Toward a more perfect union: the case for culturally responsive computational journalism

The slides below are from a presentation I gave today as this semester’s Faculty Senate Colloquium lecturer at The College of New Jersey. To be chosen by one’s peers to deliver such a research talk is a singular honor. I am particularly grateful to my English department colleague, the distinguished scholar and pundit Cassandra Jackson, whose introduction made me sound like someone I’d like to meet.

Here is the presentation abstract:

I moved from industry into academia 25 years ago because I had come to an understanding that the “hollowing-out” and flattening, of corporate, political and cultural hierarchies would make the role of professional communicators more central to the effective functioning of businesses and communities. As the expansion of the Internet and online technologies upended the news and communication industries, I became increasingly engaged with understanding how professional communicators could adapt to these seismic changes. This ultimately led to my current research in the development of culturally responsive models for teaching and practicing computational journalism. In this talk, I will draw upon that research to articulate a vision for a culturally responsive journalism. I will argue that culturally responsive computational journalism is essential to realizing the constructive potential of the seismic changes that computer science has visited upon the news industry. Properly crafted and implemented, culturally responsive journalism could:

1. Create an inclusive epistemology of journalism that moves beyond naive empiricism and the current propagandistic journalism of assertion
2. Democratize access to media technologies by broadening participation in the development and deployment of civic media
3. Deepen and broaden critical user engagement with the news
4. Deepen and broaden civic engagement
Computing technology and networks afford almost everyone the opportunity to be a publisher, but they also reward those who are computationally fluent with superior access to the public square. For this reason, I envision a future in which broad application and refinement the pedagogical models being developed here and elsewhere can actually empower citizens and strengthen democracy.



Here are links to sources for the presentation:

“Newspaper Newsroom Workforce Continues to Drop.”  Pew Research Journalism Project. March 20, 2014

Broadband technology fact sheet.” Pew Research Internet Project.

Computer and Internet Use 1984-2012 US Census

Closing the Digital Divide: Latinos and Technology Adoption Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project

The State of Digital Divides. Pew Internet Research Project. Nov. 5,2013

The Digital Divide is Still Leaving Americans Behind.” Jessica Goodman,  Mashable,  August 20, 2013

Yahoo Latest Tech Icon to Reveal Lack of Diversity.” Jessica Guynn, USA Today, August 15, 2014

Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers

CABECT research website

CABECT in a nutshell (flyer describing the project, with some preliminary data)


As we change journalism education, we need to study journalism learners

After years of exhortation and industry convulsions, journalism education is changing. The argument for infusing digital  media education – even programming — into the journalism curriculum is over. The questions are mostly logistical – what type, in what sequence, how much and to what ends? Driven largely by business needs, college newspapers are becoming sites of experimentation with new business and management models. Professional news organizations are expanding their relationships with journalism schools beyond their traditional roles as providers of internships and first employers. In some cases, they are collaborating on beat coverage and special investigations. In at least one instance, the local professional news outlets have physically moved on campus.

At the graduate level, Medill’s Innovation program helped spawn Narrative Science, a company that programs robots to generate stories. We faculty at small programs, who have thinking through what these changes mean for institutions like ours, finally have our own journal, Teaching Journalism and Mass Communications. The 2013 edition of Georgia Tech’s groundbreaking Computation + Journalism Symposium will likely drive the conversation even further.

All signs of progress, but something important is being lost amid the frenzy.

As former President George W. Bush famously put it, “Rarely is the question asked, ‘Is our children learning?'” Mindy McAdams speaks for many of us who have spent years looking for ways to infuse digital skills into the journalism curriculum:

“We can offer a course that focuses on Web technologies — HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc. But there is no data journalism in that class. And a lot of the students are going to hate typing those little brackets and so on. They’ll be so happy when that course is done and they never have to do that again.

“Moreover, they won’t practice what they learned, and very soon, they will forget all of it.

“We can offer a course about scraping and doing stuff with large data sets. We can teach students how to find stories in data. Students who like this, who learn how to do it and want to continue doing it, are probably among those most likely to get a journalism job. Like the Web technologies course, though, this is a class that many students will either avoid like the plague or take and then count the minutes until it’s over.”

Please, please read the whole post. She points to a real challenge that we haven’t yet cracked: how to engage students who think that journalism is about writing, not math or technology. Students who have convinced themselves that writing is something they are inherently “good” at, while math and tech are something they are inherently “bad” at. Students who don’t see why they need to understand html when they can just use a wysiwyg platform to build a website.

