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.

3 down, 1 to go

In early July, I’ll be back in London with a new group of students to explore the British capital inside and outside the classroom.

Final grades have been turned in and I’m officially done for the spring quarter at Portland State University. That means I’ve racked up three full years of part-time college teaching, and I can now set my sights on one more year.

Next fall, I’m moving into a full-time position at Portland State, an opportunity that fell into my lap when it became apparent the Department of Communication was in need of some short-term help.

With one professor leaving for a job at another university, a second one going on sabbatical, and a third one recently retired, yours truly happened to be in the right place to take on an expanded role during the 2019-20 academic year. It’s for one year only, and that suits me just fine.

Starting in September, I will move to a 3-3-3 course load from my previous 2-1-2. That means I’ll teach three classes each during the fall, winter and spring quarters. As an adjunct instructor during the just-completed school year, I taught two classes in the fall and spring, and one during the winter.

The new teaching load isn’t as onerous as it seems. One of the three courses is the online internship class I oversee during each quarter, typically with anywhere from 12 to 15 students per term. The other two courses will be of the traditional butts-in-the-seats variety, totaling about 90 students per term.

I will teach Media Literacy (all three terms), Media Ethics (two terms) and Mass Communication and Society (one term). When June 2020 arrives, I will be done.

Though I’m excited by what lies ahead, accepting this full-time gig means having to cut the cord with Washington State University Vancouver, where I had also taught during the past three years.

So long, WSUV. Hello, PSU.

With summer arriving this week and the books officially closed on this school year, you might think I was kicking up my feet and getting some R&R. That’ll happen, but not right away.

In less than three weeks, I’ll be in the United Kingdom again to teach a study-abroad course to a group of 10 students from PSU and WSUV. It’ll be my second time teaching Media Literacy in London, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in British media, culture and politics for two weeks.

The course runs from July 8 to July 22 and we’ve got a daily schedule packed with visits to the BBC and other media organizations; several guest speakers; guided tours of the city — on the bus, on foot and on a boat; and a handful of group meals, including a traditional British afternoon tea to welcome the students.

We also plan to sit in on a session of the Houses of Parliament at a momentous time in the UK’s history, with politicians still struggling to find an answer to the leave-or-remain Brexit question that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May.

This year, Lori will join me toward the tail end of the program so we can tack on a few extra days and enjoy as much as we can of the British capital. I know she will love the city as much as I do, and having her there is one small way of repaying her for all the support and encouragement she offered me last summer — and, frankly, all that she has tolerated during my three years of adjunct teaching.

Lest I get caught up in what lies ahead, I also need to look back and say thanks.

Andrew Swanson was my teaching assistant during the just-completed spring quarter at PSU.

First, to Andrew Swanson, who served as my teaching assistant in Media Literacy during the spring term. Andrew is a super-smart dude with an interesting past and an even brighter future. He was a professional motorcycle and race car for many years in Europe and the U.S. and later worked in the music industry.

In addition to his pursuit of a bachelor’s in social science, Andrew is program manager at Oregon Recovers, a Portland-based nonprofit that lobbies for improved treatment and support for Oregonians suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Hannah Fischer, of Portland State, and Darin Smith-Gaddis, of CAPA, have been staunch allies in my endeavors to teach abroad.

Another tip of the hat is due to Hannah Fischer and Darin Smith-Gaddis. Both have been instrumental in paving the way for me to teach in London.

Hannah works in Portland State’s Education Abroad office, where she coordinates faculty-led programs like mine. She helped me fine-tune my syllabus, developed the program budget, publicized my course and helped recruit students, and served as a liaison between us and CAPA, a Boston-based organization that offers global education programs in London and other leading cities.

Darin works for CAPA as a regional institutional relations manager. Based in Los Angeles, he works with colleges and universities in eight Western states, including Oregon, to develop study abroad programming. Darin provided expertise and enthusiasm as a program partner that I greatly appreciated when we launched the inaugural UK program.

