The mother of all thank-yous

Ever since I started teaching college classes four years ago, I’ve made it a point to recap the just-completed quarter or semester with an eye toward cementing what I learned from my students, as well as looking ahead to the next term.

Typically, I’ve used these blog posts to also say thanks to my guest speakers and others who lent a helping hand.

Today I offer The Mother of All Thank-Yous.

It’s my way of expressing gratitude to a slew of about 80 people who contributed to whatever success I had teaching mass communication courses after spending four decades as a working journalist.

My list begins with two pairs of people who helped swing open the door of opportunity at both places I taught until this year.

At Portland State University, it was Cynthia-Lou Coleman and Jeff Robinson, both professors in the Department of Communication.

It was Cindy, a former department chair, who served as a first contact when I inquired about adjunct teaching possibilities after I left The Oregonian at the end of 2015. Years earlier, when she was the chair, she hired me to teach two weekend mini-courses that went quite well. Cindy put me in touch with Jeff, who succeeded her as chair and subsequently brought me on to teach Media Ethics in the 2016 fall quarter.

As I gained experience and the budget allowed, Jeff hired me to concurrently run the Comm Department’s internship program. Last year, he was able to bring me on full-time, which meant teaching two classes and managing the internship program all three terms of the academic year.

At Washington State University Vancouver, it was a former neighbor, Lori Callister, who provided an initial tip that led me to Dr. Nanu Iyer, director of the Integrated Strategic Communication program.

Lori knew someone who was serving on a professional advisory board at WSUV and looking to spread the word about an assistant professor position in the Integrated Strategic Communication program. With no advanced degree and no background in advertising or public relations, I knew I had no shot at the job.

Nanu gave me an interview anyway, asked me to do a guest lecture, and then hired me to teach two classes in the 2017 spring semester: Reporting Across Platforms and Sports and the Media. I wound up teaching there for two fulfilling years, giving up the job in May 2019 in order to accept the fulltime gig at Portland State that just ended.

I am grateful to those four folks and to dozens more who directly and indirectly influenced or supported what or how I taught. So here is a big thank-you to:

My Comm Department colleagues at PSU — Cindy and Jeff; professors Lee Shaker, Brianne Suldovsky, Erin Spottswood, Lauren Frank, David Ritchie, Kenny Bagley, Giselle Tierney, Tanner Cooke; and retired professor David Kennamer.

Tanya Romaniuk, another Comm professor who transitioned from teaching to a critical role as Academic & Career Advisor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She, more than anyone, helped me understand the Comm Department’s recent history; keep track of who was who and what was what in related programs; and make sense of a long list of acronyms for university buildings and programs.

Marisa Miller, a graduate student who later became Internship Coordinator in the University Career Center. She managed the Comm Department’s internship program each of the past two summers while I was teaching abroad and became a trusted ally in steering students to career opportunities.

Bailey Acord-Becker and Aurora Leichty, who coordinated all the administrative and front office work for the Comm Department, including scheduling and payroll and supervising work-study students who staffed the reception desk.

My guest speakers at WSUV — PR practitioners Mark Mohammadpour, Dianne Danowski-Smith, and Chris Metz; advertising executive Will Ulbricht; digital strategist Kate Lesniak; sports announcer Rich Burk; former Oregon State University athletes Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten; and the remarkable Brenda Tracy, a gang-rape survivor who’s become a prominent speaker in the fight against sexual and relationship violence in college football.

Current and former journalists who also spoke to my WSUV students — Lindsay Schnell, Gina Mizell, Tom Goldman, Casey Holdahl, Anna Griffin, Beth Nakamura, Lillian Mongeau, Kyle Iboshi, Stephanie Yao Long, Steve Woodward, David Lippoff, Katy Sword, Jamie Goldberg, Tyson Alger and Chris Broderick.

My guest speakers at PSU — From the worlds of PR, advertising, integrated brand promotion and digital strategy: Alberto Ponte, Emma Barnett, Brittni Busch, Kate Lesniak, Jean Kempe-Ware, Mark Mohammadpour, Kelly Bantle and Maureen O’Connor; fellow professors: Antonia Alvarez, Mike Caulfield and Will Ulbricht; and nonprofit leaders: Susan Nielsen and Sankar Raman.

Current and former journalists who also spoke to my PSU students — Therese Bottomly, Mark Katches, Samantha Swindler, John Schrag, Beth Nakamura, Kyle Iboshi, Andi Zeisler, Nigel Jaquiss, Jeff Mapes, Chris Broderick, Lillian Mongeau, Stephanie Yao Long and Steve Woodward.

My wonderfully talented and indispensible teaching assistants — Evelyn Smith at WSUV; Becky Kearny, Tullia Fusco, Andrew Swanson, Cole Eakin, Tristina Bumgarner and Margarita Maligaya at PSU.

The outstanding staff at PSU’s Education Abroad office, who made it possible for me to teach a summer course in London in 2018 and 2019 (and plans for another one in Berlin in 2021) — Jen Hamlow and Hannah Fischer; and graduate assistants Adrienne Bocci, Adriane Bolliger and Hannah Marrs.

