Friday, July 23, 2010

Recently I have taken on a consulting project that I believe will be beneficial to the organizations I am consulting for, as well as to me - in that it will inform my own classroom behavior in a positive way, and finally, I think it will benefit the university as well.

One of the essential elements of the project is encouraging teachers to get in touch with that early love of learning that many of us lose touch with the more we are formally educated. In this way they can connect with students, who still have natural curiosity.

I’d say the overall philosophy of this very free approach to learning is constructivism, with the tool of inquiry-based learning being the focus. Although the discovery-learning approach has much in common with progressivism (which falls out of favor any time back-to-basics movements are popular), it is a more abstract approach, while progressivism is concrete. As a result, a few elements of the more structured approaches, such as essentialism, are also in evidence.

As I spend more time working on this project, I already find that it is influencing my thinking. I have evolved my college teaching over the years to be more constructivist, although I also have some essentialist elements. But a big piece is about the students asking questions, and they are used in online and face-to-face discussions. It works well, better than always having me asking - and sometimes answering - the questions.

In this project elementary students are told to ask questions and see where that takes them. The questions are explored, changed, added and subtracted. Eventually they will identify possible sources and try to find answers.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing on the subject, so it is often on my mind recently.

A few days ago the story broke of the homeowner who is facing charges because he tackled one of four teenagers who was trespassing and causing mischief in his yard late at night. I was writing an important note to my nephew on my laptop in the livingroom, when the story ran on the Channel 6 news. I was half-listening (as opposed to not listening at all, which is my usual state) because the story was interesting. Then I heard the name Rob Madeo and it caught my attention. I sometimes read his blog that appears on the Times Union website, and also read his now-defunct Albany Eye blog, which he wrote anonymously. Very little of the story was left, and I thought he was the man who had tackled the kid. I thought that was interesting, so I decided to read the details from my desktop, before going to bed.

I found the story was already semi-viral, and that Madeo was the teenager’s father, not the homeowner. I read the original story, and saw that it had run on the front page (remember I am a print subscriber even though I often read stories on the internet instead), with no identity of the kid’s father. Then the next morning, the story with Madeo identified was the top story on the front page. I also noted that an anonymous emailer with the alias “the Delmar tipster” was credited as the source for some allegations from the kid’s side of the story that were not in the police report.

The story jumped out at me for several reasons. I could see that it generated controversy in the blog commenter community even before Madeo’s name was revealed. The parents of the boy were pressing charges against the homeowner, while the teenager was too young to be cited. This raises questions about our rights to private property, a very big issue, and it did not surprise me that there could be national interest in the story. Next, on an emotional level, I think it captured the frustration many feel with people blaming others, taking no responsibility, and using the courts and lawyers to resolve things that used to be between neighbors.

Once Madeo’s name was revealed, the local interest in the story jumped even more. In the days before the Times Union jumped into the blogging scene, when there were Capital District bloggers mostly toiling away with little audience, the Albany Eye was one of the few blogs they routinely trumpeted. It was no secret the author was a media insider, but the question was who. AE clearly had access to information not privy to outsiders, and also had an axe to grind with some media folks and organizations.

The question was answered in 2006 when AE broke the story of Trey Anastasio’s arrest. Turns out the insider was from television: WNYT (which went a long way toward explaining AE’s animosity toward Liz Bishop), and AE had scooped his boss. To keep his job, AE had to be shut down, and it was. I don’t remember whether that was when I first heard his real name, because I vaguely remember reading posts about it on some other Albany-based blog that existed at that time (and maybe still exists, not sure), and also reading a personal blog that did not cover media which was purportedly written by the AE blogger. But my memory about that detail could be wrong. I do know when I heard his name, it wasn’t familiar to me - I think he was never on the air at WNYT and so viewers would not be exposed him. I don’t regularly watch WNYT, so I am not sure about this either.

Fast forward a few years and he surfaces in the Times Union blogger community, not as a paid staffer, as a volunteer. By now his identity is known, and it appears he is no longer connected to the television station. His posting style didn’t change very much. Some of it is funny and interesting, but there are a lot of nasty, offensive posts that are defended as satire. In his FAQ about the Albany Eye fiasco, he blows off the ethical questions.

His fellow bloggers are an assortment. The paid staffers tend to be political (one of them was recently hired by YNN, and she sucks. She brings the same nasty tone to Capital Connection that she did to the TU), write about lifestyle issues such as whether to shave your pubes or paint your fingernails pink or red (which gets a lot of commentary, go figure), or about fine restaurants to try in a quest to become even fatter (I’m mean). Some of the staffers rarely post, and all treat the blogs like 9-5 jobs, which is understandable. But topics die out at night and over the weekend, because all comments are moderated. This may also happen because people are reading and commenting on blogs only while they are at work. (The implications of that alone could be the subject of a study.)

This leaves the volunteers - on a wide variety of topics. There are the super controversial (Animal Rights, Tea Party), the various other causes, the very nice (mostly about pets, animal rescue, eating healthy, etc.), and the town-specific (sometimes these go viral, sometimes these are nice, and other times mundane). It can be a cliquey environment, both between various bloggers, and among the commenters. A couple of male volunteers have been very outspoken in support of Madeo. The females who have posted on the subject are more critical.

