The Kindergarten Survival Guide

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I did this about 40 years ago. My mother still has it on display in the kitchen. Unfortunately, it’s probably still the best thing I’ve ever drawn, which is why I’m grateful that SAGE employs actual artists for my books.

Today is my birthday and it dawned on me that I’ve now spent more than half my life teaching college students. (Really, I have. The math checks out and everything).

One of the many benefits of spending this much time Peter Pan-ing my way through life is that I get to see a lot of my former students grow into adulthood, family life and parenthood. Seeing the updates of graduations, jobs, weddings and children is one of the best things this job offers as a continually renewing benefit.

Two of my former students, who have been immensely helpful to my book-writing and blog-pimping careers, got married a number of years ago, became parents and raised one heck of an amazing kid. As he completed his pre-school career, his mom asked if anyone on Facebook had any advice for him regarding kindergarten.

In an attempt to be helpful, and maybe amuse his parents, I sent the following “Kindergarten Survival Guide” to this young man and I figured I’d share it here as well. Enjoy:

1) Make sure the teacher knows your name for all the good reasons (good napper, drinks milk well, doesn’t fight) as opposed to all the bad reasons (makes noise, does not work and play well with others)

2) Always be nice to the kid who doesn’t seem to have any friends. If you pick on that kid or be mean to him/her, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

3) Put time and effort into ANY major project that your teacher tells you is “going home for your parents to keep.”

My mother STILL displays the drawing I did for her that was turned into a plastic plate, and had I known that, I would have put more time into coloring it and I wouldn’t have drawn the tree so big.

(It STILL pisses me off that I forgot to color in that guy’s shoe…)

4) There’s nothing wrong with doing your own thing. Just because the bossy girl says, “We are ALL playing kitchen and I’M the chef” doesn’t make it so. Feel free to wander away and read or play with cars or something. You are under no obligation to feed into her delusions of grandeur.

5) Nobody likes a tattletale. Don’t run to the teacher for every minor grievance. Save your tattling for when it counts. Like when a kid accuses you of setting fire to the reading nook or when the milk money goes missing.

6) Kindergarten is not a competition over whose family is more dysfunctional. Feel free not to share everything that goes on at home.

7) You have the coolest mom and dad in the world. You know it, the teacher knows it and your parents know it.

8) Nobody really sleeps during nap time. Except the teacher. Let her snore. She’ll wake up eventually.

9) The kid who says he saw a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day is LYING TO YOU ALL. MAYBE he saw his dad drunk on green beer, but that doesn’t count. Don’t feel bad you didn’t see one. (OK, maybe that’s my own personal scar coming through, but still…)

10) Enjoy every minute of it. You are a great kid and don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.

Gone Fishin’: Safer-At-Home Edition

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Remember to keep a safe distance from other people while engaging in any activity, even virtual fishing. And watch out for that shark.

With the understatement of the year, I’d like to say that this has been a very different semester. (In doing so, my former manager Cliff is probably going to hunt me down, as “very” and “different” were among his least-favorite words to be included in the paper.)

I didn’t take a week off at spring break, as per usual, because there was no real spring break. I tended to write longer things and add more exercises to the blog because it had to happen. The normal things we get to do around this time of year (for me, rummage sales) aren’t around, so it doesn’t feel like we’re at the end or beginning of anything.

If I had a dollar for every time I asked Amy, “OK, what DAY is it?” I’d probably be set for life.

With the semester coming to a close, it’s time to take a short break from the blog before the summer session starts. The blog will go on hiatus until early June, when the summer session starts up for us. If anything “breaking” happens that needs some attention, I’ll post it as needed, so you aren’t entirely rid of me yet.

The Corona Hotline page is still active if you need any exercises and I’m happy to help anyone who needs it. Just hit me up on the contact page.

In the mean time, be safe and be well.

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

Throwback Thursday: You will screw up. You are not on a lunchbox

In honor of this week’s random lottery of meaningless tragedy, I pulled this post from way back to talk about how people manage to screw things up.

Even as other people were reading my post on Emily Reise and laughing at the fact I misspelled her name, they were sharing their own screw ups over their careers. People declared dead when they weren’t, places listed for events that had no such events and even one marijuana raid that happened somewhere else, much to the befuddlement of neighbors in that area.