The outstanding staff at CAPA Global Education Network, who provided additional support for my study-abroad course — Darin Smith-Gaddis in Los Angeles, Zion Griffin in Boston and Sheriden Kuech in London.

And three others — Sandy Rowe, my former editor at The Oregonian, who graciously loaned me a boxful of files and notes from her own college teaching and thereby enriched the content in my Media Ethics course this year; Elizabeth Hovde and Len Reed, former colleagues at The Oregonian who both went on to teach as adjuncts at WSUV. Meeting one-on-one with Elizabeth or Len for coffee or breakfast provided an opportunity to talk about the transition from the newsroom to the classroom and to lay bare our shared experiences, whether it was about lesson plans and teaching styles, or about our frustrations, breakthroughs and small victories.

It’s often said it takes a village to raise a child. In my case, it took several villages to prop up a single adjunct instructor. The hours were long but the rewards — reflected in the quality of work and insights gained from my students — were always worth it.

My second retirement — after teaching in the Age of Trump

This time it’s for real.

Back in January 2016, shortly after I took a buyout after 30 years in The Oregonian’s newsroom, my wonderful wife threw a retirement party for me.

I had every intention of becoming a member of Sweatpants Nation. But life and luck intervened. I had an itch to scratch.

Eight months later, with the help of a longtime colleague, I wormed my way into a classroom at Portland State University and launched a second career as an adjunct college instructor, specializing in Media Literacy and Media Ethics.

That first, solitary class in the fall of 2016 turned into a four-year run that ended this week. For most of it, I taught part-time at two campuses in the metro area; for the last year, I eased into a full-time gig, teaching two classes per term while also coordinating an internship program for Communications students at PSU.

It was an experience that I quickly grew to love, engaging with young adults, sharing my personal and professional experiences and perspectives, and together making sense of the fast-moving world around us.

For all that I taught them about contemporary issues in Media Literacy and Media Ethics, they taught me even more. Not just about how they how, when, where and what media they consumed (or didn’t), but why — and how they defined “media” in the first place.

As a lifelong journalist, I defined the term as the news media in all its forms — print, broadcast, cable, digital. Most of my students tended to think of it as entertainment — movies, television, video games. Now, the youngest of them (born in 2000 or 2001) use “media” and “social media” interchangeably.

Clearly, all of us are right. “Media” today encompasses all of that: news, advertising, entertainment and social media. Equally clear is that these digital natives can access any or all of that with a single palm-sized device that also serves as their mobile computer, camera, phone, alarm clock, GPS guide and streaming channel for music, videos and podcasts.

But who knew that in my final quarter of teaching, we would not even meet face-to-face? Instead, because of the coronavirus and a mostly shuttered campus, we would log on to Zoom and engage with one another for two hours at a time, peering at inch-tall headshots splayed across our screens.

And looking back on it all, who knew that my four years in the classroom would be defined by teaching in The Age of Trump?

***

When I began teaching in September 2016, the polls were united: Hillary Clinton was on track to become the first female president of the United States. Donald J. Trump was written off by the mainstream media and widely scorned by mainstream Republicans. And this was before the Access Hollywood video was released and before Stormy Daniels became a household name.

Turns out there could not have been a better time to teach Media Literacy and Media Ethics than in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election and the ensuing chaos of the new administration.

My students and I discussed the real meaning of fake news, the presidential debates, the microtargeting of dark ads to unsuspecting Facebook users, the purpose of the Electoral College, and the news media’s failure to fully grasp what fueled Trump’s stunning victory in November — the extent of resentment toward so-called coastal elites that galvanized the white working class. Of course, immigrant-bashing that stoked fear and racism played a yuge role, too.

In January, Inauguration Day brought with it a cascade of lies, beginning with an absurd claim that Trump’s swearing-in ceremony drew a larger crowd than Obama’s, and a new phrase: “alternate facts.”

From there, it was nonstop nonsense and turmoil that continues through the present day, all of which provided “teachable moments.”

Charlottesville. The wall. Children in cages. The Muslim travel ban. The Mueller Report. Kavanaugh. Khashoggi. Russia. Ukraine. Impeachment. Coronavirus and COVID-19. And masks. Friggin’ masks.

And still the chaos continues. With conspiracy theories and middle-of-the-night presidential tweets now normalized, Trump has the audacity to demand a Bible photo op when our streets are seething with Americans of all ages and races demanding justice for George Floyd and other African American victims of racism and police brutality.

Today’s absurdity: A campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, coming one day after Juneteenth, that’s certain to be a superspreader event as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise.

Were I to continue teaching in the fall, the course content would have completed a four-year cycle, with the 2020 presidential campaign coming into focus with a new round of conspiracy theories, doctored photos and videos, and a steaming pile of distortions and outright lies spread via social media.

***

To be sure, my students have learned plenty in the past few years about a host of other topics known simply by their hashtags: MeToo, OscarSoWhite, Parkland and BlackLivesMatter.