Last week, he flew up to Portland to join me in a pre-departure orientation session for my London-bound students, offering tips on culture shock, British vocabulary and packing light, among other things. Afterwards, he and I and Hannah grabbed lunch and we kicked around some possible destinations and course topics should the stars align and I do this again in the summer of 2020.

It’s fun to fantasize about taking this summer gig beyond London, but my lips are sealed for the time being. In the meantime, enjoy this short video:

So long, WSUV. Hello, PSU.


Lights are off. Semester is done. Time for a new chapter as a college instructor.

After class last week, I went through the usual routine. Turned off the A/V projector. Grabbed my dry-erase markers, textbook and file folders and zipped ’em into my shoulder bag. Turned off the lights and shut the door.

Wistfully, I headed off to the parking lot. I had just given the final exam in my Sports and the Media class, and it would be the last time I would go through this routine.

After three years of teaching at Washington State University Vancouver, it was time to close the book (literally) and look forward to what comes next.

I’ve been offered a one-year, full-time faculty position at Portland State University for the 2019-20 academic year. In order to accept the job, I had to say no to further employment at WSUV.

While I’m excited to step into an expanded role at Portland State, I regret that it comes at the price of giving up the good thing I had going at WSUV. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the mix of students and small-college feel of this public university in southwest Washington, where many, like myself, are first-generation college students.

What does all this mean?

First, it means I can take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Dr. Narayanan Iyer, director of the Integrated Strategic Communication program at WSUV, for hiring me as an adjunct instructor in January 2017. Known affectionately to students and staff as Nanu, he gave me the chance to teach three different courses over my time there, stretching across the spring, summer and fall semesters.

Read “Cougartown” for a look back at my first semester at WSUV

I had no idea what Integrated Strategic Communications meant when I began. But I now know it includes a broad-based curriculum that touches on public relations, advertising, multimedia content creation, social media and digital content management, and a whiff of journalism.

I wasn’t there to teach journalism, per se. But through my Sports and the Media class and others that I taught — Media Ethics and Reporting Across Platforms — I sought to introduce students to the multimedia reporting skills and industry challenges facing digital-era journalists.

Second, I can say “thank you” to a host of professionals who gave generously of their time and expertise. Students heard directly from these guest speakers about the skills and attributes it takes to be a front-line journalist; about the professional relationships one must build with sources, including athletes and coaches; and about the ethical quandaries they encounter almost daily in the course of doing their jobs.

These talented men and women opened students’ eyes to the nasty trolling one puts up with on social media, most frequently aimed at women journalists. And in a couple of cases, speakers talked about the mental health issues that confront athletes, as well as what it feels like to be the subject of media coverage.

Here’s a heartfelt “thank you” to all who spoke to my students over these past three years: Lindsay Schnell, Jamie Goldberg. Tom Goldman, Casey Holdahl, Rich Burk, Chris Metz, Tyson Alger, Gina Mizell, Taylor Ricci, Nathan Braaten, Brenda Tracy, Mark Mohammadpour, Dianne Danowski-Smith, Chris Broderick, Beth Nakamura, Stephanie Yao-Long, Lillian Mongeau, Steve Woodward, Katy Sword, David Lippoff, Will Ulbricht, Kate Lesniak, Anna Griffin and Kyle Iboshi.

Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten came up from Corvallis this year to talk about mental health issues facing student-athletes, citing their own experiences at Oregon State University.

A special thanks goes out to Evelyn Smith, who was the only and one teaching assistant I had. She was a rock star during the Media and Society class I taught last fall, and graduated in December.

So what’s next?

Next school year, I’ll be teaching two courses each during the fall, winter and spring quarters at Portland State, while continuing to coordinate the academic internship program in the Department of Communication.

I’ll begin in September with Media Literacy, my bread-and-butter course, and Media Ethics — two very timely and essential topics.