It’s never great to make a mistake, but it’s going to happen because, as Sam Kinison once noted, you’re not on a lunch box:

Filak-ism: You will screw up. You are not on a lunchbox.

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Who wouldn’t want this face on their third-grade lunchbox?

 

Filak-ism: A random observation, borrowed idea from a movie/song/TV show/book, odd concept or weird phrase that has been warped in the mind of Dr. Vince Filak for broader application within journalism situations.

The late shock-rock comedian Sam Kinison once had the misfortune of ticking off a major comedy figure on a slow news day. Kinison was slated to be the main guest on the “Joan Rivers Show,” but managed to blow it off, leaving Rivers with about 20 minutes of essentially dead air and shadow-puppet tricks. News stations picked this up and it became a pretty big, albeit overblown, deal.

In his posthumously released album, “Live From Hell,” Kinison reflected on the error, leaving me with one of my favorite Filak-isms. “I can (expletive) up. I’m not on a lunch box.” The point being that unlike the kiddie characters and perfect heroes who were marketed on lunchboxes through his youth, Kinison was never going to be perfect.

As a journalist, neither will you.

Trying to be perfect at journalism is your goal, but to quote the famous coach Vince Lombardi, you will never catch perfection. That said, in its pursuit, you will catch excellence and that’s usually good enough. Also during its pursuit, you are going to screw up in some pretty spectacular ways. We already detailed the “filthiest” screw up in all of sports journalism here (as well as one of mine that follows me to this day), but I asked the Hivemind folks for some of the biggest screw-ups they made and if they learned anything from them. Here are some of the things that went wrong:

WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Getting a name wrong can feel like the worst thing in the world, especially after you realize, it’s impossible to make up for it. The most recent error was from an award-winning sports journalist, who managed to confuse an NFL Hall of Fame Green Bay Packer with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer:

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The reason? The writer said he was in the middle of several stories when he caught the Kramer story and had to get it done immediately. When Jerry Kramer started listing off all the people who mattered to him, he mentioned both legendary Packers Jim Ringo and Bart Starr. In his notes, the writer wrote last names, leading to the Ringo Starr moment:

Now, after the initial shock and ensuing, hysterical laugh (trust me, I laughed about 10 minutes, full on tears and everything), a very reasonable question is how does someone write Ringo Starr instead of Jim Ringo? I’m not an idiot. I know who Jim freaking Ringo is. Seems like an impossible error to make, right?

Well, I don’t remember writing “Ringo Starr.” At the point I wrote it, I was typing to fast — between two word docs, remember — to grasp everything I was doing. (This is fairly normal for sports writers; usually we get away with it.) But I do remember Kramer going down the list of teammates he appreciated. “Fuzzy… Forrest… Ringo… Starr…” BAM!

Another longtime journalist had a similar switcharoo moment, confusing the man who played Ben Hur and Moses with one of the “Dirty Dozen:”

I once wrote Charles Bronson when I meant Charlton Heston while making a Soylent Green reference. Forgot to fix it on the page and it made it to print. The complaint letters were well deserved.

We both agreed “The Ten Commandments” would have been different if his mix-up had played out in real life:

It can be even worse if the person is local, in that I doubt Charles Bronson or Charlton Heston even read about the mix up. One writer talked about her experience highlighting the opening of a local business:

One that always sticks with me is when I used the wrong first name of a gentleman who had just opened up a restaurant with his wife. My editor told me that now he couldn’t frame and hang that article highlighting his accomplishment because of my error. He didn’t scream at me because he didn’t have to. I felt terrible when he put my screw-up into those terms.


I DIDN’T MEAN FOR THAT TO GO PUBLIC:

Whenever a student in the newsroom can’t figure out a headline and writes, “SCREW IT, I’LL PICK A HEADLINE LATER” (or in one case, just the F-bomb over and over again) in that space, I get hives. The student always says, “I’m not going to run that,” but that’s not always your choice. In text-based journalism, we always say you should never write something you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read, even if it’s just as a joke. In broadcast, the rule is to treat every microphone like it’s broadcasting or “hot,” something that is easier said than done. A radio journalist who also worked in PR shared this:

Didn’t realize my mic was hot and said “what the fuck?”

