Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thoughts on a new school year

One of an educator's truisms -- to the point of pretty much being a cliche -- is that the end of summer is bittersweet. For while it is sad to see the summer's slower pace replaced by the whirlwind of activity that defines a semester, it also is good to get back into a routine and reconnect with the life of the academy.

It helps that at St. John Fisher we get an extra week over many Rochester area colleges that start classes tomorrow. Our classes don't begin for another week (Tuesday Sept. 7), but even still the school year in essence begins this week with a bunch of meetings and activities.

One of the characteristics of working in a small program is that I have a long roster of courses that I teach: Introductory Newswriting, Advanced Newswriting, Feature Writing, Copy Editing, Media Law and Senior Seminar. It's great having a variety of material to work with and bring to the students. The downside is that I can't teach all of them every semester. (It would be nice if I could, but that would involve cloning!)

This semester's offerings are the intro course, which I teach every semester, the law course and Senior Seminar. The "sweet" part of the "bittersweet" transition to autumn is that September comes in the form of a fresh start and opportunity to improve on past work.

I've been working on revisions to each of the courses I'll be offering, including adding more multimedia components to the intro journalism course, finding ways to make the law course more vibrant with more discussion and application, and redesigning the dreaded senior seminar research project to help the students grasp what it means to design a project more effectively before getting started on it.

On the administrative side, we'll be finalizing some adjustments to the curriculum that we began talking about last year (to take effect for students entering the program a year from now). We'll also be implementing some ideas for attracting new students and enhancing the experiences of returning ones. We have an updated computer lab with brand new iMacs and a newly renovated, state-of-the-art television studio, which is very exciting indeed for the students and faculty who will be using both of these facilities.

All in all, looking forward to a fantastic year.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Digital barrage may not be good for us

Ignoring for now the irony that I found it through Twitter, I think this New York Times story about research into excessive use of digital devices has some interesting and important points.

As the article points out,

when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.
The author notes other research as well about how "processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued."

This makes a lot of sense to me. If the flow of incoming information is constant, how can the recipient ever make sense of larger patterns in it? I get my best ideas and insights when I'm not actively thinking about anything in particular and not taking in more information, such as when I'm walking, driving, mowing the lawn, or taking a shower.

I don't own any sort of digitally connected mobile device like an iPhone or Blackberry, and in a similar vein to the ideas in this article, I really don't want to. I feel no need or desire to be that connected, that constantly updated on the world beyond my reach. That's not to say I'm a Luddite or want to live under a rock. I check e-mail at my home and office computers quite frequently, read my Twitter feed a few times a day, get RSS feeds from a number of locations into Google Reader and engage in other digital monitoring, such as looking at online news sites.

But the difference is that I'm not concerned about getting any or all of it immediately as it comes available. If it takes me a while to get an e-mail or if I read tweets that are a few hours old, that's fine. And the research noted in this article seems to say that being unplugged for a notable part of the day this way is crucial to become more effective at understanding the information that does come my way.

The article reminded me of another piece I saw, and blogged about here a few months ago -- a Frontline report called "Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier." A quote in there from MIT professor Sherry Turkle summed it up nicely: "There really are important things you cannot think about unless it's still and you are thinking about only one thing at a time."

That's worth stopping to ponder.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Non-anonymous comments

The Buffalo News published an article today that by its nature had "controversy" written all over it. It was a follow-up to a horrific incident a week ago in which eight people were shot, four of them fatally, after a party at a downtown bar. All were African-American. Today's follow-up reported details about the criminal records of seven of the eight victims.

What was of special interest to me, given my recent research into online audience postings, was the comments section of the article.

If there ever was an article that seemed ripe for racially fraught diatribes in the online commentary, it was this one. A typical anonymous online commentary thread on such a story would descend into such vile race-baiting that many readers would close the screen in disgust.

Of the 25 comments posted as of Sunday evening, a few were racially tinged. One mentioned "racial profiling." Another listed several of the crimes associated with the victims then added "These crimes may not be a big deal in the black community,but in the rest of civilized society they are a HUGE DEAL and are not tolerated or accepted!" A later posting called that comment "inappropriate and racist." There were some other sharp disagreements among the commenters, especially on the appropriateness of such an article so shortly after the deaths when loved ones are grieving for those they lost.

But all-in-all the comments were restrained, on point and polite in spite of the controversial subject matter and the disagreements among the contributors.

Why? Likely because all of the commenters had to attach their real names to the comments, similar to a signed letter to the editor in the printed paper. The Buffalo News earlier this month began requiring such identification. That requirement probably led to fewer comments -- only 25 on the story, compared to many dozen that typically get attached to controversial stories at sites where anonymous comments are allowed. But it seems as if it works to raise the bar in terms of quality of comments.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dropping the newspaper

I woke up this morning for the first time in nearly 24 years of living in Rochester without a delivery of the local Democrat and Chronicle -- the paper that brought me to Rochester when it hired me as a copy editor in 1986. Yes, a hardened print guy has cut his ties to the printed product -- though not for any of the reasons that popular opinion has about the death of newspaper as a function of content or format. As I explained it in an e-mail to a good friend who's a high-up news executive there:
In the end, poor customer service won out over my desire to continue receiving the paper in print. Despite literally dozens of complaints over a period of months, I could NEVER get the paper delivered in a timely fashion. Despite the 5:30 a.m. delivery promise, the delivery time kept creeping later. First it was a little after 6 a.m., then more like 6:30 and most recently the carrier had been arriving at close to 7 a.m. Once school starts in the fall, my wife, my daughter and I all will be getting up by 6 a.m. and out the door by around 7 a.m. So a paper that arrives that late does us no good.

And in a final, ironic twist on the poor customer service, I actually wanted to keep getting the paper until my credit-card pre-paid monthly subscription ran out in early September, and told that to the customer service person when I called Friday afternoon to take this action. But she canceled it immediately anyway. So, no paper this morning. Or, probably, ever again.

Being without a paper to read in the morning will take some getting used to. It also means I'll most likely visit the website more often, although I really dislike the site because of the clutter and "visual noise."

I still maintain -- as I wrote about in a post a few months ago -- that the newspaper industry should take a serious look at moving away from advertising-supported print models to reader-supported e-new models that get rid of all the junk related to a typical site in favor of a clean, unvarnished presentation of well-written, well-curated news. Yes, that's a "pay wall" -- but what the customer would be paying for is the convenience of format. This is similar to how people now pay for apps, and consider them to be worth the money, because of the functionality they offer. A better designed news site is likely worth paying for, too.