Upon anniversary, former Fiat adviser reflects

(Editor’s Note: The following is the after-dinner talk delivered Sharon Hoover, former adviser to The Fiat Lux, at the student newspaper’s 100th Anniversary Celebration October 26, 2013, Howell Hall.)

“The first year I advised the Fiat Lux, the editor gave me a bottle of good red wine at the end of the year. The second year, I was given a ceramic pot that said “Unsolicited Advice” on it. The first I drank. The second I’ve been filling up ever since, and tonight, I am going to dump it on you. Since it is very full, without further ado, I shall proceed.

Sharon Hoover“In 1913, students at Alfred University decided they needed to move from producing a literary magazine, the Alfred University Monthly, descended from The Literary Star that appeared first in 1855, to a newspaper, the Fiat Lux. The students stated that one reason for the change was that “the interests of the student body have become complex. The former publication has been outgrown.” The same might be said 100 years later in 2013. It’s time for some changes.    

“Some things at AU are not outgrown, however. The most basic is the role of a liberal arts education. To participate effectively in the world, to take a part in civic life, to participate in public debate, one needs to KNOW many things that involve the logic of the world - of thinking: to know arithmetic, physical science, something of mathematics, of biological sciences, music, history, philosophy and ethics, language, literature and politics. Knowing about these things, as much as one is able is necessary to become a full participant in a decent human life, as a member of society. So - that is the first task of our University.

“The question is: How do we learn these things? Students and mentors all need to attend to learning, to being educated over a lifetime in the liberal arts.

“For 30 years now, I have been running across statistics (noting) roughly the following: Students recall about 80-90 percent of what they say (and write and do), about 40-50 percent of what they read, and about 10-20 percent of what they hear. In other words, my friends, students recall what they must recite, write, present. It has to do with oxygen in the system, the revving up of biological processes, etc. as well as learning to name the world and to conduct oneself.

“One of the things that distinguished the Greeks - from whom we inherit our ideas of the liberal arts - was the ways in which they thought about how they lived and how they gave formal expression to that thought in literature, sciences, and philosophy. They argued; they spoke; they wrote. They did it in community -one speaker confronting another or a playwright or senator confronting an audience.

“Participatory learning can take place in many ways in the college classroom. The sciences encourage poster projects and poster sessions, history and literature classrooms provide space for debates. Historical ways of writing in the literary and journalism classrooms can encourage engaging with contemporary happenings with historical rhetorical devices. Acting out scenes in the dramatic classrooms, producing writing in arts, presentations in all classrooms, interactive learning activities in all classrooms, writing across the curriculum - all lead to real learning in the liberal arts.

“As the students of 1913 recognized, however, today’s students must also plan to use formats in contemporary form. What forms will that be for the early 21st century?

“All fields today call for meaningful, engaging, meaty articles or essays, both creative and critical and of various lengths - there are tasks of crafting 300-, 450-, 600- and up to 1,500-word essays (we’ll leave the 3,000-word ones for graduate school). Students should learn to craft flash fiction of various lengths, to craft 140-character Tweets, to write meta-data that will work well in Google, to struggle with layout with In-Design or something comparable, and to organize work for self-publishing, a growing  activity in all fields. And notice, that for success, all of these activities take collaborative work within and across disciplines. They rely on skill in developing content and creating format.

“Providing education for this kind of world - an education that will graduate knowledgeable and participatory citizens - is up to administration and faculty and to the students themselves. The efforts of institutional personnel and students are yoked. The administration and faculty at AU must provide opportunities to students so that they can engage.

“It was in college that I learned to research, to document, to annotate, to write succinct explanations, to explore literary, historical, and philosophical background, to identify some of my strengths and weaknesses, to tell a story (so important in any field today - just try to write science without telling a story), to proofread, to present. And I did not go to an Ivy League college to learn these things either. I received my first degree from Kent State University (KSU). But the teaching, the encouraging, and the learning were sound and have served me well for over 50 years.

