Gliding to graduation

PSU Comm programJune is a month for graduations — from kindergarten and fifth grade to middle school, high school and, of course, college.

On Friday, June 15, it was my pleasure to be in the room for a Communication Graduation Celebration sponsored by the Department of Communication at Portland State University.

Faculty, parents and friends turned out to show their support for more than 200 students — 180 undergraduate majors, 30 minors and 15 master’s degree candidates — at a Student Recognition Ceremony honoring them and a select group of scholarship winners.

Commencement exercises for most PSU students are scheduled for this Sunday, Father’s Day, but some schools and departments are holding their own, smaller ceremonies in advance of the big event. Such was the case with the Communication Department.

On a campus teeming with 27,000 students, the Comm Department has about 550 majors. Perusing the Class of 2018 list, I was pleasantly surprised to realize I knew almost half of the new majors and minors either from teaching them in class or supervising their internship during the past fall, winter or spring quarter.

There were plenty of star students to celebrate, including:

  • A graduate student who went back to school at age 47 and completed her masters this year at age 55. She is set to teach three classes next fall as an adjunct instructor at a local community college.
  • Another master’s student who inspired her grandfather to return to school this term and take a 2-credit class so he could obtain the bachelor’s degree he’d fallen short of decades earlier.
  • A scholarship winner with an interest in journalism who’s already just completed his junior year at age 19.
  • A home-schooled student who graduated with a perfect 4.0 GPA and is set to marry her fiancé this summer.
PSU jeff robinson

Jeff Robinson, chair of the PSU Communication Department, announces a scholarship winner during Friday’s graduation celebration.

In addition, I was delighted to see a student who labored to get a C- in the first class I taught two years ago as she took on both full-time school and full-time work while struggling with depression. She came to me in near tears when she lost her textbook (they can be expensive, you know) so I loaned her mine to get through the rest of the term. She gave me a handwritten thank-you note back then, and on Friday she recalled the loan of the book. Degree in hand, she has lined up a summer internship and a job at a local construction company. I’m so happy she prrsevered

***

Friday’s program was the first of its kind I had attended since joining the faculty two years ago. As the last day of the spring quarter, Friday also marked the end of my second academic year at Portland State. As milestones go, I suppose that’s pretty modest. But, coupled with a similar two-year milestone at Washington State University Vancouver, where I also teach, it feels pretty damn good to be at this point. And as I look ahead to what comes next, I can’t help but feel excited.

But let’s not get ahead of things. Indulge me with a quick look back at the past year.

Fall 2017:

At PSU, I taught my bread-and-butter class, Media Literacy, while also taking on a new role as internship coordinator in the Comm Department.

People often ask me what I mean by media literacy. It’s not the study of journalism, per se, though it certainly involves the goal of better understanding the historic role of the U.S. press; the enduring news values that fuel the mainstream media; and the changing technology that has ravaged newsrooms and revolutionized the way content — yes, content (text, photos, videos, audios, graphics) — is delivered.

 

Where media literacy once meant being able to read the written word, it now means being computer literate: specifically, being able to access, analyze, create and distribute a message.

It means being able to follow a narrative and character development on TV or in a movie or podcast. It means being able to grasp the meaning of logos, symbols, emojis and hashtags. It means creating your own media — a Facebook post, an Instagram photo, a YouTube video, a tweet, a meme — and sharing it with others. And, lastly, it means being able to discern who is sending which message for what purpose — not such an easy task in a world where manipulation lives side-by-side with the pursuit of the truth.

My class of 50-plus draws a mix of students, mostly Comm majors who take it for credit toward their bachelor’s degree, but also a fair number of others who take it as an elective. Having those extra perspectives — from folks who are studying film, business, criminal justice, advertising, etc. — is what makes for richer discussions and fascinating assigned essays.

Winter 2018:

Along with another section of Media Literacy at PSU, I taught Sports and the Media at WSU Vancouver, a dual load that meant I spent two mornings a week on each campus.

