Archive for November 2008

Symbol of Freedom

November 26, 2008

Vadim Isakov asked an intriguing question to a group of students this week: What became his symbol of freedom in the United States?

Isakov had come to the United States from his home country of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet state now considered one of the more restrictive countries in terms of personal freedoms.

I guessed the obvious: the Statue of Liberty. Nope. A student guessed McDonald’s. Nope. Someone asked if his symbol of freedom was the Mall in Washington, D.C. No again.

He let us think a moment more and then said, “A bookstore.” He marveled at standing in a bookstore, seeing all manner of books, some criticizing the U.S. government, others taking controversial positions on significant social issues. And he was free to stand there and explore so many writings without fear.

Isakov worked for Agence France-Presse and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukbekistan and is now a visiting scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College. We hosted him in a Media Writing class, where he spoke with passion about freedom, giving our students both geographic insight into Central Asia and philosophical insight into the freedom that we Americans so often take for granted.

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Still a Gathering Place

November 18, 2008

private-jetsAbout 75 people were sitting at Gate F9 in the Minneapolis airport tonight. As usual, loud overhead TVs competed with passenger conversations, cell phone calls and crying babies.

Then it grew eerily quiet, so much so that I glanced up and around in curiosity. Everyone was fixated on the overhead sets as CNN reported on the chief executives of the Big Three automakers each flying to Washington in their luxurious private jets to ironically ask Congress for millions in taxpayer money.

Suddenly the TV set had become a gathering place. We often refer to television as a “national gathering place” in a time of crisis or significance, the place where a nation becomes a community.

That same sense occurred momentarily at Gate F9, where we all were awaiting our direct flight to, of all places, Detroit.

Visual Cliches

November 6, 2008
a Great Depression era movie scene

Great Depression era movie scene

The hand to the head is a visual image of surprise or distress, and we’ve seen a lot of those photos from Wall Street lately.

I belong to a Visual Communication discussion group, and the question arose about how to visually portray a concept such as a stock market crash. This illustration (Bettmann/CORBIS) comes from a 1930 movie about an investor who lost all in a market crash. 

A modern-day image of economic distress

Modern image of economic distress

One strategy is to identify visual cues. Associate professor Michael O’Donnell of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota observes that, from a semiotic standpoint, a picture contains a set of symbols that the viewer must be able to understand in meaning and also be able to place in the larger realm of events. 

He remembers pictures of the 1987 crash showing stock traders looking upward at the Big Board, with a deer-in-the-headlights stare and a hand touching the face in bewilderment.

“Believe it or not, this type of photo seemed fresh at the time,” O’Donnell wrote. “I believe something is original only once, then it passes quickly into the realm of visual cliche. But, hey, what’s a photographer to do?”

Election Dissection

November 3, 2008

Candidates IraqThis is the day before the election.

In recent days, Elon participated in a scientific survey of college students in swing states conducted by CBS News, UWIRE and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The random-sample survey of 1,150 Elon students revealed that about two-thirds support Barack Obama and one-third support John McCain.

Because emotions on both sides have been running high, a campus organization asked about a dozen faculty members and administrators to offer advice on what to do in class the day after the election.

A gentle English professor wrote that her first-year class has the theme of individual responsibility, “so one of the things that we will talk about is how exercising individual responsibility is important but does not always result in the outcome that we want.”

Conversely, a no-nonsense business professor said his class will follow the syllabus as planned, adding, “If people act out, I’ll rein them in. If they’re depressed, I’ll notify counseling.”

Here is my response on the eve of the election:

“If I were teaching the day after Election Day, I would spend the opening minutes in class addressing the importance of a national event such as a presidential election. One way is to engage students in a conversation about media coverage or their own media consumption patterns on election night. For instance, television historically has been ‘our national gathering place’ for events such as 9/11 or presidential elections. Is that still true for today’s students, or were they instead following the election online or through handheld devices while engaged in other activities?

“This approach keeps the conversation on a neutral plane rather than focusing on winners and losers. Virtually every class at the university will contain students on both sides. Those who supported losing candidates most likely will be quiet the day after, and they certainly don’t want to hear gloating from the winning side. That’s the benefit of acknowledging the importance of Election Day in class and looking for a way to talk about it from a learning point of view rather than a political point of view.”