As the students in my upcoming Simpson Colloquium course — Prelude to a Farce: American Journalism and Democracy — are getting to know, my teaching philosophy involves heavy doses of social media. I believe in talking to students on their turf rather than forcing them to come to mine.
For some platforms, Facebook mainly, that’s not difficult to do. Twitter is another matter, and although student resistance to participating in the fastest growing social network is evaporating I’m still finding that my students are fairly clueless on how to get going and get actively involved. And with my class soon starting a Twitter-based discussion of our summer reading — Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother — it’s time for some tips on how to talk about a book in 140 characters or less.
For my incoming Simpson Colloquium students, all of whom are starting college this fall and most of whom are new to Twitter (and for anyone else who’s wanting to take the plunge but haven’t yet done so), here’s a brief guide on getting started with Twitter. This guide presumes that you’ve already set up an account and are ready to start tweeting. (If you need help with setting up account, this short video will show you how to do it.)
So now that you have your account and are ready to contribute, here are the tips:
- View Twitter as a way of life and not simply as a class requirement. This isn’t really a tip on how to use Twitter as much as it’s a “why” to use Twitter. Many students adopt Twitter because a professor or employer asks them to do so. They tweet as often as they’re required to, without much passion or insight. They drop it as soon as the term or the job is over. But you’ll find quickly (if you’re paying attention) that you begin using social media not for personal edification but for the same reason that you study for exams or work out with your team: Because it helps you connect and perform at a higher level.
- Read this link from Twitter on getting going with the network once you’ve set up your account. You need to spend time:
- Building a list of followers, and the best way to do that is to start by “following” people. Start with the list of students from this class. Tell your friends they’re missing out by not being on Twitter.
- Check it often and tweet often. 5-10 times a day is a lot better than once every other week. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to drop a tweet once you’ve going at it for a few days.
- Take it with you on your mobile device. Here’s a list of top Twitter apps for Android and iPhone.
- Now that you’re actually sending tweets, you’ll find that a “rhetoric” of Twitter develops. The 140-character limit requires that you be brief and to the point and include substance — in other words, it enforces one of the most basic rules of effective writing. As Twitter notes, the best way to get there is by:
- Building a voice on Twitter by replying, retweeting and reacting to the posts of others. Read a post that you find interesting or worthy of spreading to your followers? Retweet it! (Retweets are those posts that have “RT“ followed by a name in a post.
- Mention other people in your tweets by their Twitter username. I never refer to “Sarah Palin” by her given name when I tweet. Rather, she becomes “@SarahPalinUSA”.
- Use advanced features that permit you to link or upload media to your tweets. When you use a Twitter client, shortening URLs is easy. So is uploading media such as photos or video.
- You’ll find that, once you get going, your tweets start to pile up. How to manage them? The Twitter platform at twitter.com is good and getting better, but there are still other, better, free platforms available for you to use: Both HootSuite and TweetDeck are popular Twitter clients that permit you to manage multiple accounts (if you have them), add your Facebook feed and track lists and conversations. In fact, Twitter thinks so much of TweetDeck that it recently bought the third-party client. There are other third-party clients that work well, and you can Google for a list of “Twitter clients” that may meet your needs evenbetter than the platforms mentioned above. As we’ll soon be discussing our summer reading using the #tigermom hashtag, these clients will be of big help to you in keeping up with the discussion.
I’ve spent much of the past week connecting the literature I’ve been reading with the experiences I’ve been having in the classroom.
Let’s start with the experiences:
We’re at midterm in spring semester at Simpson College now, always a time to take stock and let students know how they’re doing in class. In a senior seminar in multimedia journalism, one-third of the class is failing and more are at or near the minimum level necessary for passage. It’s going to be nerve-wracking for many of these students in the weeks to come.
The students will likely have their own explanations for why they’re in the positions they find themselves. Mine is that many of the students aren’t living up to my expectation that graduating seniors in the seminar be running on all cylinders and ready to take off in their careers. As capstone students, they should be able to write and report journalistically; handle video, photo and audio in ways that will tell audiences stories; and understand the importance of website promotion and metrics.
