Free Beer or Campus Mandate: Addressing the Reluctant

Others’ vaccination status affects all of us.
Me after my first dose.

As of April 27, 2021, 141 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine and 95.9 million are fully vaccinated, according to The Washington Post. These rates differ greatly by state and demographic.

We are witnessing a growing number of people who fit in a gray space of immunization, in which they aren’t against getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and yet, they haven’t received their first shots. Clumped into this group are also those who did get the first dose, but have lagged for the second.

The largest two clusters of unvaccinated people: conservative, rural white people that believe that any COVID precautions (including the vaccine) infringe on their freedom and people of color, whose hesitancy stems from a history of medical betrayal. While these groups (especially the latter) certainly warrant attention, I’d like to focus on a different population: those who are not opposed, but aren’t very motivated to get vaccinated. College students, twentysomethings, and additional folks that fit this description feel that they don’t have enough of a reason to make a vaccine appointment and then take time from work/school/life to go to an immunization site and get the shot. I say “shot” and not “shots” because these people need the one-dose. If it’s hard to prompt someone to get a first dose, the second dose is unlikely (helping to explain the drop-off of 2nd-dose recipients).

With the current widespread availability of vaccines in the U.S. for ages 16 and over, most people who were eager and willing have already been immunized. The vaccine-reluctant, then, need to be targeted, with their carrots identified. History is repeating itself on this one. In the late 1950s, this same age group held out on getting the polio vaccine, believing they weren’t susceptible enough to the virus to make it worth the shots. As I wrote about in my article for The Washington Post, the Ad Council initiated a mass public health campaign addressing this hole in the herd immunity.

How do we motivate the vaccine-reluctant during our current pandemic? We need a combination of targeted campaigns with messages that appeal to this age group, combined with incentives. Creative motivators have already sprung up: free donuts from Krispy Kreme, beer from Sam Adams and a number of breweries in New Jersey, on-campus vaccine site raffles, and employer-specific bonuses of vacation time or cash, to name a few. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has promised savings bonds of $100 for those 18-35 who get the vaccine. In D.C., the organization Marijuana Justice gave out free joints at vaccination centers on April 20th, much like the Michigan-based “Pots for Shots” campaign. Such incentives have and will help close the gap of the vaccine-reluctant.

However, it’s not enough. What we need are vaccine requirements for various activities and places. To be pandemic-responsible, concerts, music festivals, and other large-gathering attendees should have to provide proof of vaccination — a notion that is being considered for Burning Man and other events scheduled for later this year. Additionally, college campuses need to mandate COVID vaccines for students, faculty, and staff. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 209 colleges will mandate vaccines. Most of these institutions are private and located in blue states. Mandatory COVID vaccination fits with existing immunization requirements (MMR, varicella, meningitis) and still allows for religious exemptions. Widespread college and university COVID vaccine mandates will (obviously) incentivize the difficult-to-reach population, normalizing this immunization for young adults. This approach also reinforces the necessity of mass vaccination as vital to public health — not as a person choice.

We need drastic action to even begin to dream of herd immunity, if that is a possibility. Motivating the super-spreader group to get vaccinated should be a top priority. Since emotional appeals may not reach the vaccine-reluctant, it’s time to create incentives and requirements that push them to get vaccinated. A free beer and the return to campus life?

On Our Need for People

I got a taste of Maslow’s third stage and now I can’t get enough.
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been dreaming about the world of people since March 2020. As an extrovert, I crave social interaction. I’m not talking about big parties or dance clubs (never my deal). Rather, I’ve missed the conversations that make up everyday life — with employees at a store, colleagues in the copy room, students in the hallway, parents at kids’ activities — casual, unplanned encounters, along with scheduled coffee and lunches with friends.

My second dose of Moderna gave me the freedom to start planning again. To clarify, I am far from ready to whip off my mask and attend an indoor wedding or stroll into a casino. I’m talking about outdoor exchanges with fellow vaccinated friends.

These little tastes of socialization have reminded me of what makes life really good. Yes, Zoom has worked for the last year. But video chats are not the same. The virtual platform just cannot naturally convey the ease of small talk.

We have been disconnected from each other, our community, and the world. My few recent encounters over the last couple of weeks (two coffee meetings outside, some hallway chitchat, and speaking with three fellow parents on separate occasions), have reminded me of just how much we need to socialize. Even if we just speak of the mundane — no innovation, nothing is moved forward or seemingly “accomplished” — value exists in the interaction itself. Our current collective awkwardness at doing so demonstrates the necessity of connecting with other people.