In addition, the important role of journalism in a democracy; how algorithms and self-constructed filter bubbles determine most of what we see and hear; how technology and digitization enable time-shifting and global sharing of all forms of media; and how we as human beings are being affected mentally, physically and socially by our exposure to addictive technology.

But not everything was so damn serious these past four years.

To my surprise, unexpected media exposure and opportunities for personal and professional growth fell in my lap.

I was interviewed twice by local television stations on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections about young voters. I was invited to be a guest commentator multiple times on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s News Roundtable. I spoke on panels at a public forum in Vancouver and at a journalism conference in Portland. Best of all, I was recruited to teach a study-abroad course in London each of the past two summers. I hope to teach a similar course in Berlin in 2021, if the pandemic has abated by then.

But enough about all that.

Today marks the first day of my second retirement. I’m ready for whatever life brings in the way of old and new friendships, experiences and travel. I’m ready to downshift into a daily routine with no obligations. No longer do I have to think about lesson plans, school calendars or work emails.

I’m free to read, run, write, cook and blog as I see fit. And I’ll do much of that with Lori, my partner in marriage for 45 years this fall. None of what has transpired in my second career would have been possible without her encouragement and support — and tolerance.

School’s out — and so am I.

Whew! Big exhale. The hour is approaching 8 a.m., but instead of setting up for another remote meeting with students, I’m here in my “home office” knocking out a blog post that looks back and looks ahead.

Today is the deadline to submit final grades for the three classes I taught during the spring quarter at Portland State University. I got my work done early and took care of that two days ago.

My teaching contract expires on Friday. After four years of college teaching, and an academic quarter completely transformed by a global pandemic, I am done!

All that remains to do are sending a few emails to faculty colleagues and scheduling a trip downtown to clean out my office. I haven’t been there since late March, when the coronavirus forced the shuttering of campus and thrust all of us — faculty, staff and students — into the world of remote learning for the past 11 weeks.

I’ve spent more time on Zoom than I care to calculate, with 8 hours of instructional time each week, plus faculty meetings and one-on-one sessions, since the term began March 30.

But that’s nothing compared to students.

Most take three 4-credit classes, some take four, and many have part-time jobs that require additional screen time. Add in more hours doing online research coupled with writing assignments for multiple classes and that’s a whole lotta time online.

Fortunately for me, I can say it’s ending.

No more getting up at 5:15 to fix breakfast, get the morning news briefing, and review notes for that day’s lesson plan. No more heading downstairs to the makeshift office I set up in our TV room to engage with students on a screen. No more having to slog through a gusher of emails from this or that university official or newsletter, telling me about the latest webinar, survey, initiative or campus event — all of it online, of course.

But enough about screen time.

***

I want to talk about my last term of teaching — about my wonderful students and, as always, my gracious guest speakers.

Classes began under a cloud of uncertainty, thanks to COVID-19. With the dorms emptied out and everyone suddenly on Zoom, students were logging on from all over the metro area, as well as Salem and Eastern Oregon. A handful were at home in California. My teaching assistant was in New Jersey.

It didn’t take long for problems to arise. Some students, unnerved by the intimacy of videoconferencing, were overcome by anxiety. Some began to skip class. Others would attend, but with their camera off, leaving me to look at a growing number of black squares on what was supposed to be a grid of bright, shiny faces. Still others had technology issues that made it difficult to stay connected during our two-hour class meetings.

As we got further into the term, it was the real world that caused distress and a painful epiphany about the combined power and reach of amateur videos and digital journalism.

First, we witnessed the stalking and killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Then, the horrifying murder of George Floyd, setting off waves of fury across the country.

As COVID-19 deaths soared past 100,000 in America, images of masked protesters, stone-faced cops and burning buildings exploded onto our screens, big and small. Many of my students joined the protests in Portland and used social media to watch live videos, and post and share information with their peers.

What a moment in history for them to study media literacy and grasp the importance of getting accurate news from credible sources.

As the quarter drew to a close, students could see how much they had learned so quickly about the overlapping mediums of news, advertising and entertainment; about the spread of deepfakes and conspiracy theories; about filter bubbles, algorithms, “news deserts” and more.

Along the way, students in my Media Literacy class learned from three guest speakers: Kyle Iboshi, an investigative reporter with KGW-8; Maureen O’Connor, director of the advertising program at PSU; and Kate Lesniak, chief strategy officer at the digital media firm ThinkShout.

Meanwhile, those in my Media Ethics class engaged with my former colleague Susan Nielsen, who’s now executive director of a local education nonprofit, and Kelly Bantle, a public relations executive and strategic communications consultant.

All were terrific.

***

The Class of 2020 graduates into perilous times. In the past three months, they’ve had to adapt to social distancing while suffering reduced hours or lost jobs in a ravaged economy. They’ve witnessed a national reckoning with racism and police brutality. They’ve seen family members fall sick and even die from the coronavirus. And for all this, PSU’s 6,000 new graduates were rewarded with an online celebration of commencement ceremonies.

It hardly seems fair.