Before then, I’ll head off to the U.K. this summer to teach Media Literacy in London. It will be my second time leading this study-abroad course through Portland State, and I’m looking forward to having 10 students this time, up from 6 last year.

It’s a two-week course that runs July 8-22. This time, Lori will join me at the tail end of the program and we’ll enjoy being tourists for a few days.

It’s been a great ride, Vancouver. I look forward to more of the same, Portland.


Though I’m excited about what comes next, I’ll miss the small-college feel of WSU Vancouver.

Life after graduation from WSUV

Spring semester is winding down after 16 weeks at Washington State University Vancouver, and I’ve got to say it’s a very satisfying feeling.

I gave my last lecture on Thursday, a day after attending an event that recognized the 17 graduating seniors in the Integrated Strategic Communications program at WSUV, and I’ll spend part of this weekend preparing next week’s final exam.

I’m sure students are relishing the end of the term. So many of them are working in addition to their coursework, and I know they’ve dealt with various stresses along the way.

Me? I won’t mind at all having a lighter teaching load along with more leisure time, but I will miss the regular interactions with students and seeing their intellectual growth.

Fortunately, there are events like Wednesday’s end-of-year event to recognize graduating seniors and look ahead with them to what lies beyond.

For starters, the Strat Com program, which prepares students for careers in public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism, honored one of my students, Brendan Nuzum, as Communicator of the Year.

Dr. Narayanan (Nanu) Iyer with Brendan Nuzum, winner of the Communicator of the Year award.

Also, my colleagues, Program Director Nanu Iyer and Assistant Professor Liz Candello, facilitated a panel discussion featuring five recent Strat Com grads who are working as communications professionals or pursuing a masters degree in the field.

They shared some familiar advice: Develop a versatile skill set. Get some internship experience before you graduate. Network like crazy. Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Turn your inexperience into an asset by emphasizing the fresh perspectives you can bring. And don’t underestimate the value of likability. No one wants to work with a difficult person.

Lastly, I was able to congratulate a handful of students in person. The list of 17 Strat Com grads includes 11 students I’ve had in my classes, including three in the Sports and the Media class I taught this spring.

Among those in the Class of 2019 is Billy Gordon, one of the most outgoing and popular students on campus. At age 64, Billy is finally getting his degree. I so admire Billy, who overcame an inferior public school education in the Jim Crow South and contributed mightily to our class discussions in Sports and the Media as a former track athlete himself.

Another is Bailley Simms, who took my Reporting Across Platforms class as a sophomore and rose to become editor of The VanCougar student magazine while securing a PR internship this summer. She’s handing off the editor’s chair to Anna Nelson, another former student who also was among those traveled to the UK last summer to take my Media Literacy in London course.

As a final note, I made sure to include this interview with baseball writer Claire Smith as part of the last class meeting this week. https://youtu.be/TP7_RJHRWAw

Don’t know her? You should.

London stories: A feast for the eyes

George at the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of London’s finest.

I don’t want to jinx myself, but things seem to be ramping up quite nicely for the 2.0 version of my Media Literacy in London course.

As of Tuesday, when I held the last of four information sessions about the course, a total of 14 students on two campuses have opened applications to be part of the class this year, with a couple more expected in the coming days. Six students participated last year in the inaugural year, and I hope to register 10-12 for the two-week program in July.

While Portland State’s Education Abroad office has been amazingly supportive with suggestions and resources, it still falls upon the individual faculty member to market a study abroad course like this one. So, in addition to getting the word out by speaking to several Communications classes since September, I’ve been sharing photos from last year’s trip during the info sessions.

And, hey, that gives me a good excuse to share some of my favorites here.

From the moment I landed at Heathrow Airport, I knew I was in for an amazing experience in London. It’s an incredibly diverse, dynamic city where centuries-old buildings can be found alongside modern structures, and the history and traditions are everywhere you go.

Thanks to a panoramic bus tour on Day Two and a walking tour of Fleet Street on Day 8, both led by professional guides who were born and raised in London, my students and I got a wonderful introduction to the city and its history and many of its most famous landmarks.

