Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Blast from the Past. A Nuclear Blast.

A Student Asks Advice on Creating a Narrative for Her Application for Graduate Study in Journalism. She Says She's Never 'Done Anything Remarkable'

I would ‘tell them a story.’ Maybe you don’t have a long list of disconnected ‘brags’ to bombard schools with, but think about some personal experience, or life narrative, that illustrates your passion, your curiosity, your commitment to some of the things a journalist should be committed to. The point is not that you have done a whole bunch of disconnected things, like some over-scheduled high school student trying to brag his/her way into an Ivy League college. The point is that at a moment when a career in journalism takes a real leap of faith because no one knows who will pay you to do journalism , you still are going to embrace it, go for it, follow your heart *and* your mind because society needs journalists – that’s what heart and mind tell you. You see the sacrifices that this moment of crisis in journalism may require. And you are still going to go for it.

And that's remarkable. I think I’ve just made myself cry.

The Word 'Miracle' is Also a Cancer

From 'Ask the Pilot' in Salon.

My gripe was with the media -- for its refusal to acknowledge the existence of first officer Skiles, for its "O, the humanity" histrionics, and for its gratuitous use of the words "miracle" and "hero." On the whole, news coverage served to trivialize the event rather than shed useful light on what actually happened. And at a time when the media has become unbearably superficial, is it so wrong to hold it accountable? Perhaps we need more cranks, not fewer.

For what it's worth, although lay readers tended to disagree with me, I also received several letters from airline pilots, unanimously thanking me for the piece. (I have, many times in this column, detailed the challenges of flying planes for a living, from the often lousy pay to the stresses of simulator training. I've done a good job, I think, of presenting this odd profession with respect, dignity and a degree of insight you aren't going to get anywhere else. Call it a conflict of interest, but I have spent thousands of words sticking up for pilots and the business of flying planes.)

To some extent, my complaint was a semantic one. There's little harm in celebrating the unlikely survival of 155 people, and we needn't quibble over the wording. But terms like "hero" and "miracle" shouldn't be thrown around lightly.

A miracle describes an outcome that cannot be rationally explained. Everything that happened on Jan. 15 can be rationally explained. That nobody was killed is due to four factors. They are, in descending order (pardon the pun): luck, professionalism, skill and technology.

A hero, to me, describes a person who accepts a great personal sacrifice, up to and including injury or death, for the benefit of somebody else. I never suggested that pilots were merely "doing their job," as several letter writers accused me of suggesting. It was considerably more than that, and nothing about it was easy. But I didn't see heroics; I saw an outstanding execution of difficult tasks in the throes of a serious
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'Off the Record' is a Cancer

From Kevin Drum:

"Off the record" has become a cancer. It's now practically a default presumption, rather than a rare exception granted for specific and justifiable reasons. Unfortunately, no one is willing to do anything about it. A few years ago the big newspapers all instituted policies that banned blind quotes unless there was a good case for them, but as near as I can tell the only result was to force their reporters to concoct ever more inventive ways of saying "because he wouldn't talk otherwise." Beyond that, life went on as usual.
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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ancient Mariner Sinks

Today a class I made a Geritol joke and then said something like,"You're too young to know what I'm talking about."

On his blog, one of my students wrote: "Jeritol What is this word? Robertson used it in class and I can't figure out the spelling nor what it means. I'm puzzled."

So it wasn't a throwaway, contextually clear enough not to divert. This is not good. Too many of these "stuff you don't know that I do because I'm old" comments might really be alienating rather than .... Rather than what? There's actually no value at all of any kind in reminding kids of what we both know, that I've been there, done that, forgotten I did it and then did it again except damn I dropped it.

It's a *wake up call* -- either that or ringing in my ears.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I Discover a Food Writer

Of course, I read that Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly won the Pulitzer for Criticism in 2007 and that no food writer ever had. Of course, I'd read a few of his reviews, but I wasn't paying that much attention.

But, now, as Arts Reporting and Reviewing embarks on its first review, I turn -- equal parts snob and pedagogue -- to his Pulitzer entries to show the kids that if I am no longer on the ball, I used to know where the ball was.

And, damn, he can write, with density, humor and (as the Pulitzer citation says) erudition.