Throughout my four years of teaching at PSU, I have treasured my interactions with students. This term was no different. With the gradebooks closed and no further work from me needed, I have all the more reason to cherish notes like these that came to me during finals week.

Thank you so much for two amazing semesters! You have been my favorite teacher through all my classes here and in Arizona. “ — A.B.

“This class was beneficial to me as a student and a media consumer in so many ways! Thank you for being such a great professor!!” — C.F.

“Thank you so much for making this course so engaging and relevant to current events, I absolutely can say that I got a lot out of it despite the challenges of a fully remote term! My understanding of mass media and media literacy will forever be impacted by these lectures and supporting materials.”  — K.H.

And then there was this:

“I’m working on a 9-year bachelor’s degree that I will finally complete this fall. When I first came to Portland State, I was unsure of my direction, and to be honest, I still am. I have never been a confident student and had been pursuing a degree because I felt like I had to, not because I wanted to. I discovered your media literacy class in fall 2018 and for the first time, felt like what I was learning was transforming my mind.

“I still have no idea what I plan to do with this degree but through media literacy, mass communication, and media ethics I feel equipped to navigate the world of communication more than any other classes have made me feel. George, through your down to earth views, real-life experience, vulnerability, and intentional, thoughtful feedback, you have made an enormous positive impact on my self-esteem as a writer and a human trying to navigate this world and media. Anyways, all of this to say: Thank you. Thank you for your time and your teachings.” — S.J.

.

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.

University of Second Chances

Midpoint of the winter quarter has arrived, bringing with it midterm exams and essays in all three of my classes. It’s a lot of work, to be sure, spilling over into the weekend. But for every mangled sentence I read, there is a beautifully crafted paragraph or a surprising insight that gives me pause, making me appreciate why I love teaching at Portland State University.

It’s not just the diversity of the student body. I’ve grown accustomed to looking out at a sea of black and brown and white faces, knowing many of my international and immigrant students have grown up in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe or Latin America, while others hail from cities, suburbs and rural communities across the United States.

No, it’s more than that. It’s reading their stories and understanding what they have overcome to get here — and often what they continue to deal with in pursuit of their degree – that makes me feel privileged to have a hand in their education.

Many are the first in their family to attend a four-year college. Many attended high schools with less than stellar academic reputations. Many have transferred in from a community college. Some struggled at their first try (a euphemism for dropping out) and now have come back after a few years.

Many are parents – and, yes, there have been instances when a student (it’s always a mom) has brought her young child to class because no one else could take care of them. Some are going through divorce; some are helping take care of an ailing parent; and some (actually many) have learning disabilities requiring alternative learning accommodations.

And rising above all of this? A growing number of students who deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

I can’t say I anticipated much of this when I left journalism four years ago to begin a second career as an adjunct instructor teaching a single class at each of two public universities in the Portland area. Yet here I am, with a full teaching load on a one-year contract at PSU that ends in June, and I feel like I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to help students get a foothold in life – or simply just persevere.

***

It dawned on me the other day that while the acronym “USC” is most commonly associated with the prestigious University of Southern California (the expensive, private school often derided as the University of Spoiled Children), I’m teaching at a University of Second Chances. A place where students of all backgrounds come together with a common goal of improving their life through higher education.

Like every one of my colleagues, I do the best I can to offer a challenging course that introduces new concepts, provokes thought, and sparks engagement through wide-ranging class discussions. But, honestly, it is in the hours outside of the classroom where one can make a difference.

Often, this means meeting with a student who’s overwhelmed at home and at school and needs some help putting together an acceptable essay. Other times, it means a long conversation with someone in their mid- to late 20s – the so-called non-traditional student – who is having doubts about their declared major or uncertain career path.

I don’t mean to suggest that every day is marked by some kind of crisis.

In recent weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of doing interviews with really smart, accomplished students who’ve applied to be in my next study-abroad class in July. I’ve written letters of recommendation for former students seeking their first jobs as new graduates. I’ve also been asked to help read through a small stack of applications for a departmental scholarship, knowing we can choose only one candidate among so many deserving candidates.

In the face of so many challenges, what stands out to me are the hopes and dreams, and small victories, of students like these:

R.B.: A just-graduated senior who came to me to ask for a letter of recommendation to graduate school. Raised in poverty, abused by her stepfather, and hampered by a learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until her teenage years, she barely graduated high school. At PSU, she gained her footing, built her self-confidence and now aspires to work in the nonprofit sector.

Z.G.: A sophomore who was born in Pakistan, grew up in Afghanistan and speaks five languages, only learning English after she came to the U.S. as a teenager. After a year at PSU, her GPA was below 2.0 and she was placed on academic probation. I wrote a letter of support that pointed out she had earned a C in every one of her classes during the fall and was now positioned to improve

I.P.: A senior who participated in my London study-abroad program, he’s taken all four of my classes. He floundered at community college, but found his focus at PSU. Now in his early 30s, he’s just completed an internship at Oregon Health & Science University and asked me for a letter of recommendation to graduate school.