“I also learned at KSU and beyond that to function well, one needs to know and participate in the academic community, the student community, the support staff community, and the administrative community. Both advisers and students of the student press should learn to know individuals of each community.

“One needs to identify the problems of others in the system, to seek the poles of opinion on any issue, to seek places of productive engagement, to keep track of priorities, and to learn to deal with adversity.

“Professors, administrators, staff people - all need to learn these things and to teach and model them for students in all that they do. (Even if they award you with an “unsolicited advice” pot.) Working on a campus such as Alfred University’s means to be all things to all students. Students, too, are in much more of a small cooker pot, needing to create their own sauce. Many alumni have said to me that on a larger campus they would never have had the opportunities to participate and learn as they did on Alfred’s campus. Here, everyone can sing, be in a play, be an editor on the newspaper, become a leader in an organization or two. On a larger campus, opportunities are fewer. Only students in drama get to act; only students in journalism get to publish.

“Recently, in our local newspaper - a twice-weekly 44-48 pages, I ran across four tips for building a loyal customer base - a typical topic in today’s world - with hints I thought that Fiat staffers could use to connect with their audience - their “customer” base.  “First figure out what product or products you are producing with the most value to your customers (or readers). Statistics on college newspapers are showing that students still read the printed news on campus. So, although it may be time to produce fewer printed editions, those editions should be planned and distributed carefully.

“Ascertain what students on AU’s campus want and/or need in digital presentations by their own press. Digital presentation needs as much professionalism—that is research, appropriate (short but informative) writing, and editing on deadline as any other product. Plan well to do only what you can do accurately and on deadline.

“Second, remember that “people invest emotions before they invest dollars” (or reading time in the Fiat’s case). So, consider how your “news” hits students in places where they care. The old name game is still valid. Get lots of student, faculty, and administrative names (accurately spelled) in your stories.

“Third, remember that “marketing is a relationship.” “Nurture personal relationships.”  Someone on the Fiat should always be ‘touching’ the Senate president and the head of the Senate finance committee. Also, to be ‘touching’ Dan Napolitano - both for news and support; to be ‘touching’ Student Affairs for stories and support; to be ‘touching’ the President’s Office. To be ‘touching’ faculty who will keep staff up to snuff. It is stupid not to do so. (Dr. Greiff always warned me not to call anyone “stupid.” Sorry.) Students always hated to make calls but many told me later when they were in jobs that they were glad I had insisted on their calling people cold and calling on contacts regularly. They have to do the same thing in their jobs. And, also, then the contacts are there when you need them!

Fourth, collect qualitative and quantitative data. The library is full of facts, including all the minutes of the AU Board of Trustees. You want to know what they decided at the last meeting? Look it up. Then, armed with facts and figures, ask questions of the administration if you wish explanations. Don’t waste sources’ time on routine questions. Get your everyday information somewhere else. But do get collect information.

“Be sure to have on staff - go out and find someone - a person who can find, understand and present data. Also, look for people who can present data graphically. This can become a wonderful feature in the paper. Search it out. Use it.

“Also, find someone to track your readers. Where and how many newspapers are picked up? How many hits do you have on your site or sites? Notice what makes a difference in the totals. Entreat your friends who aren’t interested in writing but like your company to volunteer to do these jobs. Not everyone on staff needs to be a writer. Encourage all your staff to put any of these skills on their resumes. Prospective employers like clips and love knowing that you met deadlines.

“One alumnus, when I asked recently what he learned as a Fiat staffer told me that the most important lesson for him was learning to turn the paper out on time and as a reasonable product no matter what was going wrong with writers, internal politics, computer glitches, his own digestive system. And, as he worked jobs going up to his current one, a responsible, fast-track one, he never missed a deadline. Never. He said that was the most important learning for him. He learned to tolerate dysfunction happening all around him and the people who may have caused it as he concentrated on turning out acceptable product on time. I will admit that I often found him sleeping on the couch in the Fiat office the morning that copy had to go to the printer’s. But the Fiat always had a good newspaper, proofread, and on time. 