While I regularly consume social media platforms, they are not a substitute for in-person conversation. Facebook and Twitter are great for sharing personal news, observations of the mundane, and pics of cute things. These virtual spaces do not allow for elaboration of that news or in-depth discussions. Our reliance on these platforms as socialization substitutes has been inevitable, yet faulty, as we are reduced to “likes,” hearts, celebratory phrases, and emotional abbreviations. Or even worse, social media sometimes reveals the raw hatred of humanity, with posts voicing thoughts so nasty that you would never say them in public (prompting me to click “Unfollow”).

Connection only through technology is a distant second to in-person interaction. Nothing can replace a smile, a laugh, or a sympathetic head nod (or a hug — once we get there). We need other people. The last few weeks have reminded me that life is so much more enjoyable when you can share your thoughts and experiences, while listening to those of a fellow human. And now that I’ve had a little interaction, I WANT MORE. (Friends, I promise to dial it back if we get together so I don’t scare you away).

From Inoculation to COVID Vaccination: The Wonder of It All

Me after dose #1 of the Moderna vaccine, outside of my car.


Skip this post if you detest emotionally-charged posts because that’s what it’s going to be.

From March 4th: I got my first shot of the Moderna vaccine today, jumpstarting my immune system to protect me against COVID-19. How, you might ask? I volunteered at our campus vaccine clinic. At the end of the shift, they had extra doses to distribute to the volunteers. I got lucky. Of course, we (as in the faculty) should have been included anyway. But that is (and was) another post.

Instead, I want to revel in what a true miracle this is. My use of this word should not convey surprise or lack of scientific rigor. Rather, it refers to, as I say above in the title, my absolute amazement that we have come to this point. For the world to have multiple effective vaccines against a strain of coronavirus that is little more than a year old, is almost inconceivable to me, a layperson who has never worked in a lab.

This happened because of the ability to build upon what others have done to move up a few steps. To capture knowledge, distribute it, and then preserve the content for future innovators. Our moment now occurred because of thousands of experiments that produced nothing, failed to support the hypothesis, or protect the test subjects from becoming infected.

Salk’s vaccine emerged decades after the first scientist prematurely promised a vaccine (40 years, to be exact). But we also need to consider what was not known when that initial declaration was made in 1912.

I am so incredulously grateful that we can be at this moment. We have never had a point in time in which an outbreak grew into a pandemic and while it was still ravaging society, scientists successfully developed a vaccine. In 1918, some scientists claimed to have a vaccine and injected soldiers with vials of something. However, since they didn’t even know that influenza was a virus, it did little to protect anyone.

How can anyone doubt such innovation? Why would a person question such an amazing gift? Even stranger are the conspiracy theories about the vaccine. How would a microchip fit inside the syringe? Wouldn’t you see it floating around? How would it fit through the needle?

What had to come together for this moment? It’s not just about what’s in the syringe. We had to have the technology to create the vials that contain the vaccine, the syringes themselves, and the needles. Take a step back and add the freezers that can store the vaccine, gloves and an understanding to protect those administering the vaccine. Lister and the process of antisepsis to prevent infection from dirty needles. I could go on and on.
Instead I am going to eat some cheesecake and watch TV. Because I can.

Written on April 3rd: I received my 2nd dose on the morning of April 1st. I’ve waited until the side effects have subsided to write out my thoughts.

Once again, I felt equally amazed as the needle went into my arm. It only lasted a second and it barely hurt. I felt like king of the world as I strutted out of there, beaming under my mask. Ten hours later, I started to feel the effects — first tired and then achy all over. Around 2:30 a.m., I woke up with chills, more aches, a headache, and some nausea. Fortunately, the latter two subsided by morning. Friday was a Netflix day, referring to the only thing I felt like doing, especially when fever set in during the early afternoon. By evening, though, I felt much better. And today (Saturday), I am 100% myself. Totally worth it for protection against COVID-19.

For this round, I’ve been thinking more about inoculation than 20th century vaccinations. It is unclear exactly when inoculation first started in Turkey, India, and China. We only know when it was brought to Europe and Colonial America. An enslaved person, Onesimus, first conveyed to Reverend Cotton Mather that intentionally infecting oneself with smallpox could ward off a deadlier version of the disease. Inoculation, also known as variolation, had already been practiced in India, Turkey and China. When smallpox broke out in Boston in 1721, Mather encouraged local physicians to try inoculation. Dr. Zabdiel Boylston was the only doctor willing to attempt the dangerous practice and did so with success. Even with early 18th century record-keeping, it was clear that those who were inoculated with smallpox were significantly less likely to die of the disease. (For more on this story, read my book).