To be sure, many of my seniors are doing quite well on these measures. (Would love to see more like Chris Spurlock, the Missouri wunderkind who’s become the rage of the Internet world based on his personal website and resume, but our top performers are doing quite well.)
But many are not. Many aren’t even close.
I’ve raised this issue in other forums and have proposed a couple of reasons for it:
- The poor state of high school journalism education means that fewer students come to university with a sense of journalism as a calling or more with a sense of the much broader field of “communication” as a bet-hedger in a tough market in which a job — any job — after college will do.
- The well-documented directionless drift of a growing number of undergraduates, particularly male students, who pile on massive amounts of debt without any clear sense of where they’re headed. Or, for that matter, any urgency to figure it out. As author Kay Hymowitz argues in a recent Wall Street Journal excerpt from her forthcoming book, “Manning Up”: “Most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance.”
What’s driven this home this past week is my reading of “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” — the controversial new book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa that argues that vast numbers of undergraduate students are learning virtually nothing in terms of critical thinking and writing in their first two years of college. And, Arum and Roksa further argue, they’re not learning much more in the final two years of their studies.
In any environment, that would be disturbing news. In the present context, when students are graduating massively in debt and with little chance of succeeding professionally if they don’t find drive and direction and purpose — and a resume — as soon as possible in their college careers, it’s downright depressing.
Arum and Roksa’s work has gotten plenty of publicity and debate in higher-education circles since its publication in January. To be clear, it’s not that students aren’t learning anything during their four years of higher education. It’s just that they’re not picking up the critical skills and habits of mind that once distinguished colleges and universities from trade schools, community colleges and on-the-job training.
Among the habits of mind journalism students have to have to succeed are those of drive, ambition and enterprise. They have to want to recognize stories, go after them and tell them with passion and commitment. Too many lack an entrepreneurial heart or an understanding that professionals are professionals 24/7, not just 9 to 5.
It’s not the kids’ fault. Arum and Roksa argue. At least not in the main.
To the extent that students are to blame, it’s that most young people entering higher education see it more as a time of social development rather than intellectual and academic growth. But why do they see it that way? Because no one else in the culture has shown them precisely how a higher education will get them realistically from Point A to Point B.
The great issue, Arum and Roksa write, is that “no actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduate student academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence.” That includes public school systems that often poorly prepare students for university demands; parents; faculty, students, staff and administrators; and policymakers. In a bottom-line, results-oriented world, what everyone seems to want is the credential rather than the learning.
And that may be what a good number of my seniors are going through — they see the credential dangling just a couple of months in front of them. But they’re not necessarily wondering about just how much drive to perform will get them there.
I put the question out on Twitter and Facebook earlier today, asking why students don’t push themselves the way they should to give themselves the best possible chance to get a start in their careers. Here are some of the answers from Twitter:
And here’s what the posters on Facebook had to say:
Now that, as many of us who teach journalism have noted, Twitter is slowly gaining acceptance as a media tool for our students, what exactly are we to teach them about using it?
It’s an interesting question. I’ve had to pick up a lot of tools and techniques on the fly during my years of teaching, but I don’t think that I’ve ever — until now — had to teach a tool that was evolving right before our eyes.
So here’s what I’m doing as I teach Twitter to 21 students enrolled this term in Beginning Newswriting and Reporting. I’d love to hear what you’re doing as well:
First is that, unlike Facebook — and, to a lesser extent, blogging — most of my students haven’t been Twitter users before they enter my classroom. I expect that to change over time as more students adopt the innovation (professors can carp about the need to adopt this or that, but you really need to get a critical mass of their peers to adopt before most will willingly go along).
So I begin by explaining what Twitter is. And I note that, as I see it, Twitter has four primary journalistic uses:
- Distribution: Journalists use Twitter to break news of interest to their audiences. (Example from @brianstelter of the New York Times: “Keith Olbermann announces that tonight is his last night on MSNBC.”