I’ve been chronicling my comments on various Times Union blogs so that I have a record. The ethical questions raised by this story are what I find most interesting. I’ve been interested in the issue of plagiarism for a long time, since I sometimes catch cheaters in my classes. It’s an issue about which I am an objectivist - not a constructivist as I usually espouse, when teaching, learning, or in the consulting project. I note the ethical failings in our society (Enron, Jayson Blair, Hevesi, too many to list) and see a connection to the students who cheat.

Parents who intervene for kids who can do no wrong. Taking no responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. Suing one’s neighbor, rather than having an iced tea or beer with them.

I find it frustrating that the TU is absent self-reflection, as if it does not have a role in shaping perception. This is always the company line at the TU, and I have never seen any of the volunteer bloggers call them on it. In the Troy Record, this story appeared today, far inside, and the father was not named. The TU can say they are withholding the kid’s name, but when the father is so prominent in their front page stories, how can they make this claim with a straight face?

They can try to shush the dissent, all the while glorying in the hits.

I’ve covered so many of the points that disturb me in my comments which I have pasted below, so I won’t re-hash them all here, but I think you would have to be very dull witted to not wonder what Madeo’s role is in the shaping and presenting of this narrative. His defenders can deny it, but his public actions have demonstrated a pattern of deception and low ethics. He hid his identity, threw unsubstantiated mud at others, and betrayed his employer. This time around, that his son is involved does not seem to matter to him at all. He’s going to prosecute, to sue, to get even. And delight in the limelight and the sympathy of fools all the while. I bet I am right, that the Delmar tipster is Madeo. Try not to look at the man behind the curtain!

Interestingly, last night I was thinking about this, and generally, when I am fevered with thoughts, I am inspired to write. Instead, I took paper and pencil and drew a cartoon satire. It is something I do from time to time, all the way back to childhood and it is always called Nileston News. But I have not done it in maybe a decade, and before that, it was decades since I did it routinely. I could instantly see the influence my consulting project has had - I am rediscovering that joy in asking questions and seeing where it leads me.


J. Eric Smith said...

Hi Gina,

I followed your link back to give me some context in terms of your comments on my blog post, so I do appreciate the fact that you're putting your thoughts on the matter under your own name in the public domain.

I'm intrigued by your thoughts on gender in this case . . . my sort of gut/stereotype reaction would be that males would tend to applaud the father who aggressively pursued the boys, rather than defend the father who is taking the case to court.

That being said, while you don't mention me by name here, I would like to again reiterate that I'm not taking sides in the matter or defending anyone from anybody else. My concern was over the nature and tone of comments offered on the case.

In re comment moderation, I'm not sure you realize that most of us bloggers do that ourselves, and it's not the TU staff who approves or disapproves comments. That may not be germane to your thoughts on the topic, but you seemed to question how that process occurred, so I just wanted to clarify that. I actually do most of my posting in early mornings or evenings or weekends, so there is some amount of traffic that comes in outside of work hours . . . though I have heard anecdotally that many of the blogs get the lion's share of their traffic during the work day.

In re bloggers have too cozy a relationship with the Times Union, and not questioning or challenging their role there. I would respectfully ask you to read two posts that I wrote long before the current hoopla . . .

Newspaper Junkie I

Newspaper Junkie II

There are other posts in my blog where I've challenged fellow bloggers and TU management, but these seemed to be the relevant to some of the points you are considering . . . to me, the fact that the TU made no effort to stifle me going on the record on their website to say that The Daily Gazette is a better newspaper is a good indicator of (a) the fact that I'm not a "captive" to some centralized editorial position, and (b) the fact that they don't censor the bloggers who write under their masthead.

I do appreciate the thought you're putting into a difficult topic. Sorry if our first exchange came across as more surly than I usually am in public.



howzerdo said...

Eric: thanks for linking to your posts, they're great and for the most part I agree with every word. I subscribe to the print TU and Record and read both every morning,reading the morning newspaper is one of life's pleasures. When the TU stripped out all the content and claimed they were serving us better by running full pages of society pictures, I started reading only the obituaries, Dear Abby, and the comics (which they have also ruined now). It seems as if they have only about 3 reporters now. In general I think there is no turning back, though - young people just do not read newspapers, they read stuff on Droids.

I agree that the gender divide I note is interesting. I was almost going to describe it as "testosterone" in my post. I can't speak for all women of course, we are not a monolithic group. But plunging ahead anyway, in terms of gender, women may feel that pressing charges and suing are not modeling good character, not the way to raise an upstanding young man. That's how I feel. At 14 coddling is inappropriate. Add in knowing who the father is and it gets worse; some of his posting has not been exactly female friendly. The most recent post on his dogs eliminating the cat problem in Colonie upset me for an entire day. (It would have anyway, but my sweet little cat died only a couple of days before.)

I really don't think the TU is orchestrating the message on this or anything else with its volunteer bloggers (even though I do think the regular articles are never reflective or transparent, and sometimes there is a slant). I do think all the details in their articles don't add up, such as the "Delmar tipster" source (again, not the blog posts, which I have found to be mostly personal appeals, not attempts at distortion of fact). I didn't know about the moderation policy, but I believe Mr. Huber does moderate some of them, maybe the group blogs only?

Thanks for visiting. I wasn't offended, and didn't think you were surly, though maybe a little defensive, but's that's understandable. I have a way of touching a nerve and being provacative with my writing, which is why I am not a frequent commenter on the TU (or any) blog. I'm not anonymous, but still I have my private corner. So no apology needed. Gina