A photojournalist noted that the “I didn’t mean for that to go public” situation isn’t only for the word folks, as only a lucky save by the press operators kept this from getting ugly (or uglier):

This was my photo editor’s goof up. He was showing off to a cute intern one day when he Photoshopped an eye on the middle of a guy’s forehead. He apparently thought he had removed it, but the pressmen discovered it several hundred copies into the first run. They had to re-web the press–He was not fired but was skating on thin ice for a while…

DEATH BECOMES YOU (MAYBE):
Life and death issues are no joking matter. Making an error about someone being alive or dead can affect you as a writer for a really, really long time. (Trust me on that one.) One journalism instructor who worked in the field noted that his assumption about a source seemed to create a life-and-death situation:

I gave a guy cancer in a story (he never had cancer-just advocated for patients with it. Learned that just because you THINK you know someone’s story- double check it. And turn down interviews so close to deadline.

A longtime copy editor managed to “resurrect” a source after catching an error from one of the writers on her publication’s staff:

(I) once brought a man back from the dead: The writer was convinced that saying “the late mayor” was the same thing as “the former mayor.” I always tell my interns that fact-checking and careful editing can save lives.

JUST… OW…
Perhaps one of the most gifted and socially aware journalists and professors I have ever known got hit with perhaps one of the most unfortunate typos ever. Of all the people this could have happened to, it was so unfair this one happened to her, given her genuine understanding of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other sensitive issues:

I wrote a story about kids in a summer camp learning about the Buffalo Soldiers (African-American soldiers). Somehow a production error changed the word “counselor” to “coounselor” only in some editions. It was not in the edition I got at home or in the office. Imagine my surprise when a woman called me the next morning and started screaming at me that I was a racist and did I think that was funny? I didn’t know what had happened and had to apologize profusely.

The takeaway here is that nobody in journalism is perfect and we all have our moments of “Oh… God… Why?” When it came to the “Ringo Starr” screw up, the writer told me he laughed hysterically until he cried because there was nothing else he could do. Others said they grimaced and moved on. Some said it informs how they teach or what they do to help students avoid their screw ups.

For me, I go all the way back to the guy who gave my high school graduation’s valedictory address. The guy’s name was Willie Nelson (Really. He went by Willie.) and he told the story about how he once got annoyed by his sister and smacked her in the face with a baseball bat. When he was sent to his room as a punishment, his grandfather came and told him some invaluable advice:

“Boy, I hope you learned something today,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s the stupid ones you gotta learn to avoid making twice.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“They had succeeded. He had avoided failure.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until today. Today is my dad’s birthday.

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

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

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

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

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

Compared to my dad, I’m a piker.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Thanks for everything, Pop. I love you.

Dad

 

 

 

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

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

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

Be safe and be well.

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

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.

Best,

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

 

 

The “High School Principal at a Porn Store” Theory: Why the public vs. private tweeting debate for journalists doesn’t matter

Tom Jones at the Poynter Institute asked the question that journalists have wrestled with since their profession became the social purview of the world at large:

One of the more complicated issues newsrooms are dealing with these days is employee conduct on social media, especially Twitter.

Here’s what I mean: A reporter tweets something controversial about the news. Is that reporter expressing his or her own opinion? Or are they representing the company they work for?

This issue became an issue again when the Washington Post suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez for tweeting about the 2003 rape allegation against Kobe Bryant within minutes of Bryant’s death breaking as news. The paper eventually determined that Sonmez didn’t break any of its rules with her tweet, even though editor Marty Baron disseminated a memo that urged caution and restraint for Post staff in the future.

As Jones pointed out in his piece, this isn’t a new thing for media folks. Veteran sports journalist Jemele Hill found herself in the middle of a social-media controversy back in 2017when she called the president a “white supremacist” on Twitter and got tagged with a two-week suspension from ESPN. She left the network in 2018 and joined The Atlantic, noting it was a place “where discomfort is OK.” Back in 2013, PR practitioner Justine Sacco found that a single tweet could destroy a person’s life in less than a day. Even after more than a year, Sacco was unable to live down her tweet. It took several more years for her to eventually recover from that single moment.