Do I love The Lodge for its double-fisted Tanqueray martinis or for the thick-cut pepper bacon put out like peanuts at the bar? For the big chunks of blue cheese in the house chopped salad or for the onion rings as golden as the bangles on a Brahmin woman's arm? For the dripping-rare New York steak or for the bone-in rib-eye as big as some models of compact car? For the sommelier, Caitlin Stansbury, who seems to purr like a cat when you order her favorite Madiran or Spanish Syrah on the wine list? When this dining room was Tiny Naylor's, my mom used to take us here for patty melts when she didn?t feel flush enough to spring for the onion rings across the street at Ollie Hammond's. When it was reborn as an upscale coffee shop, at least one of the waitresses used to slip punk-rock dudes warm beer in teacups after the bars closed. And now that it has been reinvented as a wood-paneled post-Googie ski lodge, I find it pretty hard to get a reservation. It must have something to do with the bacon.


The potato taco may be El Atacor's enduring glory, but its fame in the online world comes mostly from its Super Burrito, a foil-wrapped construction the size and girth of your forearm, which drapes over a paper plate like a giant, oozing sea cucumber or, perhaps more to the point, like an appendage of John Holmes. It is impossible to look at a Super Burrito without marveling at the flaccid, masculine mass of the the thing. It is probably even harder to bite into it without laughing.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Talking Points Bimbo

Sarah Palin has a PAC.

Nerves. Virtue.

Today I got up at 5:30 -- in the morning in the dark -- because it was my first teaching day, and my first day is always anxious, even though I taught my first college class 41 years ago as a graduate assistant in the English Department at Duke.

Teaching is something you never quite figure out, which is one reason I think I can work happily until I'm 70 or -- and at this point the Dean's blood runs cold and she leans against the wall for support -- even longer. Some days you try things, pedagogical things, and they fall so flat. But that can be invigorating in an odd way. Redemption is only a class away.

(On the earth the broken arcs; in heaven a perfect round. Robert Browning anyone?)

I was up so very early because I scheduled myself an 8:30 class this semester, adjusting my times to the convenience of others, a possibly forgettable fact, so I will remind certain colleagues of it regularly. But isn't the air perfumed with virtue when you rise before the sun.

I got to the university about 8 and bumped into H., who was striding past the parking lot, as if downhill. I stretched my legs and matched his stride so I could brag a little about how early I had got up.

Well, I get up at 4 every day, he said. Every day. Can't stay in bed. I made some weak comment about how he must get a lot done in the morning, and he said well he did walk to work and then home again every day, and that used up a couple hours.

Perhaps, there's the lesson about doing good. It just rubs you up against people who do better.
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My Arts Reporting and Reviewing Syllabus (So Far)

Arts Reporting and Reviewing


Spring 2009

Class meets Tuesday and Thursday in Cowell G13 (The Media Lab)

Dr. Michael Robertson

Office: Kalmanovitz Hall 119

Phone: 422-6250 (office); 510-836-4870 (home)


Office Hours:

Tuesday and Thursday 12:30-2p. If you need to see me, don't hesitate to ask for a time convenient for you.

Required Texts:

“Reviewing the Arts,” by Campbell B. Titchener

Required Reading:

Read all assignments before the due date. Identify at least one reviewer or critic whose work appears regularly in print or online. Follow that reviewer during the semester. During the semester you will be required to interview one local reviewer. I assume she/he will be the one whose work you follow. Be alert for reviews in any of your sources that illustrate excellence – or mediocrity. Bring examples to class.


Quizzes may be given without prior notice if I conclude you are ignoring the reading assignments.

Your Personal Blog and Twitter Account:

Each student is responsible for creating a personal blog on which you will post in accordance with class assignments. Several websites provide free space for blogging. is a popular one. You are also responsible for creating a Twitter account. After you have written a review, the final part of the assignment is boiling it down to a single Twitter post.

Late Assignments:

You do not need to ask my permission to turn in an out‑of‑class assignment after deadline. However, unless you have a medical excuse, you will be penalized for turning in a late story. Your mark will be lowered 2/3rds of a letter grade for the first two days of lateness, 1/3rd of a letter grade for each subsequent two days. For example, a "B" paper turned in two days late would be reduced to a "C" grade. If you miss an assignment because of illness, it is your responsibility to present me with an acceptable medical excuse, find an alternative assignment and clear it with me.


Regular class attendance is also expected. Two unexcused absences are allowed, but in‑class work missed through absence may not be made up although it may be excused. If you miss class for any reason, it is YOUR responsibility to find out what future class assignments are. Excused assignments will not be averaged into your grade; unexcused assignments will be -- as a zero. Excessive absences will factor into the class participation portion of your grade.


Under the current policies of the Media Studies Department, a student will not get credit in the major for any course in which he or she receives a grade of less than C; that is, a grade of C-minus or lower means you must retake the course.