And my colleague and friend Michelle Johnson adds another layer: too often, the students who are least successful in adapting to journalism’s digital evolution are students of color, apparently another manifestation of the racial achievement gap. She writes:

“[F]or the past 20 years, I’ve read literally hundreds of applications for journalism training programs and scholarships, as well as for admission to journalism school. And sadly, I’m seeing some troubling signs.
“This isn’t just hand-wringing about a decline in writing skills among young people with short attention spans who communicate via texting abbreviations — I’ve noticed that among all the students.
“Simply put, I’m seeing that many of the students of color lack experience with the tools and technologies that will be fundamental to journalism innovation going forward. And this comes at a time when funding for training programs for students of color has shrunk, along with the bottom lines of the news industry and professional associations.”

These are exactly the concerns that keep me awake at night, even as I champion interactive journalism as a way of bringing members of under-represented groups into computing fields. (I’d also add working-class students to Michelle’s list, by the way.)

I would submit that amid our frenzy to learn and then incorporate all the skills that our graduates need into our curricula, we need a better understanding of what students absorb, and what affects their sense of self-efficacy as they confront the unexpected skills and content we are asking them to learn. That’s part of what I’m hoping to better understand with the new research project that I’ve embarked upon with Dr. S. Monisha Pulimood, of TCNJ’s Computer Science Department. The formal title is TUES: Collaborating Across Boundaries to Engage Undergraduates in Computational Thinking.(NSF Award #1141170). As we state in our abstract:

“To adequately prepare a workforce for the changing economic and global landscape, the project is developing a model that enables students with diverse perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds to learn how to collaborate and integrate concepts from their respective fields to develop technology-based solutions for complex real-world problems.”

It’s a tall order that we’ve set ourselves, and we are grateful to have Diane Bates, our independent evaluator, on board to help us assess what we are doing.

I’ll share more specific information about our project as it develops, but for now, I want to share some specific questions that I’m working through about integrating computational thinking and integrate it into journalism classes.

What’s the right learning environment to support computational thinking in journalism?  One of the posts that I wrote for a 2010 series about my own early exposure to skills that are currently classed as computational thinking began with this prologue:

“There are, at least, two approaches to education: the mimetic approach and the mathetic approach. The mimetic approach emphasizes memorization and drill exercises and is most efficient in inculcating facts and developing basic skills [Gar89, p. 6]. The mathetic approach stresses learning by doing and self exploration; it encourages independent and creative thinking [Pap80, p. 120]. In the mimetic framework, creativity comes after the mastery of basic skills. On the other hand, proponents of the mathetic school believe that self discovery is the best, if not the only, way to learn…”

Educational Outlook,”

Sugih Jamin, Associate Professor, EECS, University of Michigan

Whether taught in a classroom or newsroom, journalism education tends to be mimetic, while approaches to engaging novices in computing tend to be mathetic. We introduce students to specific routines and rigors of reporting, emphasizing adherence to rules of attribution, AP style, divisions of genre and structure (hard news, features, inverted pyramids, nut grafs, and so on.)  We stress the importance of getting the story right the first time, and then admit that there will likely be corrections and emendations as a breaking news story develops. We do these things for good reason: flubbing the fundamentals can not only get a reporter fired, it can lead to lawsuits, or in extreme cases, endanger innocent lives and reputations. Consequently, journalism students and professionals learn to think of every thing they do in highly instrumental terms, especially when it comes to learning what they need to know to ensure that they will get or keep a job.

By contrast, programming environments for novices such as Scratch or Alice are very successful at making introductory programming concepts more accessible. However, their strategy for engaging learners emphasizes play in ways that can be off-putting to journalism students who feel a need to quickly learn how to assemble a professional product. In the past, I’ve used Scratch in two ways – as a first step in learning Flash (something I’ve abandoned since Adobe made Mindy McAdams’ Flash Journalism text obsolete, and experts such as Mark  Luckie began pooh-poohing it as an important skill for journalists.) I’ve had some success teaching Scratch in game design courses, and I may think about using Alice for this purpose in the future, since its most recent iteration is specifically designed to give students a leg up Java, and that can be useful to aspiring app developers.

Do we need a journalism-specific programming environment to engage novice journalism students?

There are other, more mimetic, web-based learning environments for learning to code, such as’s CS `101 course, which focuses on Python and teaches students how to build a web scraper. There is an appeal to that approach because it has students build something that has obvious practical use in journalism. However, that course is arguably vulnerable to the criticism made by Bret Victor of platforms such as Khan Academy and CodeAcademy – that is, that they emphasize rote skills, while programming is “a way of thinking.”