(This isn’t even just a “media professional thing” in terms of social media leading to concerns in other parts of life. Ask Roseanne Barr, umpire Rob Drakecomedian Gilbert Gottfried, Elon Musk or any one of a dozen other folks about how social media posts led to ramifications in other parts of their lives.)

Journalists traditionally believe in several key tenets that make life difficult when it comes to this idea of public vs. private person in social media communication:

  • They value openness, which means they don’t want to be silent on a topic that matters to them, hide information or allow themselves to be censored.
  • They value the sharing of information with interested audience members.
  • They believe in being involved in stuff, so when something is happening, they feel the need to chime in.
  • They like to produce content, and in most “traditional media” formats, they don’t get (or have to listen to) audience feedback.

Take all of this together and you’ll realize that it’s not all that hard to see why journalists end up on social media a great deal and why it is they have trouble with their employers after a tweet goes bad.

The rules that dictate what they can or can’t they do versus what should or shouldn’t they do is kind of a random mishmash of media company norms, HR memos and a desire to stop audiences from freaking out. Jones notes:

Baron wrote that with social media, the Post should remember this: “(1) The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression. (2) We should always exercise care and restraint.”

In other words, it feels as if Baron is telling reporters to use their heads, to be smart, to watch their tone, to not say anything that might cause an issue.

Makes sense … until you realize that what one person considers a valid take might be inappropriate to someone else. After all, isn’t that what just happened at the Post?

Sort of, but not really.

Here is why Baron’s memo, Jones’ reaction and social media policies in general fall short in splitting the baby between allowing journalists to interact with the audience and a desire to prevent chaos and dystopia from reigning supreme in the Twitterverse:

You Can’t Entirely Know Your Audience: Great reporters used to know their audiences like the backs of their hands. Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and their ilk prided themselves in knowing “their readers” and being great at delivering things to them that mattered. Folks like that existed in many publications, I’m sure. (George Hesselberg and Pat “Snoop” Simms, both formerly of the Wisconsin State Journal,  are two folks I got to know who had that finger on the pulse of the readers as they wrote their stories and columns.)

Many reporters, however, relied less on the audience needs and more on the news values or interest elements associated with journalism education to drive their approach to content. Even more, the idea that we would stoop to going through “market research” to figure out how we should cover certain things or what we should cover was an affront to some folks that saw this as an impingement on their freedom of the press.

Today, we have more data than ever to help us figure out  where our clicks come from. (The Dynamics of Writing would like to give a shout out to whatever the heck “Han dot nl” is, as for some reason, it’s driving a ton of traffic to the site from the Netherlands.) We know which posts draw the most clicks, the most likes and the most shares.

That said, we still don’t know our actual audience and here’s why: Once the content is out of our hands, we have no say over what happens to it. What we think is OK for “our audience” doesn’t matter in some cases, because other readers out there can still access it and will still freak out over it.

Case in point: I generally curse in every day life, knowing that most of the people around me are used to it. When I started this blog, I was asked by SAGE to eliminate “unnecessary curse words,” as some of the people who buy the book and read the blog go to far more conservative universities, religious colleges and places that generally have more couth than I do. I tamped that down (as best I could) and stuck with only “necessary cursing” to meet the needs of my audience.

That said, I have no idea at all why people in the Netherlands are consistently reading this blog. For all I know, I might end up having the gendarmes after me (or pikemen or whatever…) for violating some sort of social concerns I don’t know about. I’m glad these readers are here, don’t get me wrong, but I never started this blog with the idea of rocking the Dutch market. They aren’t my intended audience, but it’s not like I can do much to stop them from showing up or seeing stuff.

The larger point is this: If you send something out that you believe to be relatively appropriate to people you think are going to be reading it, you have no way of preventing it from going to a completely different group of people and having everything go to hell in a speedboat.

The “High School Principal at a Porn Store” Theory of Private vs. Public: Journalists like to argue that their social media feeds are their individual, private personas as opposed to a public representation of their work as media practitioners.

