Category Archives: studying @ UMemphis

Dark nights and days and a new MA degree

A really pretty moonrise to the north of us. Am not sure how the moon can rise in the north - must be a latitude thing.

A really pretty moonrise to the north of my apartment. Am not sure how the moon can rise in the north – must be a latitude thing.

A few nights ago, I ate downtown with a friend at a Thai restaurant; the third such restaurant I’ve eaten at since arriving here. Fairbanks apparently has a sizeable Thai community that operates numerous establishments in the area; for what reason, I have no idea. The weather here is the polar opposite of Bangkok! And there were no Thai restaurants in Jackson, so things have improved for us. We’ve also found a Pho restaurant (none of those in Jackson, either). I haven’t eaten out that much, as nearly everyone I know is on a student budget plus the cost of living here is quite high. Fall semester is done here and I handed in my grades today. So we have a breather of nearly a month. I’ve not seen my evaluations yet, but I was reading a piece in Slate trashing anonymous student evaluations. They cited a study showing that when the professor is a woman, she loses an entire point in ratings. From the article: They (North Carolina researchers) found a way to blind students to the actual gender of instructors by focusing on online course studies. The researchers took two online course instructors, one male and one female, and gave them two classes to teach. Each professor presented as his or her own gender to one class and the opposite to the other. The results were astonishing. Students gave professors they thought were male much higher evaluations across the board than they did professors they thought were female, regardless of what gender the professors actually were. When they told students they were men, both the male and female professors got a bump in ratings. When they told the students they were women, they took a hit in ratings. Because everything else was the same about them, this difference has to be the result of gender bias.

Sign for the friendly pooches that were hanging out in the UAF library.

Sign for the friendly pooches that were hanging out in the UAF library.

Given that many universities demand copies of your student evaluations when you apply for jobs, this concerns me quite a bit. Let’s hope for the best. This week on campus has been one of Christmas receptions and “finals dogs,” which are dogs from a local shelter brought in for students to cuddle and apparently get less nervous about their tests. There were four dogs and a bunny on display in the campus library. Veeka got to make a gingerbread (actually graham cracker) house and meet Santa Claus at one party for campus residents. Today is “pajama day” at her school where she will arrive in her nightgown and run around in her bedroom slippers and bathrobe all day. That’s a new one but apparently it’s done right before Christmas break.

Santa and Veeka. All she wants is a new CD player.

Santa and Veeka. All she wants is a new CD player.

The big news for me this week is the master’s degree I got Sunday from the University of Memphis. Were I still living in Tennessee, I would have traipsed across the stage, but with no family or friends to speak of anywhere near Tennessee, it seemed a waste to fly back there but for a few seconds onstage. But I now have my second MA which will hopefully aid my job-hunting prospects. I am so glad I went and did it, as I learned so much getting that degree and it really added to the things I can use as a professor. It was 18 months of hard work and I’m happy to say my GPA was a 3.68, the highest I’ve ever had. Not bad for cramming in 4 graduate courses a semester. Which sounds a lot easier than it was.
The next two weeks will be busy. On Sunday, we take a 12-hour train ride through the snowy wastes from Fairbanks to Anchorage, then fly to Seattle to spend Christmas with my folks. We leave Seattle Dec. 30 to return to Anchorage, spend several days there, then fly back to Fairbanks just before Veeka’s school starts. Seattle will feel like the tropics compared to what we’ve lived through since

This is sunshine. Around 2-2:30 pm, a shaft from a sunset zips across the trees across the street, turning everything golden for a few minutes and providing us with the only Vitamin D we'll see all day.

This is sunshine. Around 2-2:30 pm, a shaft from a sunset zips across the trees across the street, turning everything golden for a few minutes and providing us with the only Vitamin D we’ll see all day.

early October. Today I splurged and got my hair done and the stylist – like everyone else here – was telling me how warm it’s been in Fairbanks, as they usually are in the -20ºF range at this time of year. And it was a balmy 17ºF instead. But January and February are yet to come. And, I’m getting used to walking Veeka to her bus in the dark, as dawn doesn’t come until 10:57 a.m. It’s not pitch black until then; it’s just kind of a foggy grey. It’s just that getting her dressed for the bus in boots, heavy mittens, snowsuit and cap takes several minutes. It’s become our morning ritual and she’s gotten pretty quick at it. This weekend is the darkest we’ll get all year. Officially, we’ll have 3 hours and 42 minutes of light, which is kind of a shame because much of our train ride will be in the dark. At least the pretty part around Denali will be during daylight.

Of camels and carnations

my unexpected birthday bouquet

My unexpected birthday bouquet

My birthday passed very quietly on Monday. The one lovely thing that did happen was that someone from church had arranged for flowers for the altar on Sunday to celebrate her son’s birthday. Monday morning, Celeste called me to say they had TWO huge flower arrangements of bright yellow, pink and orange flowers at home and would I want one? I was so pleased to get flowers and she was so thoughtful to even think of me as I never get flowers these days unless I buy them myself.

