Creating My Education

May 22, 2011

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges about part-time graduate school is scheduling. With a job that requires a lot of nights and weekends, building a schedule that allows me to actually make it to my classes and continue my program in a direction that actually can lead to an M.A. in Global Communication from GW.

Summers are among the most difficult times for such things. With a compressed schedule, once a week classes meet twice, meaning that classes often overlap. Professors, looking to get research done when they aren’t grading hundreds of undergraduates, take time away. Those that stick around struggle to fill classes.

For the first time, I’m contemplating an independent study as a graduate student. I’d like to build a course addressing the way American policies and politics impact the construction of public diplomacy and aid operations. Though PD officers and leaders can ask for the tools they need to handle the challenges of their work, it is Congress and all of the interests that surround it that control the hardware store. Navigating the myriad committees, think tanks and bureaucratic postures to get buy-in is a fascinating, challenging, and arguably counter-productive way to do one’s job, and I’d like to analyze how all of that gets built.

I haven’t yet reached out to a faculty member, and I’m only just beginning to construct my personal syllabus to present to whoever sponsors me. I want to take full ownership of this, because I feel this is an opportunity to take a critical next step in my educational experience.

Much of my journey thus far has  been deferential. I take it at face value that the faculty I learn from know exactly what they’re talking about and have the right approaches to the subjects at hand. I have taken it for granted far too often that an article that is peer-reviewed in a subject that I am unfamiliar with has to be well-constructed, logical and true. I now think, however, that graduate school is about stepping into the ring and arguing on behalf of a different view. It is about challenging my assumptions and the research and methodologies and saying that that’s not right.

One day, I’d love to start combing through those fundamental articles that built my understanding of political communication and tackling them a second time. Those books and articles about how people understand the world around them, how politics is communicated through theater and how the press relates to the public and government have become my Catechism. Was I right to accept that?

All that said, I want to assemble a curriculum that makes sense to me, engage it the way I think it needs to be engaged, and synthesize it in a way that I become arbitrator rather than passive receiver. Before I reach out to anyone with determined expertise and experience, I want to see if I can do it right on my own.

That said, to all the PD folks who at one time or another bookmarked my blog and thought it disappeared forever, please please please send suggested readings. GAO docs, peer reviewed articles, books, news stories, blog posts, whatever. I’m going to aim high this summer, and would love some of your suggestions as I put together my plan.


What Came First – the Music or the Misery?

January 18, 2011

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

– High Fidelity

In some roundabout way, listening to Matt & Kim for the first time turned into a contemplation of what I consider to be one of the smartest passages of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity. Matt & Kim, specifically the album “Sidewalks,” provide pretty great music, and far too happy for the real miserable stuff I listened to in high school.

To be frank, I was really, really good about finding all the negative stuff in high school. I knew what made every good thing bad, and every bad thing apocalyptic. My music selections complimented this distorted world view quite well. Away message statuses (because EVERYONE was on AIM and communicating their most personal feelings in the most impersonal way through purple and blue comic sans fonts and emoticons) were so sad that my friends’ parents were calling the house to make sure I was ok. I had a way of making Dave Matthews seem like the angel of death.

Was the music offering me an outlet to express my frustration with tireless work with little self-esteem, self-identity and clear goals, or was music creating a self-perpetuating cycle of sad? Did the music tell me that it wasn’t just ok to be unsatisfied, but that I should be?

In a more current story, I donated blood a week or so ago, and the blood extractor (who I’m sure has a more formal and medically appropriate title) asked, “Do you believe in the American dream?” Admittedly, I was caught off guard by the question posed to virtually every high school English class in the hopes of pitting the cynics against the optimists in fervent discussion.

“I… I don’t know. Not really in the way we talk about it,” I said.

He paused. “Really? Well I do. I know it’s real.” His story of immigration to the United States, as he told it, was clearly meant to fit neatly into the rhetoric of the “Land of Opportunity.” What matters is that he thought so in relation to his interpretation, but in the time since that conversation, I’ve read stories of dismal economic projections, difficult wars and talked to friends attending the nation’s best schools facing a depressing job market offering few opportunities to relieve massive debt burdens.

Where does this all come together? Consider the mirror response to Hornsby music/misery equivalent to the chicken/egg debate. What came first – The Land of Opportunity or the talking about it? The American Dream or the belief in it? And why does it matter?

Public diplomacy classes have revealed a great deal of concern about the “say-do gap.” Without action to support the hefty promises that are so pleasant to make both to domestic and foreign audiences, cynicism, depression and frustration can run rampant. To make an unfulfilled promise is far worse than saying nothing at all. Even if agents of international strategic communication aren’t operating daily in the rhetoric of American slogans, there is a critical choice – either tell it like it is for most, or like it should be and is for few.

What if music yielded the misery? Does killing the phrase “Land of Opportunity” somehow deny the world of its possibilities?

Sharing With Friends… and Everyone Else.

December 18, 2010

With social media and the way life is being communicated via your Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other, far more expansive networks, the lines that are drawn in the online sand are easily washed away, but hard to draw again.

There have been a ton of jokes about The Washington Post’s obsession with Facebook (Gizmodo is the original source of many of the laughs), but beyond the site’s configuration, there have been two great pieces published on the page in the last two weeks about what Facebook is and what it represents.

Marc Fisher’s piece about the burglar who had broken into his home and flaunted his successful thievery on Fisher’s son’s facebook page inside the residence included a graf both fascinating, difficult and, (sorry Marc) wrong:

My son was coping brilliantly with the trauma of losing his belongings – until he saw the invasion of his Facebook page. That’s when the pathetic indignity of the burglary hit. Here was a space that my son had carefully walled off from public view, limiting access to his page to his friends and schoolmates. And now a lowlife stranger was taunting him in that presumably private zone.

