Saturday, March 27, 2010

Quick hit: Still grieving over my Jayhawks. But, K-State's deep run is making me feel 10% better. MU's loss also lifted my spirits a bit.

PowerPoint Purgatory

From the Parkville Luminary

You know you’re in trouble when the words program manager, logframes (whatever those are), wage plans, and milestone targets are uttered in the same sentence. I heard these words, and their meaningless cousins, repeatedly during a large group meeting that I recently attended. Now, this meeting could have been in Parkville or Pittsburg, but this one happened to be 8,500 miles away in Kampala, Uganda.

Whether they’re next door or halfway around the world, meetings are inherently boring, and can, like this one, often descend into a trough of dullness when they utilize my least favorite a/v tool.

Welcome to PowerPoint purgatory.

Since misery loves company, and I’m not clever enough to avoid using a cliché, you’ll be happy to learn that the scourge of the dull PowerPoint presentation has spread globally like H1N1.

For example, I once sat through a four hour PowerPoint, in Romanian, at a conference in Chisinau, Moldova. I believe I had an out-of-body experience during this presentation, although the only place my spirit traveled was a stall in the men’s room so it could hurl. Like I tell my son after he makes me sit through one his crappy horror films, I will die never having retrieved those lost hours.

The same can be said of PowerPoint presentations I’ve endured in Chinese, Georgian, and Portuguese. At least with these, I had an excuse for drifting off.

My global experience with large meetings of this type is that they are seldom productive, and are often convened for the sole purpose of justifying the existence of the management type who planned the whole thing. Here’s an idea—dispense with the meeting, and just send me a succinct memo instead.

Now, the people organizing the seminar I recently attended in Kampala were well meaning volunteers working to make Uganda a better place, and I salute them for that. Unfortunately though, like 97% of PowerPoints, the ones featured at this meeting were ill-conceived, dull, and ineffective.

At this meeting, they distributed handouts that showed what is on each PowerPoint slide, word for word. Whenever this happens, I want to grab the handouts and make my escape, since the presentation becomes superfluous. Just email me the slides, and save us both the trouble, I say.

As a college speech teacher (among other things), let me issue this challenge to all of you out there with an impending speech or presentation to give. First, shorten your presentation by half. Then, when you’re giving it, speak up, step out from behind the podium if you can, never read your comments verbatim, and stop using PowerPoint.

The fact is that most presenters use PowerPoint very poorly, turning their backs to the audience, for example, or filling a single slide with a novella. Then there’s the problem of showing 3,284 slides in a six minute presentation. Audio-visual materials are supposed to enhance and supplement your presentation, not replace it. And visuals should certainly never sever the connection between you and your audience, which PowerPoint seems to do quite well. So, drop PowerPoint cold turkey. You’ll be surprised with the results, beginning with the fact that your audience will be looking at you instead of the screen.

After this rant, you won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t use PowerPoint in my classroom at Park University. One incredulous student asked me, how can a communications professor not use PowerPoint? My response: I don’t use PowerPoint because I am a communications professor.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

First, a quick note to express my sadness at the violence last week in Uganda, where government troops shot and killed three protesters at the site of a suspicious fire that destroyed the burial site of tribal kings. Uganda is a troubled place. I will be there for six months beginning in July in hopes of improving things just a bit. It's a daunting task.

Learning Peace

From the Parkville Luminary

As any teacher can tell you, one of the most exciting things about the profession is the opportunity it affords for the teacher to do some learning as well. This is especially true in my Peace Journalism class at Park University, where not a day goes by without the students showing me a new perspective on things.

One recent example centers on a video conference “visit” to my class by Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero from the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. He risked his own life to shield 1,268 innocents in the hotel he managed. Obviously, as a witness to genocide, he had a great deal to teach all of us about peace, war, forgiveness, and the role of media in inciting violence.

The students’ reactions to Mr. Rusesabagina’s “visit” were revealing.

“It was very eye opening to hear the degree that journalists in other countries enjoy limited freedom…The idea of being put in prison, or to death, because of events or stories being reported in the media is shocking to say the least. It makes me value the rights we maintain as a media and as individual reporters in this country. …In my time her at Park, this is one of the most valuable experiences I have had to date,” noted one student.

About Mr. Rusesabagina, another student commented, “He epitomized everything that we are trying to achieve in Peace Journalism….Not only did he avoid any inflammatory, graphic, or emotion inspiring words, he himself did not present any malice towards the people who had harmed him or killed his family.”

“(After learning about the Rwandan genocide), I find it is one of those things you wish wasn’t true…It is a perfect example of how much influence media has on people. With this influence, we as journalists have a huge responsibility to keep what we report from being something that causes conflict…,” wrote a third student.