Might it make sense to create a hybrid learning environment that combines the low barriers to entry of Scratch or Alice, with the goal orientation of something like Udacity? Will we begin to succeed at teaching programming as a way of thinking if we can more closely articulate between these learning environments and our broader journalism education curricula? (Here I am speaking of curricula not only for the classroom, but also for professional training.) Will novice programmer journalists be more motivated to learn in an environment where they can see direct connections between what their growing computing knowledge, the specific journalism artifacts they are learning to create, and the marketable skills they are developing? If so, what is the best way to create these linkages?

Is learning scripting really a gateway to computational thinking? The notion that journalism students should learn to “code” has gained increasing acceptance, but what that means and how one learns to do it are not universally understood. For several years, I’ve taken a position similar to the one that Miranda Mulligan took in a September 5, 2012 essay for NiemanLab:

I am not arguing that every single writer/editor/publisher who learns some programming should end up becoming a software engineer or a refined web designer. The end goal here is not programming fluency. However, there’s a lot of value in understanding how browsers read and render our stories. Reporting and writing a story, writing some code (HTML, CSS, Javascript), and programming complex applications and services are all collections of skills. A fundamental knowledge of code allows for:

  • More significant conversations about digital presentation, ultimately leading to better, more meaningful, online storytelling. Understanding your medium makes you better at your craft.
  • Deeper thought and understanding of data. Learning more about what goes into writing and programming software teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components, frameworks, object classes, templates, and more.

What Mulligan is referring to here as code (html, css, javascript – or more likely, jquery) is not programming, but web scripting, and as Mindy McAdams noted earlier, doesn’t get students digging into data. Having taught html and css for several years in our Writing for Interactive Multimedia class, my TCNJ colleagues and I can attest to all of the challenges that McAdams cites.

But there may be an additional unexamined assumption here, that learning scripting leads to the kind of computational fluency that, as Mulligan puts it, “teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components…”  I would submit that we need data to support this hypothesis. I certainly agree with her intuitively, but we need to know. These are some of the things we hope to learn in our research project, but there is lots of good work to be done to understand what, if any correlations exist between learning to script and learning to think computationally about the creation of journalism artifacts.

What do we know about the success of CAR courses that teach Excel,  SPSS, Access and SQL? The one place in the journalism curriculum that has come closest to teaching something like computational thinking has been in Computer Assisted Reporting classes (which these days, of course, is arguably a redundant term.)  A syllabus repository for some of these courses is here. We’ve had a required CAR course at TCNJ for 10 years. Many of these classes required that students minimally learn to use Microsoft Excel and Access (something I required when I taught it in the early 2000s). Some also incorporated SPSS and SQL. I don’t know of anyone who has studied these courses to assess the degree to which they affect students’ computing efficacy, programming skill, or acquisition of computational thinking concepts such as abstraction, decomposition, data structures, etc.

We could also use some research on the viability of such classes as points of articulation with emerging computational journalism curricula in computer science. One hopeful example is the work done by my TCNJ colleagues Donna Shaw and Emilie Lounsberry on the development of a database manager, GUMSHOE, that tracked the  disposition of gun-related arrests through the Philadelphia courts, ultimately contributing to an award winning story package on endemic problems in the Philadelphia court system.

These are just some of the questions that I think could lead to fruitful education research. I have others, such as questions about the possible role of stereotype threat on the achievement gap issues that Michelle Johnson cited, and whether learning science might help us better illuminate the real gaps in understanding and engagement that have many of us classroom teachers worried. As I’ve learned from talking to learning scientist  Deborah Tatar, making assumptions about why whole groups of people aren’t grasping particular concepts is often a big mistake.

Much, much more to be learned. I’m hoping that what has been, until now, an understandably ad hoc and organic effort develops into an area of systematic study.

Faculty and staff at New Jersey colleges protest stalled contract talks

  1. On April 25th and 26th, employees and students at New Jersey’s public colleges held rallies protesting the lack of progress between state negotiators and unions representing faculty and staff at the various institutions. Most of the campus unions have been without a contract since July 1, 2011.

    Why I put this post together

    This post provides a round-up of news about last week’s protests, with commentary for context based on my 24 years of experience as either an adjunct or full-time faculty member. Academia is actually my second career. Prior to joining the TCNJ faculty, I was a lay counselor and writer for a comprehensive cancer center, and then a public relations writer for AT&T. I have also been a freelance magazine reporter and blogger. Although I am an AFT member and a TCNJ employee, these comments are my own.