L.D.: Another community college transfer who’s bounced from California to Oregon with a middling GPA. She’s in her mid-20s, a junior majoring in sociology, and in the midst of a remarkable turnaround at PSU. She earned a perfect score on her first essay in a class she’s taking from me now and will be among the students going abroad with me to Germany this summer.

***

Just over a third of U.S. adults have a four-year college degree. In times past, we would celebrate anyone who had attained their bachelor’s. These days among a considerable number of our fellow Americans, a college degree is viewed with resentment, as a token of the elite. Nothing could be more discouraging – or pathetic, frankly – than a view like that.

In my book, these students at PSU are heroes. I look at them and I see tired faces and slumped shoulders from the responsibilities they carry and the expectations they have for themselves. But as graduation nears, I hope those frowns will turn to smiles as they close in on their degree, celebrate their accomplishments, and embark on their post-graduation path, wherever it may lead them.

A fantastic fall

Final exams are done and official grades have been submitted in all three of my classes. I’m done with the fall quarter at Portland State University and looking to make the most of the winter break.

Under the teaching contract I signed for this academic year, that means one down, two to go. In other words, make it through the winter and spring terms and I’ll be done in June, ready to retire — although “retire” comes with an asterisk that I’ll explain below.

First things first.

Last Thursday felt like I had reached the peak of the proverbial roller coaster. That morning I gave my last final exam, and I’d already finished grading final essays the day before, so I took time to unwind.

Somehow, I squeezed in a massage, a meal out, a museum visit and an at-home movie — all in that same day.

It was a stroke of genius to schedule a massage right after the final exam. I came home rested and relaxed, then Lori and I went downtown to a Chinese restaurant for an early meal. From there, we headed to the Portland Art Museum to catch the final day of a special exhibit focusing on photography, advertising, and modern art and their role in perpetuating stereotypical images and ideas mostly pertaining to African Americans.

The exhibit, titled “Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal,” features the work of Thomas, a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist whose individual pieces and overall perspective I found both provocative and at times dazzling.

We viewed the exhibit at a leisurely pace and, upon arriving home, realized we had time for a movie, too. Popped in a DVD and enjoyed “On Chisel Beach,” a British film about a young couple whose seemingly idyllic romance runs into complications on their wedding night. Saorise Ronan, whom you may know from “Brooklyn” and “Lady Bird” stars as the young bride.

***

As for this fall, I did the usual: taught Media Literacy and supervised students in the Communication Department’s online internship course. I added a third course, Media Ethics, which meant I had a full-time teaching load for the first time at Portland State. Accepting the FT job here meant I had to give up teaching part-time at a second campus, Washington State University Vancouver.

It was a fine tradeoff. I moved into a larger office with a window, leaving behind a cramped, windowless space. I was able to hold regular office hours, made new connections with faculty outside my department, and even found time to attend a couple of lectures given by other professors.

By attending monthly meetings of Comm faculty, I learned more about campus politics and budget issues and the frustrations of working within the university’s bureaucracy.

In the classroom, it was all good. We had lively discussions about media ownership, real news vs. fake news, misinformation (honest mistakes) vs. disinformation (intentional deceit), ethical decision-making, credibility, transparency, social media influencers, native advertising, diversity in storytelling, and the intersection of entertainment, marketing and viral content, as seen in the “Baby Shark Live!” phenomenon.

Once again, I marveled at the diversity of PSU’s student body, with about one-third of my students coming from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds and a dozen foreign-born students in one class alone.

In addition, the LGBTQ community is well represented, as are as non-traditional students (mid-20s or older), first-generation students, transfer students, veterans, and native-born Oregonians from rural, urban and suburban communities. Most work part-time while going to school, some at more than one job.

As one example, my teaching assistant in Media Literacy grew up in Estacada and now lives in Molalla. He’s majoring in Applied Health and Fitnesss with a minor in Communication. In addition to a part-time job as a personal trainer, he coaches the girls’ wrestling team at his alma mater.

I’ve lined up TAs for the next two terms and that makes me happy.

***

My next challenge? Here’s where the asterisk gets explained.

I’m fully invested in recruiting enough students to join me in a new study-abroad adventure. My hope is to take along 10-12 students to Berlin, Germany, next summer for a class titled “Sports, Culture and the Media.” I’ve taught the course many times before at WSU Vancouver but never at PSU.

Why Berlin? Good question.

I would have been happy to return to London for a third year in a row to teach Media Literacy. But the Education Abroad staff I’ve worked with in the Office of International Affairs asked me one day, “George, have you thought about teaching another course in another city?”

I hadn’t. But once I realized all it would take is proposing a course, producing a syllabus and pitching it to my department chair, as I did with London, I was in.

At this writing, five students have started their applications. I’m excited but also a bit nervous about reaching the minimum number of 10. There’s still plenty of time to meet that goal, and I have faith that things will work out. Just hope it happens sooner than later.

I considered other European destinations but settled on Berlin because of its unique experience with regard to the 1936 and 1972 Olympics Games, its status as a soccer powerhouse, the doping scandals that characterized East Germany, and the country’s unique history during the 20th Century.

