Read “Into Africa” to see journalism in its heyday

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


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


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

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


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.

It’s not the technology, stupid

By now the simple facts are widely known.  On January 19th, a fraternity at Arizona State University hosted a party on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday during which students wore baggy clothes, flashed gang signs, and drank from watermelon-shaped cups.  Then, predictably, they posted photos of themselves on social media with hashtags like #blackoutformlk and #ihaveadream. 


This is hardly the first instance of self-immolation by Instagram.  Something similar took place at the University of Florida in 2012 when white frat members partied in “gangsta” outfits and blackface, which is difficult to write without cringing.  Photos were widely distributed and caused a furor.

Social media have played a role in crimes, as well.  In an infamous case in Ohio in 2012, two high school football players raped an unconscious 16-year-old girl at an alcohol-fueled party.  Photos and comments on social media were part of the subsequent investigation and trial, when the young men in question pled guilty and were sent to prison.

We are accustomed now to the arguments that inevitably trail these events.  The advent of social media and the ubiquity of smartphones have altered the behavioral landscape, more or less inciting these outrages and providing an easy means of showing off boneheaded or criminal behavior.

A moment’s reflection ought to leave us at least skeptical about such cause-and-effect claims.  Certainly moronic behavior on campuses has been with us for, well, centuries. 

That the word gets out and goes everywhere instantaneously is new, yes.  But focusing on that new reality and pointing to social media as though they were another communication demon misses the point. 

More, though, it’s another instance of what communication scholar Paul M. Dombrowski calls “technologism,” a confusion of technology with morality.  When we focus on the technologies that facilitate human behavior, we may miss the moral, ethical choices involved.

The important questions about what happened at ASU are not about social media.  They concern how young people could think to make crude, racist visual jokes in an organized insult of the Civil Rights icon of the 20th century.

2013: The year in (highly selective) review

A Bunch of Stuff that Happened in the Department of Communication
Rochester Institute of Technology



Keith Jenkins celebrated his first Father’s Day.

Ki-Young Lee took a leave of absence to spend the year in Korea.

Mike Johansson exemplified the department’s high seriousness when interviewed by local media on matters related to social media.


Bruce Austin was named director of the RIT Press.

Tracy Worrell was awarded tenure, at the very moment this photo was taken.


The Upside Down Book, a documentary film by Hinda Mandell and Matthew White, premiered and was named “Best Documentary” at the 2013 SNOB (Somewhere North of Boston) Film Festival.

Kelly Martin won the Richard and Virginia Eisenhart Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Among many other accomplishments,  Jonathan Schroeder, the William A. Kern Professor in Communications, hosted the Kern Symposium on Liberal Arts and Business and published, with Samantha Warren and Emma Bell, the Routledge Companion to Visual Organization.

Thanks to the hard work of Elizabeth Reeves O’Connor and Keri Barone, we were a hit at Imagine RIT, with the finals of the Public Speaking Contest


and the wildly successful impromptu speech contest “RIT Communicate This!”

Ammina Kothari spent a good portion of the summer in her native Tanzania studying the use of text messaging to raise awareness about AIDS.

Helen Adamson


helped see to it that a gaggle of graduate students made it out of here alive.

Grant Cos continued his work with the Golden Link Folk Singing Society and thinks he’s secretly playing guitar in his office.

Lori Marra and Kari Cameron joined the department as lecturers.

We welcomed the two newest members of the DOC family:





We also welcomed a new student assistant


Heather Chambers

and we welcomed back the indispensable


Hayley Stauss

The department hosted the Conference for Undergraduate Research in Communication for the tenth consecutive year, coordinated by Rudy Pugliese.  Since 2004, the conference has drawn more than 300 speakers from 27 colleges and universities from across the U.S.

David Neumann scored tickets for Phish at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve.


Andrea Hickerson, with Vic Perotti of the Saunders College of Business, received a second grant from the Knight Foundation to fund a Digital Journalism Incubator at RIT starting in Spring 2014.

Xiao Wang continued an impressive output of publications on the role of cognitions and emotions in guiding one’s intentions to perform social and health behaviors.

Melinda Beyerlein


continued to help keep at least one faculty member sane.

That is, your harmless drudge, who spent much of the year adjusting to a new role.


Happy New Year to a truly remarkable group that makes it a pleasure to come to what only we could call work.

Reading Day


We are enjoying our first “Reading Day” at RIT now that we’ve transitioned to semesters.  This is a single day without classes or exams before finals week begins on Friday the 13th.  Right now, at 9:44 a.m., out my window I see students trudging to the library, perhaps to study.  The building I’m in is pretty empty and very quiet.

At many colleges and universities in the U.S., reading days bleed into a longer period of stress prior to exams, variously known as “Hell week” or “Dead week.”  Rather than sleep, students cram for finals, write papers, complete projects, and most likely down quarts of energy drinks or other stimulants.  They also get a little weird.

My own reading this morning is on Wikipedia’s “Dead week” page, where I’ve learned what goes on during this time all over the country.  For instance:

  • Students on many campuses participate in primal screaming to relieve stress.  At Columbia, this takes place at midnight when they open windows and howl.  Carnegie Mellon adds a barbecue to the yelling.
  • Getting naked seems an important element at some schools.  For example, at Brown students charge nude through libraries handing out doughnuts.  At Penn State they run through town.
  • Longwood University kicks off finals week with a midnight breakfast served by faculty and administrators.
  • At Purdue—no kidding—they have a week of quiet.

The University of Colorado at Boulder got rid of reading days after they realized students weren’t studying after all but partying.  Maybe they had caught wind of what goes on at Pacific Lutheran University, which notwithstanding the church connection, drops all pretense and calls dead week “Drinking Time.” 



Semesters–what a concept


We are nearing the end of the first semester at RIT after many years on a quarter calendar.  For me, anyway, this inaugural term has been a delight.

I taught Professional Writing, a course focused on writing for magazines.  With 15 weeks to work with, students were able to tackle a major project, a feature article of 2,000 to 2,500 words, along with a complementary online piece of around 500 words. The work included secondary research and interviews and—the real benefit—three drafts with two weeks between each, something practically impossible under 10-week quarters.

This final week I’ve been meeting individually for a half hour with each of the students. I find I know their subjects thoroughly now, so we have substantive conversations that are much richer than what was typical in the past.  That is, I’ve also had time to learn.

The class meets Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 50 minutes.  At RIT for the past 25 years I’ve taught classes that met twice a week in two-hour blocks, which were especially good for in-class activities, and I miss that option now. But the 50-minute class has its strengths:  my energy doesn’t flag, for one thing, and the shorter time span focuses the mind.

There was one big challenge for fall.  After a second three-day weekend (we had none of these under quarters) we were instructed to follow the Monday schedule on Tuesday.  That is, Tuesday was Monday.  This led to all sorts of hilarious discussions.  I even resorted to a short PowerPoint presentation to work out the details with the class.

Aside from that hiccup, I’d say our switch to semesters has been a success.