Friday, August 28, 2015

Welcome to the Blogosphere, New Writers

Students writing blog posts in library commputer lab.
As I often do in media-related writing classes, I am requiring a group of students to maintain their own personal blogs.

There is a baker’s dozen of students in the class, and I’ll update this post in about a week when they establish their URLs.

I require blogging for several reasons—mainly, so students in communication are comfortable with the genre and aware of it. But also to get students into the habit of thinking of their writing as public performance that anybody can see.

So, after I post the links, you all are invited to follow them. I’m looking forward to what these 13 new blog writers will have to say.

I hope some of them will keep their blogs going after the semester is over. Most of all, I hope they all benefit from being forced to write regularly in a different voice and style than other, academic writing, that they are doing for me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

To The 20 Students Who Are Considering The Times

Madison Coates (right), Editor-in-Chief of the "Mount Mercy Times," gives information to a student who is inquiring about the newspaper. Madison, by the way, is a nursing student.

I recall, sometimes, how the newsroom at the “Columbia Missourian” seemed like a jungle or swamp. If you stepped in there, you never knew what variety of snake would grab you or how long you might be lost.

Yet, I stepped in there a lot, and I don’t regret it. Of course, when I was a student at Mizzou, I was a graduate student—and time in my life was more precious than time was when I was a young undergraduate adult. I had five young children while I was in graduate school, so I couldn’t afford too many open-ended journeys into the unknown news swamp.

Madison and Todd Cross, Campus Editor, at Involvement Fair.
Still, I had wonderful experiences there. The best, I think, was a semester I spent reporting at the Capitol Bureau in Jefferson City, covering the state legislature. What an interesting place to be, and what a challenge it was to write about.

Why am I writing to you, the 20 who signed your names to say you’re interested in the Mount Mercy Times? We had an Involvement Fair on campus today, and many of you put your name on our sign-up sheet and took the paper with a bit of information.

Don’t forget—Sept. 1, 3:30 p.m., Lower Busse Library—the first Times staff meeting of the semester.

I am writing to you because I truly believe several things about a student's experience at a university. One is that, while classes are important (I am a professor, after all), what really can make your education come alive is connections and events beyond the classroom. For instance, when I was an undergraduate, I was for a time active in a drama group—it was an odd thing for a journalism student, and a great source of stress, but also a wonderful experience.

I also wrote for and then edited the student newspaper at my hometown community college, and then became the editor of the paper at the college where I earned my BA (I was actually recruited to go to that college as the newspaper’s editor—and there’s nothing like being editor of the campus paper to make a new transfer student put down roots in a new place very quickly.)

After college, my career path took me to newspapers, so my editing experience was directly relevant. But I think I would have gained a lot regardless of my major. As a newspaper editor, I was a student leader who wasn’t chosen by my peers, but rather rose through the ranks of a meritocracy.

And because of that rise, I had some unique opportunities. When I was at the community college, I covered meetings of the college district governing board—my first public meeting stories. When I was at the liberal arts college where I earned my BA, I met monthly with the president, just to get some perspective on what was going on. I think I was the only student who so regularly had contact with the president.

So you think you might want to join the “Mount Mercy Times?” Well, good. It’s a great idea. You may get to know Laurie Hamen, President of MMU, if you stick with it and become an editor of the Times. Even before that, you’ll go places and meet people and learn far more about MMU then most students will.

The students newspaper flag at MMU.
Most of you won’t pursue newspaper careers, and many of you won’t work directly in communication fields. But the skills you’ll pick up at the Times, the ability to get information and translate it and present it, and the management experience of being in a student-run group—those are lifelong fringe benefits which means your decision to be part of a student newspaper will forever enrich your whole college experience.

At least I hope so. It all depends on whether you stick with it and actually take part. Please, sign up for stories or photo assignments or video assignments, and get them done.

There may be times along the way when you’re being driven crazy with novels to read and papers to write and tests to study for, and the Times will seem like a giant time swamp, a place where you enter and never know when you might emerge.