As someone who broke into journalism as a high school sports writer, and someone who follows sports of many kinds, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed teaching Sports and the Media. Again, it’s not a journalism course that’s meant to turn students into novice reporters, photographers or broadcasters.

Rather, it’s a course that I teach from a sociological perspective, with sports as a reflection of society at large. There is no aspect of modern culture that doesn’t touch sports and that’s what it makes the course so compelling. Think of it as sports and the intersection of (fill in the blank) civil rights, feminism, athlete activism, sexual and racial discrimination, crime, technology, economics, politics, Title IX. The list is endless.

In this class, we spend far less time discussing wins and losses and statistics and far more drawing connections from past to present. Examples: The Black Power salutes on the medals stand at 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the take-a-knee movement that spread from the NFL to backlash from the White House. Pioneering athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Colin Kaepernick. Old-school print media coverage of athletes as heroes versus 24/7 coverage in the age of Twitter, where athletes speak for themselves, break their own news and exercise their rights as free agents.

 

WSUV operates on the semester system, so I had a 16-week term versus 11 weeks at PSU. The extra weeks meant I could invite seven guest speakers to educate my 30 students on what it’s like to work in journalism, media relations, broadcasting or for a professional team. Short version: You need to have curiosity, passion, self-initiative, a multimedia skills set, excellent writing and interviewing chops, a tremendous work ethic, and a very thick skin. Students were shocked, though they shouldn’t have been, by the meanness and sheer volume of vulgar insults hurled at women journalists by irate fans and online commenters.

I owe a big thanks to this semester’s all-star lineup: Lindsay Schnell, USA Today; Jamie Goldberg and Tyson Alger, The Oregonian/OregonLive; Tom Goldman, NPR; Chris Metz, Portland Timbers and Thorns; Rich Burk, Hillsboro Hops and NBC Sports; Casey Holdahl, Portland Trail Blazers.

Spring 2018:

I didn’t teach this quarter at PSU, so once classes ended at WSUV in late April, I was able to take my foot off the gas for the past six weeks. Compared to peak busyness in the winter, it felt like a gentle glide to the end of the term. Still, there was plenty to occupy me as the Comm Department internship coordinator.

During the school year, I had a total of 40 students who registered in the internship-for-credit class. The number rose from 8 in the fall to 14 in the winter and 18 in the spring. Supervising these students was a pleasure because I could see how they were applying lessons learned in the classroom to the workplace. At the same time, I could see their personal, as well as professional, growth develop as they gained insights into their own personalities and working styles, as well as their ability to adapt to supervisors’ expectations and widely differing office cultures.

PSU interns

From left, 2018 winter quarter interns: Laurel Zarcilla, Joryn Harris, Mabinty Olson, Samantha Garcia and Emilee Caldwell. All except Sam are graduating this year. Joryn won the Communication Department’s Outstanding Academic Achievement Award.

The options that are available with a Communications degree were pretty evident as students fanned out across the city to work in public relations, marketing, event planning, social media, video editing, web site design and more. PSU has no journalism major, but that’s fine so long as students leave with a solid foundation of writing, research and communication theory.

Fun facts about the interns: Of the 40, 31 were women (78 percent) and 18 were students of color (45 percent). For the summer term, at least 7 are signed up and there may be two or three more before classes start again June 25.

None of the work I did with the interns this year would have possible without the support and guidance of my Canadian-Ukrainian colleague, Tanya Raomaniuk. She is the Comm Department’s academic and career advisor, and during the previous school year kept the internship program going until it could be handed off to me.

In turn, I am handing off the program for now to Marisa Miller, a well-regarded and newly minted master’s degree candidate with an outgoing personality. Marisa will be supervising the interns during the summer quarter because I will be away from campus.

PSU marisa miller

Marisa Miller knits unicorns for family and friends when she’s not working on her thesis.

And where will I be? Across the pond, teaching Media Literacy in London for two weeks beginning in mid-July.

More on that in an upcoming post.

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