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Advice to an educator

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Working at a university is interesting. One spends a great deal of time with people who never age. To counter the angst this can occasionally cause, and to remind myself that I’ve arrived where I am by choice, not accident, I’ve written the following letter from my young self to my present self. (Thanks to this month’s Carnival of Journalism for inspiring this reflective moment.)

Park Güell, Barcelona, 2002.

It’s Christmas, 1977. I’m a junior in college and still haven’t chosen a major. My strategy has been to take classes that sound interesting. My father gives me another lecture and pulls out the latest Berkeley catalog. He tells me to write down every course I’ve taken and figure out which major will get me the closest to graduating. It takes me a number of hours to work through by hand all the possibilities but I finally figure it out: Political Economy of Natural Resources. The following semester I declare my major in a subject I don’t even understand and by May, 1978 I’ve graduated.

Now it’s Christmas, 1980, and I’ve nearly finished my master’s degree in Science, Technology and Public Policy from George Washington University, another degree I only partially understand. I am facing a choice: do I stay in Washington DC and look for the perfect DC career job? Or do I move back to California, my family and a boyfriend I’ve been breaking up with for years? A professional job in an exciting town or a friendship I need closure on?

I decide I can find a job anywhere if I try hard enough; finding what would make me happy might be harder. So I choose California, heading back west where my parents and grandparents also made their way.

Within two months I am engaged. The boyfriend turned out to be even better than I remembered. But now we face a choice together: do we look for career jobs and figure out where to settle down? Or do we take this chance to do something crazy?

We go for crazy. We work temp jobs for the Forest Service. I drive a garbage truck called the Maggot Wagon. I work as a temporary clerical worker at Pier 39 in SF. We save all our money and decide to marry on the sixth anniversary of our first kiss.

By Christmas, 1981 we are in New Zealand. We eat strawberries and play tennis. In April we fly to Australia. We spend two months working temp jobs in Sydney. We spend a week on the Great Barrier Reef. We drive across the outback and break down.

In August we fly to Bali, totally unprepared for life in a foreign language. We figure it out and spend my birthday at an archeological site on Java. After a month we go to Singapore, another month in Malaysia. We find our way to a baby elephant training camp in Thailand and spend time in Chiang Mai. In October, we land in Calcutta, seasoned travelers.

We trek for a month in Nepal and eat our Thanksgiving turkey in Kathmandu. By Christmas we are in Delhi and we spend sunrise on New Year’s Day at the Taj Mahal. We ride camels in Rajastan and tour a toothpaste factory in Bombay. In the spring we head for Europe, luxuriating in a tiny pension in Rome and a cooking for a Servas host in Paris. We skip Frankfurt but land in London with a sister for a month.

And then it’s over. We return to California, broke, happy, together. We find jobs at a non-profit in Marin County. We decide to go back to graduate school and have children at the same time. We spend seven years living in a 500-square foot apartment in Berkeley, have three children, live on the cheap, scrape by.

As your younger self, I want you to remember other Christmas’s too. The one in Strasbourg, France, when you took the kids to Europe for seven months and taught in Spain. The year you spent New Year’s with your son in Patagonia. The Christmas just a few years ago when all five of you drove from Rome to Switzerland in an old van and went skiing. The years you spent holidays playing bunco with friends in the Bay area.

Remember? And now, now I see into the future — it’s Christmas, 2013. You are worried that you’re not productive enough. You think you never spent enough time working as a professional journalist. You never won any prizes. You haven’t landed any big grants. You didn’t submit any conference papers this fall. You know you need to be writing more research articles for publication. You need to grade faster and answer all your email. You think you should have paid more attention to your career and achieved more.

I’m writing this letter to remind you that you made some really good choices back then. You know what? You just celebrated your 32nd wedding anniversary. Your children are happy and doing their own crazy things. Your students will get over waiting for grades. You can still write something worth reading. You’ll dump all your email and no one will suffer.

So … here’s my advice to my older self: Own your choices. Remember what’s important long term and remind your students. Live your values and don’t get caught up in comparisons. Don’t play it safe. Keep making those risky choices you made when you were 21, and when you’re 90, you’ll be really glad you were wild in your 50s.