In a vacuum, I get that, as there should be a separation between job-related life and life-related life for all of us. It gets a little dicier when you consider that in both their job and their social media lives, reporters are essentially doing similar things (sharing content) in similar ways (social media, typing stuff etc.). Still, we don’t give up all of our rights to be regular people just because we cover the news.

The bigger problem is that human beings don’t operate in a vacuum of life and we can’t always build an unbreakable firewall in our brains like this. We can’t “unsee” things or discount them based on the spheres in which they happen. This leads me to the theory outlined above.

Let’s say you’re driving down a fairly empty stretch of interstate late Saturday night and you blow a tire. You pull over to the only business with a well-lit parking lot: A giant “adult book store” or porn palace or whatever you want to call it. As you’re sitting there, waiting for Triple-A to come and fix your car, you see the principal of your old high school exiting the building. He’s carrying a giant duffel bag full of pornographic DVDs and an inflatable “partner” doll dressed like a Catholic school girl. He doesn’t see you, he gets in his car and he drives away.

Theoretically, you should be able to compartmentalize this: He’s a private citizen, during his off hours, doing nothing illegal, so what’s the big deal? You should put this away as one more interaction with him and ignore it as it relates to his work with the school and your interactions with him when you were in school.

In a practical sense, however, all you can think is, “EEEEEEEWWWW!!! PRINCIPAL JONES! MY EYES! MY EYES!

Everything you thought about this guy is now cast in a completely different light. You start rethinking every comment he ever made about anyone in a different way. You also probably start washing your hands like Lady MacBeth with OCD, remembering the number of “high fives” you got from him as you walked down the hallways between classes.

Again, nothing illegal happened. Hell, you don’t even know if anything horribly sketchy will happen, as this could be part of a giant prank or a lost bet. However, that’s not going to make you feel any better about the situation.

Just because we pretend that a wall exists between the public and the private spheres for the benefit of trying to justify our choices to other people, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone will graciously make that same distinction once they see what you put out there. People decide how they want to see us based on what they see of us. Claiming something is personal or not part of our career or whatever doesn’t absolve us of the perceptual damage that exists in the minds of others.

A Case of the Man Keeping Us Down: The more journalists feel forces beyond their control are suppressing them, the more likely they are to push back on something. It’s a response learned from years of having people they report on saying, “You don’t need to know that” or “You aren’t going to get that.” It’s also probably hardwired into our genetics at some level, just like being nosy.

Policies like this one that seems to say, “We’re watching you” can lead journalists to feel that need to push back against it, even if they aren’t entirely interested in engaging in the behavior the policy dictates. In other words, even if I’m not a journalist on Twitter who feels it necessary to tweet about whatever is coming into my mind, the minute you try to stop me from doing so is the minute I’m going to be upset about it.

It also doesn’t help that the policies are fluid and lack a sense of  “X actions = Y consequences.” Do I think that the timing of Sonmez’s tweet was particularly brilliant? No. Do I think the consequences were a bit much? Yes. Can I find a clear path through Barron’s memo or the WaPo policy that tells me who was right? Not a chance.

In some ways, this kind of reminds me of the old-school version of Catholic confession, in that it was never clear how the priest knew EXACTLY how many “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” were necessary to demonstrate proper atonement for each specific sin. It seemed like a mixture of how upset the priest was, how penitent the confessor was and how much time was left before mass started.

When my job (or my eternal soul) is on the line, I guess I’d like a little more clarity on how the rules apply and how I should know that I’ve got things nailed down appropriately.

Just like anyone else, journalists are going to be judged on their statements in a public setting and like a whole lot of folks, we tend to think our opinion needs to be shared with a lot of people in a public way. Since social media allows EVERYONE to play, it can be difficult to tell people who share opinions and write publicly that they can’t play or that they have to follow different rules.

Like most other things we’re all grappling with in this field, things are more likely to be messy than easy as we figure out what we SHOULD do after we bump into a lot of things we probably SHOULDN’T do.

