Monday, November 16, 2015

The media returns fire





     As someone who wrote a book on college pranks, I know that even the most respected institutions are swept with various fads and manias. The media make note of them as curiosities, but it's a mistake to put too much significance on goldfish swallowing or phone booth packing or the latest squishy academic oversensitivity.
     Though that last realm does illustrate the schizophrenic quality of higher education. On one hand, they're preparing students — supposedly — for the rough-and-tumble workforce, where trigger alerts and safe spaces seem like so many teething rings and sippy cups.
     On the other, colleges have become carnivals of liberal ideology so rigid that it borders on a kind of oppression.
     While it was bracing to see the University of Missouri football team wake up from the general anesthesia of sports and drive the president out, the protesters subsequent turning with a snarl against the poor student journalists trying to document their own Mizzou Tahrir Square was chilling. You must see that video of a crazed professor calling for "muscle" to drive out the reporters, lest they . . . I'm not sure what the harm was supposed to be. Make the students protesting in broad daylight in the middle of campus feel observed, I suppose.    My wife called me over to watch the clip, and after I collected my jaw off the floor, I said, in a genuinely shocked little whisper: "Missouri used to be known for its great journalism school."
     Good luck washing that stain off, guys.
     To make things worse, undergraduate media hostility is now a trend. Late last week, Chicago's Loyola University was parroting the errors of Missouri, holding their own solidarity rally, complete with cordon of linked arms students keeping out the media. A stunning piece of hypocrisy since, a) they were exercising the same First Amendment rights they were denying others (for any freshmen reading this: The First Amendment, in the same breath, forbids "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press") and b) if nobody noticed or covered their protest, they'd feel they were victims of a media conspiracy.
     Since college students are free to vent what they feel about the media, it's only fair that the media return the favor.
     So allow me, based, not on biases absorbed from my parents along with my Maypo, but on actual experience, teaching college courses, including one at Loyola.
     College kids don't know shit. The average college student couldn't find his ass with both hands and a map. I once taught a journalism course for the State University of New York's Maritime College. At the end of the final exam, I prefaced the extra credit questions with, "A journalist should have a rough idea of what is going on in the world." One question was: "With the collapse of the Soviet Union, one Communist super power remains. What is it?" Some students guessed "Cuba." Others, "Iraq." Some didn't even hazard an attempt.
     Eight years ago I taught a journalism course at Loyola. The class was on feature writing, and since the most basic feature is a profile, I asked 20 friends to volunteer as subjects, then paired each with a student. The subjects were successful individuals with complex, interesting, colorful lives, from Justice Anne Burke to Phyllis Smith, bartender at the Billy Goat.
     So now I'm reading over my students' completed papers, and one profile, on auctioneer Leslie Hindman, suddenly changes in tone, an obvious, lurching shift. "This is boilerplate," I thought, "lifted from her auction house website." It took 30 seconds to confirm the truth.
     I called the student into the office, where I was joined by the dean, whom I had enlisted for guidance and moral support. School policy said the woman could be expelled. Yet she was indignant, as if she were the victim. "I'm a single mother!" she exclaimed. "I need this degree." I tried to explain that, yeah, the reason she needs the degree is because it means something, or did, and if we let students just turn in swiped material, what have we accomplished? Not that Loyola was ever going to actually expel her, and lose a customer. The dean suggested she just redo the paper, not stealing copy this time. But that deal wasn't sweet enough, apparently, and she dropped the class and flounced off to find a more lenient professor who didn't sweat trifles.
     So Loyola students, a reminder. The media is watching you, yes, but they're not the only ones. Putting your hand over a camera lens can actually bring you into sharp focus, and the picture it presents to the world isn't pretty. The Millennial Generation is famous for one thing: craving praise while shrinking from criticism, just or not. It causes you trouble in the workplace. You can blame the media for that, but you really should be blaming yourselves. Everyone else does.

28 comments:

  1. My sister is a high school English teacher - she says she doesn't put the essays through software that can detect plagiarism anymore - she figures if she can't catch it, the student did a decent job of covering it up.

    What gets her are the students who lift stuff off of websites and put it in their essays without even bothering to reformat it or even try using the same typeface. It's like they're begging or daring to be caught. She said one essay looked like a ransom note.

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  2. That happened to me, not when I was teaching, but when a journalism class offered a story they'd been working on for a website I was running. There was that "obvious, lurching shift" Neil speaks of, but get this: They left the superscript footnote numbers in, from Wikipedia. I couldn't believe the teacher, a respected local journalist, didn't catch it, but it only underlines my belief that writing is as much in the ear as in the eye and head, and some people just can't hear the music.

