Op-Eds Opinion

“The Student” Advisor Responds

Words matter.

The words we use represent choices.  Choices have consequences.  That’s certainly true in the media: in student media, in professional media, in social media.  It’s true in our college community.  True for students.  True for professors.

This is my 12th year serving as the faculty advisor to the Springfield Student.  Never before have I used this forum to wade into a campus controversy.  Sure, there have been times I have disagreed—sometimes quite pointedly—with my student journalists.  Similarly, I have not always been on the same page with respected faculty colleagues.  But using this space in a student publication for my words didn’t seem appropriate.  Generally speaking, the less said from the advisor of campus media, the better.

Today, I feel compelled to break that silence.  In this case, silence would not constitute appropriate restraint; it would imply consent to something that contradicts my heart.  My goal in writing this piece is to encourage everyone—self included—to recommit to our journalistic and educational missions.

Before plunging in, it’s only fair to point out that as journalist and educator, I live in both camps.

Each week I work with our student editors, an amazingly committed group who have, with very few exceptions, consistently produced what I would consider—to borrow a term from this week’s letter to the editor—“responsible journalism.”  They have taken on many difficult issues (violence against women, homophobia, campus crime, disability awareness, etc.) in thoughtful and compassionate ways.  None of these people gets paid a cent.  They put in long hours every week reporting, writing, editing, etc., and then top that off with a marathon production session called “paste-up” on Wednesdays from 4 p.m. until the wee hours.  For what it’s worth, Jimmy Kelley, the sports editor at the eye of this storm, has, on top of classes, been doing an intensive internship this semester at New England Sports Network.  Three days a week (including Wednesdays before paste-up) he commutes to Watertown.  He leaves campus at 6 a.m. and returns at 6 p.m.

Obviously, I’m also a college professor, someone with close professional relationships with many of the people involved in this controversy.  These professors are extremely intelligent, hard-working people who care deeply about education and students at Springfield College.  Many of them have been campus leaders in the area of social justice.  I have worked alongside some of these people for years.  I have learned a lot from them.  Some are friends I socialize with off campus.

Jimmy Kelley’s column last week (“The Chiefs’ Concern”) has elicited a response the likes of which I have seldom seen at Springfield College.  A number of my colleagues have chimed in publicly and passionately via Facebook comments and this week’s letter to the editor.

As I have told Jimmy, I share many of the views expressed by my colleagues.  Of course, it’s not true that a Kansas City Chiefs’ football game on Sunday was “much more important” than what happened on Saturday: Jovan Belcher murdering his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins—the mother of their 3-month-old baby—then killing himself in front of his coaches.  Jimmy acknowledges this was a poor choice of words and wishes he could take them back.

I agree that there are deeper approaches to this tragedy that are worth exploring by the newspaper staff.  In an effort to bring these issues into broader campus discussion this week, features editor Joe Brown interviewed Brian Krylowicz, director of the counseling center (see story, page 4).

I understand that the Kansas City tragedy is a hot-button issue for many, that it brings a lot of pain to the surface.  I understand that there are huge gender components to all of this, inequities that need much deeper attention in our society, in the sports world, and in our campus culture.

That said, I do think Jimmy’s column has some merit.  He asserts that sports can play a part in the coping process after a tragedy.  Didn’t that happen, at least a tiny bit, when the Yankees hosted the World Series in 2001 just one month after the 9/11 attacks?

In my view, the responses to Jimmy’s column were problematic.  Comments on the student newspaper Facebook page—which goes out to over 2,000 people who have “liked” it—included input from professors who said that the column, among other things, “demonstrates grave insensitivity,” and that it uses a lens that is “myopic and offensive.”  Other comments contained a tone that was, at best, snide.  That continued even after Jimmy’s sincere (and in my estimation quite thoughtful) attempt to explain his point of view.

Certainly if this were professional journalism, such comments would be in bounds.  Those of us in the business know that writing publicly opens us up to public criticism, sometimes harsh, and sometimes in the real world anonymous (that’s another story).  I have known my share of that criticism, some of it ruthless.

But this is not professional journalism—not yet.  The students here are learning a difficult craft, and I question whether having professors criticize them on Facebook is appropriate.  We always tell young people to be cautious about posting things on the Internet, reminding them that what they write is public and permanent.  I submit that some of these comments served to polarize rather than educate.  My fear is that if students feel their work can be subject to harsh criticism in a public forum from professors, it will have a chilling effect on free speech.  I know that is not intended, but I have heard that from students I respect.  (Sure, the free speech of professors needs to be protected, too, but I believe that in academic communities—where our fundamental mission is to educate young people—we should consider the aphorism that “My freedom to swing my fist ends at the point of your chin.”  In other words, if faculty speech serves to suppress student speech, then we have a problem.)

There is a role imbalance we have to acknowledge.  As professors, we have power in this relationship.  If the power equation were opposite, would we feel comfortable publicly criticizing –or being publicly criticized by—members of the administration?

As educators we need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.  What is going to be helpful?  What is going to be educational?  What will maximize the “teaching moment” that is at the core of our profession?

I strongly urge people to consider more direct communication.  For what it’s worth, only one of the ten professors who signed this letter to the editor has reached out to Jimmy (in person, by phone, or by email) in the week since his column appeared.

Finally, I feel compelled to address a few things about the letter itself.  While I again share many of the sentiments –and hope that important messages do get through—I fear they won’t because of polarizing word choice and tone.   Rather than characterizing a student’s work as “extremely disturbing” and “appalling” and talking about how taking the author’s approach “would show great callousness and insensitivity,” wouldn’t it be much more productive to approach the letter by starting out with something like:

“Jimmy Kelley chose to address the murder/suicide in Kansas City by writing about the momentary healing of a football game.  We believe there are deeper, more helpful approaches to this tragedy that we strongly encourage the newspaper staff to consider.”

As student journalists and as college professors, we all have a role in trying to help Springfield College fulfill its idealistic mission of “educating leaders in service to humanity.”  I know I can do a better job with that.  I think we all can.

Marty Dobrow

Associate Professor of Communications

Faculty Advisor, Springfield Student

 

Click here to read the Letter to the Editor this is responding to >>

 

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