The joy of fiction

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Today I allowed myself to recover from a cold and shirk my responsibilities, if only for a short while. An event lured me in with the following description:

“Join second-year MFA in Creative Writing students Emily Davidson, Natalie Thompson, and Sigal Samuel, and first-year MFA Michelle Turner, in an evening of selected readings. Green College’s resident writers will present a variety of original poetry and prose, and will discuss what goes into constructing a creative work inside the confines of an academic institution. This is your chance to see what writers get up to, and hear pieces from the outgoing Greenies’ thesis manuscripts. Be there, or be a dangling modifier.”

Four talented women, who I am lucky to call friends, shared their works with an engrossed audience. This sniffling journalist sat among the onlookers, pining for the multisyllabic words and creative license that writers of fiction enjoy.

At the risk of romanticizing a difficult craft, I must say I was amazed by how effortless it seemed. These writers carved beauty out of the blocks of everyday experience. It was rejuvenating and not the least bit pretentious.

The event was to last an hour — a block of time that I deemed reasonably brief — but of course it ran longer, and is still running inside me, even now, as I sit in my pajama pants at home.

My sinuses have cleared and I feel like my cold has finally subsided.
I do believe the aesthetic experience expedited my recovery.

These words, however clumsy, are a mild-mannered ode to writers with more colour on their palettes and more time before their deadlines.

Thank you Michelle, Natalie, Sigal, and Emily.


Aspiring journalists: globetrotting and google can be good for you

I know it seems like I’ve been cheating on this blog again, but I can explain, I swear! I think about the Fab Files all the time. It’s still the most important blog to me.

Okay, I admit it: I’ve been channeling most of my efforts into “So, You Want to be a Journalist?” — an anthology of original advice for those that want to enter journalism and help shape the future of news. But the good news is: that blog and this one can be friends!

Here are two wonderful new entries by two awesome young women:

The interview begins online. How do you introduce yourself?

By Alejandra (Alex) Hering

In the words of online marketing trailblazer, Gary Vaynerchuck, “Everything has changed.” For journalists, the internet and social media platforms have changed everything about the way we do our jobs and how our boss’ boss makes money. As a result, today’s top editors are looking for journalists who can do it all, for less.

This is a massive opportunity. Take the time to understand how the web works, how users make money online, and how you can harness that into your next big break. For a competitive edge, you have to think bigger than print clippings in folders that you bring to interviews. The interview begins online when prospective employers and collaborators google you

Continue reading …

Stand out. Go global!

By Jasmeet Sidhu

The journalism business in Canada can be a tough nut to crack into, especially if you are not in a j-school (I went to the University of Toronto and did Peace and Conflict Studies). There are only a handful of internships at a handful of major newspapers, television outlets etc.

However, one way to really distinguish yourself, gain incredible skills in reporting, and really add a completely unique perspective to your writing and the way you look at issues, is to carve out your own opportunities around the world.

Continue reading …

Dashboard tells me I have 48 active subscribers, but since you lovely folks are not part of my extended family, I can’t bank on you loving me unconditionally. I have to tell you that my blogging will probably continue to be spotty until finals are over (I am, after all, a frantic grad student) but I will still try my darndest to keep the content a-flowin’

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Should entrepreneurial journalists flock to grad schools?

Allow me to play devil’s advocate on this one: I’m not convinced that universities are the best incubators for entrepreneurs.

In the video embedded above, we see Jeff Jarvis sitting in front of a roomful of prospective students, telling them all about CUNY’s new entrepreneurial journalism program. His non-verbal cues say, “I’m the teacher, and you’re the student. Take our courses, learn from us” — and then, I suppose, come out free-thinking mavericks? Hmm.

Although Jarvis mentioned his openness to changing the details of the course (whether they meet on Mondays, for instance) decision-making power is still concentrated in the hands of the course designers. The would-be students were invited to take part by asking questions, but the agenda was already set, the program courses designed, and the available seats ready to be warmed. Here are a few things I wonder:

Lecture Hall by English 106 on Flickr

(1) The pitch and platform matter. Is this really the best they could do?

