Category Archives: admirations

Collaborative learning — The Big Race as a teachable moment

This semester, I pitched a little school-wide contest intended to encourage students to collaborate with others outside of their home programs. To get the event off the ground, I approached an emerging group that was more formally working with faculty member extraordinaire Donna Lindell toward building collaborative projects with outside ‘clients’. They had adopted public transit as their core topic of concern but were looking for ideas for projects. I had a wee bit of funding from a Social Action Fund grant intended to generate a student ‘culture jam’-type competitive event.

We met. We married ideas. A concept for a competition was born:

Social justice + transit. Make them work. Create a solution. Do it in 10 days. Pitch a dragon’s den of “real stakeholders”.

May the best idea win.

The 10.10.10 event promised a prize of some seed money to execute. I had no idea (or expectation) it would grow into something much larger. The judges (representatives from Metrolinx, Civic Action, and Centennial’s Institute for Global Citizenship and Equity) were very enthusiastic and supportive of all the creative ideas presented. They could award only one winner and went for one that could absorb many of the other great ideas. Kudos all around.

Not only did the judges select The Big Race, Metrolinx decided to back the project — a webisode series that follows three contestants through their efforts to get across the city by deadline using the transit system in Toronto. The first teaser premieres at Civic Action’s major transit forum this week.

Thinking about all the work that’s been done (and all the work ahead), I can’t be anything but proud of the students who found other students to formulate plans, do the filming, line up all the media and otherwise do their best to meet their deliverables. The Big Race propelled the goal of the original seed into something much bigger and better — a truly student-driven, collaborative effort across programs.

From the chair’s perch, it was even more amazing to watch the collaboration that flowed so beautifully between so many faculty and staff within the school, the wider college and our industry partners to support the students in their work.

The competition, and its adoption by a ‘real world client’ in Metrolinx, was a great example of everything we want to stand for — experiential, collaborative and relevant learning. But it wasn’t in a curriculum or course, wasn’t part of the plan, wasn’t part of anyone’s job description. It took an open mind, a sharing spirit and a willingness to see students succeed. The college community here delivered, and then some.

Upon reflection, this was one of the most significant ‘teachable moments’ I’ve seen in my career. It certainly fits the definition:

a teachable moment is an unplanned opportunity that arises in the classroom where a teacher has an ideal chance to offer insight to his or her students.

A teachable moment is not something that you can plan for; rather, it is a fleeting opportunity that must be sensed and seized by the teacher. Often it will require a brief digression that temporarily sidetracks the original lesson plan so that the teacher can explain a concept that has inadvertently captured the students’ collective interest.

Taking this tangent is worthwhile because it is organically timed to maximize impact on the students. Ultimately, the teachable moment could evolve into a full-blown lesson plan or unit of instruction.

Ultimately, a teachable moment requires us to stop directing the moment and go with the flow. See where it goes. Tweak, if necessary. Celebrate constantly. Let the adrenalin run.

The result, for the students who engaged in producing The Big Race, has been huge media attention.

Once The Big Race crosses the finish line, I think we’ll all be able to reflect upon how great (and exhilarating) it was to follow a teachable moment through to maximum effect, how we might replicate it in future and what it took, from a faculty and staff perspective, to ensure the opportunity flowed smoothly.

For now, I know the students and their supporters are in for a lot more work and a lot more deadline pressure.

I know they’ll be amazing and I’m so very thrilled to have been on the ride with them.


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Newsflash: the epoch has ended. Seriously.

Goodbye holocene (the epoch in planetary history that started 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age).

Welcome anthropocene.

It isn’t often that you can really claim, as a journalist, that a true “era” has ended… and usually that’s reserved for things like the close of Katie Couric’s term as a network television anchor.

This talk on TEDx Canberra outlines an amazing meta-view of the planet by  Will Steffen, the executive director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute.  It contains some of the arguments now being raised that we have moved into not only another era, but an entirely new epoch: the epoch of human beings.

Andrew Revkin of at the New York Times has great coverage of what this all means: it re-frames the conversation about the great risks we’re facing (climate change being only one of many). The new focus could be one in which we begin to delineate and respect the planet’s boundaries. We, as humans, must learn how to live within them.

So ends our ‘teen-style resource binge’, says Revkin. “We no longer have the luxury of ignorance.”

The evidence and arguments to establish the anthropocene are going through the various processes now, so it will take a couple of years to shake this all out.

But you heard it here first. 🙂 Talk about the scoop of the cent… well, you know.

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DIY Journalism – heeeeere’s a few economists

I am interested in aggregating blogs published as specialized journalism for public consumption by academics in other fields. Here’s a very good example (thanks, Chris!) created by a few Canadian economists.

I’ll put this under my blogroll at some point.


