Archive for November, 2008

I love Thanksgiving, for I have much to be thankful for.

Driving home to Virginia today, I kept thinking of how large a role Thanksgiving played in my early development. I was born in 1947. I grew up in the Deep South, the Gulf South. Each Thanksgiving, in the late 40s to early 50s, my family traveled about 70 miles north to a small rural town to have a traditional family Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ farm.

My grandparents lived “out from town.” Their simple frame farmhouse had a tin roof and a large front porch with rocking chairs and a bench swing hung on chains. The house was about 100 yards down from my grandfather’s general store, the lone landmark at a crossing of gravel roads. The only other building was Antioch Baptist Church which sat in a grove of trees across the road from my grandparents’ house.

There was a collection of barns and cattle pens behind the store. My grandparents also had free-range chickens and a milk cow behind the house.

Thanksgiving was a huge family affair with four generations packed into that small, cold farmhouse. Heat was from wood burning fireplaces. We kept warm at night under stacks of thick homemade quilts.

For Thanksgiving dinner, we ate in shifts because there were too many to sit around the dining table. Kids ate at card tables in the hallway.

There were at least three kinds of meat; turkey, of course, but ham and assorted wild game were available, too.  Cornbread dressing and giblet gravy, vegetables, casseroles, plus several kinds of desserts topped it all off. It was enough to make Paula Dean cry. My favorite dessert was/is pecan pie. The pecan pies we had at Thanksgiving were made from fresh pecans from the many trees surrounding my grandparents’ house.

The simple Southern cooking was divine. But what I loved most was homemade biscuits and fresh hot coffee. My grandmother made batches of buttermilk biscuits in an ancient wooden bowl. My country latte was plain strong coffee in a chipped Blue Willow cup with sugar and fresh cow’s milk. And I do mean fresh, from the milk cow to my cup in minutes.

My grandmother always left biscuits for me on a Blue Willow plate stored in a pie safe in the kitchen. The thought of that coffee on a cold morning still warms my heart. I would later fall in love with cafe au lait at the Cafe Du Monde in the New Orleans French Quarter. And decades later, I would view the drive-through Starbucks across from Towson’s campus as a sign from God that I should teach there, a coffee-loving paraplegic’s heaven.

Just as nothing will ever taste like that country coffee and fresh biscuits, neither will there ever be another woman like my grandmother. You didn’t receive your life lessons from her in a warm and folksy way like on the Waltons TV show. No, you learned by watching this 100-pound woman live successfully by hard work and resourcefulness. She could make or do anything necessary to live on that poor farm.

She would walk across the road to Antioch Baptist Church every Sunday and sing every verse of every hymn without ever opening a hymnal. When she wasn’t preparing huge meals for farm folk, she sewed and repaired and cleaned and fixed and built about anything that was needed for simple daily living. When she had time, she played her piano.

Grandmother kept going long after others died off or just plain quit. She would say, “I may wear out, but I will never rust out.”

I got my love for photojournalism from reading the lifetime supply of Life and Look magazines that my grandparents saved. I read and re-read those magazines until I memorized entire issues and their photo layouts.

My grandparents never owned a television. We sat by the fireplaces and talked, read newspapers, magazines, and books — adults in one room, kids in another. 

I stayed in the woods and pastures from daylight until dark. I came in for meals and to let the folks know I was still alive. This area was so remote that, in my wild ramblings, any number of things could have harmed me, and I might never have been found. But I was never afraid.

Part of what shaped me was the time I spent alone in those days. I loved the woods and pastures. I’d ride every farmer’s horse I could catch, climb every tree, play in every creek and pond, and explore as deep into the woods as daylight would allow.  I was Davy Crockett with 410 single shot.

My most vivid memories are of my grandfather’s store. It was a typical Southern general merchandise store with a big red Coca Cola sign on its false front. The store was a social gathering spot for people from miles around. In warm weather, local farmers would finish dinner at home, then come to the store’s wide front porch, sit in rocking chairs, and whittle and talk for hours. In cold weather the same ritual was repeated in the back of the store around a cast-iron, wood-burning stove. The men sat on an ancient homemade bench or rocked back and forth in cain-bottom chairs.

I can still hear echos of their conversations about crops and livestock, the weather, government, and how the world was going to hell with all the fast-paced changes. Remember, it was the early 50s, so it must have been rock and roll that frightened them.

These men were not gentlemen farmers with large land holdings. They were poor farmers who scratched out a living in bad soil usually owned by someone else. They wore bib overalls and stained work shirts and work boots, topped off by dirty felt hats in the winter and sweat-stained straw hats in the summer. Their ragged dignity speaks to me even now. Their unfailing good humor in the face of hardship is a vivid reminder of Faulkner’s words that “man will not merely endure, but prevail.”

Most memorable was a man named Poe. Poe had a voice about two octaves lower than Kris Kristofferson’s. When he told stories (which was all Poe did), the windows rattled. His voice was the earth itself, older than old, with a gritty resonance that was impossible to ignore.

It’s been said that the South produces so many good writers because Southerners are natural storytellers. Perhaps in some way listening to these men tell their stories influenced me to become a communicator, just as the wonderful photojournalism of the Life and Look magazines partially accounts for my love of photography. Or, it might have been the total of all the sensory impressions — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes — of that time and place that contribute to who I am now.