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  3. Why aren't those students just flouncing off to their rooms & slamming the door? Prof wants to be the cool mom..

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  4. What was especially sad was when the Daily Illini recently issued a groveling (and semi-literate) apology for running a cartoon that made the mildest of jokes about a Halloweener going over a wall "as an immigrant." If a college editor thinks in those terms, the battle is lost. Zorn wrote a good piece lamenting the paper's spinelessness, but even if the editors knew who Zorn was and read him (even when I went to journalism school many moons ago, I found that most student journalists didn't read columnists), the message would be lost on them.

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  5. Where is that sign w the language pledge? It seems odd that the sign is in English, so I guess it's ok the read and write in English but not speak it there.

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    1. Middlebury College, in Vermont.

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    2. The sign is funny out of context, but Middlebury runs a famous language school in the summer, and in the various buildings hosting different language programs, English is not to be spoken; students take "the pledge." During the school year, there is a building housing the French program and dorm where only French is to be spoken; there may be other such language-centric buildings now.

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    3. Thanks, now it makes more sense.

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  6. The poor dears fear abuse from a hostile press. One would think they were Republicans.

    "College students don't know shit." makes a point -- which is, I suppose, the point -- but a bit too strongly. I've done a little bit of evening school teaching and found some young students to be at least smart enough to realize how much they have to learn. And, although a small sample, people of my own generation known to me are not all Salons. A more useful generalization would be "if they don't know shit when in college they probably won't when they're 64."

    Tom Evans

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  7. Rest assured, NS, there are college students who know geography, current events, history, etc.

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  8. While the school has racial problems, some of the students demands of who can teach what or what classes all have to take is out of hand. At some colleges any race can teach a European History course but whoa to the admins if the Afr. Amer history course is taught by a white person. Imagine if someone said only whites can teach Euro. History. ANd one of the kids there griping has a millionaire dad. Certainly not a downtrodden minority in that case.

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  9. I'm not really following this, but the local amusement is a white guy, a perpetual student in his 30s, who says he is being muzzled for expressing his opinions. So muzzled that he is inescapable on Facebook and I finally had to block him.

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    Replies
    1. Young people are so emotionally frail that they confuse reaction to their nonsensical pratltle for suppression. If you say, oh, that vaccines cause autism, and I say, "That's idiocy," I'm not muzzling you, I'm responding to you.

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    2. good point, NS

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  10. An encouraging word: as awful as the behavior described above is, we have to remember that it's a small percentage of college students and young people who act so atrociously. For whatever reasons, there might be a greater incidence of such lately, but I'm not so sure of that. Even the great Samuel Johnson was a jerk when he attended college.

    john

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  11. "With the collapse of the Soviet Union, one Communist super power remains. What is it?"

    Few high school teachers focus on current events or politics around the world. I wonder how many high school students ever read a newspaper or watch the news?

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    Replies
    1. Too busy preparing for tests?

      john

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    2. That's part of it (plus a curriculum that does not include contemporary events), but the ignorance of college students, is it the fault of public school teachers or should the students bear responsibility for not knowing what's happening now? What about other adults? Our politics thrive on voter ignorance.

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    3. Ignorance and apathy.

      Do you think somebody could get Trump to suggest a revival of the draft?

      That might wake some people up.

      john

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    4. As the old saw goes, ignorance and apathy. What's the difference? I don't know, and I don't care.

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  12. The media is hated by left right and center. It is despised on the extremes. The best way to be a journalist is to shoot it straight and stay objective. Abraham Foxman former director of the ADL once told me if he's gettiing hammered for being too Liberal or too Conservative equally he knows he's doing his job.

    Marvin

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  13. Wouldn't journalism students plagiarize less if j-schools punished plagiarism? The Loyola dean was craven, an enabler.

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  14. "With the collapse of the Soviet Union, one Communist super power remains. What is it?"

    China. But some would contend China hasn't been Communist since Mao died.

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  15. A mere technicality.

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  16. Draft the male mutherfuckers.

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  17. Neil,

    Our professors said the same things about us. You remember.

    Even worse is to say teens don't know something without testing adults. I'd wager that most adults in the U.S. can't find Iraq on a map, much less Syria. In an article about raw milk, one mother said that raw milk cured her child's Down syndrome. Adults these days don't know shit.

    I have great respect for people who meet deadlines. I struggled with them and then found a different job. If a post like this is what it takes for you to live up to every goddamn day, then I say you should change the name to three or four times a week and make it worth everyone's time. I am sorry I clicked on the link that bought me here.

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  18. Exactly, quality not quantity.

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