- Promotion: Journalists use Twitter to promote their work in old and new media. (Example from @CharlesMBlow, a columnist with the New York Times: “Read tomorrow’s column, ‘Obama’s Gun Play,’ tonight and let me know what you think. http://tinyurl.com/6dmnv5c Also, be sure see the chart.”
- Curation: Journalists use Twitter to point to other sources of interest on the Internet: (Example from British digital journalist and educator @paulbradshaw: “Rupert Murdoch’s #iPad digital newspaper raises many questionshttp://gu.com/p/2mhn8/ip#stats#paywalls”
- Sourcing: Journalists use Twitter to generate sources for stories. (Example from @steffen4 [that’d be me]: “Now blogging about tips for teaching Twitter in journalism. What are your ideas?”
The concepts above are, for the most part, the easy part. My students get these pretty easily. (Of the concepts, curation is a little difficult for them to grasp at first, I solve that by pointing out that when they go to a museum someone had to decide what they would see while there. That’s the job of the curator.)
Understanding the cast-in-stone limit of 140 characters is pretty easy. (Someone, someday, is going to figure out a way to teach leads by having students write them on Twitter.)
But there’s a craft in writing Twitter posts, just as there would be in any kind of writing. Once we get beyond the anti-140-character snobbery of some — another journalism educator indignantly asked me a few months why I would want to do that, meaning teach Twitter — we realize that it’s a form of journalism that can be informative even within the limits of the tool.
Here’s what I’m seeing as the most common problems exhibited by my journalism students in using Twitter as a journalistic tool:
- They frequently don’t understand what they’re supposed to be tweeting about. I make clear in class that, while they’re free to tweet on anything they like with their accounts, they’ll only get credit for tweets that concern on-campus news or news of concern to us as future journalists. The first weeks of the course are full of tweets about the Golden Globes, the NFL playoffs and the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But, they’re chagrined to find, they’re not getting credit for those. Teaching takeaway: Be clear on what you want students tweeting, and stick to your guns.
- Their tweets often are too vague to earn credit. A typical student’s first-week tweet: “#SimpsonCollege has some exciting news this week: http://is.gd/yucktweet.” Great, if all you want to do is get something in under 140 words. But it’s too vague to get me to bite on the link. The tweet should be rewritten as: “#SimpsonCollege launches a new public policy center. http://is.gd/goodtweet” Teaching takeaway: Demonstrate vague tweets and show your students how to add specificity to them within the limits of the tool. And, again, stick to your guns in evaluating those tweets that don’t meet this standard.
- Tweets often have pronouns without referents. God bless my students: They learn to condense and condense, often to the point of eliminating the subject of their tweets. “He can’t be serious in thinking that News Corporation can successfully erect a paywall. http://is.gd/badtweet”, one wrote last term. Even though you can’t get “Rupert Murdoch” in that tweet in the 140-character limit, the tweet still must be recast to include a referent, even if the referent becomes the common shortform “Rupe.” Then the writer has a chance at engaging the reader. Teaching takeaway: Show them, don’t tell them.
- Students have to pick up a sense of professionalism in their Twitter work. As do most schools, we talk about Twitter as a key tool our students have in branding themselves. But more than a few have taken usernames such as @thisguylikestoparty and used avatars that don’t project the best image of themselves. (One was hesitant about getting too much into Twitter because of all the “creeps” who were following her. I politely theorized that her cleavage-enhancing beach photo might be one reason for the creepiness of some of her followers.) Teaching takeaway: If your students don’t yet have Twitter, have them set up accounts in class on the first day of the term. If they already have a Twitter account that’s used primarily for social purposes, have them consider setting up an account for their academic and professional needs.
The good news is that this seems to be getting results in my classroom: Students have a rocky first few weeks on Twitter, but they do get the hang of it. And they learn what I think is the most important lesson we can teach them about using social media as a journalistic tool: It’s not simply for self indulgence but really to connect with audiences and give them information that it’s valuable for them to know.