We’ll see how things play out.

London Stories: Dover

Earlier this month, Americans celebrated Veterans Day, an observance that originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I.

One hundred years after the first Veterans Day, I found my thoughts skimming across the Atlantic Ocean to the southeastern coast of England and the humble little town of Dover.

During my second summer of teaching abroad, I had the opportunity to take a day trip from London. I considered my options and chose Dover for two reasons: One, the city is home to the world-famous White Cliffs of Dover and, two, I wanted to learn more about the community’s role in World War II.

I wasn’t disappointed on either count.

***

The White Cliffs are part of an 8-mile-long ridge of chalk hills along the English coastline facing the Strait of Dover and France. They don’t make the list of Seven Wonders of the World, but that doesn’t mean they are any less impressive.

From Dover, you can walk along a national trail that takes you up and above the seaport town, providing stunning views of the Strait as well as a path leading to Dover Castle, an 11th century fortress where the Brits first housed troops and equipment in a complex of barracks tunnels during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). During World War II, the tunnels were converted first into an air-raid shelter and then later into a military command center and underground hospital. Amazing.

You’re only 21 miles from the European continent when you’re in Dover. With the naked eye, I could barely make out the distant coastline.

I was captivated during the few hours I spent there, touring the city on foot and meeting a few people. I vowed to learn more and bought myself a book written by a couple of locals: “Dover in the Second World War.” (More on that later. Bear with me as I share more on one day in Dover.)

***

I left London’s Victoria Station early on a Sunday for a relaxing train rise that would take me about 67 miles east in roughly 90 minutes, allowing for several stops along the way. I brought along a book and a journal, looking up occasionally to catch glimpses of the pastoral countryside once we got beyond the city.

Arriving at mid-morning, I joined a gaggle of other passengers walking toward the center of Dover. The town had a working class feel, with mom-and-pop restaurants, tattoo shops, discount variety stores, and posters slapped onto walls and telephone poles advertising a pro wrestling event.

Near the town center, there was a church with an adjoining cemetery on the main street. It was St. Mary’s Church, one of several that would be mentioned in the book I bought. Nearby, the central plaza known as Market Square had a visitors center and museum, where I began to appreciate the historic significance and geographic vulnerability of Dover to invading armies over the centuries. During WWII, Market Square was bombed relentlessly.

From there, I headed to the seafront, where I observed new construction alongside older residential buildings, dipped my hands in the seawater at Harbour Beach, and met a young couple out for a walk on the esplanade with their charming niece.

I made my way to the White Cliffs, passing through a picturesque neighborhood and soon found myself among a passel of international visitors on the national trail.

The hike was an easy one along dirt trails and I welcomed the quiet after a week of being in London. Afterwards, I sought out a policewoman to ask for the best fish-and-chips place in town, only to discover it was closed. I settled for a tasty lunch of roast lamb that I consumed at an outdoor table as I watched townspeople and visitors alike pass by on Cannon Street.

I would have liked to stay longer but with time running short, I bought myself the aforementioned book and headed to the train station.

***

Back in Portland after the end of my study-abroad program, I, ahem, dove into the Dover book. I loved it.

At just 147 pages, co-authors Terry Sutton and Derek Leach do a masterful job of describing the hell-on-earth that Dover residents experienced during the Second World War. Though I’ve been exposed to stories of wartime loss in Britain and other countries, I have to say, somewhat sheepishly, that I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of death and destruction until I read this account.

Drawing on the first-hand descriptions of survivors, as well as newspaper accounts and historical archives, Sutton and Leach vividly recreate the terror of those times. And the assault was staggering.

Beginning in July 1940 and continuing for the next four years, 2,226 shells landed on the town of Dover with many more in the harbour waters, in the Dover Strait and in the nearby countryside. In addition, around 464 high-explosive bombs, 1,100 fire bombs, three highly damaging parachute mines and three V1 flying bombs dropped within the town’s boundaries.

No wonder, the authors said, Dover became known throughout the world as “Hellfire Corner.”

Dover’s population fell from about 40,000 in early 1939 to an estimated 12,000 in 1940-41 before some of those who evacuated began to drift back to the town. Imagine a similar-sized community in Oregon — Lake Oswego, Keizer or Oregon City — sustaining that kind of damage and losing two-thirds of its population.

Owing to its location, Dover had felt the wrath of war before, going back to the days of Roman invaders and up to World War One, when German planes dropped bombs on the town and enemy destroyers in the English Channel shelled the city.

King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill both visited Dover during WWII as regular troops and reservists arrived in the port city in the early days of the war. As the fighting grew more fierce, schoolchildren were evacuated to the west to South Wales, and town councilors feared the city and its remaining shopkeepers would go bankrupt.

In 1941, Dover played a huge role in the evacuation of 338,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. The majority of them — 220,000 — were landed at Dover’s western docks, and local hospitals were swamped by hundreds of badly injured soldiers and sailors. So many died that mass graves had to be dug at the town-owned cemetery.