With my students outside Buckingham Palace, the principal residence of Queen Elizabeth.

In between, on a Sunday morning, we also enjoyed a narrated tour of the city skyline as we floated along the River Thames toward Greenwich, a borough in southeast London that is a World Heritage Site and offers spectacular views from Greenwich Park.

I can’t possibly name them all, but I can say that I still remember fondly seeing such attractions as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Here are some of the images from the summer of 2018. I’ll follow up with more, tied to specific themes, in the weeks and months to come.

Click on an image to move easily through the photo galleries.

2018: Looking back, looking ahead

IMG_7662

Sunday morning walk in Kensington Gardens, near my accommodations in London.

A wedding, a cross-country move, a teaching stint in the U.K. Those were just a few of the highlights of this past year, when a combination of factors resulted in far fewer blog posts than normal.

Let’s get after it, shall we?

The month of May brought the biggest, most welcome news. That’s when our oldest child, Nathan, married his girlfriend, Sara Bird, in a casual ceremony on a Sunday night.

The couple had been together for eight years and it was nice to see them take the next step, surrounded by friends and family at Victoria, a popular bar and restaurant in North Portland. The bride and groom said “I do” under dim lighting in the bar as a longtime friend of both, Jared White, officiated. At least six of Nathan’s DJ friends, including Reverend Jared, took turns pumping out dance music.

NS-Nathan-Jared-Sara2

Nathan and Sara clasp hands as their wedding ceremony gets underway.

It’s funny that our oldest of three children would be the last to wed, and the youngest the first to wed. The newlyweds postponed their honeymoon until the fall, but then went big — to Spain and Barcelona. Back at work, Nathan is a line cook at Besaw’s and continues to DJ while Sara works in human resources for the Bishops haircutting chain.

Best thing of all: Now we have three daughters-in-law, as different as can be in personality, stature and interests. We love them all.

Among the guests that day was my stepmother, Ora. She flew in from New Mexico to spend a few days with us and we thoroughly enjoyed her visit. She sang a traditional Mexican song to Nathan at the wedding rehearsal lunch, and saw a lot of the sights in the South Waterfront district with me when I took a day off to ride the trolley and tram with her up to Oregon Health & Science University.

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Three generations: Lori, Grandma Ora and Simone.

The other big family news came in August, when our youngest child, Jordan, completed another cross-country move on his path to a Ph.D. He and his wife Jamie and their daughter, Emalyn, moved from Missouri to upstate New York so he could begin a five-year Ph.D program in microbiology at Cornell University.

They’re living in a rented farmhouse just outside the village of Spencer, about 20 miles south of the Cornell campus in Ithaca. They are 200-plus miles northwest of New York City, nestled in the Finger Lakes area, so named for five lakes that resemble fingers on a downward-facing hand.

They are in a beautiful part of the country,  marked by two-lane roads, rolling green hills and colonial style homes. Lori and I visited Jordan and family to help unload three big Pods and get them settled into their new place. Lori returned on her own in November for a pre-holiday visit and loved spending time with little Emmy, who at 2 1/2 years old grows smarter and more adorable each day. We’re making plans for a return visit in March.

Our time with Jordan and Jamie came on the heels of my teaching a summer course in media literacy in London, England.

It was a pinch-me, is-this-really-happening moment that lasted two weeks. I had six students come with me from Portland and Vancouver for an intense but thoroughly enjoyable time in one of the world’s leading cities. We visited the Houses of Parliament and leading media organizations, hosted guest speakers, crisscrossed the city on the tube, and saw a variety of historical landmarks and tourist attractions from a bus, a boat and on foot. On the final weekend, I took a day trip to Oxford by train and the next day saw an Agatha Christie play in a magnificent building set next to the Thames River.

Assuming I can recruit another group of students, I’m going back again in July 2019 to teach the same class. Only this time, we’re planning to have Lori join me toward the end for a shared British vacation.

