Yeah, we have new students!

18 Aug
RIT's annual Tiger Walk welcomes incoming freshman to campus

Thousands of incoming freshmen are welcomed to the RIT campus by faculty and staff each August as they march in the Tiger Walk on their way to the new student convocation

By Mike Johansson

The lifeblood is once again pulsing through the RIT campus this week as students return for the new school year.

It’s like having spring in mid-August. The campus that has had only a few students and faculty through the summer has felt a little sleepy, even dormant.

The walkways were almost empty, the hallways hollow and the quads were there in all of their well-manicured glory for almost no one to enjoy. But that all changes this week as students return breathing life back into the bricks and stone.

From returning second years (who are now “old hands”) to juniors and seniors and graduate students the mass of humanity that makes up the student body at RIT comes streaming back onto campus.

By the end of this week finding a seat in one of the many campus cafeterias and cafes may be hard (students who have spent the summer apart have so much catching up to do) and the lines will be back at the coffee shops and snack stops.

Then there are the welcome-back rituals. The most-fun of which is Tiger Walk (this year at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 20) which precedes the new student convocation in the Gordon Field House.

Faculty and staff don as much orange and brown as is humanly possible and gather up noisemakers and signs before assembling on the east side of the Field House. There they group in colleges and try to outdo each other with how loud they can be as the thousands of freshmen file by into convocation.

President Destler and Ritchie the mascot are always there high-fiving students as the RIT Pep Band tries to bring a semblance of musical order to the cacophony. It’s a great way to make new students feel welcome and help them see the liveliness that is RIT.

This is why it’s hard not to be excited by the new school year once students return. Like the robins that return each spring signifying new life and new beginnings so too does the return of students to the RIT campus.

Welcome back students … we’re delighted to have you back.

Suicide Contagion and Responsible Reporting

14 Aug

“Contagious” brings to mind the common cold, influenza, and, recently, the Ebola virus. But suicide?

Taking the death of Robin Williams as its jumping-off point, an article in today’s New York Times, The Science Behind Suicide Contagion, by Margot Sanger-Katz, describes how suicide can spread like a communicable disease, particularly due to sensationalist news stories. Reporting about suicide thus becomes a matter for responsible health communication and journalistic ethics.

Sanger-Katz points out that high-profile suicides, such as those of Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain, often lead to a temporary spike in suicide rates.

“Publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people,” writes Sanger-Katz.

This link has led to a set of guidelines for news media coverage of suicide deaths published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

For example, the recommendations advise reporters to “inform the audience without sensationalizing the suicide and minimize prominence.” Rather than the headline “Kurt Cobain Used Shotgun to Commit Suicide,” write “Kurt Cobain Dead at 27.”

As Sanger-Katz points out, such advice can seem unrealistic. Some details are so much a part of a story that leaving them out would be irresponsible. That Robin Williams killed himself IS the story.

But journalists will benefit from studying the guidelines, among which is a recommendation to include, in any story about suicide, information about suicide hotlines as well as other resources.

What the Times story brought home for me is how journalism can be implicated in health communication, unintentionally or otherwise.

Read “Into Africa” to see journalism in its heyday

10 Jul

downloadI’ve just finished reading Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard. The book recounts legendary British explorer Dr. David Livingstone’s nearly life-long (and ultimately failed) quest to locate the source of the Nile river, his disappearance for about five years, the frantic search to find him, and his celebrated “discovery” by American journalist Henry Morton Stanley. At the time, in the late 1860s, this was the story of the century and was covered avidly by newspapers in the US and England.

In fact, that Stanley—who actually wasn’t American, but you’ll have to read the book to learn about that angle—was looking for Livingstone at all had less to do with his own adventurousness than with the hard-charging entrepreneurship of his boss, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the rich and brash editor of the New York Herald.

Into Africa is as much about journalism in its heyday as about African explorers. Editors on either side of the Atlantic hunted for scoops just as avidly as the tabloid journalists of today and often with just as few scruples. Bennett, a tycoon and political operative, was a sort of Gilded Age Rupert Murdoch. He didn’t want to save Livingstone; he wanted to write screaming headlines.

And he got his wish. England had practically held its collective breath awaiting word about its beloved hero, Livingstone. Imagine Bennett’s delight, and the Brits’ dismay, that the world learned of the rescue from an upstart American newspaper.

Finally, I learned that Stanley, at least according to Stanley, really did say, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” That this greeting is recalled today is one measure of just how big the story was.

Academic Freedom Isn’t Just for Academics

6 Apr


A couple weeks ago RIT philosophy professor Larry Torcello published an essay on the website The Conversation titled Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent?  Perhaps the essay’s argument is now less significant than the reaction by many who refute the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic global warming.  Since the essay—or, more to the point, misrepresentations of its content—went viral, Torcello has been attacked in print, hounded by phone and email, and even threatened.  (Google “Torcello global warming” to get a sense of the ugliness.)

One way to see this as yet more proof, as if we needed it, that reasoned discourse has gone the way of the dodo.  Rather than engage those we disagree with in debate, we behave like guests on Jerry Springer.  And, of course, the Internet is like a strong wind behind a brush fire.

