Archive for the ‘Teaching’ category

How To Tell a Story, Wrongly

March 1, 2012

This week’s New York Times Book Review has an utterly disturbing cover story. It’s about a writer’s tale of 16-year-old Levi Presley who, in 2002, jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.

The writer, though, has no allegiance to factual accuracy. Instead, he changes facts in the story to suit his artistic musings about suicide, Las Vegas and storytelling itself.

You may ask, how can the story be believable if there is no fidelity to facts? Ah, that’s what landed a most unusual book, The Lifespan of a Fact, on the cover of the Times Book Review.

Let’s start at the beginning. An English professor at the University of Iowa, John D’Agata, wrote an essay on Levi’s death for Harper’s, and it was rejected because of “factual inaccuracies.” The author then submitted a 15-page article to a literary magazine titled The Believer, and the magazine assigned an intern, Jim Fingal, to be the fact-checker.

The Lifespan of a Fact presents D’Agata’s original essay as well as what The Times calls “Fingal’s staggeringly meticulous annotations.” For instance, the first sentence of the essay refers to Vegas having 34 licensed strip clubs at the time of Levi’s death. Source material said 31. When Fingal asked D’Agata why it says 34, the writer replied, “Because the rhythm of ’34’ works better in that sentence.”

And it’s downhill from there. D’Agata changes the name of Levi’s school because he didn’t like it. He changes the color of a fleet of dog-grooming vans because he wanted the double-beat of “purple” rather than the factually accurate “pink.” He changes another suicide-by-jump that same day to a suicide-by-hanging “because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”

Fingal gamely tried at first to understand this literary license, but couldn’t shake his belief in accuracy. At one point he reminds D’Agata: “You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi. Don’t you think that the gravity of the situation demands an accuracy that you’re dismissing as incidental?”

D’Agata responds that Fingal’s “nitpicking” is ruining his essay. In manipulating Levi’s story, the writer argues that he is “making a better work of art — and thus a better and truer experience for the reader.”

Uh-huh. Right. Sure.


Reunion for a Favorite Professor

October 22, 2011

More than 200 people returned to Baylor University this week to honor a professor who played a big role in their lives and careers. I was one of them.

It says something about a professor’s lasting influence when former students make the trek to Waco, Texas, from places such as Alaska, Long Island, Japan and North Carolina. For me, it also was an opportunity to reconnect with classmates whom I hadn’t seen since we were 22 years old.

David McHam was my professor-mentor at Baylor in the 1970s. He now teaches at the University of Houston.

Eight years ago, McHam came to Elon as a guest professor at my invitation. He spoke in four classes about writing, editing and the importance of language precision. He also led a discussion about free speech related to war protests and then talked about the qualities of good teaching at a School of Communications faculty luncheon.

His advice to teachers: Find a good mentor. Always go into the classroom upbeat and smiling. Never talk down to anyone in class.

McHam was a tough taskmaster as a teacher. At the time we thought it was his Marine Corps background. Actually, he just wanted us to be the very best we could be. He drilled the importance of curiosity and precision into us, helped us network to begin careers, and has remained a mentor through the decades. That’s the definition of a teacher who makes a difference.

In Praise of Teachers

August 28, 2011

Professor Joe Saltzman of the University of Southern California tells an inspiring story.

In receiving the national Teacher of the Year award at our annual conference in St. Louis, Saltzman dedicated the award to his high school journalism teacher, Ted Tajima. This is how Saltzman tells the story:

“In 1955, I was a junior, and he found me standing in the hallway crying my eyes out. He asked me what was the matter. I told him that the high school counselor just told me I wasn’t college material and that I should follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a window cleaner. My dream of being the first person in my family to go to college was over.

With USC's Joe Saltzman

“Ted was furious and went to see that high school counselor. When he came back, he told me that together, we would work to get me into the best school of journalism on the West Coast — the University of Southern California — and with a scholarship as well. And he made it happen. If it weren’t for Ted, I probably would have ended up a window cleaner.