(Because of my travels to London and Ithaca, I put my annual Voices of August guest writers project on hold. I’m anticipating more free time next year and looking forward to version 8.0 with contributions from near and far.)

***

What else happened in 2018? Here’s a quick rundown:

Sports: While Portland is considered a backwater for major league sports, I still got my fill of professional and amateur events. I attended a handful of Trail Blazers games, saw my first Portland Timbers match, showed up for two Portland State basketball games at the new Viking Pavilion, and took Lori to see a Portland Thorns soccer game

Most enjoyable, however, was taking in Day One of the NCAA Track and Field Championships at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The four-day meet in June was one of the last major competitions at Historic Hayward Field, which is undergoing a huge redesign and rebuilt that will culminate in a larger, world-class facility in time for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials.

My friend Eric Wilcox works for a Portland architectural firm that is part of the stadium redesign project, so he was able to get us the NCAA tickets. We had great seats in the West Grandstand with a good view of the finish line for all the running events.

Music: I saw a handful of favorite artists in concert, all of them packed into the second half of the year: James Taylor, Hall and Oates, LeAnn Rimes and Liz Longley. The superstars need no introduction, but you may not be familiar with Liz Longley. She’s a Nashville-based singer-songwriter whose music was introduced to me by a longtime friend who’s also a professional music critic. I’ve seen Liz four times now in four venues in Portland. Wonderful voice and very happy to pose for selfies after her shows.

Books:  I did relatively little reading this year, so I have no trouble recalling “Behold the Dreamers” as my favorite. It’s the debut novel by Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian immigrant, and her story about a wealthy New York couple and a young immigrant couple from Cameroon takes place just as the Great Recession takes hold in 2018.

I re-read two books — something I never do — but these were extraordinary novels and deserving of another read: “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley and “Winter’s Bone” by Daniel Woodrell. I also enjoyed “Slide!” by my talented neighbor, Carl Wolfson; “Shot Through the Heart” by MIkal Gilmore; and “The Piano Lesson,” a play by August Wilson.

A related highlight: In October, I attended a Think & Drink event with the author Eli Saslow at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Oregon Humanities is presenting a series of four conversations on journalism and justice during 2018-19, and the Saslow event was the first. He talked about his book, “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.” Sounds intriguing. I’ve put it on my reading list for 2019.

Sold: In September, we shared a bittersweet moment when we sold our beloved cabin on Orcas Island. During the 13 years we owned it, we treasured every trip to our little piece of paradise, a modest log cabin tucked into the woods with a view of the ocean water. It was a place to soak up the silence, appreciate nature’s beauty, and let the stress melt away. We take comfort in knowing that the place will be in good hands — those of a young Seattle-based writer who was looking for a quiet place to do his creative work.

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Here in Portland, we continue to enjoy good health, good friends and our furry companions – Charlotte, our feisty Border Terrier-Pug-Chihuahua, and Mabel, our sweet-natured brown tabby cat.

With a new runner’s watch (a birthday gift from Lori) and new resolve to use it, I look forward to a more physically active 2019. Likewise, new opportunities await at work and at play. Can’t wait to get started.

 

No easy path to a college degree

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Oregon State University athletes Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci co-founded the #DamWorthIt campaign in January 2018 to raise awareness of mental health issues. (Photo: Oregon State University)

Working with young adults as I do, it’s easy to celebrate their accomplishments in the college classroom and feel good about their post-graduation paths. During two-plus years of adjunct teaching at two campuses, I have enjoyed seeing the critical thinking and writing ability of many students come into plain view over the course of an academic quarter or semester.

This past fall, however, a different aspect of higher education has become more readily apparent. I’m talking about the multi-faceted challenges involving mental illness, physical health, finances and work that stand as barriers on the path to a college degree.

Whether it’s a single one of these obstacles or more, these issues can get in the way of a student’s academic achievement and even derail their best-laid plans.