But at the heart of this controversy, and at the core of supportive responses, is the principle of academic freedom.  The idea is fairly simple but, I think, widely misunderstood and underappreciated.

The business of universities is the creation and dissemination of knowledge and art, work that benefits everyone, everywhere.  For that activity to flourish it must be unfettered.  That is, we as a society gain, ultimately, by allowing faculty and students to follow ideas wherever they lead, to take intellectual chances, to challenge the status quo.

Often those ideas raise hackles—they should.  Professor Torcello’s essay was bound to make some readers uncomfortable or even angry.  Responding with misrepresentations, vitriol, and threats of violence—that does nothing to advance anyone’s argument.  Pretty much the opposite.

Everyone has a stake in academic freedom. Apparently there are many who either disagree or don’t understand.



Health Communication Improves, Save Lives

2 Mar


Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced, as reported in the New York Times, “a 43 percent drop in the obesity rate among 2- to 5-year-old children over the past decade.”  This is encouraging news because kids in that age group who are obese are five times more likely to struggle with weight as adults, with significant consequences for their health. 

The overall news about obesity is mixed—no one is claiming victory yet.  However, the data represent “the first clear evidence that America’s youngest children have turned a corner in the obesity epidemic.”

More to my point, the drop in childhood obesity suggests an impact by health communication efforts to encourage better eating and exercise habits. These include, most notably, campaigns by Michelle Obama and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

Yes, Bloomberg came across as quixotic and even a little nutty with his ban on big gulp sodas.  But his efforts may be part of a trend.  The CDC reports that children consume fewer calories from sugary drinks than they did a decade ago. 

I’m reminded of another health communication campaign that began in earnest 50 years ago.  In 1964, Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General was published, officially linking smoking to a raft of health problems including cancer. 

In 1965, 42.4% of American adults smoked, according to the CDC.  Today that portion is 19%.

Of course, health communication is one cause among several that have produced these effects.  Still, it is no overstatement to claim that effective communication about health is a powerful tool in improving our lives.

The Department of Communication is getting in the game.  We offer a Health Communication track in the B.S. degree in Communication, an interdisciplinary Health Communication minor is in the works, and we are in the discussion stage of a master’s degree.  Look for more information about these efforts in future posts.



Book vs. iPad

25 Feb

Have you read a book so thick you were particularly proud of finishing it?  Say, Moby-Dick, or Crime and Punishment.  Maybe War and Peace?

Last summer I set myself the task of reading all four volumes of Robert Caro’s projected five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson, some 3,000 pages so far.  The fourth book was so hefty it was difficult to balance on my stomach as I read.  (I like to read lying down.)  Here’s a photo I took while reading by the pool.


Most of the time now I read books on an iPad (again, lying down), which is altogether a more convenient method.  No wrestling with a hefty tome, no turning pages, no, well, paper.  But when I’m done there’s no book to close and put on a shelf. There’s no monument to the work I put into reading.

I have a library at home, a room devoted to showing off my reading.  Here’s one wall:


The iPad I now prefer has me questioning the point of all that paper stuffed on shelves and taking up space.  Really, aren’t private libraries more boasting than indexing?  I can’t even take the time to organize my books.  When I want something I have to scan the shelves.  If I want to go back to a book on the iPad I can search electronically, effortlessly.

Still, I have a sentimental attachment to the big book, which is why I bought hard copies of Caro’s magisterial work.  But it sure was a hassle lugging those volumes around.

The ghost in the keyboard

11 Feb


I’m reading a novel, The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, by Katherine Pancol. It’s the story of a single mother in Paris who sort of ghostwrites herself out of poverty by penning best-selling fiction about what she knows, medieval Europe (she’s a Ph.D.) and allowing her sister to take the fame but none of the cash (she’s rich but needy). The story reminds me of another book I enjoyed, Author From a Savage People,  by Bette Pesetsky, also about a woman ghostwriter.  In both cases, the secret authors use their talents to wreak revenge on the men who use them.

I’m drawn to these stories because I, too, am a ghostwriter, although only for the money and not to get even with anyone.  I write mostly trade journal articles about science and technology for a corporation on a work-for-hire basis.  Someone in the company gets the byline, and I get the check.

This sort of writing-just-for-the-money arrangement that cedes authorship to a non-writer bothers some people.  They see it, I think, as a fraud or an insult to the art of writing.

A couple things about what I do.  I work closely with subject matter experts who become the “authors” of the articles whose content they provide and vet, and sometimes write in part.  If anyone wants more information on the topic, he or she will contact the expert, not me, which is exactly how it should be.  This sort of arrangement is rather commonplace in organizations, which hire writers to do the writing, others to be the authorities.  When an Op-Ed article by a CEO appears in the newspaper, odds are the CEO did not write it.  What  titan of business has time for that sort of thing?

This is not to argue that corporate ghosting is right because it takes place often.  It is to point out that in some settings writing is part of the division of labor and not something accomplished by a struggling artist.  That someone else takes credit is part of the deal.

Is it a fraud?  Well, think of how often we receive messages from someone who is not the author–for instance, practically every speech by a President.  The ideas are his (we certainly hope) but the phrasing and form come from ghosts.

In fact, it’s no stretch to imagine all manner of writing haunted by ghosts:  they’re called editors.


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