The Saturday before, a kind friend drove Veeka and I plus her daughter to the Memphis zoo where we ran about. It was cloudy but not too chilly and it was fun seeing the pandas again plus getting Veeka up on a camel. She shrieked a bit but ended up really enjoying the ride. We then went out to Red Robin, a gourmet hamburger place in a Memphis suburb. It was so nice not having to drive and having someone do something for me. This friend is married, but her husband is working for the military in Afghanistan, so she functions as a single mom for much of the year. And our daughters really get along. Veeka finished school this week, for which we are grateful.

No word on my job future yet. However, I continue to talk with real estate agents and one couple who might want to buy the place because the moment I know where I am going, I need to do something about the house. Tomorrow (Friday), we head east for a week in the mountains south and east of Knoxville. There are several things going on in the area I wanted to be at, plus during my two years here I had not ventured into the Smokies, which is probably the prettiest part of Tennessee.  One nice piece of news I got this week is that an academic paper of mine: Facebook and revival in Appalachia: Some quantitative analyses of attitudes toward serpent-handling, just got accepted for presentation at the mother of all conferences for journalism instructors. It’s called the AEJMC conference and this

Ava is in the front and Veeka is in the back on a very bored camel at the Memphis zoo.

Ava is in the front and Veeka is in the back on a very bored camel at the Memphis zoo.

year it is in Montreal the second weekend of August. I attended the same conference last year in Washington, DC. Must say, this isn’t bad for a graduate student. There are tons of journalism profs out there who’d love to be presenting at this conference. Ordinarily I would have been very joyful; but this time I wondered what might I do if I am in the middle of a move and I have to jet off to Canada? And flights to Montreal are notoriously expensive. Sooooo….that’s one more adventure I will be cramming into my summer.

Waiting….

It’s my mother’s 86th birthday today, so I called her, all wheezy with a nasty spring cold that crept up on me unawares. I still have one more term paper to do for a course where our instructor abandoned us two-thirds of the way through the winter-spring term. Another professor – who is quite good – has taken over and has given us until the end of May to get our final papers done. I was slammed with lots of work for my other three courses, so I’m grateful for the reprieve.

Unlike high school, college profs get course evaluations. When I was an undergraduate, I remember how unkind we all were.

Unlike high school, college profs get course evaluations. When I was an undergraduate, I remember how unkind we all were.

Things are coming down to the wire on my job search. I’m on a short list for several positions, which has been gratifying. I’m now waiting, waiting, waiting for committees to make their deliberations while at the same time preparing my house to go on the market. There are so many Ph.Ds available. So I have to work double hard to persuade folks that a person like me with two master’s degrees and a ton of newsroom experience and bylines in top publications is just as good. I was looking at the resume of a friend who’s getting his doctorate this year and it was so discouraging to see how thin his newsroom experience is. But – he will probably do better than I because he has the right degree. A friend told me just today that a major university in Tennessee is laying off its adjuncts, so there’s more people out of work. Here’s an essay comparing the use of adjuncts to slave labor.
One new thing with us is that Veeka finally learned how to ride her bike without training wheels! So she and I have been riding in the evenings, visiting the place where new homes are going up a few blocks away. I’d been trying to get her to learn how to balance herself on a bike and it wasn’t happening and then one

Veeka on her bike.

Veeka on her bike.

day she just went outside and did it. Her bike is way too small for her so now I have to look into getting another one. Her school wraps up next week but even now I have serious questions as to whether anything academic is going on in her class. She doesn’t have homework any longer and it sounds like little is being taught. I’ve already reserved her for several camps (one has to do that around here) in the summer. We’ve also discovered two boys about her age who live just down the street from us, so lately she’s actually had playmates; something she’s lacked for the past two years.

Creeping towards the end

I’m seated on my daughter’s bed, tired beyond tired, trying to get in my last social media assignment before the midnight deadline. Not that the instructor is watching; rumor is that the on-campus students (my class was part online and part in person) got to have a party at her house. Maybe they are still partying? Not I: I am trying to get my 9-year-old to sleep. The last party I was at was at a professor’s home in Boulder during that conference I spoke at @the University of Colorado. The desserts and tables groaning with food were to die for but I was exhausted and simply not in the mood to chat with anyone. Parties are nice if you know lots of people there. I did not. It’s been ages since I’ve been at a party I enjoyed.

Trying out her jump rope: my active child finds it hard to sleep at night.

Trying out her jump rope: my active child finds it hard to sleep at night.

But I digress: This week’s topic is curation; that is, how you as a user of social media gather interesting posts and forward them onto your friends and contacts. How do I curate info? All of my life, I’ve taken news and information I’ve heard from people at the edges and made it mainstream. For instance, there are groups that deserve a voice, but they’re not going to have much of one unless a reporter discovers them and puts them on the map. The most prominent example of my doing that was my April 2012 Wall Street Journal piece on Andrew Hamblin, the 21-year-old Facebook-using Pentecostal serpent handler. The article truly put him on the map and brought reality shows and tons of other media to his door. I do some curation through my Facebook account when I see articles that are stuck in some lonely web site that need to be brought to the attention of my friends. I’m beginning to do some serious marshaling of facts and links for my singles adoption blog. The latter demands new material every week and it’s such an unusual topic, I basically ‘own’ it. This week’s post is unusual in that I’m publicizing my radio appearance this Saturday but last week I curated a lot in terms of orphan hosting programs that are available for singles.
However, the curation talked about by these sites is way beyond what I’ve done. Sites like Storify, Scoop.it, Pearltrees, and Paper.li are aggregation collections. I have tried Storify and found it a bit clunky. Which probably says more about my emerging tech skills than Storify itself because others manage to make it work. The last three on the list are the most interesting but I do wonder about copyright issues: Can people just repeat content without paying for it? As I’ve found out with the adoption blog, creating content (or arranging others’ content) is a ton of work.

Veeka gathering Easter eggs on Easter Sunday

Veeka gathering Easter eggs on Easter Sunday

It is gratifying to writing about something very specific that no one else is doing but at the same time, the number of readers interested in my topic can be sparse. For instance, I’d like to situate myself in a cool city like Seattle or Albuquerque, then start a site and blog that covers religion in that city. The Religion Newswriters Association recently tried that with writers in five small cities where there is no religion coverage. Sadly, they’re giving up the sites because they could not find the funding to continue them past this spring. So I am not kidding myself that there is little money in this sort of thing. One of my friends, Tracy Simmons, whose site in Spokane will be left high and dry when the RNA pulls out is trying to figure out how she can make a living off her site. She just bought a house, so this is a desperate situation for her. If you read this Andy Carvin interview (about how he’s built a following with tweets about Tunisia), notice that he works full time for NPR. Most of us don’t have the spare time to do what he gets paid to do.
But, as one of our assigned readings said, we are moving from a content economy to a link economy whereby the info you gather is worth as much is as valuable as what you write. This post comments that we should not pay news outlets for access to their content but they should pay us for linking to them. That is so ridiculous, I don’t even know where to start with the critique. It takes me half a minute to do a link. It takes a reporter many hours, maybe days to put together a story. Sure there are places that don’t charge for their content but you get what you pay for: Tons of unbelievably obnoxious 30-second video ads to sit through.(See below for the end of this post)

I don't think I've ever gone sleeveless on Easter but it was in the 80s after church.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone sleeveless on Easter but it was in the 80s after church.

I will continue blogging on this site, but this is my last post for the social media class. While trolling the Internet, I found this fascinating post on he said-she said journalism; that is, when a reporter has little time beyond researching the basic facts of the story, he or she ends up just repeating what people say without analyzing or explaining anything. My local Gannett paper – with a skeletal staff – does exactly that. With reporters expected to put out a blizzard of posts, blogs and articles each day, who has the time to do more? And so good journalism vanishes. And lastly, a good speech called the Tigger Talk given by someone who’s been through the mill and hopes those younger than he do not repeat his mistakes. This observation he gives is so true:  Life isn’t about big events. Life is about small events. Very tiny, small events that happen thousands of times a day. Events that don’t even appear to be strung together. Yet these events – these decisions – add up over time and become the sum of our person.

Nashville and the future of journalism

Steve and Veeka at Cheekwood Botanical Garden in SW Nashville

Steve and Veeka at Cheekwood Botanical Garden in SW Nashville

My brother, who’s a columnist for the Oregonian, was in Nashville this past weekend receiving a Wilbur award for his columns (which were noted as ‘religion columns’) which is pretty funny in that he has never been a specialty religion reporter like me. But he had three columns on religion that won one of those stained-glass window trophies that the Wilbur people gave out. I won one in 2003 for something I did at the Washington Times but after awhile the trophy began to gather dust, so I placed the stained glass portion over the grave of my cat. It looked nice there.
Anyway, I drove to Nashville on Saturday so we could have lunch, then wander about Cheekwood Garden, in the southwest part of town. Stephen, who turns 60 this year and I (who am younger but not by that much) were talking about the Future Of Journalism and how much of it is moving at speeds neither of us feel good about. Like the whole ‘personal brand’ thing. Used to be journalists kept themselves out of the typical story because the readers cared about who we were writing about but not about the scribe who was writing it, right? That has all changed according to links like this that talk about how the writer his or herself is now the star of the show. There was one paragraph: “More news organizations are recognizing that their competitive edge comes from having staff members who are subject-area experts the public trusts and relies on.” That I thought was pure bosh because newsrooms have been chasing away their specialists for the past 4-5 years. How many media outlets are really hiring science, religion, fashion, food, travel, environmental or agriculture reporters? The only specialties with traction these days are politics, business, health and education.

Veeka during a hiking trip on the perimeter trail around the University of the South in Sewanee (Tenn.).

Veeka during a hiking trip on the perimeter trail around the University of the South in Sewanee (Tenn.).

We also discussed the Oregonian’s new rule about posting online news several times a day. The Williamette Week describes it here and without divulging confidences, let’s just say no one is thrilled about it. I mean sure, you can steal a headline from Google Trends about “Five Best Ways to Go Naked,” write two paragraphs and watch your readership stats zoom for the next hour, but is this journalism? It all feels like one huge balloon that’s going to pop at some point. Anyway, I bring all this up because one of our social media (class) assignments this week is describe what I’m doing to establish my personal brand online. Hmmm. Well, my brand over the past 30 years has been writing about religion in some form, and doing it well. I’ve been a religion reporter/editor part- or full-time at six newspapers. Most of my freelancing has been somehow connected with that world although I’ve diverged a bit into education reporting for CNN.com. But, with my life segueing from the newsroom to the classroom, is that what I’m all about?
One thing Steve and I have in common is that over the years we’ve written books on mostly obscure topics that only a subset of people care about. He did a graphic novel on the oil mess in the Gulf of Mexico. My best book is on charismatics and people who live in covenant

Veeka and Steve @Cheekwood

Veeka and Steve @Cheekwood

communities. None of that is going to sell as well as a book on Bruce Springsteen. But these were topics we both cared about and which needed writing about. But are they our brands? Usually after writing about a topic, ie my 2008 book on people who quit church (which is still the most popular thing I’ve ever written), I’m done with it forever. I’ve immersed myself in it for years and I Want To Move On.
My take on it all is the same as this 2011 Gene Weingarten column, which is a howler but it’s all too truthful on how branding is ruining journalism. I like Steve Buttry’s take on it all when he redefines branding as as what you have a reputation for. I react better to that. Sooo, what am I good at? When I was working full-time in a newsroom, I was known for breaking a lot of the top – or unusual – stories. TWT really encouraged us to report on what other folks were not reporting on, which is how I broke a lot of unusual stuff, like the Abby Johnson story (she was the Planned Parenthood director in Texas who quit and became a pro-lifer). The story was run in a smaller publication (forget where but I think it was humming among the anti-abortion groups) and I picked it up and made it a national story. And once a story got in the Washington Times, other media would pick it up.

Veeka in a new red dress I found at a yard sale. She LOVES this color - and my cape she was wearing that day.

Veeka in a new red dress I found at a yard sale. She LOVES this color – and my cape that she was wearing that day.

That was a Times specialty: taking obscure stories and bringing them to national attention. I remember how some time after I left the Times, a big story came up about a scandal among a conservative evangelical group in the DC area and I read among some of the bloggers some wistful comments about me. Yes, they were wishing I was back on the beat, because they trusted me in that I knew what I was doing, in contrast to certain other local writers who hadn’t a clue of what evangelicals believed or thought. So I did have a reputation and a brand as someone who ‘got’ how the religious world operated and thought and was able to translate that to secular outlets.

But I’m not working full-time for a news organization now, so don’t have the leisure of working on my ‘brand’ some 8-10 hours a day. If you are teaching college full-time or a full-time grad student, how do you work on your brand? On Twitter, I describe myself as a religion reporter but I also write about adoption, serpent handlers and journalism. Will say that I am still writing about religion for secular outlets, but not as much because I live in the middle of nowhere and I’m in school full time. Anyway, another discussion we’re having in class is on metrics, the science of how many people are clicking on and engaging with your web site. This is not an exact science, as this Columbia University piece points out. But everyone is obsessed with getting readers, engaging with readers and keeping them glued to your site instead of sending them off to HuffPost. One suggestion on getting more readers is to engage them, as this piece in emedia explains. One problem though: this particular article talks about skewing content towards those who are most loyal to you, using the Dallas Morning News as an example. But the DMN, I happen to know, really stung some of their most loyal readers when they deep-sixed the country’s best religion section a few years ago. Dallas is very devout and to just jettison the religion section with the excuse that it wasn’t getting enough ads ( education and politics and other beats don’t pay for themselves either), was crazy and the decision to kill the section turned a lot of locals against the paper for good.

Well, so much to read, so little time. More on metrics can be found here. My other assignment was to ramp up my Linked-In profile. I’ve gotten 441 connections without even trying. Sooo…I’ve started ‘following’ more news organizations and trying to link with VIPs and anyone else who’s interested in me. As for my brand, am still working on that one. I have to create yet another web site in a week or two to showcase my work from an InDesign class, so I get I’d better get cracking on thinking up one.

 

Ash Wednesday and the birds

Veeka and I after the Ash Wednesday service

Veeka and I after the Ash Wednesday service

Today was one of two official fast days in the church year so naturally I’m tired and hungry and grouchy all day. Thanks so a combo of ice and snow that our area got Sunday night, Veeka’s school has been cancelled for three days straight. And so I dragged her to a noon Imposition of Ashes service where she got a large black mark on her forehead. Which got us some looks at Kroger and other stores we were at today. In DC, there were lots of people wandering about on Ash Wednesday with large black splotches on their foreheads but here, not so much. I had to explain to my students last year what Ash Wednesday was, as nearly all of them were Baptists who had not a clue about the liturgical year.
I’ve been doing more work on my List of Things To Try re social media. I joined Pinterest, which is like an online scrapbook where people “pin” photos they like. Because of copyright issues, I chose to use my own photos for my three specialty areas, but they weren’t as good a quality as many of the professionally done ones that other people were using. I decided to showcase some of the crafts I do, ie my CD ornaments that I make for holidays or peoples’ birthdays composed of 2 CDs glued together with a hanger, lots of beads, stickies, photos, erasers and other decor. I can do ornaments of peoples’ pets, too. I tried to sell some

For my adoption blog; the first night Veeka came home (actually my hotel) with me to stay.

For my adoption blog; the first night Veeka came home (actually my hotel) with me to stay.

Halloween-themed ones last fall but got nowhere. I also put up a separate category to show off some of the ornate Texas star-themed potholders I make, which take many hours to put together. I had a long talk with a friend last fall who also does crafts and she said it’s tough to make any money on those things. I agree. And I created a third category showcasing the theme of my 2nd blog (the one for singles adoption), but I’m not convinced that Pinterest is the right place for such photos. First, it’s hard to gather much that is cute and Pinterest-y about singles adopting. And adoption doesn’t always lend itself to peppy photos. One look at the baby house where Veeka came from (and an orphanage that I photographed in India) shows that reality isn’t all that photogenic. Anyway, I’m still trying to figure out how to drive traffic to my Pinterest account, since there don’t seem to be separate URLs for each of my topic areas. A piece by Steve Buttry makes some suggestions to that point.
Elsewhere on the social media front, I got to see tons of birds because of the snow. The ground was a sheet of ice, so I put a lot of bird seed and crumbs on my back patio and all sorts of birds visited us. Today two pairs of bluebirds dropped by; the first time I’d ever seen any. You know them by their electric blue plumage. I took Veeka to the library today where we got a bunch of bird books. Paging through, I began identifying all the sparrows, cardinals, blackbirds, robins, thrushes and other winged creatures that showed up in my yard. Many I’d never seen before. I managed to get some Vine video of the feeding birds, but I couldn’t get too close to my window or they’d all fly away.

Some of the many winged things outside our kitchen window

Some of the many winged things outside our kitchen window

I’m gradually figuring out the technology for some of this media but a few still stump me. I’ve got Instagram down – I think – but could not get a photo on Tumblr today. Don’t know why; the iPhone just refused to do it. What gets in my way is the technology of using the phone to work with all these different methods. Sometimes I can get our #photoaday file to work; other times no matter what I do, I cannot post to it. Sigh. And I spent hours with another student trying to learn how to get Facebook and my Storify accounts to work together. Am still not sure they are working – even with the Chrome browser.
People in my class are still making their way through Shirky’s book where – in the readings we were assigned for this past week – he talks about the trust that is inherent in using social media and which makes group-run media keep on going. He puts forth a strategy called ‘shadow of the

More fodder for my adoption page - taken about 2 years ago, I think.

More fodder for my adoption page – taken about 2 years ago, I think.

future’ which is like a theory on how people work in informal groups to accomplish something – and that there’s this unspoken agreement in our civilization that if I act on your behalf today, you will act on my behalf tomorrow. Had to shake my head at that one. If there’s one principle that doesn’t work, it’s that. I’d be up for many hours if I listed the things I’ve done for people, especially as a reporter in Washington, over the years and how they never did a thing in my behalf back. I’ve seen this happen too in Tennessee; I will call or reach out to people repeatedly (especially when trying to arrange play dates for my daughter) only to see no action back in my direction. I have found that people are happy to take and very loath to give. Which has been one of the most frustrating things I’ve learned in living here. There’s no one who gives back. Whereas in the community I lived in while in Maryland, there was more of an unspoken social contract whereby absolute strangers helped people out.

Another adoption photo - this kind of cutie s what you get when you adopt!!

Another adoption photo – this kind of cutie s what you get when you adopt!!

Shirky calls this “social capital; of which there are two parts. “Direct reciprocity assumes that if you do someone a favor today, they will do you a favor tomorrow. That’s what I have found missing in Washington as well as Tennessee. I was amazed by how many people I benefited in some way who – if I approached them some time later with a request for help – would turn me down outright. I could never get over how many times I’d been burned by people that way. I almost saw more in terms of indirect reciprocity, which is the assumption that if you do someone a favor today, someone (maybe not the same person) will be around to do you a favor tomorrow. Like the guy in Maryland who would use his snow blower to clear all the driveways of the people on my street. Were it not for him, I wouldn’t been able to leave my garage for days. I see none of the indirect reciprocity here in Tennessee, other than the friendly people in my social media class who help me with my constant questions. Otherwise, everyone here is an island.

Veeka dancing away at a friends-of-Kazakhstan party in northern Va. When you adopt from overseas, your kid is a dual American/name-of-other-country citizen until they are 18.

Veeka dancing away at a friends-of-Kazakhstan party in northern Va. When you adopt from overseas, your kid is a dual American/name-of-other-country citizen until they are 18.

Other social media experiments: One fun thing was being part of a Tweet chat during the Oscars on Sunday night. The people in my social media class had a hashtag (#joscar) – anyway, we were conversing as to what we thought of peoples’ gowns, Ellen’s selfie, the pizza pass-out and more. It made me actually enjoy the Oscars, which in former years I’d found to be rather boring. The movies I liked (ie the Hobbit part 2 and the Hunger Games, also part 2) weren’t really in the running for this year’s Oscars, which is why I had not planned to watch them at all, but the chance to be part of a Tweet chat lured me in. A Tweet chat, for those folks like my parents who’ve never done one, is when everyone is on Twitter but you post messages with the same #hashtag and you ‘follow’ that hashtag which means you can have a semi-private conversation among your own group.

 

Tweeting and Nadia Bolz-Weber

This week was trying out all sorts of stuff on Twitter. Learning it was not easy! I added more people to my list of those I’m following (about 50), mainly people in journalistic and religion reporting fields. Did a search for serpent handlers, but the only entries are by journalists who are covering the topic or by commentators making fun of those who practice handling. The handlers themselves aren’t on Twitter. One of my requirements was to sign onto Vine, a Twitter subsidiary, which creates 6-second videos. You heard me: Six-second videos. Weird. I know. Here is the one I shot of planes at the Denver airport. I also had a class assignment to tweet about eight or nine different things and even interview people on the street. I got the majority of that done, but it wasn’t easy. Trying to cram a quote into 144 words, as you’ll see in my Broncos tweet, was a challenge.

Nadia Bolz-Weber speaking at a music festival last June.

Nadia Bolz-Weber speaking at a music festival last June.

Intermixed with all this was a magazine assignment for which I got to fly to Denver last Friday for a write- up on Nadia Bolz-Weber, a most interesting Lutheran minister who is 6-foot-one, just wrote a very popular book called Pastorixis covered with tatoos and has a very untraditional congregation called House for all Saints and Sinners. While I followed her about the Parkview section of east Denver, I was sneaking in tweets of various locales, ie the coffeeshops she hangs out in, for this class assignment. Doing everything on one’s iPhone is also awkward as all get-out as I’m wedded to my laptop and not to a tiny screen. Once I got all my photos shot and tweets composed, I put it all together in an ensemble called Storify that is like an Internet bulletin board of all your social media about one topic. I just joined Storify on Tuesday and am trying various ways to make it work.

Cover from Nadia's book "Pastorix."

Cover from Nadia’s book “Pastorix.”

While I was doing all this, I was holed up at a local Marriott where I’d type up my notes when not pursuing Nadia to various coffee shops, her CrossFit class, her home and then to a Thai restaurant where I had a few hours to pose questions. But 4 pm Saturday, we were both tired, so I took off to do some shopping at stores that don’t even exist in Tennessee. It being sunny that Saturday, I thought I’d run up into the mountains for a quick ski Sunday morning. Well…I woke up at 6:30 a.m. Sunday to find a huge storm had blown in, several feet of snow was falling on I-70, traffic was already backed up and the wind chill factor at the ski area I was aiming for was -2. And so I chose to relax in my hotel room, finish typing up my notes, watch the Olympics and warm up in a hot tub. Later on I ran into a man in the hotel elevator who said he’d been stuck on the highway for eight hours. I did well to stay in Denver.

And so now I’m back in Jackson as a few snow flakes lazily float through the air. One of our assignments this week was to read Clay Shirky, an NYU prof and media critic whose “Here Comes Everybody” is on our syllabus. He also operates a web site, where he posted this depressing look at high education late last month. I seem to have a talent for entering fields as they’re cutting back. I was in journalism 30 years, the last five of which were filled with cutbacks and lay-offs. Am now in academia, which has seen better days. While sitting in the hotel room Sunday morning, I polished off three chapters with titles like “Everyone is a Media Outlet” (true, depressingly); “Publish, the Filter” and “Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production.” The first chapter has to do with what happens to journalists when everyone thinks they can report on and publish news.

I shot this photo of Nadia in June 2012 at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. She is to the right, presiding at Communion.

I shot this photo of Nadia in June 2011 at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. She is in the center in a black tank top, presiding at Communion.

It used to be that journalists were trained and screened in or out through jobs and apprenticeships at smaller media that weeded out all but the most talented and persistent. If you lasted through the first five years at various small-town sweatshops, you then graduated to a Big Newsroom, which is what happened to me. After 6 1/2 years at two small newspapers, I was magically elevated to a post at the Houston Chronicle at the age of 30. Which is why, several years later, I was not amused to see large newspapers (where I eventually wanted to end up) hiring much cheaper people straight out of college and skipping those of us who’d gone through the training. I (and a lot of other babyboomer reporters) were never able to get to the top tier of newspapers for this reason. Most of my friends dropped out of newspapers and went into PR or academia. I hung out at the Washington Times until my 50s. But there was never any debate as to whether I was a journalist. These days, says Shirky, just about anyone with video capability and a blog platform is clamoring for the privileges that it took me and those like me years to earn.

Sign for Nadia's church

Sign for Nadia’s church

Which is why journalists (who are trained) and bloggers (most of whom are not) are at such loggerheads with each other, as NYU prof Jay Rosen points out in this speech. His point is that bloggers are closer to what American media was like during its first 200 years: Opinionated, sometimes horribly wrong but always passionate. Only in the 20th century did objectivity (I’d call it professionalism) enter in, he says. Rosen thinks journalists need to get a life but I’ve been both journalist and blogger and my response to bloggers is that if you want the privileges of journalism, you need to accept its  liabilities, ie lawsuits. The Washington Times had its own legal department to deal with all the people who wanted to sue us and every other newspaper has one too, or at least an attorney within close reach. I’m still waiting for inaccurate bloggers to get hit with some of the lawsuits that newspapers get threatened with. The only reason there’s been so few of them is because bloggers don’t have the deep pockets that newspapers have. (That sounds nasty, doesn’t it? I really don’t want anyone to be sued but I haven’t enjoyed being edged out of an occupation partly because of things that bloggers do).

On a personal note, Veeka was named Student of the Month for January in her 2nd grade class. It was a nice gesture in what's been a very lonely year for her.

On a personal note, Veeka was named Student of the Month for January in her 2nd grade class. It was a nice gesture in what’s been a very lonely year for her.

Shirky also spent an entire chapter on Wikipedia, explaining why such a chaotic mess somehow works. The book is a bit dated in that he doesn’t include the reasons behind Wikipedia’s pleas for contributions.  He does have some interesting theories on “love” as manifested in the Internet. (Wikipedia is a Shinto shrine; it exists not as an edifice but as an act of love, he writes. Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love one another in its context.) People work on Wikipedia entries for that reason, he says. Because everyone contributes, it’s a pages magically self-correct themselves thanks to an invisible cadre of editors out there who have the free time to monitor their pet topics. But how does one attract the sort of person who builds up instead of vandalizes? I’m not sure he says.

Anyway, I built a file about my trip in Storify. Click here to see it!

 

Fall break

The Cliff House Inn in the Ozarks just outside of Jasper, Ark.

The Cliff House Inn in the Ozarks just outside of Jasper, Ark.

You’d think that with an overload of four graduate courses, I’d stick around the house during Veeka’s fall break. But noooo, the thought of my now 8- 1/2-year-old prowling about the house bored for an entire week was enough to make me think up an alternate plan. I hatched a pretty ambitious one: We’d attend a worship conference at the International House of Prayer, a church/conference center in SE Kansas City. More on that in a bit. To get there, I decided to go the touristic route: Through parts of NE Arkansas that we didn’t get to see in June. I’d always wanted to see Eureka Springs and figured this might be our one opportunity. And so on Tuesday, I took Veeka to class with me at the University of Memphis and then we set off west after that. Ended up at the La Quinta in Russellville (right on I-40) that night. Built in 2008, that was one nice La Quinta. The room was very up-to-date and there were cookies waiting when we staggered in at 8 pm. The breakfast was so-so but I’ve yet to see a chain hotel serve REAL scrambled eggs.

Once again, the lovely Buffalo River

Once again, the lovely Buffalo River

The next day, we headed north on Rt. 7. which is quite the touristic route across the Ozarks. There were some pretty turnouts with viewpoints, but as one sign explained, the Ozarks are not mountains as such; they are the heights and depths on this immense plateau. One of the prettiest spots was the Cliff House Inn, which had sweeping views of the valley below. The road was pretty hilly and eventually it dropped us into a small town where we got a pizza to go from the Blue Mountain Bakery and Deli and repaired to a riverside park in Pruitt, 5 miles away. Actually it was Pruitt Landing, I think, and it was right before the bridge. There we lunched by the Buffalo River, the same river we canoed down in May. Once again, the lovely white-and-grey-strata cliffs banked the river. We then headed north, eventually ending up in Eureka Springs, our destination for the night.