 

An incomplete list of “third-rail people” you should never talk about in a positive sense

Earlier in the week, we covered the story of Morris Berger, the now-former offensive coordinator for the Grand Valley State University football team. Berger resigned after he told the student newspaper he’d like to have dinner with Hitler, and every media outlet on earth seemed to want to run that as a headline.

During some social media and listserv chatter, various people weighed in on this, including one person who asked the question that seems both fair and yet dangerous to ask:

It was a careless comment, but the coach also made it clear he didn’t favor Hitler’s motivations or goals. And unless the university found evidence that the coach actually supported Nazism, I’m having trouble seeing how this should cost him his job. An assistant coach at a Division II school tries to be honest in a run-of-the-mill interview with a student newspaper and the clumsiness of his statement draws the attention of ESPN, CBS and other national news outlets? Why? Only because the national reports could refer to his comments as the “Hitler statement” and suggest he favored the Nazi leader. So instead of having to apologize, he has to apologize and resign so he won’t be a “distraction.”

My only real answer to that question is that there are individuals out there I would call “third-rail people,” folks for whom speaking about them in any way other than as bad or evil will land you in trouble. The third rail is part of any electrical train (subway, etc.) that carries a high level of current and if you touch it, you almost always die.

I asked the Hivemind to help me put together a list of “third-rail people” as a general public service announcement for folks who might run into media outlets who ask them stuff. To make the list, the person had to be pretty universally known or at least their actions were known. For example, you might not remember John Q. Problemguy by name, but you remember “that one guy who went around lighting homeless people on fire.”

You also had to have no real strong, decent-to-semi-decent supporter group to make the list. (Several people suggested folks like Donald Trump or R. Kelly, and yet we still have people who applaud for the State of the Union address and the Ignition Remix. Thus, they sat this one out.)

So, without further ado, here is your incomplete list of people you should probably avoid telling anyone you’d like to do anything with, other than punch them in the throat:

THE NAZI BUNCH

  • Adolf Hitler
  • Joseph Goebbels
  • Josef Mengele
  • Heinrich Himmler

(Once we hit Mengele, I kind of just said “OK, enough Nazis,” for fear of taking over the entire discussion with the Third Reich. However, if you find yourself talking about anything having to do with the Nazis in any positive way, you’re probably going to be in trouble. Leave any level of analysis beyond “They were evil” to scholars who look like they’ve been buried in dusty books since they were 12.)

THE KILLERS

  • Jeffrey Dahmer
  • John Wayne Gacy
  • Ted Bundy
  • Charles Manson
  • Charles Starkweather
  • Dennis “BTK” Rader
  • Richard “The Nightstalker” Ramirez
  • Charles Whitman

People who fit the bill as insane serial killers rarely should be considered as people you’d like to know or support in a public fashion. Talking about how great Gacy was as a clown, the complex nature of Rader’s knot work or the amazing accuracy Whitman had with a rifle will only get you in trouble. Even more, if you get the “Name three historical figures with whom you’d like to eat dinner” question, understand that answering with “Jeffrey Dahmer” will almost certainly get you fired/ostracized/kicked off Match.com.

THE “BAD TOUCH” GROUP

  • Brock Turner
  • Harvey Weinstein
  • Jerry Sandusky
  • Jared “The Subway Guy” Fogle
  • Jeffrey Epstein

Rape, child molestation, unwanted sexual stuff and anything along those lines will lead people to think poorly of an individual. When people become famous for such things, they tend to become “persona non grata” in the world at large, but still don’t reach the “don’t you dare say anything positive” level.

However, when Weinstein managed to get an entire movement (#metoo) rolling against him for such acts, that lands him on the third-rail list. In addition, Turner’s slap on the wrist for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, coupled with his father’s argument that Turner’s life shouldn’t be ruined “for 20 minutes of action,” jumped up the universal hatred to a third-rail level.

Pedophiles rarely get a “but he was such a good guy” counterpoint, but people like Fogle and Sandusky, who abused multiple children over multiple years make them completely nonredeemable in any discussion of anything. Add in the fact that both men used their charities to seek and groom victims and you have darkness and evil squared. You’re not going to get very far with a “you gotta admire the will power it took to lose all that weight” or a “he was responsible for 10 All-America linebackers and many pro careers” ice breaker.

