I should be in New York

On this Sunday morning in March, I should have rolled out of bed and looked out a window at a field of grass sloping downhill toward a cluster of trees beside a creek in upstate New York.

I should have been there with Lori, visiting with our youngest son, our daughter-in-law, and sweet granddaughter, at their home outside Ithaca, New York. Instead I’m spending my spring break here in Portland, catching my breath between Finals Week and the start of a new term on March 30, a mere eight days away.

Our travel plans were upended by the nationwide spread of the Coronavirus. Like so many others, we’ve had to confine ourselves to the familiar space within the walls of our own home as we do our part to minimize human contact for the next few weeks.

So I suppose now is a good time to reflect on the winter quarter that just ended at Portland State University and look ahead to what lies ahead in the spring quarter — my last term before retirement.

***

I taught three classes during the winter with a total enrollment of about 115 students, just slightly more than I had during the fall.

What a time it was to teach Media Literacy, with three major news events providing real-life teachable moments about the importance of credible journalism: the breaking-news fiasco surrounding the helicopter crash that killed NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and 8 others; the historic coverage of President Trump’s impeachment trial; and the all-consuming attention given to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The thrust of the course is to provide students with the critical skills for evaluating mass media — advertising and entertainment, as well as news — so they can better understand what they are viewing. One major objective to help them recognize the difference between misinformation (the result of an honest mistake) and disinformation (the product of intentional deceit).

In Mass Communication and Society, we examined the evolution of technology with an eye toward helping students see how a succession of mediums — print, radio, television, cable, streaming and internet — have affected not just how information is produced and distributed but how the technology influences how we communicate with each other.

We studied a variety of mass communication theories, some of which argue that we draw meaning from what we read, view or hear based on what our friends and family say about that same media content. Other theories argue that the most modern means of communication — including texting, memes and emojis — have a corrosive effect on nuance and on human relationships themselves.

I love teaching these courses, not just because they are timely and important but also because I gain so much from the perspectives and experiences of my students — a diverse bunch who may come from Portland, Seattle or San Diego as well as Bend, Beaverton or Bandon.

Many were born abroad, in countries ranging from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam to Ukraine, Somalia, Togo and Mexico. They are mostly 20- and 21-year-olds, but many are nontraditional students in their mid-20s and early 30s, and more than a few are moms. Because child care can be hard to arrange on short notice, at least three brought their young kiddos to class at some point this term.

People of color make up about one-third of my students. Many students identify as LGBTQ, spanning the entirety of racial and ethnic categories. Of the entire lot, an increasing number are asking for disability-related accommodations. Nearly all my students work at least half-time and many of them do so full-time, even with a full load of courses.

Last week should have been an easy glide to the finish line, with just two finals and a couple of pizza lunches with the 10 students who did internships for area employers this term. Instead, the lunches were canceled and it was nonstop work as I consulted with university staff to develop digitized versions of the final exams and worked out the glitches in my online gradebooks, all while grading about 70 final essays that had been turned in the week before.

***

With all that in the rearview mirror, this week demands that I spend a chunk of time getting acquainted with the various programs I’m going to rely on to teach remotely next term.

Along with virtually everyone else in higher education, Portland State has decreed all spring quarter classes will be done this way. There will be no traditional classroom, limited opportunity to engage with students in real-time, and a lot more reliance on writing instead of discussion.

It’s hard to imagine a leading a discussion of Media Literacy in this way, let alone Media Ethics, which I will be teaching this spring. That course reilies heavily on the airing of provocative questions and robust discussion of ethical principles, professional values and philosophical theories.

But there’s no sense whining because there is no choice in this matter. To keep everyone safe and healthy, we have to distance ourselves in an unprecedented way and muddle through everything together.

One thing still hanging in the balance is the fate of my study-abroad course in Berlin, Germany. The university’s Education Abroad office hasn’t canceled the program yet but is monitoring developments there and plans to make a decision by the end of this month. Options are likely to be two: cancellation or postponement. But postpone to when? Summer of 2021? Or is there a chance we could squeeze it in during early September? That would give students enough time to do the two-week program and return to Portland in time for the start of fall classes later in the month.

I’ll be curious to see how all of these things turn out when I sit down in mid-June to look back on my last term at PSU. I’ve got my fingers crossed in the hope that everything turns out well.

A world without sports

Until the coronavirus changed everything, I had two places very much on my mind: New York and Berlin.

If things had gone as planned, I would have caught a late-evening flight tonight and arrived Friday morning in the picturesque village where our youngest son and his family live in upstate New York. There I would have joined Lori for a weeklong visit during spring break.

If things had gone as planned, I would have been celebrating the official go-ahead for a summer course I was scheduled to teach in Berlin. There I would spend two weeks in the German capital with about 10 students, exploring the city and delving into issues where sports, culture and the media intersect. Lori would join me at the end of the program and, we hoped, we would use Berlin as a jumping-off point to visit Prague in the Czech Republic.

But now? We canceled our flights to New York. My employer, Portland State University, has put the Berlin course on hold, awaiting further developments. It’s unlikely that things will change quickly and for the better, but one can always cling to a sliver of hope.

In the meantime, here I sit on a glorious morning — the first day of spring — looking out the window at runners and cyclists, knowing I’ve got another full day of work ahead.

I’m nearing the end of finals week for the winter term, giving the second of two online finals and preparing to enter final grades for my students.

At the same time, I am gearing up — make that frantically gearing up — for the start of the spring term when I and my colleagues in the Department of Communication begin teaching all our classes remotely. I had looked forward to a week of down time between terms, but now I’m plunging ahead into uncharted territory knowing I’ll have to change my teaching methods substantially to reach nearly 100 students in two courses without the benefit of a traditional classroom.

That means becoming familiar with the video conferencing and messaging platforms Zoom and Google Hangouts, as well as Slack, software designed to enhance workplace communication and collaboration. I’ll also need to make better use of PSU’s online learning features. All of this before classes resume in just 11 days on March 30.

Rising early this morning, with the streets again eerily quiet and people cocooned in their homes, I had a moment to catch up with a beautifully written piece by John Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter at The New York Times. He explores a question that may strike some as trivial — What do we now without a world of sports? — but which sheds light on the important place that sports holds in our society.

Sure, sports are fun to play or watch. They serve as an escape from the stresses of everyday life. But they also reflect our society in every possible way on issues of race, gender, politics, economics, mental health and more. These are the issues I looked forward to exploring in Germany in July.

If the program is canceled this year, maybe, just maybe, it can happen in 2021.