Academic misconduct:

Instances of source fabrication or plagiarism will result in the most severe sanctions possible.


If you have any handicap or any other physical, emotional or personal problem that will interfere with your performance, you should discuss it with the professor by the end of the first week of the course or as soon as the problem arises. Every effort will be made to accommodate legitimate problems if they are discussed in a timely fashion. Some chronic problems may receive a sympathetic hearing but result in no adjustment to expectations for performance. A semester's-end revelation of personal problems will not improve your grade.

Learning Outcomes:

Upon completing this course, a student should be able:

1. To complete all writing assignments employing correct grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax.

2. To understand enough of the history, the conventions and the contemporary context of the art forms you are assigned to review so that a well-informed reader would conclude that you are well-informed, also. (In other words, I expect you to “write smart.”)

3. To explain the decisions you made concerning the structure, the emphasis and the tone of your reviews; that is, even if you spontaneously produce a provocative and entertaining review, I expect you to spend time contemplating what you have written so that you advance your understanding of those two elusive categories, what “works” and what doesn’t.

4. To write a standard news story on an “arts” topic.

5. To do an in-person interview with an arts reviewer or an arts practitioner.

6. To know when information must be attributed to a source to avoid editorializing and how to handle attribution smoothly in a story.

7. To understand the general sources for news (observation, interview, written reports), the necessity of skepticism in dealing with these sources; to master the process of verifying information; to exhibit that understanding in your stories.

8. to use basic AP style rules in the reviews and stories written.

9. To prepare copy so that it is clean and conforms to standard copy preparation rules. (For instance, always double space.)

10. To create and maintain a personal blog and Twitter account.

11. To do one video review – that is, a version of one of your reviews reduced to a script and spoken in front of a camera – that will be posted on your blog.


Your final grade will be determined by the average of in‑class writing, out‑of‑class writing, and final exam (70 percent); class participation (10 percent); quizzes (10 percent); blog (10 percent). Additional credit MAY be given for work published in the Foghorn or in any other credible publication, either print or online.

A Student: Has either a gift for writing or works very hard at clean, clear and concise prose. Has grammar and stylistic skills resulting in copy that requires little editing. Misses no deadlines and completes all assignments. Participates in class discussions but does not dominate those discussions or divert them from the subject at hand. By the course's end, this student could function as an entertainment generalist in the newsroom of a moderate size daily newspaper with no supervision. A=100-95.

B Student: Writes basically correct English with flashes of style. May have some grammar and syntax problems, but problems can be corrected without major editing. May blow a few assignments but is basically a contributing member of the class. By the course's end, this student could perform basic functions of an entertainment writer without close supervision. Your basic bright journalism student who is still learning. B= 94-85.

C Student: Has problems with the English language that appear to be correctable with effort by both student and teacher in future courses. May have problems with accuracy and attention to detail. May have problems under deadline pressure. Able to perform basic entertainment newsroom functions if closely supervised. May think he or she deserves a B because he or she "tried." C=84-75.

D Student: Has problems with the language that may not be correctable -- ever. Has basic grammar and syntax errors still appearing in assignments at course's end. Could not perform basic entertainment newsroom functions. Does severe damage to the English language. I will give people who "try" a D. If they don't, I will fail them. D=74-65.

Work will be turned in online. In either case, it is your responsibility to have a second copy of the story in your possession until I return the graded original.

Semester Schedule

Week One: January 26

Objective: An introduction to reviewing. Preparing for restaurant review. Preparing for semester-long TV review project. Blogging and Tweeting.

Out of Class: Read Titchener 1-36, 151-160. Read handouts and online essays.

Is It Curtains for Critics? The Rise of the Web

Assignment: A restaurant review of at least 600 words is due Thursday, February 5. You will place an edited version of your review on Yelp.

Week Two: February 2

Objective: Preparing for a movie review.

Out of Class: Read Titchener, 37-53. Read handouts, plus the following online. Our syllabus will be posted at the class website, so you can click through to each of these articles:

Let's Rate the Ranking Systems of Film Reviews

Pauline Kael on the fun of writing disrespectfully

Review vs. Critique

The Pearls of Pauline

Assignment: A movie review of at least 600 words is due Tuesday, February 10.

Week Three: February 9

Objective: Reviewing a single episode of a TV show.

Out of class: Read Titchener 54-70. Read handouts and online material.

Critics Eye Online Content Reviews

Death of the TV Critic

Are Local TV Critics Still Needed?

