My Substitute Semester
It began with a vivid dream, in which REM sleep metamorphoses into the awakened conscience, providing a vision of what will or ought to be. In reality, I had a class to teach in five hours. However, at 4 a.m., the hallucinatory dream-realm seemed more real to me than irrational: Benjamin Franklin had visited me with a message for a student in media ethics.
Any teacher, let alone administrator, who would publicize such a visitation, is due for sabbatical or retirement. I get that. But this was an extraordinary time for me. A colleague had passed away suddenly, and I had volunteered to take her class. As a journalism director, I had no classroom responsibilities. The last time I taught media ethics was spring 2003 in my last quarter at Ohio University, where I worked before taking the Iowa State University position.
This is an account of what began as a dream and ended as an affirmation about the importance of higher education.
In the asynchronous landscape of the conscience, I did not meet the historic Ben Franklin with ponytail and coonskin cap. History is insignificant in the absence of time. Reputation is not.
Imagine learning without warning that a powerful or an influential person — Angela Merkel, say, or Nelson Mandela — was en route to your home. What would be the first thing on your mind?
I had to clean the house. Hence began the whirr of imagery dusting, washing dishes, vacuuming, as the doorbell rang like a school bell, or liberty bell maybe, now that I think of it.
In a blink, the house was clean and Franklin across from me. "I have an important message for one of your students. She is going to change the country."
"Mr. Franklin," I said — yes, I called him that — "I am grateful for your visit."
"You have nothing to do with it. I’m here because of a student. I have three words for her."
He shared them, and I awoke bedazzled and apprehensive.
I entered Room 169 in Hamilton Hall. The class was still grieving the loss of one of Iowa State’s most iconic professors, Barbara Mack, who died on Aug. 23 after teaching the first two sessions of media ethics. (See “24 Hours” about the shock of her passing.)
Not only was I replacing a beloved professor, in the eyes of my students I was the quintessential administrator with no classroom experience and with antiquated lectures of the pre-digital age. Worse, I had substituted the existing syllabus of Professor Mack with one of my own, containing more philosophy than newsroom practice. (I would adjust for that by requiring the class to do an online media portfolio with personal ethics statement.)
Instinctively I knew I had to gain students’ trust, and that’s when I decided to share with them my Franklin dream.
I still recall the puzzled looks of 65 students. I pressed on, sharing common knowledge about Franklin as journalist and highlighting his contribution to virtue ethics.
When he was 20, about the age of my students, he devised an ethical plan to shape his life, espousing the virtues of "resolution" (promise keeping), "tranquility" (serenity during incivility), "frugality," "industry," "sincerity," "justice," "moderation" and, above all, "humility."
All of those virtues are practiced still in Iowa, known for its work ethic.
I told them my dream and those three important words: "Read, read, read."
After lecture, I returned to my office and read several e-mails from women who felt that Franklin was speaking directly to them. They knew they were going to make a difference, and this was some sort of affirmation from the beyond.
That was the first inkling that times had changed. I thought students would be more skeptical.
Here is one such e-mail: "I meant to come in to talk to you today, and actually bumped into you in the Daily newsroom, but you seemed to be all over the place doing business, so I decided to e-mail you instead.… I would like to give you some background on your Benjamin Franklin dream in saying he was probably speaking about me!"
About a dozen students in media ethics also worked for our independent newspaper, the Daily. Barbara Mack was on the publication board. I was going to forward those e-mails to her when I remembered she was no longer with us. Or maybe like Franklin, she was, in spirit.
Instead, I shared the e-mails with our office manager, Kathy Box. She said something that rang true about our role as teachers. "We should approach every class believing there are students who will change the world for the better."
Over the course of the semester, those students changed me. Keep in mind it had been a decade since I had taught this class. There were no smartphones then. A small percentage of the typical campus had wireless in 2003. Now technology has exploded with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype and omnipresent media and blogs that are part of the modern classroom and our lives.
During the first few weeks, some students were wary about my teaching methods emphasizing reading. Whereas Barbara Mack, a lawyer (and you need to be if you dare do this) confiscated smartphones if students used them during lecture, I paid them no heed whatsoever. "Text away," I said, asking students to sit in rows nearest the exit if they wanted to network socially. These were "liberty seats," allowing students to come and go as they pleased. "It’s your tuition dollar."
At first, a dozen or so students embraced that policy, believing it was lenient, until the midterm. At Iowa State, professors must report to the registrar all those students earning a C- or lower. Out of the 65, I reported a third of the class — a fair distribution of grades, I thought. To students, this was alarming. Many needed media ethics for graduation. They couldn’t just drop the class without setting themselves back careerwise and financially.
