out for you folks out there trying to build stuff for your students when they can’t go anywhere. I meant what I said yesterday: If you need anything in media writing, news reporting or news writing, let me know and I’ll try to build it for you.

Case in point: I got this message from someone who teaches sports journalism:

One idea: sports coverage during this time? My plan is to still assign a feature/profile assignment and possible photos/social media assignment, but with all sports canceled that could be a cluster…
It’s a fair question someone else echoed in regard to event coverage: How can we have students write speech or news conference stories when there are no more speeches and news conferences happening near us?
To help out, I built a football game story exercise yesterday. I did a previous one when I taught online and it worked out, so I figured I could do a pretty decent replication for you. What I did was grab a box score and set of stats from a pretty old and yet memorable football game, strip off all the identifying features and change the names of the players and teams. I then did some “post-game interview” quotes from the coaches and from a couple players.
This prevents students from looking up the old game and just copying the info from previous reports. I also tweaked some of the key information to help shine a light on some angles that could make for good focal points in the stories they write.
As for speeches and news conferences, I found several transcripts of things going on now that could make for some solid speech or event coverage.
Please let me know if this works for you and if you need anything else. I can build stuff as you need it.
Vince (a.k.a. the Doctor of Paper)



Resources for Journalism Professors Teaching Writing and Reporting Classes Online, Thanks to The Coronavirus


I’ve been preparing for this moment my whole life. I just didn’t know it…

As promised, today the blog is launching some help for those of you running media-writing, reporting, news-writing and other similar classes. I’ve created a “Corona Hotline” page that you can go to for a clearing house of all sorts of stuff that you can use for distance learning.

One of the benefits of teaching media-writing classes is that I am limited in how much “reporting” I can force on the students, so a number of these exercises are canned writing pieces that lack a need for additional work. I also did some cleaning on them so that they’re more universal and less “UWO-centric.”

As I get deeper into my own class build, I’ll toss more stuff up here. If you have anything you want me to share, hit me up with it through the contact page. I’ll also be posting some teaching stuff here and there, along with links to student media outlets that are still grinding away during the crisis.

As always, we’re from the internet and we’re here to help.

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

So, you have to teach your journalism class online now, thanks to the coronavirus? We’re from the internet and we’re here to help.

Schools throughout the country have reacted to the spread of the coronavirus by pushing for “alternative delivery methods of instruction.” The goal is basically to get people away from one another while not having to cancel class. For most of us that means online instruction, a concept that some folks know well, others have had a little experience and still others react to with a level of freaking out that would impress Beaker from the Muppets.

I’ve taught online for more than a decade now, providing content through various delivery systems for multiple classes. I also am currently teaching courses I’ve taught for upwards of 20 years. Still, I’m probably at the freakout stage, primarily because nobody around here has been willing to pull the trigger on this yet and say, “Look, we’re making the call now. You get an extra week off after spring break to get your stuff together for online delivery. Plan for a month’s worth, but be ready for the whole term.”

I’m also one of those stupid people who likes to help other people, even as I’m drowning. Either I’m as dumb as a bucket full of hammers when it comes to deciding how to prioritize my time, or I’m way too old-school Polish-Catholic, in that we feed everyone else around us, even if we’re starving.

Either way, as my friend Allison would always say when taking on some sort of Quixotic do-good adventure on behalf of her blog: We’re from the internet and we’re here to help.

With that in mind, starting on Monday, I’m turning the blog into a pile of stuff that anyone who wants it can use for free. I’ll link to previous exercises I’ve built, stuff I’m building to teach my students, previous posts on the site and other stuff. Take whatever you want, use as much of it as you want and bastardize it for your own purposes however you want.

In the mean time, either post comments below or contact me through this form to tell me what you need and I’ll see what I have.

For those of you who have never taught online before, or who have limited experience, below is a list of things I’ve figured out over time that might be helpful:


YOUR BEST BET IS ASYNCHRONOUS CHUNKS: The argument of how best to reach students and make sure they’re keeping up with things often emerges when we’re dealing with online classes. If we do live-streaming stuff, we can force people to stay on track with certain parts of the class. If we do a full class dump online, we can let students work at their own pace.

Both of these approaches have benefits and drawbacks, and I’ve found that the drawbacks outweighed the benefits in both cases. This is why I’ve come up with a system meant to allow freedom of access while still creating firewalls against students who wait until the day before the class ends to try to do the work: Asynchronous chunks.

Here’s what I do: On day one of week one of the class, I open up everything the students will need for that week’s “chunk” of the course. Any lectures I do, any powerpoints they need, any quizzes they need to take, any readings they will need and any assignments or tests they need to accomplish. The due date for this material is usually Friday by noon of that week.

The students can do whatever they need, however they want, just as long as they meet the deadline of Friday at noon for dropping their work into the drop box for that week or finishing the online quiz portions. I then spend my weekend grading like crazy to try to get this stuff back to them as quickly as I can without making a mess of it. Once they get their graded stuff back, usually Sunday or Monday, I unlock week two and the system starts all over again.