    I wanted to put this post together because I can remember how little I understood about what college faculty do before I became one. I completely understand why many people think we only work a few hours a week, for example, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. The hours in the classroom don’t count the time spent preparing for class, grading, advising students, writing recommendations, serving on committees, chairing departments or programs, advising student organizations, or networking on behalf our our students with employers and graduate schools. This is not a complaint – it’s an explanation.

    I’ll also acknowledge that the respective state institutions vary widely in our mission and focus, and I can only speak about the institution where I work. I’ve never worked at a community college, where I hear of colleagues teaching 5 courses a semester. (I did that one semester, and considering that all of my classes are writing-intensive, I don’t recommend it.)

    I’m a taxpayer too, and I’ve been a tuition-paying parent

    I know the sticker shock associated with college costs. I’m still paying off my part of the loans that put my kids through school. I also paid my own way through graduate school. I know what it’s like to do that under the kind of duress that many workers experience – an unemployed spouse, health crises, single parenthood. I also know what it’s like to have to take on extra jobs to make ends meet.
    I also understand why there’s skepticism about the value of a college education, especially with the state of the national economy and tales of college graduates scrambling for minimum-wage jobs. My colleagues and I spend a lot of our time outside the classroom boning up on the changes in our respective fields and reviewing our curriculum, advising practices and career development resources so that our students and alumni have the best chance possible in an increasingly competitive market. Sabbaticals and career development funds help us do that.
  2. How do sabbaticals and career development funds for faculty benefit students?

    Here’s an important quote from the first story in the list below that deserves comment: “[Gov. Chris] Christie has called for four-year salary freezes and an end to perks such as guaranteed sabbaticals, a staple of academic life, at the state’s nine nonresearch universities, which do not include Rutgers or the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, according to faculty union officials who have been involved in contract talks. You might wonder why “nonresearch” faculty would need sabbaticals.

    It’s important to understand that although colleges such as mine are not designated as research institutions, we are required to do research in order to stay current in our fields so that we can be effective mentors and teachers to students. It’s called the “teacher-scholar” model – the idea is that our scholarship feeds our teaching, and our undergraduates get to be involved in research. Here is a 2007 report from the American Association of Colleges and Universities that does a good job of explaining the value of the teacher-scholar model. ( One difference between the description of the teacher-scholar model in the report and its implementation at our institution is that our undergrads work closely with faculty across the campus – not just in the sciences.
    Doing scholarship requires not only that we publish, but that we join the learned societies in our field (often at our own expense), present at conferences (again, often at our own expense or with limited support from our departments, because there just isn’t enough money to go around.)

    We take on the responsibility of securing grant funding for much of that research, as well as for needed improvements to labs, equipment and curricula. Going after grants is a lot of work for both faculty and staff, and there is no guarantee of success, but it’s worthwhile. However, many funders look for signs of institutional commitment in considering funding proposals. Here is a sampling of funded proposals that TCNJ has garnered in recent years.

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    New Jersey state college faculties protest pay, benefit proposals
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    RT @NJAFLCIO: Proud to join in solidarity with faculty, staff, @AFTNJ and students at TCNJ to rally for a fair contract…
  5. Share
    #council_contract Photos: TCNJ Day of Action for a fair contract and higher ed funding: #labor #union
  6. Share
    #council_contract College of New Jersey professors rally to protest contract dispute: By David Kar… #labor #union
  7. Share
    #council_contract Photos: William Paterson University Day of Action: #labor #union
  8. Share
    RT @SpencerKlein18: Proud to stand with NJ teachers at TCNJ! RT @AFTNJ: NJ United Students Spencer Klein shows student solidarity at TCNJ…
  9. A spirited debate on, with supporters and critics of the union protestors weighing in

  10. In the end, it’s the students who matter

    Last week, our students presented their original research in our annual Celebration of Student Achievement. The research presentations ran the gamut, from a new software tool that will help journalists do a better job of extracting important information about the environment, to analyses of Medicare funding, to inventive applications of physical computing technologies and more. This is a TCNJ highlight reel from the 2009 Celebration that shows the kinds of things that can happen when faculty and students get to work closely together, appropriately supported by staff and with the right technology infrastructure.
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    TCNJ Celebration for Student Achievement
  • There are others who can give you chapter and verse on the concessions that we’ve made over the years and the efforts that have gone into addressing shortfalls in funding for public higher education. We can also have a good discussion on the relative cost-benefit models for delivering higher-education through online or blended learning courses. College costs and accessibility are huge issues that need to be addressed in a mutually respectful and informed partnership. To participate in that partnership, taxpayers, bond investors and tuition payers have a right to know where their hard-earned college dollars are going. I hope this post helps provide a bit more of that needed transparency to help that process along. And with that, I must get back to grading. Thanks for your time.