Ah, the beauty of extra credit! I had forgotten about that, too, in addition to grade inflation. Students could earn points reading, writing and attending guest lectures, presentations and forums. Moreover, I told them, they could earn more credit if their online portfolios wowed me. This was an opportunity for seniors to work for themselves and create a project that would help them secure a job upon graduation.
To be honest, though, some stereotypes about today’s digital natives were true, initially at least. For instance, I posted all of my lectures, journal exercises, recordings, videos and presentations on "myethicsclass.com" — interesting, isn’t it, that I could buy that domain? I also posted reviews for exams whose answers were available 24/7 via Internet. (After the abysmal midterm exam, students realized the importance of “read, read, read.”)
While students consumed technology, many in the class did not know basic HTML or CSS. I had to create a slideshow tutorial to help them with final projects. I also scheduled one-on-one advising sessions to fix glitches in their online portfolios, using the computer as an excuse to interact with and get to know students interpersonally.
They did have trouble thinking critically. I had not fully anticipated how much this skill had been undermined by technology, which tends to provide answers rather than processes. I went as far as giving "critical thinking" prizes every time a student correctly applied an ethics tenet. Throughout the semester, I gave only four such prizes — a personalized pad and pen.
Students made up for lack of critical thinking with a keen visual sense and entrepreneurial talent, as evidenced in their ethics portfolios.
What surprised me in my substitute semester was how efficient teaching had become because of technology, if one knows how to use it for educational purposes.
In a few weeks I managed an entire course revision, updating lectures and using search engines, online libraries and databanks to find everything that I needed at a mere click of a button — something my students had mastered but occasionally misused, not being able to tell critically the veracity or authenticity of a site.
Better still, I didn’t have to pay travel expenses for experts to speak to my classes, affirming my lectures and lessons. I could Skype them in to do just that. For instance I called on Jeffrey Howe, a former media ethics student at Ohio and now an assistant professor at Northeastern University, to critique students’ online ethics portfolio. (Howe also writes for Wired and is creator of the concept of "crowdsourcing," also discussed in my class.)
I could provide links to news shows and historic moments and then show them in class. Discussing the power of the conscience, we viewed a journalism video on YouTube about "Tank Man," who stopped a line of tanks during the 1989 student uprising at Tiananmen Square.
A Chinese student in ethics class had never seen the Tank Man video before. “This is why I came to study in America,” she said.
Later in the semester I showed a powerful CNN video about the Kent State uprising. Several of my American students had never heard about this before, especially as told through the eyes of the student journalists who covered the fatal shootings in 1970.
Another of my Chinese students remarked about the similarities between Tiananmen and Kent State uprisings. (She got a critical thinking pad and pen, by the way.)
I could check stats on the class blog to see how many students were reading posts. I could communicate with them throughout the week, using social networks and Blackboard, commenting on current affairs and sending links to augment times in class when questions arose or tangents were taken.
Case in point: We were studying the concept of "freedom of conscience" when I mentioned the bravery of 22-year-old Sophie Scholl, part of a journalism resistance group, "The White Rose," that harangued Nazis in World War II with philosophy-based newsletters about social justice.
I provided links to her life and then purchased from Amazon several copies of the DVD, "Sophie Scholl — The Final Days." Several students checked out the video and others found it on Netflix.
A transfer student who watched clips from the movie confessed that Scholl made her feel insignificant because she wanted to be as brave as her and make a contribution to society, although she doubted she would ever do so.
"Remember the Franklin dream," I told her. "He could have been speaking about you."
She smiled in recognition.
That gave me an idea. In time for the next class I acquired a 1787 coin that Franklin purportedly designed, the "Fugio" cent, and passed it around the class. “You are holding history,” I said. Then we explicated mottos on the coin whose obverse inscription, “Fugio,” is Latin for "I flee," referring to the blink of linear time. The obverse has another motto — “Mind your business” — which symbolizes “industry” and also bespeaks the entrepreneurial genius of today’s students. The reverse has 13 interlocking links, representing the original colonies, with the inscription, “We are one.” This affirms unity.
At that moment, teacher and students were one, thanks again to Benjamin Franklin.
When the term ended, many students met their grading goals by attending extra-credit events. Fewer than 10 students earned C- to F, a typical distribution.
I will keep teaching media ethics. My substitute semester helped me understand the challenges and needs of faculty. I will do all I can to provide resources.
As for dreams, my Franklin visitation probably says more about me than about teaching. However, his message about reading is as essential as ever if we are to help students realize their own dreams and contribute more to society.
In my substitute semester I learned there is still no substitute for that.
Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms, both published by Oxford University Press and winners of the Clifford G. Christians Awards for Research in Media Ethics.
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