I doubt that the school’s target demographic would be inspired by this bland lecture format. The room was presumably full of risk-takers with ideas and entrepreneurial spirit, but did their presence matter? Were their responses really part of the event? I mean, it may just be an information session, but if CUNY is trying to revolutionize journalistic pedagogy, couldn’t they have re-imagined the first impression?

As I watched Jarvis pitch the program, I kept thinking about his book What Would Google Do? In it, he extols the virtues of free, open, searchable, linkable media but does so in a print format, available for purchase and decidedly outside of the link economy. (I’m a new media TA, and this irony was pointed out by several first-year students who reviewed his book.)

This isn’t meant to be personal – it may be systemic. As Clay Shirky notes, established institutions tend to show bias in favour of existing systems, which “turns into a liability in times of revolution.” In periods of transition, we witness the mismatched results of applying old logics to new circumstances.

In this case, an old-fashioned presentation to promote a cutting-edge program.

If J-schools teaching entrepreneurialism don’t want to inadvertently become self-parodies, shouldn’t they acknowledge the ways in which they, too, subscribe to the top-down tendencies of institutions?

(2) Do they know who’s in the room?

Rarely do we see classrooms that are pedagogical portraitures of the students that inhabit them. That doesn’t seem to be the point of mass education.

Really, why would entrepreneurial journalists pay tuition to sit in formal classroom settings as preparation for a 21st century market that no one can yet describe? Do they see it as an island of certainty in uncertain times?

Maybe they’re figuring out ways to destroy it from within. I mean, Jarvis does say the course teaches students to disrupt legacy businesses. He later laughs nervously when describing an open-source learning project one of his students is working on, as it may disrupt the in-class model that now employs him.

As Ken Robinson argues in an RSA speech (embedded below), our pedagogical structures have been modeled in the image and interests of industrialism, and built on the logic of the enlightenment. Schools are organized with a production line mentality.

Yes, Jarvis touched on how great student feedback would be – but bringing collaboration to the classroom is about much more than feedback. Entrepreneurs are more likely to be skilled in the divergent thinking (the ability to think laterally and see lots of possible answers to a question) and harnessing that talent should be built into the very DNA of an entrepreneurial program.

To refuse standardization means throwing away the template and rethinking education itself — which leads me to my last question.

(3) Will these schools be as innovative as they expect their students to be?

We may see more of these EJ programs opening up in the next few years (another was recently announced at King’s College in Halifax). I hope their founders realize that teaching this stuff shouldn’t be a matter of crafting a different syllabus, but rather rethinking very basic mechanisms. For instance, they need systems for assigning value to unconventional thinking, deviance, and even failure — none of which are rewarded in mainstream education.

Should EJ school be a place where you learn a new skill set, or should it be about an entirely different mindset? Will the schools recruit non-traditional candidates? CUNY mentions its ethnic diversity and the presence of journalists from under-represented communities, but what about the big filter called capital-E education?

Both King’s College and CUNY have established their programs at the graduate level. Is this too high up? Some famous journalists didn’t even complete high school (June Callwood, Peter Mansbridge). What about mid-career journalists who don’t have undergraduate degrees but do have newsroom experience?

Could EJ school be a place for those who question authority, ask uncomfortable questions, and propose ridiculous ideas? A place for those who resist classroom/newsroom conditioning, and the comfort and convenience of pack journalism? A place of possibility and inspiration, where professors aren’t at podiums and students don’t sit in neat rows?

Ultimately, my question is: are entrepreneurial J-schools just another place where you might go to learn – or do they have to, fundamentally, be a place where you go to unlearn?

What’s more, do these places of learning have to be associated with universities at all?


Full disclosure: This reflection was originally written to spark discussion in my media ethics and leadership class. If you don’t normally follow my blog, you should be aware that I am in graduate school for journalism. Clearly, I think there are advantages to preparing for the profession through higher education. Still, I am genuinely curious about how entrepreneurial spirit would fare in the ivory tower. I welcome your thoughts!