The students who move on out of the course and into student- and professional-media positions are embracing this tool. That, to me, is the best test of teaching them the power of the tweet.
Here’s a video from BeatBlogging.org that also covers some journalistic uses of Twitter.
Let’s start with a stipulation: We don’t live in a perfect world.
In that perfect world, students would be able to afford higher education without bankrupting themselves or their dreams. They’d be hungry for what their professors teach them. And they’d have no problems getting the tools they need to get that education.
So, in accepting that we don’t have that perfect world, what nonetheless are the tools in which multimedia journalism students should invest as they pursue a multimedia education?
Loads of students want to go into multimedia, but they’re trying to do it with gear their parents bought on the cheap the summer before shipping them off to college. The number of students I see in class who wield entry-level cellphones and $800 HP or Dell laptops bought on sale at Best Buy is staggering. Far from being the creatively wired digital natives that pop culture portrays them to be, many undergraduates and their parents live by the credo that “price sells gear.” (Only once has a father called to ask me what I thought his daughter should have for tech gear in college.)
I know what it’s like. I’ve just had one son graduate from university, and another is in his junior year. But the old adage of “garbage in, garbage out” applies as much in multimedia education as anywhere.
So here’s the fact, folks: If you’re wanting to be a mutlimedia journalist, you need to personally invest in the software and hardware tools of the trade. Only by doing that will you have the mobile tools and the control you’ll need to get stories done at the pace the industry demands.
And here’s the hardware I think you need:
- Apple MacBook Pro laptop computer equipped with at least the iLife suite of software and, better yet, with Final Cut for video editing and Adobe Creative Suite.
- Access to mobile video, either through a Flip video camera or through high-quality smartphone video.
- I guess that means you’d need a smartphone, such as an iPhone too. To show I’m not an Apple slave, any Android phone will meet the test.
- A tablet device, preferably an iPad. Though any tablet device will due.
- Digital SLR photography gear.
- USB digital voice recorder, preferably in mp3 format.
That’s a lot of money, I know (what — $5,000 or so before getting into voice and data plans?). But these are investments, rather than merely expenses, and many students (not all, mind you) will spend at least that much money on spring breaks, multiple study abroads, social involvements, more. It’s a matter of setting priorities.
My senior students understand this.
Kelsey Knutson is a senior at Simpson, editor in chief of The Simpsonian student newspaper, a past intern at the Washington Times and the force behind The Back Story, a great new blog journalistically documenting her mother’s battle with breast cancer.
“I’d get all those things, even as a graduating senior,” Kelsey told me today during a seminar discussion, where she’s the only student with a Mac laptop. “I don’t have a smartphone, but I’m going to get one for social media.”
Sarah Keller, another multimedia student at Simpson who’s developing a blog designed to encourage beginning artists (she’s also an art major), is trying to limp by to graduation on the self-described “crappy” second computer of her college years — an HP Pavilion Entertainment laptop whose screen barely functions — before she gets a MacBookPro on graduation.
Still, Sarah’s not sure how she feels about schools requiring a certain gear list: “I understand it’s kind of necessary for today’s field, but I think I’d still feel rather angry about it.”
Another of our seniors, Peter Kaspari, also knows that he needs the gear, but he’s still hesitant: “If I told my parents that I wanted a Mac, they’d probably kill me,” he said today, adding that his mother and father own a small business that was rocked by the recession of recent years.
Upshot: It’s not easy to stay up to date on the latest gear. But our students need to be trying.
The first day of spring term at Simpson never seems as exciting as the first day of classes in August — the students have been away for only three weeks, and it’s frankly too cold in Iowa in January to be excited about much of anything. But it’s nice to have the kids back. They’re usually eager for a new slate of classes.
So the first day of the term in my Beginning Newswriting and Reporting course, the backbone of the multimedia journalism program at Simpson, usually has some pretty eager young people enrolled.