The book is filled with black-and-white photographs showing before and after shots of bombed-out buildings as well as soldiers, civilians and children. What’s especially haunting is reading the names of ordinary people who were perished in the attacks.

One of the worst incidents came in 1941 when a parachute mine floated down onto a row of working-class homes, causing 16 deaths.

The authors soberly reported: “Those who were killed were Mr. and Mrs. John Willis, their sons Horace and Brian, their 16-year-old daughter, Vera; and a married daughter, Hilda Mills (six out of the seven in the family); Mr. and Mrs. Fred Moore and their two-month-old son, Frederick, and Minyon Elise (aged four); Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Cock; Doris Smith (aged three), and Charlie Talbot, whose wife Minnie died in Maidstone Hospital three weeks later from her injuries. The damage was so bad that more than forty houses on Randolph Road and Union Road had to be demolished.”

Every other page, it seems, there is a similar listing of three people killed here, five people there, 10 soldiers perishing in combat.

Reading about the pummeling that Dover took during both World Wars, and especially the Second, made me appreciate the resilience of the city and its people. To walk those streets in the present day, knowing that 70-plus years earlier they had been bombed into oblivion, is to behold the legacy of unbelievably courageous people who’ve rebuilt their city by the sea.

Dover’s population today is about 30,000. It’s almost beyond my ability to imagine a time when nearly every day brought air-raid sirens, low-flying planes and devastating shells.

As best as I can tell, nearly 500 civilians died in Dover and nearby towns and another 2,500 were injured, according to a tally by the volunteer-run Dover War Memorial Project. Never again will I join in honoring America’s armed forces without thinking of this scrappy little city on the other side of the ocean.

Back in school: Media studies

Teachable moment following the second day of class.

Waiting for the streetcar after class last week at Portland State, I came across the above scene in the middle of campus and realized it could be a teachable moment for students in my Media Literacy class. Here is the prompt I gave them:

“Check out the attached photo and think back to our conversation about what elements in a media message tend to attract our attention. With that in mind, what would you say stands out in the photo? Without caption information from me, do you know what’s going on?”

What stands out? The color pink. The heart-shaped cutout for selfies. The gathering of nearly all females, nearly all of them young. The hashtag #pinkoncampus.

What’s going on? It’s a promotional event for Pink, a lingerie and clothing line by Victoria’s Secret targeting young adults and teenagers. Through students who serve as campus reps, the company can give away swag and reap free publicity through social media. Sharing the hashtag on Instagram means you can spread photos of the event with friends who may have missed it and also make them visible to anyone who comes upon the online site. (In the case of Pink, how beneficial is it for the company to have young women publicizing your products from Boise State to Ohio State to Florida, as well as Portland State?)

How does that reach compare to the bulletin board on the first floor of the campus library? It’s overflowing with flyers competing for space and attention, with design elements featuring different colors, typography, symbols and language. In essence, it’s a physical representation of the mass media messages (from news, advertising and entertainment) that assault us every minute of every day. But if you’ve produced one of those flyers, you’ve got to understand its reach is limited to the number of people who just so happen to be in that one building among dozens on a campus serving 30,000 students — and who just so happen to pick your flyer out of all those others above, below and next to it.

Competing for views on one wall of the PSU Millar Library.

Is it any wonder advertisers, marketers, PR firms, news organizations and nonprofits have turned away from static, two-dimensional platforms and turned toward digital images and information, which are timeless, less expensive to produce, and can be shared without limit?

That’s the kind of approach I try to take in teaching Media Literacy, as well as in Media Ethics. Textbooks are great for presenting and explaining basic concepts and principles, but the real world outside the classroom can be a great complement to helping us understand what we come across on our screens. Why do we scroll past some things but pay attention to others? Do we quickly understand what we are reading or viewing? How do we assign meaning? Is it the tone or specific content of a headline or photo? Do we have prior knowledge or experience with the subject or producer of the message? If the topic or source are new to us, how do we know to trust what is in front of us?

I could go on, but that’s the gist of what I am trying to get students to think about.

***

The fall quarter began on Sept. 30 at PSU and today marks the end of the second week of classes. It’s a good time to look back (just briefly) and look forward to what lies ahead.

This year marks the beginning of my fourth year as an adjunct college insttructor and my first as a full-time faculty member. I’d been splitting my time between PSU and Washington State University Vancouver, but Portland State offered me a one-year contract that allows me to focus my efforts on a single campus. I will teach three classes during the fall, winter and spring terms, including an online class for students who are doing Comm-related internships for academic credit.

I have about 100 students total in my three classes, and one teaching assistant to help me in the largest one, Media Literacy, a 300-level class that can be taken as an elective. In that class of 56 students, about one-third are people of color and one-fourth are foreign-born. They come from Canada, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Pakistan, Mexico, Malyasia, the Philippines and the Czech Republic.

Among the students are speakers of Arabic, Hebrew, German, Spanish, Japanese, Czech and American Sign Language. One student, born in Pakistan but raised in Afghanistan, speaks Dari, Urdu, Hindi, and a little bit of Pashto — oh, and English, too.

