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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sea Mas Discreta, Señora

National Public Radio recently ran a story by Carrie Kahn, a journalist who covers Mexico news. She worked at the PBS station in San Diego when I had the pleasure of meeting her about 20 years ago while working for a PBS documentary series. The radio report is about Mexican cops, corruption and the use of cameras on officers to help put a stop to bribes from both police and citizens who initiate bribes. 

Corruption is a hot topic, and as Carrie Kahn's story details, the videos produced by the cameras promise to be interesting. 

There are two kinds of sin, venial and mortal. So too with corruption, there are two kinds. The goldfish kind and the shark kind. One you could swallow, the other could swallow you.

My experience with Mexican cops and corruption has been favorable, fortunately. I was once stopped by a traffic cop in a small Mexican town en route to Zacatecas and was given a police escort to the highway. That's how lost we were, or how quickly they wanted us off their streets.  Another time I was stopped for speeding when I was sure I was not driving over the speed limit and felt that I was targeted for being American. I thought I'd try to avoid the ticket and hassle by appealing to the cop's sense of guilt. I said, "So you see an American license plate and think this is easy money. Let me stop them." It worked, and he let me go on my way. I really believe I was channeling my Mom, who could argue her way out of a ticket with the ease of a seasoned actor. She once was pulled over for speeding and told the officer, "Look, son, I've got no time for this, I'm in a hurry, can't you see?" We have the traffic cop angel working overtime in my family. 

On our way to Cuatro Cienegas, ten years ago, just west of Eagle Pass we were at the border to get our car permit when someone in our group didn't have a car title, which was required. Getting a copy faxed from San Antonio was our only option to calling off the whole trip. The fax was delayed in coming and the delay went on for about two hours before one of us had the brainy idea it was never going to come unless we helped it with some extra cash. I was elected to attempt the transaction, but I shouldn't have accepted the job. I was already put out from the too-long wait and my usual affable nature was reduced to something less than. But as the only native Spanish speaker in the group, I seemed the logical choice. I stood before the customs agent and asked if our fax had arrived and he said it had not. I pulled the $20 bill my friend had handed me from my wallet and placed it on the counter. He bolted forward and said "!Señora, sea mas discreta!" urgently requesting that I be more discrete with my display of cash. He took the bill, despite my lack of discretion. The required fax magically arrived and our journey into Mexico proceeded with no further delays or need for discretion of any kind.

Friday, February 13, 2015

David Carr Will Be Missed as a Media and Culture Commentator

I will bet there are few historical documentaries as interesting and accurate as Participant Media's, Page One: Inside the New York Times, which chronicles the changes to the industry brought by the Internet. 

The other reason for loving this documentary is getting to know David Carr, the Time's reporter whose beat was the media. His story is amazing in its own right.

David Carr passed away yesterday, in the newsroom where he spent most of his career. I call that dying "with your boots on," which is the way I would hope to pass from this world onto the "next edition."  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

High standard to live up to, but that’s how good it was at this home.

Diana Canavati Jacaman
Nov. 19, 1935 - Dec. 19, 2014
(November 19, 1935 - December 19, 2014)
Diana “Senior” and I are a story in and of itself, but that is secondary to the story of Diana and the world. The family she and her husband, Curly brought to the world, and those like me who were welcomed to sit like family at the table of their home: sons and daughters in law, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and friends of friends, all made to feel welcome at the Jacaman home. 

It didn't matter whoever you were, whoever your parents were, or wherever you came from. Do you want a cup of coffee? Are you hungry? Did you hear this joke that I’m going to tell you. Wait, sit down. How do you like your coffee? How are things going, what’s new?

At my house the sound level was low. There was the sound of some TV, pots and pans, the occasional “ven a comer, ya esta lista la cena!” The phone rang once or twice a day, the door bell rang two or three times a week.

At the Jacaman’s this was multiplied by at least ten and the volume was double the decibel, and this was day after day.

The sounds of cooking, music, phone ringing, joke telling, laughing and teasing was amplified at Diana Senior's home, such that life was amplified, love was amplified. If you were looking for a friend, you found that, and more. You found a cup of coffee and a cigarette. You would crack up over a joke that you would repeat to everyone for the next three days. When you finally left Diana and Curly's, you would take with you a delicious embrace of friendship and acceptance that would be carried and remembered for three decades and another, and if my experience is any measure, for a lifetime. It’s what you carried into new relationships as a measure of what is good and possible. Sure it's a high standard to live up to, but that’s how good it was. 