“Another excellent former Fiat Lux editor told me that he kept four books by his side: “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu, a little book on writing by Donald Murray, the “One-Minute Manager,” and the “AP Stylebook.” One needs to be able to plan, to write and revise, to manage and to copyedit. (He also boned up on financial management.)

“Let’s take these up in order.

  1. Planning. Staff members need not only to plan the Fiat products. They need to plan study time, fitness time, rest and relaxation time, and health awareness. And just as an excellent athlete may plan a heavier or lighter load during certain times of the year, so can an editor. Many Fiat editors I have known have done reading lists in the summer prior to the school year to lighten their loads. Many took a reduced or lighter load during a particular semester. This is not cheating on your education; it is wise planning for learning. Norm Pollard used to come to give short workshops to the Fiat staff on managing the stress of end of the semesters.
  2. Writing, revising, editing. Many, many of the AU faculty can, and some do, write and teach writing excellently. Being able to write sends employees up the ladder of opportunities. Anyone working in or around IT must be able to write. Our son, a mathematician, writes, works with writers in mathematics, publishes, and presents constantly. It has become a major portion of his work. He took Advanced Composition with Pat Sibley Parry back in the day. Our granddaughter, who has a BA in fine arts from AU and works in single-stream recycling (anything for a job in the recent recession) sets herself apart because she can write, present ideas articulately, and create digital presentations as well as educational and PR materials. And, I want to note that the PR materials she writes are based in fact, figure, picture and design, not in fluff and spin. People need to KNOW: what, where, when, how and why to recycle. Alumni I know well who are now working in banking, investment, law, community organization, digital work, government offices - all have set themselves apart because they can write, presenting solid information, appropriate in content and presentation for the audience they have in mind. Know thy audience. Be informed. Be accurate. Edit for structure and correctness.
  3. Every one of the alumni I’ve just had in mind can also manage material and people. Fiat staffers used to tell me that it was tough learning to fire people. I found students very forgiving of one another, patient with one another, sympathetic of one another’s foibles and problems. Nevertheless, the editors found that learning to fire and when to play “tough love” were also skills they had to learn. And they did. It was one of the things that amazed me as I watched them grow in their jobs. Stories were turned down because they didn’t match format, need, writing quality, or editing quality, or timing. A staff writer - a good writer - who became a section editor was stunned when the editor fired her. She came back to the Fiat after a semester or two and has said since that it was an excellent wake-up call for her. She could put up or be fired. She put up, and she has been glad ever since.
  4. Marketing. One of the first editors of the Fiat with whom I worked was excellent and disappointed me greatly after not applying for the editorship a second year. Instead, he created for himself a position of marketing. He took it seriously. The paper needed a sound basis of readers and support. At first, he had some spectacular failures; however, he built readership and financial support. The following year, he created the position of ombudsman for himself. As the paper reported on more things and more people and needed more cooperation from sources and readers, they needed to be nurtured. He did that, educating the staff along with himself. Today, he runs his own editing and publishing company.

“The century of the great newspaper is being revamped into a time of continuing analysis and interpretation, which is still primarily appearing in print, and a time of more time-sensitive news being delivered primarily by digital means. The jury is still out on how much goes where and how it should be presented and how often.

“The one other thing that jumps out at me when thinking about a Fiat Lux for the 21st century is that perhaps the Fiat needs not one adviser but an active advising team: someone from business, from marketing, from English, from communications, from Student Affairs, from the Student Senate, and so on. Like all history, the history of the press is a project in the making. Meanwhile, the basis of community is the same as always: learn and share knowledge across and within generations in lively, honest ways.”

(*It has come to my attention since I gave this talk that some college student newspapers have such advisory boards, and that they often include alumni of the newspaper. An excellent suggestion. Carryover in such things as the existence and importance of the Fiat Lux Handbook thus gets carried on! Also, alumni are the beginning of a network.)



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