Many are the first in their family to attend college and most of them work at least part-time. Some are parents. Some grew up in Portland and its suburbs, others in rural communities scattered across Eastern, Southern or Coastal Oregon. Others are from throughout the West — Washington, Idaho, Alaska, California, Nevada, Arizona.

13 students are Communications majors, 12 are studying business and the rest are scattered across the spectrum — political science, psychology, philosophy, English, economics, graphic design, art history, computer science, sociology, women’s studies and more.

All of these things make for a wonderfully diverse set of perspectives and experiences that enrich our class discussions and enable students to learn from their peers, as well as from me, guest speakers, readings and videos.

I have 35 students in the Media Ethics class — a 400-level class populated entirely by Comm majors who are juniors and seniors. There’s quite a bit of diversity there, too, with racial or ethnic minorities accounting for about one-third of the class.

During my three decades at The Oregonian, I often thought I was privileged to hold two of the best jobs in the newsroom. As recruitment director, I got to travel widely, meet talented prospects and established pros from all over the country, and help recruit many of them to Portland. As Sunday Opinion Editor, I got to work directly with a tremendously talented group of editorial writers, columnists and a cartoonist (hello, Jack Ohman!) and solicit commentary pieces from politicans, professors, business people, community advocates and ordinary citizens on issues of public policy affecting our city, state and region.

But you know what? I’m enjoying this second career every bit, if not more, than my first as a journalist. Adjunct pay is notoriously horrible and the hours required to prepare a syllabus and weekly schedule for each class; assign and grade papers, quizzes and exams; and prepare for and follow up each class meeting are too many to count. But the rewards are so worth it.

I get to share what I know and what I keep learning — often from my students. And I get to feel a measure of pride in seeing them grow before my eyes as they engage with the course content, connect the dots, and express themselves orally and online. Afterwards, it’s gratifying to have so many ask me to be a job reference.

When the academic year ends next June, I will retire. Well, sort of.

I’ve taught a course in London each of the past two summers through PSU’s Education Abroad office, and I have plans to do so again in 2020. Next year, though, it will be a different program in a different city. Details to come.

Postcards from the UK

Three weeks ago today, I arrived in London to get ready to teach a Media Literacy class for the second summer in a row.

From the moment I landed to the day I left, it was a whirlwind of activity — first on my own, then with my 10 students, then with my wife, Lori. My brain is back in Portland, but my body still thinks I’m in London. (Up at 3 am yesterday, then 2 am today. Yeesh!)

There’s no way to summarize everything, so I’ll share some favorite photos now and plan to follow up with a series of actual blog posts over the next several months.

In the meantime, I’ll savor the memories of a short stay during which I took in the sheer joy of London’s Pride Parade; traveled to Wimbledon, Dover and Bristol; witnessed a parliamentary debate sparked by the sudden resignation of the British ambassador to the United States; and left just 48 hours after bombastic Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson had been elected prime minister to expedite the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ people and their allies marched through the streets of London on Saturday, July 6.
Damp but colorful Cromwell Road on a Sunday morning.
At a pub in Earl’s Court, I watched Megan Rapinoe and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team win the 2019 World Cup.
There’s a Bob Dylan Room at The Troubadour, where the legendary singer often performed in the early days of his career.
I was among thousands who arrived early at Wimbledon on a Monday morning to join The Queue to see world-class tennis at a deeply discounted price.
Inside St. Stephen’s Hall, which leads to the chambers of the House of Lords and the House of Commons inside Westminster Palace.
Three of my students — Erika, Reem and Bayleigh — checked out the in-studio set at London Live.
The Design Museum had outstanding free exhibits on the form and function of design, plus a featured exhibit of film director Stanley Kubrick’s work as a magazine photographer.
Pastel-colored houses in Notting Hill are a must-see (because you sure can’t afford to buy one).
Visitors enjoy the view of the Strait of Dover at the narrowest point of the English Channel, separating England from continental Europe.
An all-day field trip took us to the BBC’s regional studio in Bristol, west of London.
This iconic ad called The Pregnant Man was the first ever done by the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency. It’s also the name of the pub next door.
Royal Albert Hall is a world-class concert venue where The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Adele and many, many more have performed.
Portobello Road Market attracts tens of thousands of shoppers from around the globe every weekend.
From the top of Greenwich Park, one can see a former royal palace (white building in foreground) and a view of London across the Thames River.
With Lori in front of the mammoth neon signs at Piccadilly Circus, just before seeing The Book of Mormon. Four stars!
Graffiti left behind by fans on a wall just outside Abbey Road Studios, where John, Paul, George & Ringo recorded almost all their albums.
Pictures don’t do justice to the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University. The building was completed 350 years ago and is named after a former chancellor.
The Union Jack flies above the entrance to the historic Randolph Hotel in Oxford.
Had to get an artsy black-and-white shot of the street sign I passed many a time on a pedestrian bridge to West Kensington.