Diana Senior, I remember your bowling championships, your piano lessons from the (we thought ancient then) mother and daughter teachers who were so scarred by their history in Eastern Europe that they hid bread rolls from your table in their coats. I remember your choir classes at the college, and all the charities you gave money to, including my own graduate studies. I watched in admiration as you took up oil painting and creative and beautiful collage. You shared with me your love of music, introducing me to Anna Moffo's arias, which are probably the most played on my ITunes playlist to this very day.  

I sat at your table and enjoyed the best dishes from your native Palestine. Your daughters friends and you sat and talked, trying to make sense of this world in countless conversations. Sometimes we just laughed, and sometimes we just gave up and sighed in frustration over some topic that stumped us. The world outside your doors might have been filled with the 1960's and 70's news of wars and corrupt politicians, but inside there was the security of your graciousness, generosity and a cheerful dose of "let's not take anything too seriously" philosophy.  I'll never forget how you stood by your kitchen counter and, invoking your inner Shirley Bassey, you sang at the top of your lungs"This is my house and I don't give a damn!" But, of course, you did give a damn. About the important things: Thank you for the laughter and joy that was your religion as much as your Catholocism. Thank you for translating Christ's love into your daily interactions, for modeling what it is to be a woman, and for accepting and “getting us” Diana Senior, all of the friends of your children that came over to your house. Thank you, and of course, for 'getting me'. For this I’ll be forever grateful. 

I will also always attempt to carry with me that high standard of love and generosity I encountered always at your home, and hopefully reaching it in my own home when I offer the cup of coffee and welcome to a stranger in the same way that you generously offered these to me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fact-Checking and Vetting Missing in Fringe Journalism

The Newsroom's creator and writer, Aaron Sorkin, is an amazing talent. His HBO series, "The Newsroom" is a must-see for anyone interested in trends in the news business. One trend, made possible with today's social media and cell phone culture, is citizen journalism. 

One view is positive and here is a TED Talk that I share with students each semester:Paul Lewis and Crowdsourcing the news.

Sorkin's view is equally compelling, although very different:

The Newsroom segment on Citizen Journalism's flaws

P.S. One of the reasons Sorkin's work fascinates me is that he uses fiction to portray real events. Here is a link to video of Jimmy Kimmel interviewing a website editor about fact-checking and vetting that are non-existent in gossip-type websites about celebrities:

Kimmel hosting CNN Larry King on Citizen Journalism

Friday, September 26, 2014

Information Overload

Students this semester are doing a great job of exploring media theorists Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman and George Gerbner, and their views about information today, in the middle ages and in pre-alphabet societies. 

As we embark on the Semester Service Learning project and dig deeper into communications topics, I've begun asking myself what might be the ABC's of handling the overload of information in this new digital age. Here is a first draft: A = attention, B= Bias, C= Control.

Think about how we are exposed to information. It's both intentional and accidental.You set out to learn about a topic less frequently than being exposed to it via (social) media or a conversation in person. So the ABC's are about what to do in the case of accidental, unintentional exposure to an idea or concept. 

A = Attention (This is a yes/no step)

Giving attention means paying for it in some way, usually with time and energy that is irreplaceable. Not giving attention to a media message means you can give it to something else. New ideas, projects, dreams, who knows. Young people have a larger storehouse of expendable time and energy, but it is also finite. Deciding what to devote time and energy to is a skill that can be learned. I find it helpful to remember there are strong commercial forces battling for my time and energy. Advertisements in (social) media make profit or gain power by winning my time and energy by trading them for ratings, subscriptions, followers, likes, etc.  

B = Bias

Studying a message for its bias is the bread and butter of media literacy. Knowing who originates a message, what techniques are being used to attract someone's attention, considering how others would perceive the message, examining the lifestyles, values and points of view present or excluded in the message and why the message was sent (profit or power) are tools for examining bias. We each have biases and practice in sorting them out is critical for handling messages and their content. 