What this does is it allows students to work however they want within a set of parameters. It prevents people from blowing off the work to the last minute, but it also prevents those “go-getter” students from drinking 27 Red Bulls and trying to do the whole class in 72 hours. The lazy ones are what we’re used to, so we might have a plan to deal with them. However, the quick-moving students will likely cause you a problem by screwing up something in week one and then repeatedly screwing it up in the work for weeks two, three, four and five because you didn’t have the opportunity to correct them on it. This “chunk” approach helps with that problem.


KNOW WHAT TOOLS THEY HAVE: “Go online” sounds like a great idea, but then again, I’m sure “Let them eat cake” sounded like a plausible solution at the time as well. We have students out here from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances and I’m sure we’re not alone in this. Depending on where your students will be sent, home might have the technological wizardry of the U.S.S. Enterprise or of two cans and a string.

A number of folks on various teaching message boards I frequented were talking about how their students were trying to get a month trial of the Adobe Creative Suite for a reduced price. Others talked about how certain video sharing services were allowing campuses free access to some of their higher-end tools to do virtual meetings.

My bigger question was, “Can students even run any of this stuff on what they own?” I’ve seen a number of my students carrying some of the jankiest laptops on Earth. In addition, I have students who live in rural areas where DSL is barely available, let alone anything with a true high-speed to it. If you are fortunate enough to work in a place where everyone is required to buy the same tech or where everyone is rich enough to have their own survival bunker, that’s great. For the rest of us, it comes down to a MacGyver approach of making do with what we have:

If you are still in your regular class periods, ask around to figure out what people have and what they don’t. If you’re not, it’s worth emailing your students before you launch and asking them what they have the capability to accomplish with the tools at hand.

One of the bigger reasons I went to the “chunk” approach was that I had students who were taking my class in areas where they would have to go somewhere to get internet access. (Last summer, two students who took my editing class online were living together in a converted SUV while selling fireworks at a roadside stand. At the start of each week, they would trudge to town and use the wifi from the laundromat to download all the stuff. Then, at the end of the week, they’d repeat the trek and upload their finished work.)

Knowing what kind of tools the students have is vital in limiting frustration on both of your ends.


GO BACK TO THE NOUN-VERB-OBJECT FOR YOUR GOALS: When I take students online, the goal is to give them an experience that is as valuable as the one they would get in the classroom. That said, I know full well it won’t be the same experience as they will have in the classroom. It can’t be.

What helped me in building my online courses was the same thing that helped me write books when I had trouble with communicating a concept: I went back to the basics of noun-verb-object. In short, I tried to figure out how to finish the sentence “Students need X” or “I must give students Y.” Doing this allowed me to re-calibrate my thought process on what I was actually accomplishing within the classroom and what needed to come out of that for the online kids. Once I nailed that down, I was able to build things specifically for that class to accomplish that goal online.

Case in point: When I taught media writing online, what I wanted students to get out of a news writing assignment was the issue of balance among sources. To do this in the classroom, I had the students individually interview people (one interview per student) and then I would collect those interviews into a giant pile that everyone in the group could use to write from (think the old “bring a dish to pass” approach).

Online, I couldn’t do that as easily, nor could I employ my “pitch a topic” approach I used in class. For a while I was stuck because I kept trying to replicate the entire assignment online and found I couldn’t do it. Eventually, I realized that I wanted them to a) write a story and b) use multiple sources to c) create balance between viewpoints. When I figured that out, I rebuilt the assignment. I gave them the transcript of a speech I made up, along with two press releases that “reacted” to that speech from various perspectives. (Pro and con) They then had all of that material to use for the assignment. It ended up working just fine.

Did they get the interviewing experience? No, but I realized that wasn’t the point of the assignment, so I didn’t go nutty trying to force that in here. Instead, I found a different way to get them that experience when I had the chance.

Figure out what you want them to do in that simplest way and you’ll be in much better shape as you reconfigure this for a different environment.


RE-EXAMINE YOUR EXPECTATIONS: People who see this point might be thinking, “He wants us to lower our standards of grading and work quality!” Not really. It is about trying to determine how best we want to assess our students in this new environment.

Think about it this way: Let’s say you’re catching a flight overseas for a two-week vacation. As the plane is taking off, you’re thinking, “I hope they get us there on time for me to make the opera I have tickets to,” or “I hope they have a good meal for us for dinner” or “I hope that the movie on this flight is good.”

Then, 20 minutes into the flight, all four engines quit and you’re in a total stall over the Atlantic Ocean. You probably are now thinking, “I hope I don’t die.”

That re-examination of expectations doesn’t mean you’re lowering your standards. It means you’re dealing with the reality of your circumstances. If your last thought as the plane crashes was, “Oh, God, not another damned ‘Avengers’ movie…” you have some serious issues.

This point can dovetail nicely with the previous one. A photo colleague and I were talking about this before classes began today. He noted that his students were supposed to be doing studio work at the exact time the university would likely be moving everything online. He thought about re-configuring his class to move the studio assignment later in the semester in hopes things would come back to campus. However, he said if that didn’t happen, he didn’t know what he’d do.