Cheer up. I won’t lie, being a student journalist is hard, which is why so few do it. But in the end, it’s so worth it. I hope you stay with it long enough to learn that for yourself.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Horror, The Horror

Posted on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons,
photo by Doug Kline of Robert Duvall's costume.
In 1979, one of my sisters and I had an odd “Vietnam” Saturday. We drove to Moline, Illinois, where the largest cinema complex in our area was located, and watched two movies, practically back-to-back.

One was “Hair.” The other was “Apocalypse Now.”

Sunday night, I re-watched “Apocalypse Now.” I’m not sure how well “Hair” has aged, but this retelling of “Heart of Darkness” in Vietnam is still a movie classic. It’s a strange narrative, a more than slightly off-kilter story that starts inside a claustrophobic room in Saigon.

I also rented a copy of the documentary that was made some years later about the making of “Apocalypse Now,” but I have not watched it yet.

“Apocalypse Now” is very episodic, with discrete scenes taking place as a small Navy patrol boat moves up a river to deliver an assassin whose mission is to eliminate a rogue colonel. There is the famous assault on a village staged so that a helicopter cavalry commander could find the best waves for surfing.

Most quoted lines from the movie: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Or: “Charlie don’t surf!”

Later, there is the tense search for mangos that ends in a tiger attack. There is the massacre of the civilians in the sampan. And finally there is the encounter with the rogue colonel and his strange tribe of followers deep in the jungle.

As a narrative, it follows the source material, the colonial novel “Heart of Darkness,” surprisingly well. Instead of a jabbering Russian, there is a photojournalist extolling the genius of “Colonel Kurtz.” I did find myself wondering at the story, a bit. If they had helicopters that could deliver combat troops to a village with ultimate surfing waves, and that could pick up a patrol boat and put it where they wanted—why did they bother riding that boat all the way up the river? Why not start the journey at the eerie bridge that was the last American outpost?

For that matter, the ending of the movie is a bit unsatisfying. Why is the assassin popping up out of the water with a machete and sneaking up on the colonel when he’s been spending days in the colonel’s company previous to that?

Still, despite my minor qualms at the plot, I think the movie has a lot to offer. It puts you on edge, and has a lot to say about the dehumanizing effects of violence and war.

I’ve now binge watched “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon.” It’s been an odd week. Of the four, “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now”are the most evocative.

In part, I suppose, that’s because neither Mathew Modine nor Tom Cruise seemed to fit their leading roles well in “Full” or “Born.” In part, it’s because the other two movies are more surreal, taking you to some other place and time and making you feel that you’re not in Kansas (nor Iowa) anymore.

“Hair?” Honestly, it’s not enough of a Vietnam movie for me to include it on my watch list. For now, the Vietnam film fest continues. Again, if you have any suggestions, feel free to comment.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Which Vietnam Movies Should I View?

Logo of MMU fall series, which I am organizing and speaking in. We have 15 public events planned--check out later in August for more information.

Early in September, as part of the Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy University, I will be speaking with another professor in a forum on how Hollywood has told stories about Vietnam through movies.

So I’m spending a few weeks in my own private Vietnam film fest. It started with Oliver Stone weekend, in which I borrowed “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” from the U library.

Sign in MMU University Center lists series events.

Of the two, I’m not surprised that “Platoon” won best picture. It’s a gripping story that keeps you on edge. I felt that the “good sergeant” was a bit more artificial than the “bad sergeant,” and some of the soldier characters seemed too two-dimensional. But it was a powerful movie, well worth watching.

“Born,” on the other hand, while watchable, was a bit more tiring. Honestly, that might be mostly because I don’t always enjoy watching Tom Cruise. The movie was interesting, but I wish it had explored its main characters change of heart a bit more—I know that’s internal and mental and hard to portray, but I didn’t ever understand what changed inside the character.

So, the Vietnam film series is off to an interesting start. I’m sure I’ll slip “Apocalypse Now” in. I might even do something I’ve never done before—watch a Rambo movie. I have seen “Ballad of the Green Berets” before and have no reason to review it again.

But, what do you think? What are some “must see” Vietnam movies that either offer some interesting rumination on that war and its time, or are just worth seeing for their own sake? Please comment with your suggestions.