Unlike vaccination, inoculation produces an infection of smallpox. Therefore, it wasn’t practiced unless there was an outbreak of the disease. Following 1721, inoculation became more common and refined with each epidemic, playing a crucial role in protecting soldiers during the Revolutionary War against the disease. At the turn of the 19th century, Dr. Edward Jenner’s work led to vaccination as a replacement for inoculation, sparking immunity without having to suffer from an infection of the disease itself.

So many brilliant people have come together to make the COVID-19 vaccines happen. But we can’t forget where the ideas originated. Like I said on March 4th, this feels like a miracle, NOT because the process was rushed (it wasn’t), but because of all of the components that had to come together over hundreds of years for us to have this moment. It is truly amazing.

Me after dose 2 in the 15-minute waiting period

The Opaque Lens of Nostalgia

We tend to think fondly of the content we enjoyed as a child. I remember when my dad introduced the movie Cat Ballou to my sister and me. He touted it as the funniest movie ever, falsely predicting that we would laugh and laugh. Instead, in full teen fashion, we rolled our eyes at the corny jokes and struggled to stay awake. Yet a generation later, I’ve had similar experiences with my own kids. Sometimes they like the older films and shows that I’m excited to show them. Back to the Future, Freaky Friday, and Sister Sister were all hits. However, we also have the “groan” moments. Case in point, my children found Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles boring, thought Karate Kid had too much romance, and snoozed during the dialogue of Sound of Music.

The recent criticism over reducing hurtful messages of older cultural products brings up questions of this nostalgic drape that clouds our perceptions of the things we loved as children. Of course, I am not advocating that we keep playing Dumbo and Song of the South for new generations. Rather, I am wondering if the opposition to changing products of the past stems from an emotional attachment to products that brought us joy in our younger years.

If this is the case, how can we inject a critical lens into the protected space of nostalgia?

Assuming that those attached to these distorted views want to change, how could this be accomplished? First, we need nostalgic people to take a step back, aiming to more objectively looking at the pop culture products that they treasure from their childhood. If they were initially introduced to these products now, what would they think of [insert specific scene, character, song, or storyline]? What could be problematic if that message were repeated and repeated, with few contrasting messages? How would people feel if they were part of that group? If nostalgic person was a part of that group? These kinds of questions help get at the roots of stereotyping and perspective.

Next, we address why we can’t keep introducing these products to new generations. Children have little awareness of a product’s original cultural moment, its contextualization. All they see and experience is the toy/book/show/film as if it were just created for them. As such, these products shape the world views of children, including the reinforcement of stereotypes, conveying broad, skewed negative generalizations. As parents/teachers/adults/consumers/humans, it is our job to present a diverse array of content that encourages unlimited ways of understanding roles, relationships, family dynamics, and intersectionality. Pigeon-holing any group for children narrows perspectives on what they can be and can’t be. Not to mention the most obviously glaring issue: The insensitivity of perpetuating stereotypes of marginalized groups for children, who are either part of those groups or future friends, family members, coworkers, and fellow humans.

Lastly, I’ll state what is already apparent to everyone who openly agrees that Song of the South should be kept in the vault or that no one should rewatch the “Censored 11” racist cartoons, full of black face and anti-Japanese imagery. Toys and media content that is racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic have no place in society. They never have. It’s not “cancel culture” to eliminate toxic cultural products any more than it is to tear down buildings with asbestos. Neither have a place in society and it takes a lot of work to clean up what is left behind. In other words, if you are currently mourning the erasure of Speedy Gonzales, buck up and reevaluate your own attachment. Shift your nostalgic lens to your own personal sentimental objects and be thankful that contemporary audiences won’t have to explain the chromosomes of Mr. Potato Head. (Or just watch Amber Ruffin’s satire on vegetable gender identity, 48 seconds in).

Rejection or New Direction? How to Handle a Manuscript’s Non-acceptance

A sample non-acceptance letter.
Remember that we have all been there.

Rejections sting. At a virtual panel on reviewing, I shared with others just how sensitive I was as an undergrad when I received what I perceived as a harsh comment on a paper or less than stellar feedback. And yet, even after participating in cycles of submission for years, I still need a moment and a sweet treat to cope when I see the “thanks, but no thanks.” But then I take a deep breath and make a new plan.

An interesting idea came up: What if we stop using the word “rejection” for conference papers and journal submissions? It might be the end of that manuscript’s road for that particular outlet, but it shouldn’t be the finale of the paper itself. A “rejection” then really means “not ready for presentation” (as one participant put it), or a “a non-acceptance.” It changes the trajectory of the paper, obviously, as one regroups and figures out a different conference or another journal outlet.