THE FOREIGN LEADER PACK

  • Idi Amin
  • Pol Pot
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Efraín Rios Montt
  • Joseph Stalin

Basically, if a person’s name pulls up search terms like “genocide” or “terrorist,” keep them off the list for the dinner party.

THE “RANDOM LOTTERY OF MEANINGLESS TRAGEDY” FOLKS

  • George Zimmerman
  • Mary Kay LeTourneau
  • Bernie Madoff

Zimmerman’s actions that led to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin were horrifying, but he kicked things up a notch with his decision to sign autographs at a gun show after his acquittal. Among the items he signed? Confederate flags and a bag of Skittles.

I had honestly forgotten about LeTourneau, the then-34-year-old school teacher who pled guilty to two counts of child rape for her affair with a 12-year-old student. She ended up marrying him and having children with him. Not like she’s coming up in everyday conversation anymore, but any even half-joke about “going the extra mile in educating students” related to her will get you run out of town on a rail. (Special thanks to my friend, Janna, who reminded me of this and managed to get one female character into this giant sausage party of misery.)

When you run the world’s largest Ponzi scheme, bankrupt the elderly and Robert DeNiro has to play you in a movie, for which there is no role for Joe Pesci, you’re probably not going to be worth talking about positively in polite company.

I’m sure we missed a few, which is why we’re calling this an incomplete list. The point here, other than this was a riff that kind of took on a life of its own, is to undercut the argument that folks in various corners of the world are making now: If Berger hadn’t spoken to the student newspaper, he would have been fine.

Thus, their answer is, “Don’t talk to the media.”

Actually, the answer should be to think better about what you’re saying before you say it. The paper wasn’t trying to get Berger in trouble, and I doubt Berger has a closet full of brown shirts he irons while he whistles Horst Wessel Lied.” However, a confluence of an off-the-cuff brain fart coupled with a third-rail person distributed across a media channel spelled doom.

We’re hopeful this list will prevent future moments of “duh.”

 

 

 

Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

The guy who taught me driver’s ed at the “Easy Method” school was a balding man with a ginger mustache and sideburns to match. He told us to call him “Derkowski.” Not Mr. Derkowski or Professor Derkowski. Just Derkowski.

I remember a lot from that class, as he basically beat certain things into us like the company would murder his children if we didn’t have these rules down pat.

Hands on the wheel? 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.

Pedals? Release the brake to go, release the gas to slow.

Feet? One foot only. We were required to tuck our left foot so far back into the seat that we could feel the seat lever with the heel of our shoe.

Seat belt? You touch that before you touch anything else in the car or you fail the test. (Or as one of my dad’s friends told me just before the exam, “Get in the car. Put on your seat belt. Then, have your mom hand you the keys through the window.”)

There are a dozen other things that still stick with me, ranging from the left-right-left view of the mirrors to the probably-now-unspeakable way to look behind you when backing up. (“Put your arm across the back of the seat and grab the head rest like you’re putting a move on your girl at the drive-in,” he told me once, I swear…)

After 30 years behind the wheel, I still can’t shake some of this stuff, and most of it is still really helpful. Do I use it all the time? No. (I’m sure the man would be having a stroke if he saw me eating a hash brown, drinking a Diet Coke and flipping through the radio all at the same time while flying down Highway 21 at 10 over…) However, it was important to have that stuff drilled into my brain so that I knew, when things got iffy, how best to drive safely.

When I had to drive 30 miles up I-94 in a white out, in a 1991 Pontiac Firebird that had no business being a winter car, you better believe I abided by the gospel of Derkowski.

I had my hands in the right spots, I was looking left-right-left before a lane change and I treated those pedals like I was stepping on puppies (Another one of his euphemisms, I believe; “You wouldn’t stomp on a puppy!” he’d yell at someone who did a jack-rabbit start or a bootlegger brake.)

It took two hours, more than four times what Mapquest would have predicted, as I slowly passed among the littering of cars and semis that had slid into ditches and side rails. Still, I got there alive.

