Monday, April 25, 2011


What's wrong with a fictional sport, you ask?

Well, quite a bit, when you consider the strangle hold someone else's creative mind has placed over the minds and creative spirit of our future movers and shakers.

Last week I was able to visit a half dozen college campuses along the fabled northeast corridor. In the majority, reference was made to either Harry Potter, Quidditch, or even quidditch tournaments, of all things. The only school that didn't mention this fictional endeavor was a real-world Ivy League institution that is riding the crest of the popularity wave, and doesn't seem to need to support of muggles or wizards to ensure further popularity.

For colleges that wish to promote their uniqueness, and how they allow individual students to blossom into free thinkers, with independently created majors, and universal access to world class faculty, you would think they would have something more in common than a game which involves young adults parading about green space with a broom out their ass. Or is it out there arse, if you want to say it in the traditional English.

Just about everywhere on tour, students, and in some cases admissions department staff, referenced the proximity of their school to the holy grail of media popularity: the Harry Potter legacy.

A student guide at NYU noted that Emma Watson had transferred from Brown. At Tufts, the only reference to 'that university in Cambridge' was to note Tufts' recent defeat of Harvard in some sort of quidditch match. At Wesleyan there were repeated references to quidditch, but, then again, the enthusiastic tour guide just wouldn't stop raving about Middletown, Connecticut, so try and figure that one out. Even at Boston University, admissions staff proudly mentioned BU's contribution to this bizarre world of pop entertainment and dubious athletics.

Columbia, and Columbia alone, deviated from what fast become the norm, and neglected to enter the arms war, or is it brooms battle, over quidditch. But they're in NYC, enjoyed an obscene number of applicants for this fall's entering class, and are riding a wave of popularity not seen since the period when activist Mark Rudd took over the campus in '68 and rocker Jim Carroll dropped out in the mid 70's.

Early childhood behavior experts emphasize the importance of play, and creative activities for children. But that's for early childhood. And while there's an irony in seeing quidditch taking off on all these fancy northeast campuses, it would be even better to see a campus go quidditch free, taking a stand in support of real independent thinking, while helping these coddled kids recognize they are actually adults, after all.

And that's the way it is, as another cranky old man says.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The College Tour

It’s one of those rites of passage, like learning to drive, experiencing your first kiss, or even swimming in the ocean.
The junior year college tour.
If you’re part of the vast American middle class, you’ve probably been part of this in one form or another. Whether as the primary college student, or as a younger sibling, or perhaps just as the parent or tag along relatives, you’ve ended up traipsing across a bevy of college campuses, wondering what this place will have to inspire and impress the lump ‘o 17 year old you dragged with you for the afternoon.
The thing is, this is actually quite an important time, and more than a mere rite of spring. It’s an opportunity for young people to help to begin to define themselves, their interests, their desires, and their sense of being as individuals in this world.
But first they have to be awake, get the coffee or cola out of their teeth, decide upon the proper/perfect/appropriate/acceptable outfit du jour, and make it to the damn campus on time. Well, the latter part is usually the responsibility of the parental unit, though that can be compromised by any one of several actions taken by the lump ‘o 17 year old.
After a few days of concentrated college touring, which has included seeing the same faces on different campuses on succeeding days, dozens of questions from parents and prospective students alike that were already answered on the website’s main page, and an assortment of comic light moments, I have the following observations:

Colleges are different. But know what the college represents itself to be, so that you can see how close it gets in the overview presentation.
Student guides provide a great perspective on the overall population, even if they’re a turbocharged version of the average student at the school.
People are clueless. HS students don’t appear to know what they want from a college at this point, and their parents appear to know even less.
Colleges at this point just want you to apply. It pads their application numbers, makes them appear more selective, and more than pays for the recent graduates added to the admissions office staff.
If a school will not accept AP or IB scores other than for placement, then you’re in a serious academic institution. If the school will give you credit for AP scores, then you’re not at a very demanding place.
Multi-tasking has taken over. Today’s undergraduates all seem to be double-majoring, or triple-minoring. No one has a singular focus any longer.
There are woefully few people of color on campus visits.
If your tour guide insists on walking backwards throughout the tour, don’t even bother to give that school any further consideration.
If the walkways on the main campus are asphalt, and not concrete, cement, or brick, don’t bother with this school. (for the cognizati, yes, Harvard Yard is asphalt, but it’s rimmed in brick. On the other hand, it’s Harvard, so that’s your problem)
Everything is up in the air when it comes to admission. The buzzword now is passion, but how many 17 year olds are passionate, about anything, let alone able to define or articulate their passion in a convincing and impressive essay. But learning about schools from the time their sneakers are on the ground this spring can go a long way to reducing surprises post-admission, or even unnecessary applications this coming fall.