How do you figure out your takeaways from conference or journal reviews?

  1. Close the non-acceptance email and be angry for a little bit.
  2. When you are ready, skim the reviews.
  3. Make a new plan.
  4. Read the reviews carefully as you begin to revise your paper.
  5. Identify themes of strengths and weaknesses across the reviews.
  6. Make easy changes.
  7. Decide which big changes are needed and which ones aren’t.
  8. Revise big changes and readthrough.
  9. Submit to a new outlet.

I know this is tough. I have totally been there and will be again (and again). So how does one cope with rejection? First, have a lot of irons in the fire. The more projects you have going on at various stages, the lower the stakes are with each one. One of my wise advisers once told me that you should aim to have a project at each stage of the publishing trajectory:

New idea/conducting/writing up the research –> conference submission/presentation –> under review at a journal –> revise and resubmit –> forthcoming, in-press –> back to the drawing board

Having multiple projects reduces the burden of each rejection because you can still celebrate the successes. And, of course, revise a non-accepted paper for a different conference or a journal.

What if you receive multiple non-acceptances for the same manuscript? Don’t despair and definitely don’t give up on the project. It’s okay to be upset. It is not okay to be either too rigid to revise or so down on yourself that you want to let the project die. I know it’s hard. Rejection (I mean, non-acceptance) is hard, especially when it happens over and over. All writers have had their work rejected. Some of my best publications went through rough periods of non-acceptances and revision. You can make it through.

View this moment as the time to examine your manuscript more closely for bigger issues. Look across the feedback you’ve received from the various outlets. What patterns do you see? For example, if all of the reviewers have taken issue with the sample, maybe you need to add a second sample or expand the study. I also recommend consulting a friend or professor to get another educated opinion. Note: If you do significantly expand a study or change a research project, you may email the editor of one of the non-accepted journals and lay out the case for resubmission.

On a related note, overwhelming positive conference feedback does not necessarily mean that it will be easy to get the piece published. In fact, I struggled to publish a manuscript that had received a top student paper. Conversely, a conference non-acceptance is not the end of your project (as demonstrated by my “Crock-Pot” study, which I never did present, but published in the Journal of Communication Inquiry). Don’t take it personally. This is a fickle business and you never know who you might get as your reviewers.

Rejections are not the end. Rather, the non-acceptance is simply a signal for rethinking the outlet for the manuscript. Take a breath and move on to your next possibility.

Embracing Compassion: The Challenges of Teaching and Learning During Crisis

The view from the hospital room. It’s hard to think about regular stuff in a moment of crisis.

The past few days have been tough for the Foss house. Last night, my 11 year-old’s seemingly-mild sickness turned briefly scary when she became too weak to stand and too disoriented for easy conversation. We made the the tough decision to take her to the local emergency room, knowing that it would be a long night. I figured that even if the hospital admitted her, I’d still be able to run home for a toothbrush or a change of clothes. Wrong. Once we made it through the waiting room gates two hours later, the health professional team quickly determined that my daughter would likely need to be transferred for pediatric care. More than six hours after we entered, we left in an ambulance transport to the children’s hospital 40 minutes away. There, we sat in a temporary exam room through tests and waves of doctors for another seven hours until my tween was moved to a more permanent room a few floors up — the space in which we could finally take a breath (or a nap). With my daughter under the careful watch of the nursing staff (who reassured me that it was fine and normal to leave for a few hours), I got picked up by my husband. We drove back to the first hospital’s parking lot. He dropped me off at my car with my youngest daughter and got back on the freeway to the children’s hospital. She and I drove home, where I couldn’t just crash. We both missed each other and I couldn’t just ignore her to nap or get stuff done.

This weekend has been a reminder of the compassion we must serve our students when they experience such a crisis. We can’t assume that a visit to a clinic or hospital only took an hour or two. Nor can we expect that waiting time in stressful situations can or should be used for completing homework assignments. Like us, our students also face stressful situations, like health emergencies, but also job loss, family crises, and other issues that draw time from school and take an emotional toll on attempting to adequately produce work. Unpredictable issues disrupt the flow of everyday life — a night in the emergency room meant exhaustion plus the burden of completing tasks that would have been easily achieved in late evening or early morning in a regular day.

