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.

.

Resolved: Get outdoors!

Somehow I managed to go nearly an entire year without hauling my butt down to Tryon Creek State Park, one of the most scenic, soul-satisfying places in the metro area.

Until Monday of this week, I hadn’t paid a visit to this beautiful place, barely 10 minutes away from downtown Portland. It’s quite the urban refuge, with its second-growth forest, intersecting trails and meandering creek, fresh air and plenty of peace and quiet.

So after an invigorating half-hour run, I knew what my 2020 resolution would be: to spend more time outdoors.

Lately, I’ve been getting more of my exercise at the gym near our home, most often in the pool or on a bike in a cycling class. Running on those bark-lined trails at Tryon Creek reminded me how much I’ve always enjoyed doing so outdoors.

I followed up two days later with a New Years Day morning run, with a light rain that let up after a few minutes on another half-hour run in my urban neighborhood.

I’ve got plenty of resolutions to work on this year. Many are familiar ones: Drink more water. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Limit the sweets and second helpings. Others are new, private ones: No details here but they’re all aimed at improving my sense of personal conduct and consideration for others.

I hope to hold myself accountable on the “Get outdoors!” resolution in more than one way. Aside from running, there will be plenty of opportunity to hop on my bike, explore new hiking trails in the city and around the region, and take my little friend, Charlotte, with me on neighborhood walks.

Speaking of which…

Celebrating our Uncle Junior

For years, the death of a loved one meant trudging into church for a somber religious ceremony that dwelled on grief. These days, someone’s passing is more likely to be acknowledged with a celebration of life, giving family and friends a way to commemorate the deceased person in a less formal, more upbeat fashion.

Elements of both came into play this past weekend at services for my late uncle, Julian Flores Jr., and the symmetry couldn’t have been a better fit.

Uncle Junior, as he was known to all, was a big teddy bear of a man. He was the eighth of nine children born to my maternal grandparents, Julian and Mercedes Flores, and the youngest of my late mom’s three brothers. He died on Dec. 18th in his hometown of Salinas, California, at age 76, leaving behind a beautiful wife, four daughters and three granddaughters.

HIs family organized a funeral mass on Saturday, Dec. 28th, with a bilingual choir and a traditional Catholic service that was solemn in tone, and striking in the wide variety of family, friends and business associates who attended.

At the after-party that followed at a nearby American Legion hall, there were touching and humorous stories from his widow and several of my cousins that brought my dear uncle’s mischievous sense of humor to life. In addition, there was more than enough food, no shortage of desserts, and a DJ who kept things lively.

Uncle Junior would have loved it. True, he was a local businessman, as the longtime owner of a bookkeeping and tax services company and as a founding member of the North Salinas Lions Club. But nothing defined him better, at least in my mind, than the love and respect he held for all the women in his life.

My fondest memory of my tío was attending the 50th wedding anniversary of him and my Aunt Minnie, a retired teacher. When he died, they were up to 55 years and still counting.

***

There are very few of us cousins who’ve moved away from California, where the Flores clan — as well as the Rede clan on my father’s side — settled in three generations ago as farmworkers. I’ve lived in Oregon since graduating college in the mid-70s, which means I’ve often been outside the loop when it comes to family gatherings and milestones.

These days, unfortunately, it is funerals more than weddings that bring us together.

My mom died six years ago and my dad three years ago. I was grateful for the many relatives who showed up at one or both services, and glad that I could be there for Uncle Junior’s services. At this point, there is only one surviving aunt or uncle on either side of my family tree — my godmother, Lupe Rubio, who is 97, and the eldest of all her siblings.

Though I wish the circumstances had been different this weekend, it was still a pleasure to see cousins that I mostly keep in touch with via social media. (Heck, I even got to see my younger sister, who lives in Alaska.) Though we are separated by hundreds of miles, there’s nothing quite like looking into a familiar face and recalling times when we played as kids at each other’s houses while our moms cooked up the world’s best Mexican food and our dads sipped on a beer and shot the breeze.

There wasn’t enough time to get around to everyone before my sister Cathy and I, accompanied by a favorite cousin, Delia, headed out to a local cemetery to visit our mom’s gravesite. Following that, we spent time with my Aunt Lupe at the assisted living center where she now resides and then visited her oldest son, my cousin Ralph, at the regional hospital where he is convalescing after some recent health issues.