C = Control

Information curation is incomplete without control of what we do with information we choose and understand. The management of information is as important as its selection. I once listened too closely to a professor from University of Texas, Stanley Donner, who advised us to not hoard files and sheaths of notes, but to focus instead on learning how to access research. 35 years later, I am still thankful to Dr. Donner for his advice, but I think I would benefit from training in file management in the digital world. My computer storage experiences with photos this past decade have been less than successful. What I'm aiming for now is a balance between paper and digital file management.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Why a bidet?

Five reasons why my life would have been significantly improved and different had I lived in a country like Italy that has bidets in every bathroom.

1.  A bidet allows for the fact that humans have anatomies that sometimes require a nice warm, or cool if your bottom prefers it, refreshing cleansing in the middle of the day, when a whole shower is inconvenient, for instance before an exam in Statistics class or before a job interview.

2.  A bidet makes what are often the toughest times of the month for women even just a little bit easier and more comfortable, and who amongst us would not see the benefit of that?

3. An invitation to be sexually intimate might have been even yet more inviting if a bidet had been handy. Maybe doesn't occur to some, but that's just me, so I'm listing it.

4.  A bidet in the bathroom tells the world there's time and attention provided for comfort and refreshing coolness in a woman's private parts, which take a lot of heat and pressure in work stress and related rushing around.

5. A bidet feels good on your bottom. It helps to remind me I have a body!  I'm too much a resident of the attic chamers of my brain if I'm not reminded frequently that my self is more than a head perched on a meat-and-bones locomotion device. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lessons Learned From A Year of Risk-Taking Teaching

Ten things I've taken to heart after initiating a semester service learning project in my Introduction to Mass Communications sections at Northwest Vista College.

1. Real is powerful.  Non profit agencies and the students both enter into a signed agreement with set meeting dates and deadlines to see the project through inception to reality.  Students spend about two months in and out of class creating a media product or a social media effort to support a local non-profit agency. A media product is real and so is the client's approval. It may be more real to some students than a grade based on other assignments. A media product selected by a client, when approved, is  based on its merits as a real communication product to be used by the agency in its work in the community. This is real-world-concrete and work in this realm is evidence of having what it takes to succeed in communications inside or outside of the academic setting. 

2.  More is more.  The assignment is to create a series of the same media product, such as a flier, a brochure, a brief video or visual presentation, with at least two samples for clients (agency representatives) to review and approve. Here's what's great about doing more than one version:  At the conclusion of their efforts many students reported being surprised that their own creative alternate ideas and efforts in design or organization were selected over their initial, client-originated/directed efforts. What could make a teacher's heart swell more than to see a student learn of their own ideas in writing and design being selected for "real life" application in a non profit agencies promotion or awareness campaign? They expressed surprise that their own ideas and approaches pleased the client more than the approach they prepared under the client's guidance during the course of the project's numerous planning meetings. This kind of learning is a most valuable discovery of their own creative gifts and potential which builds their confidence. My guess is this experience gives some students their first experience working as equals among professionals who will actually use their work.

3.  Not all students think they are ready, but with support, they usually are.  The bad news is in some sections there was too much attrition. The good news is I've got a plan to avert that next semester by redirecting faltering students' efforts early enough to help them stay in and succeed despite their not having completed a semester service learning project. Those who did persist, whether working alone or with group support, generally reported in their reflection summary of skills mastered that the semester service learning media production experience taught them skills they never knew they could use, let alone master: preparing to listen during an interview, preparing questions and researching prior to interviews for profile assignments, using purpose statements to organize projects, starting with why, following Simon Sinek's TED talk. There also were some surprising insights, like learning they enjoyed working with their partners or groups and learning about the work of their selected non profit agencies. My favorite was surprise expressed at being able to make a difference with their skills and time for a cause larger than any one of us.

4.  Mistakes make magic.  Anne Lamott wrote about the "shitty first draft" as being a necessary first step toward reaching a better final draft. It's an inelegant but important lesson that college students frequently have not yet learned about either good writing or design. Students spoke with surprise in their presentations about the huge improvements their final versions of their brochures or short videos were in comparison to their first drafts, due earlier in the semester. It's an illusion so many of us are prone to believing: that first attempts are representative of how well we can or should do. Not even Picasso or any of the great masters succeeded without support and thousands of mistakes to gain their mastery. Yet when we think of the creative process, it's tempting to only see the framed piece hanging on the wall of the museum rather than the years of disciplined exercises, copying and experiments full of flops that preceded it.  Same for me as their professor. The second time around I timed the project earlier, which helped and focused more on the profile writing assignments, which deepened student research, learning and gave them authority on their topic, in every sense of the word.

