Thinking Outside the Classroom

Now that the spring semester (which, as it typically does, went from crazy to crazier) is over, I have time to think about how to add to or improve the classes I just taught, and to make the fall courses better.

One thing I’ve been doing for the past couple years has been adding relevant podcasts to my lectures. Where I live, in the North Country of New York, we have access to the wonderful North Country Public Radio station (http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org), which has an amazing sister station, WREM 88.7, which offers Radio Remix (http://www.prx.mx; my local station http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/programs/national/remixradio.html).

I can’t sing the praises of this programming highly enough for college educators. Remix offers the best of podcasts, and the two stations are just about the only two I ever listen to in my car during my daily commute to and from campus. (Well, okay – if I’ve heard a particular broadcast a time or two before, I admit I switch over to CBC Radio 2; Canada, being a mere few miles from my New York home, has some pretty great radio itself.)

I’m a great fan of, and active proponent of listening to, National Public Radio. I advocate it in all of my journalism and media classes, to the point that the students who have had me before will give the traditional eye-roll when I bring it up at the beginning of each new semester.

But I’m not going to stop. I have learned so much during my three years of listening, and have found so much relevant to my classes, that I now drive with a notebook and pen on the passenger seat, so I can jot down quick notes about the stories I hear and go searching for them online when I get to the office or back home to my computer.

I’d like here to share a sample of the podcasts I’ve played to my classes, as an opportunity for them to hear an actual “story,” in another voice, rather than another of my lectures or attempts at discussion on our own.

First, for those of you teaching media law, I want to recommend “Life of the Law” (http://www.lifeofthelaw.org). While not all of the pieces are geared toward free speech or copyright or other media-related topics, some of them offer interesting and compelling looks at relevant material. For example, I was excited to have my students consider the idea of copyright with the episode “Who Owns That Joke?” by Mary Adkins (Sept. 23, 2014; http://www.lifeofthelaw.org/2014/09/who-owns-that-joke/). In this 14-minute segment, the students are able to connect the concept of “ideas can’t be copyrighted” with the stand-up comedy world by hearing actual examples of comedy gigs being imitated and outright stolen from other comedians. “If you’re a comedian, it’s part of your job to soak things in like a sponge,” Adkins says. “But where is the line between soaking something in like a sponge and straight-up stealing?” Examples from well-known comics allow the students to apply the concept of copyright to the real world that they know.

Another piece I’ve used from this source was for the chapter on the public’s right to privacy. The 10-minute podcast “Privacy Issues,” by Cyrus Farivar (April 22, 2014; http://www.lifeofthelaw.org/2014/04/privacy-issues/), sets the scene for the topic by describing a city that uses street cameras to record license plates on passing cars. The question, Farivar says, “as with much of law enforcement—is how to balance protecting a community with protecting our constitutional right to privacy.” This particular podcast broke lose some memories in the students of times they learned their own privacy rights had been violated, and ended up in a productive discussion of “what is legal” versus “what is ethically acceptable.”

Another treasure trove of interesting media pieces comes from the podcast “Backstory” (http://backstoryradio.org). I happened to hear the piece “As Luckies Would Have It” the very week I was teaching advertising history to my Intro to Mass Media class (but unfortunately after I’d done that section in my public relations class, though I saved it for next time). Andrew Parsons’ podcast of Jan. 30, 2015, was far more interesting than my dry and straightforward telling of the tale of Edward Bernays. This 11-minute piece is available on several different web pages (https://soundcloud.com/backstory/as-luckies-would-have-it; http://backstoryradio.org/2015/01/30/smoke/; https://beta.prx.org/stories/141892), and is packed with interesting little facts that will help students remember one of the biggest names in the field.

For those of you teaching a segment on accuracy and fact checking, I recommend the piece “Fact Check This” (http://transom.org/2012/fact-check-this/), by Rob Rosenthal on the fantastic site http://www.transom.org. This particular piece, though from May 2, 2012, is certainly not dated in the information it provides. The story? As Rosenthal begins,

“Last January, This American Life aired a program called ‘Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.’ It featured the story of  actor Mike Daisey who traveled to China to see, first hand, work conditions for employees at Foxconn, a manufacturer of components for Apple computers.

“Two months later, TAL aired an hour-long retraction of that story. In short, TAL failed to fully check Daisey’s account of what he claimed he saw in China. As part of the retraction, they pinpointed Daisey’s fabrications and apologized.”

That problematic story is a launching point for this podcast, in which Rosenthal interviews “long-time journalist John Dinges. John teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism where he’s the head of the radio department. John also worked at NPR for many years serving as Deputy Foreign Editor and the Managing Editor for News. Let’s just say John knows his way around fact checking.” (The original TAL piece, for those instructors who have more time or may want to delve more deeply into the problem, is available at http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/454/mr-daisey-and-the-apple-factory, and the retraction at http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction.)

How about those instructors trying to get students to think more deeply about journalism story ideas, rather than just hitting the minute-by-minute facts? For several years, I have been using the now-somewhat-dated piece by NPR’s media correspondent, David Folkenflik. “As Media Multiply, So Do ‘Conceptual Scoops’” first ran on June 19, 2007 (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11194195), and although one of the examples relies on a story from the Bush administration of that time, the concept of conceptual scoops is still relevant, and although I apologize each semester for using such an old piece, I still firmly believe the lesson is relevant, and I dread the day this link disappears.

And at the risk of being labeled one of those dusty old professors who still uses the same notes from years ago, I’ll also share another “thinking outside the box” journalism story idea that I pulled from NPR a few years ago; admittedly I need to update with a new reporting piece, but this particular one struck me as so clever, I’m a little loath to let it go. Following a big Atlantic storm in 2012, during which much damage was done to coastal-area properties by high winds blowing over trees, Robert Siegel did a great related side story on July 5, 2012, entitled “When Does a Tree Go From Decorative to Dangerous?” (http://www.npr.org/2012/07/05/156325901/when-does-a-tree-go-from-decorative-to-dangerous). The anchor lead-in reads, “Most people like trees — right up until a storm like last Friday’s mid-Atlantic ‘derecho’ knocks one into their car. So when is a tree merely nice to look at and when does it become a hazard? Robert Siegel talks to Tchukki Andersen, a staff arborist at the Tree Care Industry Association, about how homeowners can safely care for their trees.”

So, I know I’ve gone on much too long here for a simple blog entry, but my enthusiasm for the topic just got the better of me. I encourage you to check out the sites I’ve listed, as well as RadioLab (http://www.radiolab.org), Snap Judgment (http://www.snapjudgment.org), Moth Radio (http://themoth.org), 99% Invisible (http:// 99percentinvisible.org), and a host of other great associated sites. Dig around, and enjoy the surfing – your students will be glad you did! (And if you find any exceptional stories to share, please share them here!)

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