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We are intellectual prostitutes: Ketcham

I’m partway through a draft of an original blog essay, but don’t have time to finish it. I ran across this piece on TruthDig. So, my reaction to it will have to suffice. H/T to Christopher Ketcham for serving as my inspiration today.

His article, Intellectual Prostitution and the Myth of Objectivity, is a cynical and angry take on life as a writer-for-hire. But it caught for me the rock and the hard place I find between teaching mainstream journalism and teaching critical theory. From a critical theory perspective, Ketcham’s point comes as no surprise. He is, in fact, bang on in allegiance with “what they know to be true” about commercial journalism in general.

Journalists, on the other hand, would probably find this sort of rant offensive and worthy of little internalization.

Many journalists, it seems, still get mightily suspicious of anyone questioning their capacity for objective distance. But in the face of so much empirical evidence to the contrary, I find it harder to split myself in two. This ability to hang on to that ideal and still claim to be an academic expert in journalism never made sense to me. I equated it with contemporary doctors clinging to blood-letting in the face of antibiotics. I felt it was the journalism educator’s responsibility, if she were to become “more scholarly”,  to get her head around the academy’s Top 40. And most in that Top 40 is well beyond traditional positivistic thinking.

But then again, the Average Academic hasn’t necessarily done that intellectual work either. Who reads Foucault for fun when you’re paid to bring Plato or Hume to the masses? And once you do, you start to use phrases like subjugated knowledges and post-structuralism and have trouble reading the paper or watching television without conducting a substantive analytic critique of ruling relations.

The eyes around you glaze. Suddenly, you’re at risk of being part of that irrelevant liberal arts elite.

It is an uphill battle. I’ve tried, as a journalism educator, to work out ways to teach practice through the contemporary lenses of social theory as I’ve become more fluent.  One goal I had in curriculum development was to intentionally open up the entry-level curriculum to anti-positivist and critical perspectives on the social world. Four years later, I find myself marking a few senior essays claiming that the citizen cannot be a journalist because the journalists lacks what (presumably) the student has forked over big bucks to acquire. Training. Professional school. The ability to “be objective”.

Now, it wouldn’t be so bad, but this writing came after ingesting readings from qualitative sociology and symbolic interactionism. I was hoping to map for students a trail of how these other social scientists worked their way from positivistic objectivity through to post-positivism and beyond — in their quests for a more humane, complex and complete picture of ‘what’s happening’ in the everyday world.

Most got the idea. But a few couldn’t shake the belief that the citizens are incapable of delivering “just the facts”.

Antonio Gramsci would love this, I thought. Hegemony 101. Of course, I recall one Well-Placed-Academic (WPA) who fairly barked at me that the introduction of Gramsci’s theory as central to Journalism education (by introducing Hegemony to the lectures in the introductory class) was an “indoctrination”. WPA probably would consider this upper-year vestigial resistance by a few students to be the signs of rational minds rejecting the babble of contemporary ideologues messing up WPA’s academy.

Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway would explain WPA’s attitude by suggesting that the academy was made for guys like him.

And these are just the Battles of the Artsies that I’ve managed to figure out. Hard science, the world that dominates the academy, is still a positivistic enterprise. And my hard science buddies get even less exposure to Liberal Arts or Humanities in their curricula… much less critiques of how science works by people like Harding or Haraway.

So: the Coles Notes version for those who haven’t read them:  H & H are not saying hard science methods are a totally bad thing. They’re just saying there’s more than one way to look at things.

I think the academy is becoming more sensitive to this reality. You can prove global warming to be a scientific fact.  Suddenly, the issue becomes getting people to believe that fact. If you can’t solve the latter problem, we’re all in trouble. Of course, some of us (the hard scientists) will be a tad more bitter as we burn than others.

I haven’t figured out how to get people past the Semmelweis reflex.  Mine isn’t the only research and innovation effort recognizing the oppressive power of old thinking. It makes sense that the critical and emancipatory theorists held a lot of answers for me in that regard. I’ve stopped worrying whether or not that personal interest is “appropriate” to my role. That’s what makes me more of an academic these days, I guess. I’ve fallen prey to a “burning question”. Critics be damned!

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Nobody liked to be criticized. We usually react by labeling the critic with something that explains away our own limitations.

I’m also still trying to figure out if I can continue to see myself as a Journalist while I make this journey to becoming a PhD-holding person. Maybe I’m stubborn, but I don’t want to separate my two identities. I want to bring the Journalist in me along for the ride through the Top 40.

I realize that this means I’m going to sound as grumpy as Ketcham some days about the daily sausage factory that paid my bills for all those years. It doesn’t mean I’m an ingrate or disrespectful of those who still toil away at the broadcasters and papers that treated me like one of their own. On the contrary. I loved being a reporter. I never stopped feeling like one. Even now.


Filed under admirations