From the newsroom to the classroom

 

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The classroom where I teach two courses at Washington State University Vancouver.

I’m five weeks deep into the 2017 winter quarter at Portland State University, already halfway done with the 10-week term. Across the river, five weeks in means I’m a third of the way though the 16-week spring semester at Washington State University Vancouver.

I’m teaching one course at PSU on Monday-Wednesday and two at WSUV on Tuesday-Thursday and, yes, that’s keeping me plenty busy. (I also work four afternoons a week at a local nonprofit, but let’s not go there right now.)

As I write this on a Saturday morning, I’m struck by how fast the time goes, particularly when snow days force cancellation of classes — two at each campus — during the first two weeks. Throw in the King Day holiday and that’s another day we didn’t hold class at PSU.

But who’s complaining?

Fourteen months after leaving The Oregonian/OregonLive, I’ve got plenty on my plate.

***

Here I am this weekend with nearly 70 essays to grade, three chapters to read in three textbooks, two guest speakers to prepare for next week, and dates and times to confirm with a half-dozen more guests I’ve lined up in next couple of months.

Surely, this is nothing out of the ordinary for anyone who teaches full-time or even as an adjunct. Classroom time is just part of the deal. Planning and prep time take up a lot of intellectual energy, too, but the many administrative tasks involved — grading papers, maintaining a grade book, posting weekly schedules and lecture notes online, emailing students — account for far more time.

But, again, who’s complaining?

When I agreed to teach three classes at once, I knew I was in for a challenge. But the rewards are definitely worth it.

There is no better time to be teaching Media Literacy than now. When you’ve got a new administration declaring war on the press, throwing out phony accusations of fake news, and offering “alternative facts” as a diversion from verifiable facts that show Trump and his minions in an unflattering light, well, it’s the perfect time for a course like this.

My students at PSU have eagerly engaged on the subject, admitting their own shortcomings when it comes to digital literacy but also getting quickly up to speed in understanding who is providing what content (news, opinion, advertising) on the internet and for what purpose.

In Vancouver, I’m having a great time teaching Sports and the Media, holding up organized sports as a mirror of society. Coverage of sports has gone so far beyond just games, scores and hero worship to an era of athlete activism and self-marketing and wart-and-all coverage of coaches, players and programs. I present sports as a mirror of society, touching on racism, sexism, politics, entertainment, marketing and campus sexual abuse, among other topics. (Great timing to have Super Bowl 51 come along to illustrate the intersection of so many of these themes.)

I’m also teaching Reporting Across Platforms, traditionally a writing-intensive course designed to prepare students for producing words and images for print, broadcast and digital. I’m going at it somewhat differently, in light of the fact that many students are non-communications majors (let alone non-journalism majors) and have never done journalism in their life.

Accordingly, I’m trying to provide more context about the challenges facing today’s multimedia journalists in an era of 24/7 news and social media rather than emphasize basic skills of reporting, interviewing, writing and tweeting. The students are taking baby steps, but they’re also getting introduced to media ethics and the realities of a profession under siege.

I’ll check in again when the quarter and semester are done.

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I met for coffee recently with Gosia Wozniacka, a former reporter at The Oregonian and the Associated Press, who is now teaching a journalism class at Clark College in Vancouver. We compared notes on teaching.

For now, I take comfort in knowing I’m making a difference in how these young people are seeing things more clearly now — and even putting actions behind their words.

At least three students have let me know they have begun subscribing to The Oregonian/OregonLive or least committed to buying the newspaper two days a week as a sign of their support for local journalism. Several more made it clear to me, in emails or in class discussions, that they now understand the importance of a free press in a democratic society and are changing their media consumption habits accordingly.

What more could a teacher ask for?

 

A bird, a bagel and a baby

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Early morning quiet on the campus of Washington State University Vancouver.

In the midst of our daily routines, little moments sometimes present themselves when you least expect them, leaving you with a sense of appreciation of what’s good in life.

That’s what happened to me on a single day this week. Three random things involving nature, a conversation with a stranger, and news of a child being born. Each thing was disconnected from the other, but every one came as a salve at a time of angst about our deep political divide.

***

Thursday morning, I left home earlier than usual to arrive in plenty of time to greet a guest speaker in my morning class at Washington State University Vancouver. I was walking from the parking lot to the edge of campus when a sweet sound caught my ear.

I looked up to the right and spotted a little bird perched in the bare branches of a tree, singing his morning song. It was a sparrow, I think, and in the stillness of the morning, before most students had arrived, there was nothing but that sweet sound to serenade me to the front door of the building where I was headed..

In the distance, the flattened white top of Mount St. Helens came into view, combining with the songbird to remind me of nature’s beauty.

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Can you see it? Just above the treeline, it’s Mount St. Helens.

***

I taught two classes that day and hustled out the door, destined to my afternoon job with a nonprofit in Portland. I was running a few minutes ahead of schedule, so I decided to exit the freeway and grab a snack.

I walked in the door of a Panera franchise and the woman behind the counter greeted me with a smile.

I ordered a coffee and bagel to go and, in less than two minutes, it was ready.

“Here you go,” she said. “Have a great day.”

“Thanks. That was fast. Where do I pay?”

She froze for an instant, then laughed.

“Oh, yeah. I totally forgot.”

Her name tag identified her as “Carrie” and “Manager.” No doubt she’s one of those overworked, underpaid managers who hire and train employees, keep things on track in the kitchen and on the floor and, during slack times like this one, run the cash register.

“Well,” I said, “you can’t say you don’t offer great customer service.”

She smiled.

“Come back for dinner and I just might give it to you free!”

***

Back in the parking lot, I checked my phone. On Facebook, a new acquaintance was announcing the birth of her second child, a son.

This was Sharon, someone who lives in Ohio and someone I’ve never met in person. I learned of her last year when I purchased her book, “Becoming Mother,” for our daughter-in-law. I emailed her to compliment her on her book and she responded warmly.

A couple more emails led to a Facebook friendship and two recent guest blog posts on Rough and Rede II. In one of those, written just after the November election that shocked the world, she despaired at the realization her baby was due on Inauguration Day.

So I was delighted to learn her baby had arrived — and to read, in a blog post she’d mostly written ahead of time, of the perspective she’d gained while her son took an extra two weeks to come into the world.

Today, I simply say that life is unpredictable and messy. No matter how much we like to pretend that we have things under control, we very much do not. We don’t like the storms that plow through our neatly plotted lives. They uproot what we’ve planned. They can undo our hard work and make it irrelevant and meaningless.

But a lot of beautiful things can emerge from the storms of our lives.

Like rainbows.

Her piece is beautifully written and I recommend it to one and all: “Finally, We’ve Had the Baby.”

To all those who’ve become mothers in recent months, here’s a special wish for you and your son or daughter, that you never lose sight of the moments that bring you happiness, peace and calm. I’m talking to you, Jamie, and cousin Monique, and all the rest of you — Mary, Jen, Rachel — scattered from Washougal to Portland to Cincinnati.