Written by Donica

December 21st, 2013 at 11:20 pm

News for a future

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Oldest astronomical clock still in operation, built in 1410, Prague. (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

Oldest astronomical clock still in operation, built in 1410, Prague. (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

I’ve been recently inspired by the work of the Long Now Foundation and a book by Stewart Brand about The Clock of the Long Now. It makes me think that one problem with the news is its relationship with time.

Whether you expected the Jetsons, Hal 9000 or the Singularity, there was a time when we had collective imagination about some kind of future. Now the future is like a parody of itself. Who has time to think about the future?

Michael Chabon‘s description of his son’s vision of the future reveals a bleakness once reserved for the most cynical old people: “If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely global warming, he says—floods, storms, desertification—but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come… My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavor and creation, for granted. He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book.”

News has a lot to do with this sense of impending disaster. We observe and record the disasters of the world in seconds and minutes. It exhausts our ability to think in months and years. We report as if the president of the United States should be able to reverse an economic disaster years in the making before the next poll. We are so busy recording hourly drama that we’re losing the capacity to prepare for the deep transformations necessary to sustain what we know and love. We’re not only exhausting ourselves, we are actively exhausting the imagination of everyone who comes in contact with the news.

Analog communication set rhythms that governed the producers and consumers of news. An hourly schedule, perhaps, for radio. A 24-hour period for early television news and newspapers. A weekly, biweekly or monthly cycle for magazines. Deadlines were incessant but still provided moments for reflection, release, escape. The news could be consumed over dinner and then life would resume.

Digital news imposes no deadlines. The only deadlines we live by are those we impose ourselves and we break those constantly. A friend told me about a reporter at The New York Times who pitched a story to his editor and discovered the Times had already published an identical story the month before. And he had written it. In the blur of reporting, writing, posting he had no memory of it whatsoever.

As journalists, we have no external deadlines with space between; just one long deadline with no relief. As consumers we have no break between breaking news.  News is now a river that rushes through every channel and vein in our lives; it binds the personal and private with the public and universal. It takes the rhythm of daily living and invades every moment. The pace is neither comprehendible or sustainable.

We need to create news that helps people order their thinking and understanding. We need a longer now for the news.

This doesn’t mean we give up on timely updates. Perhaps it means we isolate those updates to manageable spaces and create new spaces for context, longer views, reflection, and wisdom. A time-starved media narrative is robbing us of a sense of future possibility at the precise moment we most need it. (See Matt Thompson’s pleas for context.)

We also need a longer view for managing digital news organizations. John Kao (Innovation Nation) says it well:

“We need to see our work on innovation as involving disciplined practice, not the quest for short-term wins. This is an obvious problem in our instant-gratification, quarterly-earnings-based culture in which corporate managers (and politicians) are evaluated and rewarded based on their success at maintaining a continuous upward trend that produces immediate results. At times, it seems like the question ‘What have you done for me lately’ approaches the status of a business model. If resource allocation, decision-making processes, and career-path planning all obey a short-term logic, while the important challenges facing both organizations and society are mostly long term, isn’t the disconnect obvious?”

Most digital journalism resembles an endless billboard of digital clocks measuring only seconds. There are no minutes, no hours, no days, no weeks, no months, no years, no decades, no centuries.

This approach to the news is robbing our politicians of the time and patience needed to craft policy and for our citizens to understand it. It blurs the present and obliterates the future.

Communication technology may be driven by Moore’s Law but our minds and emotions do not have the flexibility of integrated circuits. Cramming more and more in a denser space and time will not end well. Our challenge is to create news that has context for longer time periods than a very short now.

In “The Clock of the Long Now,” Stewart Brand notes that the ancient Greeks had two kinds of time. He writes: “Kairos is the time of cleverness, chronos the time of wisdom.”

How might a newsroom with routines measured by chronos rather than kairos operate? What would news look like that assumes the well being of our children’s children’s children matters to the decisions we make today?

Imagine a journalism that defined value by its worth to future generations. That would be a very, very different front page.

Written by Donica

August 16th, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Posted in journalism,time