Thursday, September 28, 2006

Pedagogue or Panderer?

Well, first let me say that I am working on my "My First Jew" essay that I promised you earlier in the week. It's just that when one is serious about a topic, one hesitates, rewrites, backfills, stares out the window as the light dies in the west. In short, in the case of this absent essay I am violating the blogger's oath, which is not the famous journalist's creed of "I write better than anyone who writes faster and faster than anyone who writes better" but the more pedestrian "I write faster than anyone who writes better and.... Well, not really. I just try to write really fast."

But time for a post to fill the void. Last week I noticed a flyer on the wall near my office on the 5th floor of USF's own University Center posted by an SFSU graduate student named Danielle -- I think she just slipped in and taped them up -- asking 18-20 year old women who are currently enrolled in college if they have taken a virginity pledge. The flier offered a $20 gift certificate for taking part in the study, which is apparently part of a master's thesis.

At the bottom of the flyer were those things for which there is no name. I mean, that little fringe of tabs that contain contact information that can be ripped off singly. You know what I mean. You print or write a "stack" of contact information across the bottom of a piece of paper, the baseline of each info bit perpendicular to the bottom of the piece of paper, and then cut between each info bit with scissors. I know you know what I mean. There needs to be a word for this.

I noticed on each flyer that some of these tabs had been ripped off. That suggested to me that some members of the USF community had experience with or knowledge of such pledges.

So I created the following class assignment:

The Virginity Pledge

Assignment for Wednesday, September 28. We will collect shared data that we will draw on for a story due Monday, October 2.

Interview Checklist

Name, age, place of residence, major, marital status for each interview subject.

Question 1: Have you ever taken a virginity pledge?

Question 2: Have you been asked?

Question 3: If asked, what did you respond? If you have not been asked, what would you respond if asked.

Question 4: Why?

Question 5: Ask at least one follow-up question of your own choosing. Try to include at least one exact quote.

Each reporting student is responsible for three interviews: two USF students, plus a USF professor, administrator or other staff member. Exactly what you ask your third source is optional. Use your own judgment.

The idea was that we would get more than 30 interviews, discuss those interviews in class, come up with ways of focusing possible stories based on those interviews, all the while understanding that we might well need to acquire additional information through research or interview to make it possible to create a newsworthy focus for our stories. In any case, each student must write a story. And the student interviewers were required to tell their sources that the story might be published. Nothing is as vacuous as an interview elicited by a student who says, "This is just for a class."

Class discussion was pretty good. The assignment provoked some good questions about interviewing and about generalizing from such a limited sample, some good "teaching outcomes," as we like to say.

But here's the thing. I am catching some some criticism from some folk in the university community who were interviewed or who talked with those who were interviewed -- or who were contacted by those who were interviewed; FYI; you know -- who thought such questions were too personal. I concede I'm paraphrasing here, but some thought the assignment was kind of a cheap trick as well as an invasion of privacy, a violation of the sanctity of the workplace, the point of which was inviting students to engage in prurient speculation about the sex lives of others. Such "opinion dredging" was superficial and, even when placed in the context of recent studies about the efficacy of such pledges, likely to produce trash journalism.

I'm on a bit of a high horse here, a friend said, but this is a very silly and useless exercise, she said.

I'm writing so fast here, omitting and oversimplifying. Here we definitely have The Blogger as Captain Kirk: "I need Warp 7, Scotty, and I need it now." And Scotty gives him Warp 8!

But I am curious if any of my readers, particularly the faithful B. Lundigan, think this was, indeed, a stupid assignment?


B. Lundigan said...

If I were you, I would keep my head down. In today's litigious atmosphere, you don't want to be accused of creating a "hostile atmosphere."

Anonymous said...

That's ridiculous! It isn't a bad assignment, it's a perfectly legitimate one. Anyone who's picked up a newspaper in the last three years will have read an article about virginity pledges and all the results that show they don't work.
Now, with that said the questions the students are posing take skill to ask without offending. I remember when I first started I would just blurt out questions from my list. It took me a while to learn how to start a conversation and then go into the questions so people were at ease and we had developed a rapport. I can see how someone might be put off if they were asked point blank if they are a virgin and if they've pledged to stay that way. But that's where the teaching/lesson portion comes in.
Good for you for assigning tough assignments to them.
Those are valuable lessons to learn. I think the criticism is coming from people who have forgotten the real-world outside the idealistic halls of academia's ivory tower (I'm trying to see how many cliches I could fit into that sentence :> ) Out here we have to ask questions that might embarrass people but we learn quickly how to do so. Having those skills learned in college will help the kids in the future.
Teach On!

G Pabst said...

Damn, actual learning about to take place.
Imagine what might happen if it catches on...

Patrick Lagreid said...

Funny how a San Francisco Chronicle reporter could get away with this, but a journalism professor (despite being a contributor to major newspapers) and journalism students (who might one day be contributors to major newspapers) can't. Seems to be a fault of proximity.

Anonymity is a wonderful place sometimes, especially in journalism. It doesn't matter so much if you've taken a virginity pledge or slept with half the soccer team when you don't know the interviewer and your name won't be used. But when the question comes from a student or co-worker, and may be published in a campus medium, all of a sudden you might as well be screaming "Professor Jones is a dirty whore and I have proof" from the top of University Center during dead hour.

(I think the implications of a reporter's proximity to a story has been discussed in other forums. If not, it should be. Soapbox is being returned to the closet now.)

Likewise, in the back-and-forth saint/slut world we live in, it's unfashionable to be one or the other. There's negative connotations to both, and depending on your circle of friends or the immediate world in which you work/live, declaring yourself as either could result in upsetting the norm of the larger group.

I understand why a person would be hesitant to answer the questions; most everyone wants to be accepted in their communities, and few would want to risk tarnishing the image that they think people have of them. If I think that you think I'm getting an acceptable amount of action, why correct you?

I do worry though that something like this might get taken out of context and hurt the ability of students to do things like this - hopefully the higher-ups are on board and support these kinds of exercises.

Hopefully everyone involved remembers that it's not about how busy your bedroom is, but giving students the experience of asking uncomfortable questions and developing skills to get people to answer them.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

I like Brother Lagreid's last paragraph. It's a desired "outcome."

Anonymous said...

I must admit my mouth dropped when I read the assignment. Knew you were in for trouble. You are a brave soul.

Anonymous said...

Don't people have a choice whether to participate in an interview? If they think the questions are too personal can't they say no or remain anonymous? Is it because you are asking for their name and she? Heck your students can interview me for the story. Although bachelorhood by choice isn't the same as virginity pledge.
Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

Anonymous said...

I second the last comment - just don't answer the questions. People are not required to provide any personal information, they can simply deny the request. We should be encouraging these kind of assignments for students instead of running away from them because they are too risque.