For instance, during my just-completed fall classes at Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver:

— One student withdrew from school because of depression and wound up being hospitalized for several days. Others, I learned, were dealing with anxiety and neurosis.

— One student withdrew because of a grandparent’s death. The student was already under stress from having to care for her adolescent brother while her mother was preoccupied caring for the ailing grandmother abroad.

— One student’s father was killed in a car crash. The student took off a couple weeks to grieve and attend the funeral, then came back and finished the term.

— Three students missed multiple classes because they had to take their mom, dad or significant other to get emergency medical care.

— Other students were absent or left class abruptly because they were called into work.

— A handful of moms and dads missed classes because they had to stay home with a sick son or daughter. A prolonged teachers strike wreaked additional havoc, forcing one student to bring her first-grader to campus when she couldn’t find child care.

Even when health wasn’t an issue, other issues popped up. Ever heard of the digital divide? It’s the gap between the “haves” — those with easy access to technology, including mobile devices and broadband internet service — and the “have-nots” — the ones who, lacking these amenities, must go to libraries and other places on campuses to do internet research and print hard copies of their work. I had several “have-nots” in my classes.

The digital divide leads to the homework gap, as seen in this video.

One student, a young mother with two sons, said this fall was the first time she’d been able to buy a laptop computer of her own, thanks to a generous scholarship.

Another student who received an “F” in my class pleaded with me to change the grade to an incomplete, explaining that she and her mother had been struggling financially and that she only had sporadic internet access thanks to a neighbor sharing their Wi-Fi during times of slow usage. (I had no idea this was happening so, of course, I changed the grade to an “I”.)

In many of these cases, the students involved are the sons and daughters of recent immigrants and the first in their family to attend college. As a first-generation student myself and coming from a working-class background, I too worked part-time and relied on scholarships to put myself through school.

But those were simpler and more affordable times, before the invention of these costly technological devices and the development of anxiety-producing social media. And, unlike some of my students, I never would have imagined working full-time and going to school, too.  No wonder some of them struggle to stay awake in class.

Heck, even food is an issue. On both campuses, I’ve seen fliers publicizing campaigns to restock food pantries. Naively, I thought it was cool that these students were collecting food for others in the community. Only later did I realize these efforts were for other students.

At Portland State, the average age of students is 27 and roughly 40 percent of freshmen are students of color. I love the diversity and the energy derived from working at an urban campus of nearly 28,000 students, set right in the heart of downtown.

At WSU Vancouver, a commuter campus that draws heavily from small cities and towns in Southwest Washington, just under 25 percent of students are ethnic or racial minorities. As at PSU, many are returning students, including veterans and community college transfers, and there is a growing cohort of LGBTQ individuals.

At neither place is there a sense of entitlement, as one find at the Ivies or other top-rated private institutions. And that’s exactly how I like it.

Steffi_MentalHealthInCollege-336x446From Day One, I’ve known my students are typically not the ones who were high school stars with a long list of extracurricular activities — and that’s fine. More often these are the ones who tap into their potential only after zigging and zagging in their early years of their life. Some of this is a result of not yet knowing what they want to do or what they are capable of. And some of this is a result of external factors such as those described above.

I now see with greater clarity just how much of a challenge it can be for these young men and women. As I ease into my time off between semesters, I can resolve right now to do a better job of keeping my eyes and ears open and reaching out sooner to those I suspect may be struggling.

Done with finals!

There’s nothing quite like back-to-back Finals Week at two campuses to make you appreciate the moment when you’re done.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. No, it wasn’t something that could have been avoided. But heck yeah, it feels good to have it all wrapped up. Now I can look forward to three weeks off at the holidays, enough time to reflect and recharge.

In this, my third year of teaching as a college adjunct, I’ve gained some new insights and plan to share those in my next blog post.

Today, though, is all about celebrating the end of the semester at Washington State University Vancouver and the end of the quarter at Portland State University. It’s also about celebrating my good fortune to have two outstanding students who worked with me as teaching assistants. More on them in a minute.