Day 1 of BNR includes my talk on knowing what’s in the news, and in giving them a brief current events quiz to show them (usually) how little they know. But even I found it surprising to learn on Monday that only about half of the students in my class could correctly identify Jared Lee Loughner as the accused shooter of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and 19 others just two days previously.
To be fair, nearly all of the students were aware that “someone” had shot “a congresswoman,” that the crime had taken place “in Arizona” and that the accused shooter was “crazy.” But few had paid close attention to Saturday’s events. None were aware of Loughner’s rantings in social media or his political views.
As a university education has become more of a market took for college students looking to maintain middle-class lives — and less of a social good that demands of students that they realize that they’re not the center of the universe — students have largely tuned out the world around them. Yes, they want to give back to their communities. But that’s often defined as the community immediately around them with little understanding of the forces that have created those conditions.
Beyond the immediate professional disability that journalism students inflict on themselves by not following the news, the much broader tuning-out by undergraduates robs them of the ability to create a coherent worldview and to become agents of change in their world.
Steve Striffler of the University of New Orleans argues today at truthout.org that Loughner’s lack of a coherent philosophy isn’t necessarily a product of his mental illness. “[V]ery few of today’s college students have any sense of what ‘the left’ or ‘the right’ are or have traditionally stood for, what ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have historically meant or where on the political spectrum we might place fascism and communism,” he writes. “When asked, most students — most Americans — ‘know’ that Hitler and Marx are ‘bad,’ but very few can articulate what they stood for politically and many often assume that Nazi and Communist are synonymous.”
Striffler goes on to explain the significance of Loughner’s — and his fellow students’ — lack of understanding of the forces that have shaped their world:
Like Loughner, a significant portion of young people are, for very good reasons, profoundly anti-establishment, distrustful of anything they hear from the government or mainstream media. But this does not make them crazy any more than it automatically leads them toward a coherent critique of the political system. Rather, in a world where fragments of information come from so many sources, it often leads them to the odd place where any explanation of the world is as good as any other, where there is no conceptual rudder for judging one theory or idea against another. Hence, they draw from wildly opposing political ideologies and are attracted to conspiracy theories. And it often leaves them in a frustrated place where public figures cannot be trusted, and to the conclusion that nothing can be done to change the world (except perhaps something chaotic and dramatic). Hence, the tendency toward apathy and (after a philosophy class or two) nihilism.
One impact of this slow tuning out of the of the world is the rejection of one’s publicness — the realization that what happens beyond one’s circle of family and friends has any significant importance. For the typical undergraduate student looking to do service, that means that injustice isn’t something to be understood. It’s simply a fact to be accepted and the potential source of a resume line.
Academics and journalists have talked about this for decades. But what to do about it? The best solution I’ve seen comes from David Mindich of St. Michael’s College in Vermont, who proposed in his 2004 book Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News that one way to get college-bound students to pay more attention to the news is to make them accountable for it on the ACT and SAT entrance examinations.
Imagine that: High school kids not only quizzing themselves over math and science and reading as they prep for their college exams, but also poring over newspapers and websites to make sense of their world.
Schools will find a thousand reasons why Mindich’s is an unworkable idea, but it’d be a bold step if we’re serious about showing students that education is a political and public act.
While much of the nation is in an uproar over Sarah Palin’s invocation of “blood libel” in a recorded response, distributed online today, to the weekend Arizona shootings, her talk also demonstrates a gross misrepresentation of the First Amendment and its protections.
In a talk that at first sounds like a Meiklejohnian love letter to freedom of expression, Palin argued Wednesday that:
No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent. And we certainly must not be deterred by those who do evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.
That’s consistent with the right’s defensiveness of its extremist rhetoric: Liberals want to silence us and shut us down. One can imagine only a brief period of time before the Thought Police starts shipping brave, dissenting conservatives off to concentration camps for re-education. (Just to think of it, when will the conservative Daniel Ellsberg step up and be rung up on an Espionage Act charge?)