Undoubtedly, there will be more to come. This process is just building at this point, and for this excursion, we just covered the I-95 corridor. I have heard there are colleges across the entire United States. So this could grow.
Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Nose Pressed Against the Media Window

Every once in a while I have the opportunity to get up close with some of the pressing issues facing our media landscape. At least from my perspective.

Just last week I may have been among the handful of people who spent time at both FOX News and at National Public Radio.

This was not a test, nor did I lose a bet. Each visit was for a meeting, and each visit provided perspective on why each institution, regardless of claims to the contrary, just doesn’t represent the universe of Americans who are cast across this vast country.

Over at FOX, there’s an apparent order, and hierarchy. It’s defined by the relatively larger spaces that each producer enjoys. Not cubicles, or banks of open space, mind you, but relatively comfy workstations with around 100 square feet of space, more than on average in other newsrooms. That’s one thing. Another is personal appearance. Journalists these days, at least those among us who toil behind the camera, have become every more comfortable in our clothes in this century. That’s not the impression at FOX. There, virtually everyone, both men and women, seem to be dressing from a workplace standard that hasn’t been updated since the election of George H.W. Bush. Men in ties, mostly, and women in sharp outfits. It’s a serious workplace, with everyone looking relatively crisp, and quite professional.

And then there’s the overall appearance. The FOX News Washington bureau looks like a workplace from before the election of a Bush as President. It’s a white place. There were so many white men milling about, and passing through corridors, that you would think you fell into a casting call for ‘Mad Men.’ Neat, clean looks, cropped hair, and scrubbed pink and alabaster faces seemed to fill in most every desk and workstation and control room seat. Yes, that’s often the look in many downtown Washington offices, even in 2011, but not to this extent. Not at all.

Time at NPR provided a visible contrast. Diversity rules the roost. A progressive hipness infuses every space in the building, from the leftover books bin, which had more books on sports than on policy, to the entry space, which provides a passel of images of NPR correspondents from across the nation and the world. It’s Portlandia, but on the edge of what used to be DC’s Chinatown.

The dress at NPR is significantly casual. Yes, it’s radio, after all, but some of the producers and editors must have meetings with sources outside of the newsroom every so often. And the workspace, well, there is need for more space, and more comfortable space, for all at NPR. Workstations are thrust one into the other, the carpets are a bit ratty in places, and there are reports of mice running across the floors.

But the most distinguishing characteristic, from a media perspective, was what was on the tv screens at NPR. Yes, there are television at NPR. While many who work for this public media provider may eschew televisions in their personal life, professionally they at least recognize the significance of images and visual reporting. And towards that end there are monitors near the news boards within each show’s primary news desk.

At the location I visited, all four televisions were tuned in to cable news channels. But here’s where NPR just doesn’t get it. You would think that with four channels, there might be CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and perhaps either C-SPAN or some other hard news channel. At this time, the four tv’s were tuned to CNN, MSNBC, a second set on CNN, and the fourth set, well, that was tuned in to al Jazeera English.

I almost swallowed my tongue laughing to myself when I came upon this, given what seemed to me to be obvious irony. But with reflection, it wasn’t ironic. It was just NPR.

Those same folks who show up at a knife fight with a tote bag (love that line) still sup at a different trough than their media brethren. And even as they present the widest array of news over four plus hours of programming each day on their morning and evening shows, they don’t seem to get that each of the three primary US cable companies are worth watching to see not only what’s being covered, but how that story is being covered.

Simply put, if you don’t have FOX on (or CNN, or MSNBC), you can’t know what it is they’re covering, and what they’re not. Virtually every other newsroom in Washington has all the primary channels up for view, and this is the first time I have come across one of them not only not on, but having an outlier channel on in its’ place.

Each newsroom seems to suffer from a criticism often leveled by outsiders, and that is their seeming inability to grow out of their comfort zones, FOX with the white majority, and NPR with its tone deafness to the wider audience of Americans.

Hell, maybe it’s just me, but these contrasts helped me through a long week, and a week that certainly had moments of amusement, and clarity. Now, who hid the remote. I need to see what’s on the tube this evening. Perhaps there’s a good cricket match on al Jazeera Ocho.