Sunday morning arrived way too early and I had to hit the road to catch my mid-day flight back home to Portland. It was a nice feeling to touch bases with many of those who’ve known me since I was a skinny, dark-haired kid nicknamed “Pudgie.” Go figure.

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.

Southern California Dreaming: Romance and Reality

There’s nothing like a romantic wedding and a well-thrown reception to bring people together in the best of ways. At least, that was my takeaway following our visit to Southern California last weekend.

We hadn’t been to that part of the state for a while, so it was nice to get away and make the most of a few hours at a local nature park and beach access point. But the real reason for going was a special occasion.

My best friend’s daughter was getting married on Nov. 16th, and Lori and I were invited to join in the crosscultural celebration.

On one side, Nicole Lee-Rodriguez, the only child of our friends Al and Elizabeth, who’s grown up in Santa Barbara with parents of Mexican and Anglo heritage. On the other side, Andrew Myung, the oldest son in a family of Korean immigrants who’ve settled in Orange County.

They got married on a Saturday afternoon at Calamigos Ranch, a beautiful venue tucked away in a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains a few miles inland from Malibu. The outdoor wedding was lovely, with chandeliers hanging from the trees, a string trio playing soothing music, and heartfelt vows that left no doubt these two young people were meant for each other.

Andrew was tearing up even before the first groomsman and bridemaid made their way up the aisle. Nicole looked radiant and relaxed. The groom’s two grandmothers were the scene-stealers, though, as “flower grandmas.” They wore colorful, traditional garments, carried woven baskets and tossed rose petals onto the ground, bringing smiles from everyone.

The reception was fun. How could it not be with an open bar, a sitdown dinner and good company at our table? The DJ kept people on the dance floor for hours — including Lori, who busted a move with the best of them and kept me out there for all but a handful of songs.

***

On the front end of things, our experience wasn’t quite what we had envisioned. We arrived on a Thursday about 5 pm, just in time to join rush-hour traffic on a 90-minute ride from LAX to our hotel in Westlake Village.

We had imagined we’d be closer to Malibu, where we imagined we’d be able to walk along the oceanfront and do some window shopping at local businesses in the central business district. Well, there really is no center. Malibu stretches out for 21 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway.

When we took a Lyft car to the oceanfront community, we were dropped off at the Malibu Country Mart, a boutique shopping mall consisting of high-end clothing and souvenir shops with eyepopping prices. There was a cool art gallery, a Starbucks and a Chipotle, but other than that it felt like I’d wandered into an exhibit of conspicuous consumption.

I don’t know why I wasn’t better prepared. I mean, the freeways leading to Malibu and nearby cities were lined with BMW, Porsche and Ferrari dealerships. And Calabasas itself is home to the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Drake, among others.

Thank goodness we discovered an asphalt path on one side of the mall that led us into a nature park dedicated to improving water quality, restoring native riparian habitat, and preserving open space. The 15-acre project is known as Legacy Park and it was a welcome respite from the Country Mart’s dedication to consumerist capitalism.

We enjoyed the peace and quiet along with the cartoonish figures of a coyote, an owl, a king snake and other critters scattered throughout the park. Little did I know this area was so arid.

Once we were done there, we crossed the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu Lagoon State Beach, where Malibu Creek meets the Pacific Ocean.

Once again, reality proved different than what I imagined. In place of wide-open beaches populated by visitors from around the world, there were several luxury homes literally built onto the sand, a solitary lifeguard shack, and lots of shorebirds on the small spit of sand we were able to walk on.

Don’t get me wrong. It was calm and I enjoyed the view of the lagoon, but it was hardly the postcard scene I had imagined.

***

Sunday morning came, bringing with it a chance to take a run in the residential neighborhood near the hotel and an opportunity to chat with Al about the wedding as he drove us to LAX for a mid-afternoon flight.

Lori and I both grew up in and near San Francisco, so I had something of a rose-colored view of Los Angeles and its environs as an adolescent. But as someone who’s lived in Oregon now for more than 40 years, the place holds little attraction other than to visit. Yeah, L.A.’s got some great fish tacos, but I’ll take Portland’s eclectic personality, bodacious food and beer, and change of seasons anytime.

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.