Saturday, December 24, 2005

The State Information Officers Council Scholarship

The following is an essay I wrote last month for the California State Information Officers Council annual Stephan Brophy Scholarship. It was open to juniors and seniors majoring in communications studies, english or journalism at Sac State with a minimun required GPA of 3.0 (3.5 in major). The essay had to be between 200 and 400 words (mine came in at 402) and "discuss a critical communications issue of the day from either a global, industry, local or interpersonal perspective." There were a total of five applicants. This is the essay that won it:

November 13, 2005
State Information Officers Council Scholarship

Writing, it would appear, is becoming a lost art. So is reading. In an age of instant gratification, when we get our information in tidy half-hour segments, we seem to have lost the patience it takes to read...or write. While it is difficult to pinpoint the impetus of this phenomenon, it is apparent that two of the three “R”s do not enjoy the same priority they once did. A complacent attitude in compulsory education, especially in the language arts, combined with (or exacerbated by) information availability in a form that only requires passive observance appears to be the cause. The effect is that we are losing the ability to think critically. We are much more easily taken. We are far more easily swept up by emotion and persuaded by rhetoric.

Modern conveniences make our lives easier, perhaps too much so. In regards to information acquisition, these new gadgets and gizmos provide a steady stream of news, opinion, propaganda and other spew 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are bombarded with an ever increasing and unprecedented amount of information. Indeed, it may be the result of our intellectual prowess that has diminished the priority of the kind of dedicated intellectual pursuit that ultimately enabled this complacency to materialize.

However advanced the delivery methods are, technology has not yet been able to process this stuff for us. It cannot think, critically or otherwise. My fear is that in our quest for the ”good” life, we are settling for the “easy” life. We do not expect or require enough from ourselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in “college” level writing. In a growing number of universities, students must pass some sort of writing proficiency exam in order to demonstrate rudimentary writing skills. It is a testimony to how lax the primary school system has become. The universities must, unfortunately, respond to this evolved deficiency in the public school system at large.

Language arts – reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary, even spelling – are essential to critical thinking. It must be taught and then practiced. It cannot be downloaded or absorbed by osmosis. It teaches us how to think for ourselves, to be independent and to be wary. The “information super-highway” can only deliver the goods, it is up to us to unwrap and assemble them. Technology cannot do it for us.

If we don’t think for ourselves, someone else will.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Telling Us What to Think

In today’s Sacramento Bee, an opinion piece by Maureen Dowd (syndicated columnist for the New York Times) predictably bashes the current administration about its most recent snafus. It is not news to anyone who has read any of her columns that she is no fan of the Bush administration. And based on the most recent news from Washington, she has good reason. Also appearing in the paper is a letter to the editor regarding her journalistic style as disrespectful, as evidenced by her disingenuous nicknames for the president and his staff. Perhaps.

But I think it could be criticized more accurately as ineffective. At least it should be. The letter writer states, “Everyone knows how much she dislikes the president.” Indeed, one needs only read a part of one of her columns to get this. And this is the point. Who is she trying to reach? Those who already agree with her? Her column today is long on hyperbole and short on any substantive insight. It’s not even very good satire.

I should take some of it back. I DO read Maureen Dowd and I DO NOT already necessarily agree with her. Oh sure, the current administration is often and repeatedly incompetent, scary, arrogant, ignorant, detached - the list goes on. But I do not actively hate this administration as Ms. Dowd appears to. I have no axe to grind and I certainly do not take their actions personally. Hell, they don’t even know me! So me thinks I may generalize a bit much.

I’m not quite sure whom Maureen Dowd is trying to reach. Who is she trying to convince or sway? How effective is a column that refers to the president as “W” or “Bubble Boy” and the vice president as “Dick” and the Secretary of Defense as “Rummy?” Her bias is blatant. It tells me that she has no intention of any deep thought or consideration regarding an opposing view point that even an opinion piece needs to lend the author any credibility.

Perhaps this is what we like to read today. If Rush Limbaugh’s success is any indication, then there are a significant number of people who only want to hear what they already think they know. They are allowing others to do their thinking for them. I read Ms. Dowd’s column and even occasionally listen to Mr. Limbaugh’s show. It is not uncommon that (based on my own objective analysis) I agree with the substance of what they are saying, but I rarely if ever agree with the delivery. Disrespectful? Yes. But more importantly, a big bright red flag that begs the reader to look beyond the hyperbole.

Mr. Althouse

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Little More About Me

I am currently entering my second semester as a junior at California State University, Sacramento as a government-journalism major. My plan is to graduate in the spring of 2007. Beyond that – who knows? I am in an unusual but hardly unique situation in that I am a 43-year-old undergraduate. How I got here is a long story, one that I will not go into here. Suffice it to say that the “school of hard knocks” is alive and well. I will, however, go into some of my formal educational experience because it took some time to get through my freshman and sophomore years. I titled this blog to reflect the 25 years it took to get here…”The 25 Year Plan.”

I graduated high school in 1981. My grades were mediocre at best. I put little to no effort into achieving high marks and never really cared all that much. As my profile states, I somehow had this idea that my life’s purpose would just become apparent and that any discovery on my part was unnecessary. I just kind of went where the wind blew me and therefore didn’t explore my strengths, my talents or my desires. Upon graduation from high school, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I “grew up.”