One key topic addressed by Mr. Rusesabagina was forgiveness, and its role in forging a peaceful future. One student said, “His thoughts on forgiveness were understandable to me. I’m not sure that I could forgive either, but he wishes better for the children and future generations. He understands that it is important to forgive and move on.” Another student said, “(Rusesabagina) said that forgiveness is not possible until there has been some sort of justice, and though I tend to agree, that raises the question of whether forgiveness that is contingent on justice is actually forgiveness.” While discussing forgiveness, Mr. Rusesabagina told my class, “I hate you and you hate me. But, what can we do so that our children can live together in peace?” Another student commented, “What struck me as a surprise is that Mr. Rusesabagina could easily place the blame of this tragedy and point fingers. But he realizes that doing so would be of no use to future generations….Yes, forgiveness might be the best solution, but right now it is not so simple.”

Indeed, in studying peace, war, violence, and media, nothing is simple.

Park steps up to help Haiti

Congratulations to supporters of Park University’s tremendous effort to aid those in need in Haiti. Park University students donated $2,000 to Heart to Heart International for Haiti earthquake victims. The donations were accepted by Park alum Andre Butler, who is the chief advancement officer for Heart to Heart.

The Park community also donated 514 care kits filled with personal hygiene products valued at over $3500, and $500 needed to mail the kits. All told, Hernandez figures Park raised more than $6,100 for Haiti relief.

The Haiti relief campaign was spearheaded by Park sophomore Leonel Tchuente-Sila, and coordinated by Michael Hernandez, director of International Student Services.

Well done.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Shameless plug: Check out my peace journalism home page

She put WHAT into her casserole:
The Saga of Small Town Newspapers

From the Parkville Luminary

Where can you learn about the local boy who made the honor roll at the community college, about Bessie Mae’s cousin bringing green bean casserole to a pot luck dinner, or about the latest goings-on at the senior center? You sure as heck won’t get tasty tidbits like these online. Nope, the only place where you can get real, meaty community news is in a real-life small town newspaper.

I’ve been a fan of such newspapers for years, and always strive to pick one up whenever I’m traveling. I’ve been reading one small town newspaper, The Index from Hermitage, Missouri, off and on for about 20 years now, thanks to my father in law. He grew up in that general area, and even though he’s lived in KC for years, he never gave up his local newspaper. I get The Index when he’s done reading it, and it never ceases to fascinate and enlighten me.

In a recent edition, one headline immediately caught my eye. It read, “Lions buy snowflakes.” I showed this to my son, who was as tickled as I was. He asked me to read the story, and I did, more or less: “Three African lions sauntered into the co-op in Hermitage today, and in loud, growly voices, demanded to buy snowflakes,” I read, or pretended to. “It seems the lions, never having seen snowflakes, wanted to buy some, put them in a cooler, and take them back to the African savanna, where they would show them off to their wild friends before leading a snowball fight.” My son, knowing that my sarcasm knows no bounds, read the real story (concerning the Lion’s Club and the purchase of lighted snowflakes for a holiday display) over my shoulder as I prattled on.

Had I missed this issue, not only would I have been bereft of snowflake news, but I would have missed out on other breaking news like the Weaubleau math team finishing third in a math tournament, or a dinner held to celebrate the 90th birthday of a spry looking Juanita Jenkins (congratulations!), or the theft of fencing materials from the local MFA co-op.

I am not making fun of these news items, which is more than I can say for some family members who visited me years ago when I was reporting in Rolla, Missouri. My relatives happened to catch my radio newscast where the lead story was a theft of $15 and a bushel of fruit from a fruit stand, and they’ve never let me forget it since. My response to them, and to anyone now who pokes undue fun at stories like these, is that this sort of seeming minutiae is actually more newsworthy than 90% of the junk you hear or read or see in bigger city media. These are real people and real stories about one’s real neighbors, and are thus more relevant, more newsworthy, than, for example, the daily crime blather served up under the guise of news by our local TV journalists.

My favorite pieces in The Index are the community reports, small, weekly columns lovingly crafted by “correspondents”, mostly little old ladies who know the comings and goings of everyone in town, a term which I use loosely since many of the communities from which these reports originate are little more than a gas station, a few houses, and a couple of angry dogs. In Cross Timbers last week, for example, two local residents want to Sedalia (!) to see two movies. Several other residents went to a high school ballgame on a Tuesday night. Information was also given about the death of one Cross Timbers resident, and about the hip surgery of another resident. He was visited in the hospital by three relatives, incidentally. Meanwhile, in Preston, three lucky residents shopped in Camdenton (!) Wednesday, and had lunch there. I wonder if there are any good Ethiopian joints in Camdenton?