5.  Have a skill, lend a hand. Need help with skill? Ask!  Asking for help is part of creative collaboration.    The students in my sections also practiced the art of asking for help from their colleagues during class sessions and on their own time. Few of us can be experts at many skills, but we can all get more done when we share our know-how and know when it's time to get some help to move forward. I had the classes post their technological skills from drawing and design to software help, photography, researching databases and proof-reading. This bank of skills was a demonstration that we each possess different interests and skills and that sharing them makes not just sense, but magnificence.  My colleagues at  Northwest Vista College are generous and imaginative. I am so grateful for help from Kelly Blanco and Melissa Monroe-Young, and particularly for Migdalia Garcia's lists of local non profits, numerous classroom visits and a great constructive criticism feedback session at the start of this semester. Great feedback during two hours of helpful notes on improving the project: starting earlier, probably the most important. I also thank the students from the first semester who dropped by or stopped me in the hall to touch base about the project.

6.  Start where you are, bring what you've got. Students often disregard or undervalue their own gifts and interests and how they can be useful in their college work. They often overlook their love of drawing, using apps or specialized software to manipulate and post photos to social media, shooting videos of skate-boarding or even web-surfing to explore new music or ideas. Taking on a project with deadlines and requirements set by the client can seem outside their comfort zones, but using existing skills to step onto new ground helps build confidence. They may remember or discover their uncle or sister who has a job in a local non-profit organization who might be the ticket for the course's requirements, but more importantly, they make the connection that each of us, from the rich and powerful to the ants in the bushes, have to start with what we have near in order to get somewhere else. We can often barter or gain leverage with skills we have some familiarity using to move forward an idea or project, or even the occasional rubber tree plant. 

7.  Kissing frogs is part of business of ma$$ media.  Not all non profits are going to be the right fit for the semester service learning project.  Some are too busy to supervise college students, others are simply too understaffed. Students vary, but there are always those who act quickly upon hearing of the assignment to partner with a non profit to create a media product. Some get lucky, but others aren't. There are those who look too hard for just the right matching interest, such as children or animals. Others are more pragmatic and start close to home with relatives as contacts to local churches and organizations.  Some students learn the hard way that some phone calls they make or emails they send won't be returned by some non profit agencies.  That's a good sign that the partnership was not a good one in the first place. Mutual enthusiasm and support in generous doses will be needed to see the project through. In about 90% of cases the first or second try generally works for students. When non profits don't call or email students who contact them about partnering, I remind them to not to take it personally. I remind them that much of mass communication is selling. If a business is not buying what the student is selling in their free work proposal, it's best to know that early on. There are lots of non profits that are welcoming of free creative and technical support to promote their work in the community.

8.  Media is more than me-me-me.  A lifetime of thinking of media solely as a source for entertainment or even information and news makes for a good consumer, but really learning about mass communications means using, experimenting and practicing using the tools and technologies that encompass mass media. It may be hard at first to think of your old friend, Facebook, Instagram or even TV as having a business model or as a disruptive technology, but that's one reason students enroll in institutions of higher learning.  Using  social media as a tool for research for a non profit client or creating a video based on someone else's needs is an important step toward maturing from a non media literate consumer into a savvy media literate analyst and creative artist.

9.  It's never too early to build identity capital. Resumes are passé. Employers will consult first with Google about a potential hire. College students, especially those in business, marketing or communications related career fields can jump over their competition by building their professional and publication credits before graduation. By creating a media product for an actual client during a multi-week effort that includes instruction, support, research, interviews, writing and technology students can add to their identity capital and take pride in having authored or produced a product that has real-world value.  

10.  Reflection cements learning. Student presentations concluded with a listing of ideas and concepts learned during the semester service learning project, whether in class or outside of class with the client. Most valuable player awards go to receiving constructive criticism from classmates during draft presentations, learning professional communication skills such as pausing to listen during conversations with their clients, and my personal favorite, several students and groups learning their alternate designs are sometimes selected by clients over the client's own concepts. Students see their own ideas have value, a big step toward building confidence based on their efforts.