Despite decent SAT scores and a GPA that would have been accepted at a number of schools in the California State University system (not to be confused with the University of California system which would have required a major miracle on my behalf), I did not apply. Of course I regret this decision – to a point, but it is history now. I did, however attend some classes at the local community college. It is quite apparent in retrospect that I took the same attitude I had in high school with me. I lasted 1 trimester, although I had achieved passing grades. I just didn’t “feel” it.

A couple of years later I had reached a dead-end in my life. I was 20, unemployed, living at my parent’s house and felt pretty much worthless. Towards the end of the summer of 1983, my parents once again encouraged me to attend college – away from home. Their offer to support me in my educational endeavors was still open so I applied and was accepted to San Diego State University. SDSU is a very large school with a student population at the time numbering somewhere around 35,000. And I didn’t know one of them.

I spent two years at SDSU and have very little to show for it. I had joined the local chapter of a very large national fraternity and spent a huge amount of time on anything but school. At the time, SDSU held the dubious distinction of being Playboy magazine’s #1 party school in the nation. (I’d like to think that I contributed my small part toward this cause.) More importantly, I still did not have any real direction in my life and was there, not for myself, but for my parents. I just could not or would not commit to the work necessary to be successful in college.

Over the next 20 years or so, I attended two trade schools, and three other community colleges. My success in these endeavors was remarkably better than my previous forays into the world of higher education. I was actually enjoying school and interested in what I was learning about. Oddly enough, once this excitement about school became part of my overall attitude, it made little difference what I was studying – I loved it all. And my grades reflected it.

Fast-forward: Fall, 2003. After an extended absence from school, I enrolled at American River College, a community college in the greater Sacramento area. How I ended up in Sacramento is a story for another time but I will say this much: I was not all that thrilled to be here. Because it had been so long since my last experience with school, I was to take three assessment tests: Two in english (reading and writing) and one in math. I was shocked by the results. As a result, I was allowed to enroll in an english writing honors class. That semester also produced my first (and to date, only) 4.0 GPA. More importantly, a skill I always possessed but never embraced was beginning to emerge – writing.

Although my major had changed two semesters into my community college experience, my sense of purpose and direction never did. My goal also expanded beyond anything I had imagined when enrolling at ARC. I was originally there only to earn an AA degree. Upon entering my third and last semester, my goal was journalism and nothing less than a BA degree would do. The credits from those three semesters plus those scattered throughout the last 20+ years allowed me to finally – almost 25 years after graduating high school – enter Sac State as a junior.

So here I am, winter break midway through my junior year, just turned 43 and I have never been happier. It’s been a long, rough and winding road. Would I do it differently if I could? Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. If what has happened got me here and here is where I am happy, joyous and free, why would I want to change anything? Rhetorical sure, but also moot. I’m cool, but I wouldn’t wish this path on anyone.

So I have about five weeks of “free” time. What a concept. I check the school web site often, watching my grades trickle in (five 3-unit classes, 2 A’s so far) and explore this new blog thing. I think I like it; it gets me writing. No matter where my life takes me next, writing will be an integral part of it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Mr. Althouse

Sunday, December 18, 2005

My First Blog Entry - Ever!

I have been resisting this blog thing. I have a few ideas why, perhaps, but I have reconciled that I probably should just stop resisting. It is patently apparent that this is not just another passing fad. Moreover, as an aspiring writer/journalist, it would behoove me to exploit any technology that will advance my career and expose my thoughts to more than just a select few. I must admit that making my musings publicly available is somewhat intimidating, but what the hey…

I am not one to jump on the bandwagon. I have been primarily a follower and not a leader. I generally don’t like commitment and prefer to wait and see. Unless of course, it is a thing that is already in my realm of experience; that requires little or no effort to be “accomplished;” that has immediate and considerable dividends; that boosts my self-esteem; you know – that I’m good at. In my assessment, blogging posed too much risk.

To be fair, it is not the technological platform that intimidates me. Indeed, I have been into computers and networking not since the beginning, but very early on. Therefore, I have a great deal of knowledge – expert knowledge – of the inner workings of computers, their hardware, protocols and the like. Unfortunately, I somehow missed the boat that became known as the World Wide Web.

Without going into a lot of unnecessary (but interesting) details, a series of events in my life combined with (or exacerbated by) choices I made took me away from the computer industry just as the Internet really took off. I had limited my involvement to that of tinkering with hardware that was turning obsolete overnight and immersion into the endless diversions that the web offered. By the time I had come up for air, the dust was already settling. What I knew that was of value was next to worthless. I had become an end-user.

By the time I had re-entered school (another equally interesting series of events…but I’ll save these adventures for future entries), my prior life in the high technology world was of little value. However, I had apparently picked up some skill in assembling words and punctuation in a way that made some sense. I guess I always kinda-sorta knew, but now there was external and professional validation. Cool, right? I mean how much, other than word processing, could writing be affected by technology?

Since you're reading this, you probably already know. Still, I resisted for a couple of years. Why? Likely, fear. Toss in some procrastination and you get a writer that can write and has the technical knowledge, experience and the ability to learn how to create and maintain a blog and the knowledge that doing so has evolved into a “turn-key” endeavor and the intelligence to know that blogs and other forms of on-line journalism and writing are the wave of the future and that he better get used to it and yet he waits until almost 2006. Whew!

But it’s never too late. So here it is for you to read, comment on (or not), and enjoy. Better late than never.