First, some context:

I began teaching at WSUV in late August. It was a 17-week semester that ended on Friday, Dec. 14, with the posting of grades and a faculty lunch at a Portland barbecue joint. In between, the 11-week quarter at Portland State started in early September and finished a week earlier in early December.

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A holiday wreath adorns the Multimedia Classroom Building at WSU Vancouver.

It was inevitable that the end of the PSU quarter and the end of the WSUV semester would come right on the heels of each other.

At Portland State, I taught Media Literacy, a topic that examines the news, advertising and entertainment media, and gives students the tools to better understand the origin, design and purpose of the bazillion media messages that bombard us.

At WSUV, I taught Media and Society, a class that explores the social role of the media. It’s a wide-ranging topic that looks at the economics and government regulation of the media industries; the evolution of print, radio, television and the internet; media content and representation; and how the development of technology affects our social world and vice versa. (Think of the ripple effects of social media and online shopping, just to name two examples.)

Together, the last couple weeks meant 51 in-depth essays to read and a final exam to prepare and grade at one campus, and 41 essays and a final exam to prepare and grade at the other.

Oh, and there was the online internship class that I supervise, too, at Portland State. That meant rounding up employer/supervisor evaluations plus reading final papers and updated resumes from the 10 students who registered to receive credit for their on-the-job experiences this fall.

But I’m not complaining. On the contrary, end of term is when you realize you’ve made a positive impact on the lives of many students, especially those who came in with only a vague idea of what it means to be media-literate in today’s society — and why it matters.

Here’s a thank-you card from a single mom who was chosen as a Ford Opportunity Scholar this school year. The scholarship covers up to 90 percent of unmet financial need for students who are single heads-of-household. (She was one of two Ford Scholars in my class. Both earned an A-minus.)

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Note from a student at Portland State.

***

Nothing I accomplished this past fall would have been possible without the help of two exceptional young women who served as my TAs: Evelyn Waka Smith at WSUV and Tullia Fusco at PSU.

Aside from senior standing, each had to have taken a class from me previously and received a straight A to be eligible for the role. Each had to be someone I could rely on as accurate and impartial.  Each had to be someone I could trust. Both easily met that bar.

Evelyn was indispensable to my efforts at WSUV.  She came up with two to three questions for each chapter quiz that I gave during the term, plus the midterm and final exams, and did most of the grading. Once, when I had a photocopying job to finish in another building, she stepped in with no notice to lead a class discussion in my absence.

Tullia was essential, as well. She graded her peers’ work involving twice-a-week writing assignments and tracked their scores. Like Evelyn, she provided excellent feedback on my lesson plans, before and after, and some end-of-term suggestions of what to tweak for future classes.

Evelyn is graduating this winter. At 26, she is well positioned to launch her career as a Digital Technology & Culture major with minors in Business, English and Communication. She took a gap year off following high school, then obtained an associate degree and worked for a time as a nurse.

She switched gears, went back to school at a four-year university, and wound up in my Sports and the Media class. This past summer, while I was teaching in London, she was in Valencia, Spain, studying business under through a WSU Study Abroad program.

Tullia is on track to graduate in the spring or possibly the summer. She, too, took a gap year off after graduating from Grant High School, the same Northeast Portland school that two of our kids attended. Tullia spent a year in Italy studying the language, then enrolled at PSU, where she is majoring in Communication.

She took my Media Literacy class nearly two years ago, and was so impressive that I reached out then to her as a potential TA, not realizing she was just a sophomore. Now 21, she returned to Italy for her junior year for more in-depth study of the language as well as several required courses in English.

When the new year begins, I’ll be on my own with just a single class at WSUV (Sports and the Media this time) and the online internship class at PSU. During the spring quarter at Portland State, I’ll be teaching Media Literacy once again. If enrollment surpasses a certain number, I may qualify to have another TA. Whomever it is will have a tough act to follow.