As a doctoral candidate, I am now a trained ethnographer. If I could go back in time, I could conduct qualitative research in this setting. But I’d rather have the memories as they are. These people need no further study. Walker Evans’ work best chronicles the lives of such people. No, it is better for me to remember these people and this place as the formative experience it was.

Every Thanksgiving, I do remember. Then, I give thanks for it.


Read Full Post »

Since men are born tabula rasa, both cognitively and morally, a rational man regards strangers as innocent until proven guilty, and grants them that initial good will in the name of their human potential. After that, he judges them according to the moral character they have actualized.

                                                                                      — Ayn Rand

Rand captures the way I relate to other people. Everyone starts out “on my good list.” You get taken off the list by what you do.

I am currently involved with two situations that require me to start with Rand’s “innocent until proven guilty” premise. First, I am studying standards of validation and evaluation of qualitative research. Second, I am grading research papers submitted by students in one of my upper-level courses. Each situation requires judgment.

I accept the findings of a qualitative research project as trustworthy until I can validate it. I also accept students’ research papers as trustworthy until I can read, check, and assess them.

From John W. Creswell (2007), I am learning that “qualitative researchers strive for ‘understanding’, that deep structure of knowledge that comes from visiting personally with participants, spending extensive time in the field, and probing to obtain detailed meanings.”

As an instructor, I am striving to understand why my students did what they did with their research papers. In my previous post, “What exactly do you want?”, I explored how students want the most specific details about how to complete assignments in order to score the highest grades. This research paper was assigned the first week of the semester and due mid-term. The instructions filled one page of the course syllabus. Instructions were clear, concise, and complete. For example, APA style is APA style. How much clearer can you be? Point deductions for infractions were clearly spelled out.

Creswell and others are teaching me to validate my qualitative research. I will employ “validation strategies” in an attempt to assess the “accuracy” of the findings as best described by me (the researcher) and the research participants. I will conduct research, analyze my findings, then use validation strategies to check and re-check my work. At some point, I will be reasonably assured of the validity of my research.

Yet, when I read these research papers, I am appalled at the quality. I think of the qualitative research training I am currently receiving. Is there a way to get behind what I am reading, to go beyond the senseless errors to find out why the results are the way they are?

Creswell says to think in terms of credibility. Public relations professionals know that credibility is essential to persuasion. So, too, is credibility essential to qualitative research. And credibility is essential to a student’s research paper as well.

Creswell adds that self-reflection contributes to the validation of the work. In the end, I guess self-reflection is all I have concerning the disappointing research papers.

Read Full Post »

How many times a week does a teacher or employer hear this question?

My colleagues and I in the Advertising/Public Relations Track at Towson University are hearing this question from students with increasing frequency. More and more students want exact instructions, step by step, on how to do assignments. This is true across a variety of advertising and public relations classes and of all grade levels.

The conflict lies in the fact that we do provide exact instructions in syllabi, in rubrics, and in classroom discussions.

But students want more. They want special time devoted to step by step, point by point guidance on every aspect so that they may make the highest grade. I completely understand the desire to score high, but what I do not understand — and cannot accept — is this level of hand-holding that precludes a student from taking ownership and practicing decision-making, problem-solving skills.

From 30-plus years’ experience as a practitioner, I can tell students with certainty that employers are not going to provide this level of instruction. They pay you to solve problems. It is best to develop these skills now, because the honeymoon period for new employee to scrutinized, performance-appraised  employee is quite short.

I wonder if this phenomenon is a characteristic of the Millennial generation?

To be fair to students, I believe that they are entitled to clear and comprehensive instructions on any given assignment — to a point. That stops short of instructions that eliminate the need for problem-solving. Learning to solve problems, developing some analytical ability, is the heart of the university experience, in my opinion.

In one of the best corporate communication/PR/IMC positions I ever had, my Type-A, MBA boss would regularly call me in, give me an assignment that to him was of utmost importance, yet came with vague general guidance. He focused on the outcome he wanted. Early in our relationship, I would ask him for more detailed guidance. He would quickly lose patience and tell me to figure it out. If I gave him a puzzled look, he would frequently say, “Les, go make something happen.”

I learned so much from this great mentor. True, I worked many long hours figuring things out to achieve the outcomes he wanted, but once I accomplished such an assignment, the next one was a little easier. Plus, I always overachieved on my quarterly objectives that qualified me for a bonus, and he always gave me a higher-than-expected bonus.

I do not know what is driving this “tell me exactly what you want” phenomenon, but it concerns me. Students and employees alike must step up, own an assignment, and make something happen. Anything less will result in lower grades and lower performance reviews.

Read Full Post »

Word stir-fry

They just keep coming. Here is a memorable line from a PR Writing student’s critique of the chairman’s letter to shareholders from a company’s annual report:

The rest of the letter reads as if the chairman is talking directly to whomever is reading it.

Read Full Post »

Word stir-fry

Some writing simply defies explanation. Following is a sentence from a personality profile written by one of my public relations writing students. I’m thinking, Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

At first look, Stan looks like the average man he is.

Read Full Post »