Assignment: A review of at least 600 words of a single episode of a TV show is due Tuesday, February 17

Week Four: February 16

Objective: Reviewing a documentary movie. Is point of view propaganda?

Out of class: This is the week of USF’s Human Rights Film Festival. We will attend “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which won the Oscar for Best Documentary last year. Read handouts and online material.

Nanook and Me

Assignment: A review of at least 600 words of “Taxi to the Dark Side” that incorporates comments by director Alex Gibney, who will take questions from the audience after the screening of his film is due Tuesday, February 24.

Week Five: February 23

Objective: Poetry as performance. The poetry slam!

Out of class: Read handouts and online material.

What is a Poetry Slam?

Assignment: We will go as a class to a poetry slam. A review at least 600 words is due Tuesday, March 3.

Week Six: March 2

Objective: The entertainment interview written on deadline.

Out of class: Read handouts and online material.

Assignment: Thursday, March 5, we will have a Q&A in class with a guest. You will then write in class a story based on that interview.

Week Seven: March 9

Objective: Reviewing a play. Exploring the extent to which intensive preparation for a review enriches a review.

Out of class: Read Titchener 84-99. Read handouts and online material. We will spend the next two weeks preparing to attend an on-campus play. If all goes well, we will have the opportunity to interview actors, crew and the director of the play. I’m going to invite a drama teacher to class to give the class a mini acting lesson.

Week Eight: March 16

Objective: Reviewing a play. (2) Exploring the extent to which intensive preparation for a reviewing experience enriches the review.

Assignment: A play review of at least 600 words is due Tuesday, March 31

Spring Break

Week Nine: March 30

Objectives: Reviewing a ‘Fine Art.’ Elitism, classism and the end of beauty.

Out of Class: Read Titchener 108-139 and handouts and online essays.

Assignment: A review of an assigned exhibit of at least 600 words is due Tuesday, April 7

Week Ten: April 6

Objectives: Reviewing a musical performance.

Out of Class: Read Titchener 108-139 and handouts and online essays.

Week Eleven: April 13

Objectives: Reviewing a musical performance (2)

Out of Class: Read handouts and online essays.

Assignment: A review of at least 600 words of a musical performance attended by the class is due Tuesday, April 21.

Week Twelve: April 20

Objective: Wild Card week. Almost anything can be the subject of a review.

Out of Class: Read handouts and online essays.

Assignment: A review of 600 words of anything other than those genres reviewed this semester is due Tuesday, April 28

Week Thirteen: April 27

Objectives: A review video to be posted on your blog. You will reduce one of your reviews to a two-three minute script and do that script on camera.

Out of Class: Read handouts and online essays.

Week Fourteen: May 4

Objectives: Interviewing a reviewer or critic whose work you have been following during the semester.

Out of class: Read handouts and online essays.

Assignment: An interview of at last 750 words with your reviewer of choice is due Tuesday, May 5

Week Fifteen: May 11

Objectives: Final Evaluation

Assignment: A review of at least 1,000 words of a TV series is due on exam day. Note: Each Monday during the semester you are expected to post something on your blog relating to the series you are following. If you do, you will have made a good start on your final review.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

My Wife Saves My Job

A WBC member picketing the memorial of the Sag...Image via WikipediaI had thought I might show this to my arts reviewing and reporting class when first we meet and then do a little in-class reviewing exercise. I mean, I've already put it on my blog. It's just a bit of drollery, right?

I was going to preface it with comments to the effect that one of the tasks of the reviewer is to confront things that offend or disturb and to bring back information from such a confrontation. The most interesting judgments are probably those that arise from being offended and unsettled because those drive us back to our deepest values and our fundamental assumptions about the power of art.

How does art, or an attempt at art, shape its audience? That is really the objection to most things we dislike at a visceral level, the fear of infection. Of course, we can handle it, but what about the fools and the children? It's a legitimate question, and I have my own taboos, and there are certain things that I will never justify in the name of free expression.

(Ancillary question: What would make you walk out or walk away from a performance or presentation? Boredom? Indignation? Contempt for artlessness?)

Still, I would like to find something I could present to my class that would unsettle them just a little, just enough, and then ask them to review it. But I don't want to make trouble for myself, not at my age. I'm tenured, of course, and one of those three-drink jokes tenured folk sometimes engage in is throwing out just what action could get one's tenure revoked. The thing linked to above is certainly 100 percent not it. Indeed, 10 bucks will get you one that no student would be truly offended, much less complain about it. Students are always being amused at my spinterish delicacies. No, it would be okay.

But who needs the tsuris at my age with my mortgage? And my wife would just say I told you so.

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