I said I’d dig around and figure out what I MOST wanted out of that studio experience and see how it could be replicated somewhere else. If the goal was to shoot photos against a neutral background, could they use something other than the studio backgrounds to do it? If the goal was to shoot still life images with certain lighting situations, would they have stuff around the house they could use to replicate that? In other words, how could we improvise and adapt the expectations of the work to get them the key aspect of the experience?

Not everything can be done this way, clearly, but in terms of looking at it less as “The assignment demands X, Y and Z” and more in terms of “Here is what I want you to get and that’s what I’m going to grade you on,” the better off you both will likely be.

Clearly, there is a lot more to this than these tips, but I hope they’ll get you started or at the very least, confirm what you already know about this. In between now and Monday, please send me any needs or concerns or pleas for help and I’ll do my best to make this work.

We’re all in this together, so let’s see what we can do.


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



Catching up with the coronavirus: A look at some things student journalists might want to know

Confession time: My first reaction when I heard about the “Wuhan coronavirus” was, “This sounds like something one of my students would make up after getting way too drunk at a Wu-Tang-Clan-themed party.”

In the subsequent weeks, it became clear that the coronavirus was going to be at the center of our attention for the foreseeable future. To help you in dealing with the coverage, whether you’re trying to localize it or just understand it, here are a few tools for your toolbox:

AP RULES: As per usual, the Associated Press has come out with some solid guidance on how to approach the topic, including explaining what this thing is, how it works and what we should and shouldn’t write:


A family of viruses, some of which can infect people and animals, named for crownlike spikes on their surfaces.

The viruses can cause the common cold or more severe diseases such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and COVID-19, the latter of which first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

As of early 2020, phrasing like the new coronavirus or the new virus is acceptable on first reference for COVID-19, though stories should contain a mention of the disease’s official name, accompanied by an explanation. COVID-19 is also acceptable on first reference.

In stories, do not refer simply to coronavirus without the article the. Not: She is concerned about coronavirus. Omitting the is acceptable in headlines and in uses such as: He said coronavirus concerns are increasing.

Passages and stories focusing on the science of the disease require sharper distinctions.

COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. When referring specifically to the virus, the COVID-19 virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 are acceptable. But, because COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus, it is not accurate to write a new virus called COVID-19.

SARS is acceptable on first reference for the disease first identified in Asia in 2003. Spell out severe acute respiratory syndrome later in the story.

MERS is acceptable on first reference. Spell out Middle East respiratory syndrome later in the story.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Do not exaggerate the risks presented by any of the three diseases by routinely referring to them as deadly, fatal or the like.

In terms of keeping up with the coverage associated with the virus, AP has continuing coverage here about the outbreak and some info hereto help understand the basics of the virus.

SCHOOL’S OUT? A number of universities have already looked at canceling classes or moving classes to online-only endeavors. NPR does a great reviewof the places that are keeping people away from people at more than 40 colleges and universities.

Specific publications have localized the outbreak, such as the Boston Globe, which took a look at Harvard’s decision to go online and how campus life has been upended thanks to the virus.

Some conventions, such as the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s spring conference, have decided the risk isn’t worth it while others are pressing forward with their efforts. With Spring Break around the corner for many universities, the question of if cheap tickets are worth the risk has come up frequently in media reports.  Additionally, some universities are using Spring Break as the demarcation period for deciding to move entire classes online, thus giving professors the chance to figure out how best to do this.

Some questions that probably are worth asking, if you want to dig into the situation on your campus, could include:

  • What is our plan for this, particularly in terms of kids who live in dorms, where one person coughing on Monday leads to a total zombie farm of illness by Tuesday?
  • If we’re all leaving the campus, what happens to all that meal money that we’re being charged to eat at this fine institution? Even more, is it safe to gather in these large areas where open food is available and people tend to push through illness when it comes to avoiding calling in sick?
  • Is it actually feasible to move ALL classes online? It would be kind of ridiculous to move journalism stuff online, especially in terms of reporting on meetings and speeches. English classes are likely easier transitions than chemistry or biology labs. (Imagine mom and dad’s surprise when they find you dissecting a frog on the kitchen table…) How much thought has gone into this?
  • What’s the trigger point to bring everything back to the campus itself? Is there a break point that says, “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free!” for the students and staff? Or is this pretty much a done deal for the semester once the U pulls the trigger?
  • If we’re keeping classes open, what kind of pressure has this put on the student health center on campus? If every fever or ache is supposed to be checked out, that seems like it would be an awful lot to do with whatever staff is available for the health center folks.


MOMENT OF ZEN: Of all the things I’ve heard about this so far, sadly, the only thing that sticks in my head was something my wife told me this weekend: “Did you know that you can sing ‘COVID-19’ to the tune of ‘Come on, Eileen?'”  I don’t know where she got this from, but now it’s all I can think of.

You’re welcome: