My Opinion of My Opinion Writing Class

Saturday, December 28, 2013

John Lithgow's 2012 Broadway portrayal of Joseph Alsop, one of America's most influential newspaper columnists

In probably my most fractious experience as a University of Massachusetts student, I was able to successfully navigate my way through the school’s recently concluded JOURNAL 392S, Opinion Writing: Columns offering.  It wasn’t easy to apply a kind adjective to the semester because a combination of events and issues made it a very unenjoyable 14 weeks for me and ended my certificate program on a negative note.

At the beginning of the term, there were hardly any indications of what would befall the 17 of us.  I was able to log in to the Blackboard Learn site for the course about a week prior to the start of the semester and was the second student to post my background information to share among the group.  In mid-August, the school upgraded to the latest version (9.1) of that company’s online comprehensive education platform and there was a marked difference in appearance and utility from the one I just used for my Digital Photojournalism class.  This might have been considered just a minor issue but it would be a harbinger of more web-based difficulties on the horizon. 

On August 27th, all of the registered students received an email from the instructor to let us know that the class’ course page was under construction but it was expected to be up by that weekend (the 3-day Labor Day weekend—class was scheduled to start that following Tuesday).  Being new to the school and online teaching, she told us to expect a slight delay on her part due to software training but she expressed her eagerness on taking on this teaching assignment.  After seeing some class materials starting to populate the site a few days later, I noticed a problem with hyperlinks to a few online stories we were supposed to review and comment on over the first two weeks.  I contacted both the school’s help desk and the instructor but was not able to get an adequate response or remedy.  After several trial-and-error attempts, I discovered that these links were being corrupted by the platform (some of the web addresses were being stripped off which sent the readers to unavailable pages).  Using the provided article titles and the partial URLs, I was able to find the cited locations and posted the corrected links for my fellow frustrated classmates to use. 

In the search of--and executing solutions for--these problems, I thought that I might’ve overstepped my student role with the instructor.  We had only heard from her once during the first week of the class and, with several students flailing about in the website’s troubles, I sent a personal correspondence with my concerns and observations.  As a full-time journalist with a high-pressure “day job”, I suggested that she increase her online presence and she provided alternate methods for students to get in touch her.  After the second week, she subsequently abandoned outlining the coursework within the stringent Blackboard parameters and simply posted weekly updates in Microsoft Word documents (with activated hyperlinks).

This work-around method was successful in communicating to the students and we also abandoned the assignment submission function and just emailed any coursework directly to her for grading and comments.  On the subject of feedback, she also declined using the site’s grade display tool (points-based evaluations were included in email follow-ups to our submissions).  That decision had me sweating it out during an almost 3-week communications "blackout" when I didn’t know what my final grade would be after turning in three gradable items in the final week of the semester and not receive a confirmation of their receipt (in hindsight, I did get an “A” so I guess I shouldn’t have worried that much about it).

While these software and instructor issues were nuisances, perhaps the biggest “deal breaker”, in my opinion, was the lack of focus on the goals and objectives outlined in the initial course announcement.  Here is how UMass advertised the class back in August:

Basic training in writing editorials, columns and broadcast commentary with an emphasis on political and social policies. How to encourage the persuaded, nudge the neutral and discomfit the opposition.

The September course syllabus, however, reflected a different set of goals:

This course will examine the history, evolution and future of opinion writing; students will also practice the art of writing, reporting, and editing opinions. They must distinguish between news and opinion, analyze trends in opinion writing for print and on the web, pitch opinion pieces and execute them brilliantly.

In addition, we will be keeping a blog on the burgeoning business of online education (in which we are all players), which will form a portion of your grade for class participation; you must post at least four coherent musings.

Somewhere along the line, the initially announced class focus on political writing was changed to writing about online education.  While I had the pleasure (?) of providing my review of the politically and socially fueled writings of Dr. Thomas Sowell (one that I might share with my readers in the near future), other assignments veered away from those previously announced topics.   During our “digital revolution” block, we were tasked to find a non-traditional (not part of the “main-stream” media) blogger and introduce them to our classmates.  I chose Heather Parton, the owner and propitiator of Hullabaloo, a progressive blog that started back in January 2003 and served as a major online catalyst for the Democratic gains seen on Capitol Hill from the 2006 midterm elections.  However, most of the others offered up by other students were from the sports, video game, and interpersonal relationship genres that had nothing to do with the announced focus areas.

As frustrating as that was, perhaps the reading assignments were the most exasperating. How, exactly, were feature stories and essays about Ikea furniture, author David Sedaris' North Carolina beach memories, issues in a marriage between two 40-somethings, "stunt blogs" (single-issue sites like Three Hundred Sandwiches and 40 Days of Dating) and even the instructor's own cultural identity struggle defined as opinion?  It was at this "jump the shark" point that I took a short sabbatical that didn't end until the final week of the class (although I peek in from time to time to make sure I wasn't falling too far behind).

I did my best to keep my eye on the political angles for subject materials.  For our smart aggregation assignment, I focused on the then-looming government shutdown and how the GOP’s “grandstanding” was easily refutable by a simple Google search.  For our “pitch piece” task, I suggested a column about the preponderance of 9/11 memorials in my local area here in Ohio.  While the next assignment was online education-specific, the following personal narrative submission sprinkled in economics and politics when describing my take on current fiscal disagreements in Washington, DC.  My final submission was about the Obamacare website, a topic that had been continuously in the news since early October (and one that was also discussed by The New York Times’ Ross Douhet at the very same time I was finishing up my piece).

In the almost 3-week waiting period for my grades, I began to reflect upon my experiences with this class and that got me to do some online research to find out how other schools teach opinion writing.  Evangel University, a small private Christian, liberal arts university located in Springfield, Missouri, listed these objectives for their Spring 2009 Opinion Writing students:

  • To develop the discipline of clear, analytical thinking as evidenced in clear, analytical, “value-added” opinion reporting & writing.
  • To analyze the overall opinion functions of the news media.
  • To gain an historical perspective of opinion reporting.
  • To understand how editorial policies are decided.
  • To develop skill in editorial and persuasive writing.
  • To become acquainted with the various forms of opinion writing.
  • To be aware of the varieties of print layouts possible for opinion pages.
  • To examine the online and broad cast delivery of opinion pieces.
  • To study the effects of graphics and cartoons on editorial delivery.
  • To be aware of the legal and ethical aspects of opinion writing.

This is from New York University Professor Maha Hosain Aziz’s Political Opinion Writing syllabus from Spring 2012 (at least we had the Michael Oreskes reading in common):

Whether you end up in government, an NGO or some other job related to politics and international affairs, it is probable that you will write an opinion piece in the media at some point on your area of expertise. This course is for those of you in the MA Program who want to develop opinion writing, research and analytical skills specifically on topics in politics and international relations.
We will focus on print and online opinion writing in different media, taking a critical view of the content and writing style of political opinion writers (including myself). We will consider theoretical literature about the ability of the media to produce original opinion, influence policy and move past mass perception.

And here is from a 2011 Editorial and Opinion Writing course syllabus from Southern Methodist University:

  • Develop an appreciation for informed and well-written commentary and understand the role of persuasion/advocacy in modern journalism.
  • Become a critical consumer of news and opinion and develop the ability to judge the worth of opinion and critical writing.
  • Learn to write supported, logically argued opinion pieces and informative, entertaining and effective commentaries.
  • Become more original, provocative thinkers
  • Develop a solid and refined sense of critical thinking, including the ability to understand complex subjects and synthesize ideas
  • Analyze and practice opinion writing on different platforms: print, broadcast, online
  • Develop voice as a writer; Improve and refine writing skills 

Here are additional links to a few other school’s attempts at teaching this subject (the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication, DePaul University, Oklahoma City University, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and the University of Arizona) and the key component of opinion writing that they all addressed--but UMass seemed to overlook--was critical thinking.  In today’s 24/7 cable news, internet-fueled media environment, there is a lot of time and space to fill and opinion seems to be the easiest way to do this.  While traditional reporting involves news bureaus, writers, photojournalists, and a dissemination mechanism, the only thing an “opinionator” needs is his/her thoughts, a keyboard and/or camera, and an internet connection.

One of the things that is not required of this new breed of "pontificators" seems to be a journalism background (or a publication to sponsor them).  Most of the traditional op/ed columnists we have today came up through the news industry as reporters or public relations careers who migrated over to opinion as their intimate knowledge of a subject began to expand.  Some of our new generation's most widely read or listened-to opiners have no connection with the medium that now provides them a megaphone to espouse their avis du jour.  Folks like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow and Randi Rhodes (all are categorized as "entertainers" for the sake of this discussion) have amassed their respective audiences without the benefit of a career in journalism or, after reviewing many of their biographies, a 4-year college degree.  All of these people share a wide variety of opinions on current American political and social conditions; however, most of them depend upon their persuasion skills (or just dial up their particular brand of rhetoric to an "11") in order to attract and keep their listeners/viewers (and their ability to recall or state proven facts is normally overlooked).  Even the print columnists have taken measures to expand their brands and followings in traditional and social media because, unfortunately, today's metric is exposure levels and not necessarily accuracy (or honesty) in what they write about.  It was this very issue of journalistic credibility that influenced my enrollment into this UMass certification program in the first place.

The format of organized debating as it is still practiced in high schools and colleges all across the country--two opposing teams and an impartial moderator

Because of our current culture’s desire to cover news items or topics of discussion in a “fair and balanced” manner (that phrase was originally intended to be a Fox News Channel marketing slogan but it now has a life of its own in political and journalism circles), experts--also known as pundits or “talking heads”--are assembled to hash them out in an almost bloodsport-like manner where respect and decorum are abandoned in favor of attracting viewers/readers purely for the “shock” factor.   In educational debates, explicit rules are introduced and enforced in order to keep the exchanges focused and to adhere to the universally recognized tenets of equality and fair play.

A screenshot of cable news' new model for antagonistic on-air discussions--two opposing guests flanking a thinly veiled partisan host

Cable news discussions, conversely, have no established guidelines and many devolve into on-air/online shouting matches where “victory” is determined by who states their drafted talking points the loudest (or gets more on-air time).  There is little to no real-time third-party “fact checking” done during these exchanges (CNN host Candy Crowley’s interruption during the second presidential debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to correct a statement that the challenger made on the September 2012 attacks on the Benghazi consulate being the most notable of these infrequent corrections) and even the act of confirming facts somehow has a particular political/ideological “bias” associated with the practice.  Perhaps UMass saw that prominent “handwriting” on the wall of today's entertainment-owned profit-driven news organizations and simply decided to avoid the subject--and its associated controversies--altogether.

New York magazine's Frank Rich making a 2012 appearance on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show

As I have stated in previous postings on this blog about what path I would probably take in the journalism field, opinion writing is something that I’ve dabbled with in online message board discussions and in a few former blog personas over the past five to ten years.  While I’ve recently fallen off of his “wagon”, the style and tone of New York magazine’s Frank Rich is something that I aspire to achieve through an online or print column someday in the future.  Rich’s weekly submissions were a “must read” on my Sunday mornings during the administration of George W. Bush.  His 2006 book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, repackaged many of those previous pieces into a single damning indictment on the shortfalls of our 43rd president.

Columnist Joseph Alsop at his home in 1963 (photo courtesy of the Associated Press)

I included John Lithgow’s portrayal of Joseph Wright Alsop V above because that stereotype of the “priest” or “oracle” variety of pundit is how I envision myself (minus the cigarette) when I put my thoughts to virtual paper on a topic of interest or concern.  While I never read any of Alsop’s work while he was alive, they have been described as erudite, robust, and firmly grounded in journalistic principles.  While the 2012 Broadway play mostly focused on how a single sordid event in his personal life influenced his professional activities, the thrice-weekly “Matter of Fact” column he co-wrote (or personally wrote from 1958 until his retirement in 1974) was circulated in 300 newspapers nationwide and considered required reading for anyone trying to assess the nation’s political climate.

Although dated by the advances in communication and the explosion of media over the past 20 years, The Political Pundits provides a good overview of that specific category of journalists

Thankfully, my experience with JOURNAL 392S is now over and there is nothing that can be done to change it.  I am hoping that my posting here will draw attention to its deficiencies and direct school officials to those other locations I cited to hopefully refine this offering to future UMass journalism students.  During the semester, I was supplementing my studies with a book published back in a time when CNN was the only 24/7 television news outlet and the internet had not yet evolved into the World Wide Web we take for granted today.  The Political Pundits, a volume in the Praeger Series in Political Communication, served as a good companion text to fill in many of the "holes" that were not being addressed by the course.  I would hope that someone would do an update to include all of the changes that have occurred in the 22 years since it was published.

As I said above, this was my last class that I will be taking through the school so I must now take this information and experiences and start to look forward to what I might do with them in terms of a profession.  With a recent and totally unexpected setback in my primary employment situation, I might have to rely upon them a lot sooner than I expected.

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