The reason I bring all of this up is because with the advent of another semester (we still don’t start for two weeks, but I figure you all are up and running), many folks reading this blog will be teaching the intro to writing and/or reporting courses. That means in a lot of cases, students will be coming in to learn how to write the same way I came into that driver’s ed class so many years ago: All we know is what we have observed from other people.

My folks were good drivers, but even they were like lapsed Catholics when it came to the finicky points of the rules: Five miles over the limit was fine, seat belts were pretty optional and one hand on the wheel did the trick. Outside of them, the world looked like a mix of “Death Race” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Gunning engines at stop lights, squealing tires, the “Detroit Lean” and more were what I saw.

Students coming into writing classes have been writing for years, so they figure they’ll be fine at it. They also figure writing is writing, so what’s the big deal if I throw 345 adjectives into this hyperbolic word salad of a sentence and call it good? Nobody ever said it was a problem before…

The students need some basic “rules” pounded into the curriculum, repeated over and over like a mantra, to emphasize the things that we find to be most important to keeping them out of trouble in the years to follow. Mine are simple things: Noun-verb-object, check every fact like you’re disarming a bomb, attributions are your friend, one sentence of paraphrase per paragraph… It’s as close to a tattoo on their soul as they’re ever going to get.

It’s around this time I often get into random disagreements with fellow instructors about this stuff. Some are polite, while others react like I accused them of pulling a “Falwell Campari” moment. In most cases, the argument centers on the idea that there aren’t really rules for writing or that “Big Name Publication X” writes in 128-word sentences or that paragraphs often go beyond one sentence, so why am I teaching students these “rules” this way?

It’s taken me a long time to figure out how best to explain it, but here’s it is: I’m teaching driver’s ed for journalism.

In other words, you will eventually be on your own out there and you won’t have your instructor yelling at you about where your hands are or if you looked at the right mirror at the right time. You probably won’t die if you drive without your foot all the way back against the seat, nor will not maintaining a “car-length-per-10-mph” spacing gap lead to a 42-car pile up on the interstate.

In that same vein, you won’t automatically lose a reader if your lead is 36 words, or confuse the hell out of them if you don’t have perfect pronoun-antecedent agreement. Libel suits aren’t waiting around every corner if you don’t attribute every paragraph and if you accidentally (or occasionally deliberately) tweak a quote, you won’t end up in the unemployment line.

However, if the basics get “The Big Lebowski” treatment up front, there’s no chance of those students being able to operate effectively when the chips are down. (There’s a reason the military teaches people to march before it teaches people how to drive a tank.) Until those basics are mastered, the students will never know when it’s acceptable to break a rule or why it makes sense to do so.

Of all the things I remember about Derkowski (other than that godawful straw cowboy-looking hat thing he wore) was that even though he enforced the rules with an iron fist, he could always tell us WHY the rule mattered and WHY we needed to abide by it. Say what you want to about the items listed in my “this is a rule” diatribe above, but I can explain WHY those things are important in a clear and coherent way. Even if the students didn’t like them, they at least understood them.

Sure, over the years, the rules change (Apparently 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock is now a death sentence…) with AP apparently deciding to keep all of us on our toes almost to the point of distraction. We adapt to them as instructors and the ones that are most germane to the discipline, we write into our own version of gospel.

We also know that we’re not going to be there to press the point when a former student at a big-name publication uses “allegedly” in a lead. (That doesn’t mean we still don’t. Just ask any of my former students and they can tell you about conversations we’ve had about quote leads and lazy second-person writing.)

I tell the students once they get off of “Filak Island,” they can do it however they want or however their boss wants. (I also tell them to ask their bosses WHY they want to use allegedly or randomly capitalize certain words. In most cases, the answer is silence mixed with “duh face,” I’m told.) However, my job is to teach them the rules of the road, and I think that’s how a lot of us view things in those early classes.

I will admit, however, that it’s fun when I hear back from a long-graduated student who tells me how they can still hear my voice in the back of their head when they’re writing something. (It’s even more fun when they tell me how shorter leads or noun-verb attributions are now the rule at work.)

If we do it right, enough of the important things will stick, they’ll revert to the basics when in danger and they’ll be just fine, even without us there to pump the brakes.