Veeka posing by one of the statues atop a spring we visited in Eureka Springs

Veeka posing by one of the statues atop a spring we visited in Eureka Springs

The Springs was one funky, New Agey sort of place. Much of the shops and hotels were made of limestone blocks with various springs bubbling up in little pocket parks along the main streets. We stayed at the Palace Hotel; one such stone lodging where they leave champagne, crackers and Laughing Cow cheese for you when you arrive. The whole town is squeezed into a canyon with paths and staircases going every which way up and down the cliff sides. I found a blog that compared the town to the game of Chutes and Ladders and that perfectly describes the set-up there. Veeka was always charging up and down various stair cases or she’d disappear around a corner and into a shop, which drove me batty. We puttered around a bunch of the shops but after dinner at Nibbles, I made her stay with me at the hotel for the rest of the evening.

The next day, we drove about four hours to Kansas City where we spent the next few days at this conference. There’s so much I have to say about that place that I’m devoting a separate post to it (which I’ll put up shortly). One of the nicer things about it was there was a separate children’s track that emphasized kids learning how to intercede and pray for each other and do the kind of worship that isn’t available where we live now. So while I was attending sessions for the adults, Veeka was in classes for 6-12-year-olds. There was a small army of adults teaching them, which impressed me to no end. She met one little friend there who’s her age and the child’s mom and I clicked too.

Veeka and Googlechat

Veeka and Googlechat

Unfortunately they live in Iowa and we’re in Tennessee but Veeka’s already had one Google Chat conversation with her new friend and we’re going to try to schedule more. It’s been so hard for Veeka to make friends here, so anything that can dispel her loneliness is appreciated. We got back last Sunday, 1,320 miles later and I’m neck deep in my courses. There’s one I am A’cing (got 100 on a test today – don’t know if I have ever gotten that grade before on a college test); another I’m doing well enough on and then there are the other two! One’s a computer skills course that is way over my head and the other is that research and statistics course that I need to pay way more attention to. Studying for that will be all I do this weekend.

The vagueries of Photoshop

First, I’d like to wish a happy 89th birthday to my father (shown here with his calico kitty). I posted a notice on Facebook the other day about his birthday and he got all sorts of nice replies! Looks like he will outlive both of his brothers; however his sister, Alice, is 98 and going strong.

Opa and furry friend

Opa and furry friend

I continue as a full-time student; a strange universe to be at for my age but it’s been kind of fun. One of my challenging courses has been a web/computer course where I’m learning Photoshop and Dreamweaver. With the former, you manipulate photos and art. With the latter, you build web sites, among other things. And our final includes putting together a website! Aaeeiii…have never done such a thing but one must learn. Currently I am plodding through my Photoshop book, slowly learning the craft. So far, I’ve only had to call Adobe’s customer service *once*. It was a nice way to chat with a guy in New Delhi. Customer service these days is far different than 10 or so years ago when I was struggling to understand my Dell computer. These days, folks in Manila or Delhi have you “share” your screen with them and then they can magically solve your problems once they view the mess one has made. And then there’s Bridge, which is a program by which one gets photos out of your hard drive or iPhoto. It’s all quite confusing and I’m bumbling my way along. I’m spending this weekend studying Photoshop/Dreamweaver so I’m not so clueless in class. And I’m designing this new web site. More on that later.

The kind of harp I get to take lessons on.

The kind of harp I get to take lessons on.

Another thing I’ve done is return to my harp playing. After 10 years w/o lessons, I’m back learning again under the tutelage of a teacher who drives from Nashville to meet with me and other students. I get to play on large concert pedal harps; a true privilege, as I have always had to make do with my smaller Celtic harp. Naturally my hand positions and technique has gotten quite dusty over the past decade, so the teacher spends much of her time showing me how to position my arms and fingers right. Not so much other news. The weather has cooled down to the 70s, so it’s been really pleasant out. Perfect time of year to drag Veeka into accompanying me on outings and hikes, which she detests because she hates bugs. Hard to avoid those while hiking. One fun thing we’ve been doing in my entrepreneurship class is posting our thoughts about anything tech and entrepreneurial on a blog: http://jpreneur.wordpress.com. There you can read my thoughts on the lack of originality in Jackson, a history of the Washington Times’ nervy web site Times 24/7 (which was killed earlier this year) and a series of innovative hyper-local web sites that report on religion. We get credit for these reports, so up they go.

What befuddles me

What befuddles me

My final class is a mass comm research methods class where I’m learning the difference between quantitative and qualitative analysis. Hardest to me is statistics; a science that utterly befuddles me. Variables, different ways of taking surveys, probability samples vs random samples vs stratified sampling and more. In one textbook, I ran into a nasty equation that contained the standard deviation, mean of all the scores, sample sizes plus or minus the square roots of something – my mind just froze at that point. Haven’t touched that sort of math in 40 years. When I told the instructor I was hopelessly lost three weeks into the semester, he emailed me some how-to videos on statistics. So I muddle along.