“When I wonder why I’ve spent the last 44 years teaching at USC, I think back to Ted. I know I became a teacher because of his influence on me. I wanted to do for future journalists what he had done for me.”

Tajima died in February 2011, shortly before Saltzman and I were informed that we would be receiving the Teacher and Administrator of the Year awards, respectively, from the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

It was an honor to stand with Joe at the awards ceremony this summer. He donated his $10,000 prize to a nonprofit dedicated to helping ill children, and my prize went to help Elon Communications students needing financial support to stay in school.

24, Elon-Style

November 30, 2010

Students in Dr. Glenn Scott's Reporting for the Public Good class this fall

We have our own “24” in progress in the School of Communications.

It isn’t at all like the TV show “24” where Jack Bauer had 24 hours, spanning a 24-episode season, to save humanity from destruction.

Instead, students in Reporting for the Public Good are partnering with the Burlington Times-News to produce a special section examining 24 hours in the life of Alamance County, our home.

As Times-News editor Madison Taylor describes in his column, each student will select an hour of a full day — all 24 — and profile someone or thing operating at that time. It could be anything, with one requirement: The stories better be worth reading.

By the time the editor finished describing the project, enthusiastic students already were selecting times and topics. We’ll see the results in early 2011.

Summertime in the City

June 11, 2010

Elon in New York City students with Central Park in the background

The Elon in New York City summer program is off to a rousing start.

On Mondays, students in “The Streets of New York” class will examine America’s greatest city, from Wall Street (business) to Madison Avenue (advertising) to Broadway (theatre). Each student also selects a particular street for intensive study, and students have gone to the New York Public Library to begin their projects.

On Tuesdays through Fridays, students are interning at professional sites such as “60 Minutes,” Fox Sports en Espanol, Food Network, Fremantle Media, Alvin Ailey Theatre, Peppercorn Strategic Communications, Green Pine Films and Ariel Publicity.

I visited the program site yesterday. The School of Communications arranged for summer housing in a residential building operated by The New School, in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. Perfect location. Small and functional rooms. Great views (a number of students can look out the window and see the Empire State Building reaching toward the sky).

Students in the Elon in NY program also have been paired with recent Elon alumni who already have established themselves as successful professionals in New York. This mentoring relationship involves alums currently working at such places as ABC, CBS, Pfizer, Ketchum Sports & Entertainment,, NewsMax Media and Sony Music Entertainment.

Ah, to be young and spending 10 weeks in New York City! You can keep up through the class blog here.

The Importance of Creativity

May 1, 2010

Imagine asking the world’s leading thinkers and doers to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. That’s what happens at TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conferences.

This talk, by Sir Ken Robinson, came four years ago and has been viewed more than one million times on YouTube. With humor and storytelling, he makes the case that, educationally, creativity is just as important as literacy.

At Elon, we frequently describe the student-oriented mission of the School of Communications as “launching creative and meaningful careers.”

‘Teach Naked’

July 25, 2009

A dean at Southern Methodist University is removing computers from lecture halls and challenging faculty to teach naked — meaning, without technology.

drawing in the public domain

Dean José A. Bowen of the Meadows School of the Arts (which includes Communications) believes PowerPoint, in particular, creates boring learning environments. Bowen challenges teachers to put material online or use podcasts so that classroom time is for student interaction.

In academic circles, his approach has generated a news story and video in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

At Elon, our classrooms are filled with technology, and we try to use it wisely. That may mean accessing a Web site, or showing a video excerpt, or giving an example of online interactivity in our small classes.

Mostly, the classroom should involve eye contact — teacher-to-student, student-to-student — so that we’re going far beyond textbook material and engaging students in active learning.

My fellow dean makes a good point in a provocative way. The purpose of technology should be to enhance student learning, not bore it to death.

Still, since technology can help the learning process if used wisely, we plan to stay clothed in Elon’s School of Communications.