A private zone?

In naming him Time’s 2010 Man of the Year, the magazine lauded him for “connecting more than half a billion people.” Yet, Fisher argues on behalf of his son that Facebook is a carefully sculpted private network of people. Rita J. King, perhaps one of my favorite bloggers, scholars, Tweeters and general visionaries, offered a similar sentiment upon hearing of the Zuckerberg announcement, calling Facebook a segregated service.

With Facebook, everyone is right and no one is right. If you want a truly carefully walled off social network with people you trust to keep your content and status updates in the circle of trust (and you have an iPhone), you should be using Path, not Facebook. If you want to exist in a fully-public life, then you have a lot of work to do to get yourself going “viral,” infiltrating thousands, if not millions of the tangentially connected communities that define the internet today. Those walls that we construct both consciously and subconsciously, are at best translucent. Media have determined that, friends or not, your Facebook statuses are fair game and newsworthy, and, regardless of context, audience and timing, you can be held accountable.

Facebook as a tool for a brand is still incredibly valuable, but for individuals seeking to communicate, document and share the daily goings on of life, its relevance is long gone. Knowing an audience is essential in developing communication. Who is reading my post? What will it mean to them? Will this person give me the benefit of the doubt if it doesn’t communicate who I am in the best light?

Because these segregated networks are segregated only in theory, every word, video or photo posted to a page must be considered fair game for everyone. As our digital society becomes more Facebook savvy, it’ll be a hell of a lot more boring when we’re all on our best behavior.
In a second, much more emotionally devastating article, readers are given the story of Shana Greatman Swers, whose ordeal from September 23 until her tragic death six weeks later is chronicled in her Facebook page. (It’s unclear whether or not they gave prior approval, but it is especially interesting that those comments made public in the page include direct links tot their respective profiles.)

I spent some time discussing the article with my good friend (and a critical follow if you’re a beer-loving Twitter user) Bill today. It is by now understood that our digital imprint will last far longer than our actual lives. We may not fully understand what that can mean. In the case of my friend Steve, whose epic social media impact is strong as ever despite recently passing away, it is his tweets that friends, family and the casually interested/bored are using to reconstruct his life and understand who he was.

Much of the success of Facebook, Twitter and its predecessors, competitors and successors, lies in its simplicity. It is easy to rattle off a few hundred characters to share with an inexplicably interested group of friends, friends of friends and random lurkers. In the short term, it is a welcome distraction. In the long term, it is that same thoughtless stream of consciousness that people will one day use to remember and understand my life.

Looking back, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

A Recap

December 16, 2010

To the more than 500 people who looked over my post, and to the many of you who offered feedback via Facebook or personally, thanks a lot. This article in the Albany Times Union does a brilliant job of summarizing the impact that Steve was able to make without meeting even meeting people.

Steve will be buried this morning, and though I can’t make it to Pennsylvania, I’ll be thinking about him.

Thanks also to WRGW, who devoted their pre-game show last night to him. You can listen to it here or direct download.

Last night, we had a moment of silence for him at the GW women’s basketball against Auburn. I think it’s fitting that it was a women’s game – although he was incredibly passionate about both teams, NOBODY knew more about GW women’s hoops than him. We used this image below. Even when there weren’t others in the stands, he was there:

Thanks again everybody. It’s felt pretty great to be writing again, and, instead of trying to focus on sports, social media and politics and their convergence, I’m going to just sort of write anything and everything that I hope you might find useful. I hope you’ll come back some time.

McHale Finally Nominated

April 15, 2009

Just to update from yesterday’s post criticizing the Obama administration and Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton for dragging its feet in making public its selection for Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs: Judith McHale has finally been nominated.

The Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman was the first to note it, and U.S. News and World Report has recently given it a few sentences.

So far, no major print daily has picked it up, though the announcement was made last night.

I’ve noted Marc Lynch’s early crticism of the selection (and, unfortunately for the State Department, his post has become the fundamental introduction to McHale – just Google “Judith McHale”), but I’m going to reserve judgment. I’m hopeful she’ll shine in her confirmation hearing, especially considering she’ll have had more than three months to prepare for them. I’m eager to see how she intends to incorporate the initiatives of Alec Ross with the an aggressive and sensible Public Diplomacy effort.

More will be posted as it develops.

Hello, 2009: Resolutions

January 3, 2009

So I’ve been thoughtful about my goals. Having just graduated, there’s the real risk of becoming stagnant. Just like when I graduated high school and was no longer compelled by practice to get in shape, I fear becoming mentally flabby. This year is the first year in some time that I’m going to write and publish my resolutions, in the hopes that maybe it’ll compel me to be more diligent in getting it done.  So, here they are:

Read the rest of this entry »

Hello, 2009

January 2, 2009

So with the BCS (blech) bowls having almost as many surprises (Ole Miss over Texas Tech and Utah with a 21-3 lead right now) as obnoxious mentions of corporate sponsors, I think now’s a good time to reflect on 2008 and to look ahead.  I’m going to tackle these facets of life and distraction in six parts:


-Music that shaped my year

-sports moments and moments to come

-The fads I got caught up in

-The District of Columbia

-And, finally, politics.

I might touch on movies and my netflix queue if I feel so inspired.  I’ll make sure to have the resolutions post up here late tonight, but in the meantime, suggested reading from the past few weeks:

-The Onion’s humor in advance of Bush’s inauguration now reads like what Nostradamus would only dream of

-State Department’s Colleen Graffy on Twitter as a tool of diplomacy.  You can check out her feed here.

-A fascinating blog about what life is like right now for Palestinians both in the United States and in Gaza and how Israel is making sure that they control the media frame.

-The best argument for College Football playoff that I’ve seen in a long time

Much to blog about with the influx of free time – enjoy.