The heart of every small town paper is the editor, who usually writes a cantankerous column and an editorial or two each week. The Index’s editor/publisher, Don Ginnings, has been telling it like it is for years. In a recent edition, his column is titled “Intended to offend everyone” and contains stories and jokes poking fun at almost everyone. In a more politically correct environment, he might get ridden out of town on a rail. But since Hermitage is already out of town, I suppose he can get away with it. When he isn’t being contrary, Ginnings is being thoughtful. In an editorial entitled, “Haiti should be a wake up call”, Ginnings writes, “That catastrophe should make every American appreciate what we have, should prompt everyone to help overcome that devastation, and should be a reminder that a similar natural event could occur here.”

The New York Times couldn’t have said it any better.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Miserable in Kansas City

From the Parkville Luminary

Each night, as I lay in bed and the tears silently stream down my cheek, I curse the fates for putting me in such a God-forsaken place. In a former life, I must have been a very bad man to be cursed with being born and raised in Kansas City, and, even worse, having to endure the metro area’s armpit, Parkville, for so long.

My perception of the hellhole we call home was recently confirmed by a highly scientific poll in Forbes Magazine naming Kansas City the nation’s 13th most miserable city. St. Louis was 7th, and Chicago 10th in the poll, which must be deadly accurate since it comes from Forbes, which correctly predicted the financial meltdown (didn’t they?). At any rate, no one in America should have a keener sense of judging misery than Steve Forbes, who can use his own comical and expensive campaign for president as a scale by which to judge the misery of others.

In his highly scientific study, Forbes correctly points to the Chiefs and Royals as key reasons why we’re so miserable. He’s right. If you’re like me, you lie awake at night, sweating profusely and tossing and turning while wondering why the Chiefs can’t seem to generate any pass rush. Indeed, like most Kansas Citians, I am haunted by these thoughts all day, every day, rendering me unable to enjoy much of anything. I was watching a movie with my son the other day, and even started to have a good time for a few minutes, before I was struck by nagging thoughts about the Chiefs inability to produce any vertical passing game. My life is joyless unless and until the Chiefs begin winning.

Forbes was right, too, about the Royals. I have traveled the world, and wherever I go, I have to hang my head in shame because our baseball team stinks. Why, I was just in rural Uganda last summer, and was accosted by a Yankee-cap-wearing crowd at a refugee camp. Their cruel taunts (“what good is a great closer if your set up men can’t get him the ball with a lead?”) have left me a shell of my former self. It’s no better in Moldova, where surly teens wearing Minnesota Twins jerseys lambasted me about the Royals’ ongoing problems at shortstop. One especially cruel Moldovan teen even jabbed me with statistics about passed balls and wild pitches last year. Under these circumstances, how could anyone avoid being miserable?

To make matters worse, Forbes highly scientific survey was completed before the latest Royals embarrassment. It seems one fan is suing the team because the Royals mascot, Sluggerrrrrrrrrrrrrr, tossed a hot dog into the stands, hitting the fan in the eye and detaching his retina. Let’s face it—Sluggerrrrrrrrrrrrrr has always been embarrassing, and I believe, has brought some sort of voodoo curse upon the team, which has won about 20% of its games since the faux lion was unveiled. The point is, even our mascot is now a source of civic shame. I bet if Forbes had heard about this, we might have been rated even more miserable than St. Louis.

Forbes also rated Kansas City as miserable because of the problems by and from KC Mayor Mark Funkhouser. This also makes me miserable and ashamed, even though I live in Parkville and he’s not my mayor. Cruel, anti-Funk taunts have also followed me both abroad and domestically. Of course, the Funk taunts pale in comparison to the ones directed at his diplomatic wife Gloria, who would be crowned entrepreneur of the year if generating misery were a business.

You’re right, Mr. Forbes, we are miserable creatures haunted by bad sports and government. The best we can do is just muddle through, and try to think away our negative thoughts as we tour our city’s world class museums like the Nelson or the World War I museum, stroll down our beautiful boulevards, munch on the best barbeque on this or any other planet, hang out on the Plaza or in downtown Parkville, cheer on the nation’s best college basketball team, fly into or out of the most convenient, passenger friendly airport anywhere, visit with the guy next door in any number of beautiful neighborhoods, enjoy an outstanding concert, ballet, or live play, and attend classes at a number of fine educational institutions, including Park University.

At least while we’re out and about, we won’t be alone. Misery, after all, loves company.