Let’s add the voice of Tea Partier and defeated Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada to the chorus of oppressed, censored conservatives:
Expanding the context of the attack to blame and to infringe upon the people’s Constitutional liberties is both dangerous and ignorant. The irresponsible assignment of blame to me, Sarah Palin or the Tea Party movement by commentators and elected officials puts all who gather to redress grievances in danger.
Both Palin and Angle are swatting at straw men. The First Amendment protects citizens from censorship by government and punishment after the fact for their expression of ideas. No pundit, activist, political figure or leader of any movement has been silenced in this manner. Other than opportunistic grandstanding by Rep. Bob Brady, D-Penn., no one has suggested criminalizing eliminationist rhetoric. No one’s suggested the creation of civil penalties for such speech.
What Palin, Angle and others don’t get is this: The First Amendment protects you from government interference in speech, but it doesn’t protect you from being criticized for your ideas or their expression. Indeed, those who criticize the use of crosshairs in political advertising or the suggestion that Second Amendment remedies should be available to patriots are exercising their own First Amendment rights. Their providing the rest of the selection in the marketplace of ideas.
When you speak out on any subject and express any view, the First Amendment protects you. When governments try to stop you, it’s unconstitutional. My own view is that the Constitution should similarly protect you when powerful private groups organize to punish you for your speech: Such was the case, for example, with the campaign of repression against the Dixie Chicks in 2003 for daring to criticize George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War. It turns out that the campaign was hardly a spontaneous expression of ordinary-citizen rage but rather actively cultivated by corporate radio powerhouse Clear Channel.
When I advised a student newspaper for 16 years, undergraduates often fretted when administrators expressed disapproval of what they published. Sometimes the student journalists mistook the criticism as censorship. As their adviser, I told them I’d always defend their right to publish what they wanted. But, I also told them, don’t expect anyone to love you for what you publish. And don’t expect them to not criticize you.
That’s the lesson the Sarah Palins, Sharron Angles and Rush Limbaughs need to learn.
That the free exchange of ideas is “indeed essential to the nature of a free state,” as William Blackstone wrote nearly 250 years ago, is a given. But that’s never meant that anyone gets a free pass in public opinion for whatever it is they say or whatever methods they use to say it.
The rhetoric of modern conservatism is full of allegations of oppression by the left. It’s time we call them on it.
Hooray for us! We’re not to blame!
That’s right: We’re all off the hook for Saturday’s mass murders of six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl born on 9/11, and the woundings of 14 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
This must be a huge load off the minds of the media and the public that is now absolved of any need for soul-searching. At least that’s what the public has concluded. Two polls out today show that majorities don’t think there’s a connection between eliminationist political rhetoric emanating largely from the right and the Arizona crimes.
Public opinion is buying into the lone-nut theory now gaining currency in media coverage. Who wouldn’t think so, based solely on the Hannibal Lecter-ish mugshot of accused assassin Jared Lee Loughner? (Even the fashion and the lighting is positively Lee Harvey Oswald. Note how the shadowing gives Loughner the same black eye that Oswald got from the Dallas police.)
We also have the benefit of the conclusions of seemingly half the people in Arizona — all duly quoted in the reportage of the past several days — that Loughner was and is seriously off his rocker. (Isn’t it amazing how the discussion of the guy’s erratic behavior reaches critical mass only after he goes Glock?)
The upshot is that the radio flamethrowers are back in business as usual. (Rush Limbaugh insisted today that Loughner is in league with Democrats.) And we’re all heading back to our work and families.
Show’s over folks: Time to move on.
Meanwhile, 9,000 more people will die in gun violence in the United States throughout the rest of 2011. (Click here for a chart that shows the comparative gun-death rates in dozens of countries. Pay special attention to the countries that have higher gun-murder rates than does the United States — not the kind of comparison group to which I’d like to belong.)
We can all rest easy tonight, secure in the knowledge that we need do nothing in a nation that lets Jared Loughner and 34 percent of all Americans own firearms with few or, in many cases, no restrictions.
Well, maybe there is one thing we can do: Pray that one of those thousands of lone nuts with guns in the United States never crosses our path.