  • “Discourse” from WTSR-FM: A conversation about ACTA and Internet freedom

    On April 4, I was interviewed by TCNJ students Melissa Radzimski and Amanda Reddington, hosts of the WTSR-FM radio show, “Discourse” on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and other issues related to Internet freedom and intellectual property rights. It was a wide-ranging conversation that included tome discussion of the history of the Internet. I appreciated the host’s invitation and enjoyed the conversation. We’d all love to hear your thoughts.

    Teaching HTML and CSS via translation

    One of my major teaching responsibilities at The College of New Jersey is a course called, Writing for Interactive Multimedia. For the last 15 years, we have been using that course as a way to introduce our journalism students to basic coding in html and, more recently, css. Initially a course for the journalism and professional writing major, it has also been required for Interactive Multimedia majors since 2003. There are dual challenges in this arrangement, as well as opportunities. One of the challenges is that students come to the class with varied levels of interest in, and affinity for coding. On the other hand, having students with different levels of proficiency creates opportunities for peer mentoring and collaboration in the classroom.

    Also, I posit that a systematic and disciplined approach to studying html and css can be helpful for students who might have gaps in their understanding because they are largely self-taught. Finally, because coding is in a constant state of evolution, it is important to establish a culture of continual learning and experimentation – something that might be familiar to students of computing and interactive media, but which tends to be novel for journalism majors.

    These are lofty ideals, but are often challenging in practice. In the past, I have taught html through demonstration, having students follow me and practice their initial coding in the class. I have tried a number of online tutorials and physical textbooks. I have spent lots of time assisting students in labs as they practiced coding, and have had more experienced students work with novice students. Currently, I’m using Virginial DeBolt’s Mastering Integrated HTML and CSS.) This approach works well enough to get students to learn some rudimentary skills, but it has not created the kind of cultural change or deep understanding that I was trying to establish.

    This semester, I tried something new – I am focusing on html and css as languages that can be translated into English, and vice-versa. Here are some exercises I have created to teach and reinforce fundamental concepts. This is a work in progress, but students tell me that they enjoy these exercises and find them helpful.

    1. A conversation in English and HTML

    After my students had been introduced to html through readings and class discussion, I suggested to them that we have an oral conversation in which I posed as a web browser and they were the web designer. I told them to initiate a web page. One of the students said, “html.”

    I said, ” I am being asked to display a webpage. I expect I will get some information about it soon.”

    A student said, “head.”

    I said, “This is the header. I will know learn the special rules I need to know to display this page.”

    A student said, “title…”

    We went on like this until we had described a page with links, text and images. There was a lot of laughter in the process. Then we practiced scripting pages.

    2. Translating English to HTML and CSS

    I wrote the following sentences on the board and asked the students to pair up to turn the sentences into HTML and CSS:

    1. This is the beginning of my webpage.
    2. The title of my page is “My resume.”
    3. In my page, the headlines will be in the font Verdana.
    4. In my page, the body type will be in the font Georgia.
    5. The background color of my page will be 255 255  204
    6. The content that will be displayed on my page begins here.
    7. This page is linked to my homepage.
    8. The content to be displayed ends here.
    9. This is the end of my web page.

    After working on this for 10-15 minutes, I called volunteers up to ask them to write the  appropriate lines of html and css.

    3. Commenting out HTML and CSS

    A conversation with my computer science colleagues Miroslav Martinovic and Monisha Pulimood led me to the idea of having students use commenting on their webpages. Essentially, I am beginning to tell them to write out what  they are trying to do each line of HTML and CSS as they script. The purpose of this is similar to the purpose of commenting on code generally – so that students can have a record for themselves or other coders of what they were trying to do. I anticipate that this will help me and peer tutors or collaborators be more effective in helping them as well.

    I am working on some other exercises, including kinesthetic approaches to teaching about concepts such as relative and absolute links. I have also approached a colleaguein our World Languages and Cultures department about ways in which this might be developed into a more formal system of instruction. If anyone knows of others who are teaching this way, I’m interested in their results.