I am not advocating for accepting any excuse or regularly opening up Dropbox restrictions and taking late work. Rather, my reflection has prompted me to examine my expectations for students when they experience crisis. I would honestly write a terrible manuscript review right now, record a comically-bad lecture, or likely fall asleep on a stack of papers if I tried to grade them in this moment. In fact, the only reason I started this essay was to pour out the story of the last day and a half and because I didn’t want to lose $20 for my monthly writing challenge.

If/when we grant make-ups, are we building in enough of a window for our students to climb out of the crisis first before diving into another stressful situation? Are we communicating what needs to be done, acknowledging that in stressful situations, it can be more difficult to navigate through online platforms and instructions?

I started this post on February 13th. It has taken me more than two weeks to come back to it, just to finish up a blog post. More than two weeks. Would we have granted students that same grace period?

My child’s issues have shifted from crisis to our (hopefully temporary) new “normal,” in which the mundane is punctuated with “drop everything and HELP” moments. I am beginning to understand more and more how a person can do some of the regular stuff (tween is doing the distance learning classes), but may still need patience and flexibility in finishing the work. For now, I’m just trying to do my best, as a parent, spouse, and teacher — attempting to bring newfound perspectives to my students.

Lessons from the past: Radio in the Chicago 1937 polio epidemic

This literacy activity is based off of my article for The Conversation, found here.

Until the last half of the 20th century, it was not unusual for schools used to briefly shut down for weeks or even months. I’m not just talking about holiday or summer breaks. Hunting season, the fall harvest, and inclement weather kept students at home. Times of crisis also impacted education, as coal shortages in the 1930s and 40s forced schools in cold regions to temporarily close, as illustrated in this newspaper article from 1936.

Herman Schools Close During Week. Herman Record (Nebraska). Feb. 20, 1936 -
From the Herman Record, Feb. 20, 1936

Before the advent of vaccines and treatments for scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, and polio, outbreaks of these common childhood illnesses also prompted officials to close schools.

School closings typically halted formal learning, granting kids extra time for play or work on the farm. Schools sometimes compensated for the additional closings by shifting the academic calendar or by mandating Saturday attendance once school was back in session.

The concept of distance-learning did exist, mostly through correspondence courses (classes taught by mail), but wasn’t commonly used during school closures. That is until Fall 1937, when school officials in Chicago decided to teach children at home using a relatively new technology: the radio.

It might seem weird to us now, but people in the 1930s were very used to just sitting and listening to the radio. By this time, over 90% of urban American homes had at least one radio — and they tuned in often, spending more than 4 hours a day listening to news and entertainment. (For an overview, watch this video). Individuals and families gathered around the radio much like we would a TV.

Radio had been used as an educational tool periodically since Penn State first offered broadcasted college courses in 1922. On a small-scale, radio programming occasionally served as a substitute for in-person instruction, as in 1932, when radio provided summer school curriculum in Chicago after budget cuts eliminated the regular session. Yet, no one had tried using radio to teach large groups of children.

Polio was a feared disease back then. While most people only had mild cases, the disease sometimes led to either temporary or permanent paralysis. Photos of children in iron lungs (machines to help them breathe) or using crutches frequently appeared in newspapers and magazines, making people more afraid of polio.

Pictures like this contributed to the fear of polio.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1937, a polio epidemic erupted. On August 31, 1937, the Board of Health in Chicago ordered the start of school to be postponed due to the record number of polio cases (109, just for August). Instead of just keeping kids at home, a “radio school experiment” was launched, led by Assistant Superintendent Minnie Fallon. She worked with 14 principals to design the curriculum for 317,000 children in grades 3-8. (It was decided that those in lower grades might not do as well with radio learning).

On Monday, September 13th, students tuned in for their first day of radio school. Three radio stations broadcasted the lessons, with local newspapers printing daily schedules, like this:

The schedule for Sept. 14, 1937, printed in The Chicago Tribune

Over a week, students were taught math, English, social studies, physical education, and science, with each lesson lasting 15 minutes.

Unlike our video technology now, the radio was a one-way form of communication. Teachers couldn’t talk with their students directly, however, a telephone helpline was set up for questions. Similar to today, parents had to oversee the radio learning, captured in this photo of a mom helping her kids:

Printed in The Rock Island Argus on Sept. 14, 1937.

The experiment only lasted three weeks. Declining polio rates meant that children got to go back to school in person. Even with this brief time, the radio school was a success, demonstrating that the technology could be used to teach people. Radio stations began to partner with local educators and found more ways to make radio educational. By February 1938, radios had been placed in many classrooms and opportunities for kids to do their own news shows had begun.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why did the children of 1937 have to stay home? How is that similar to our need to have distance learning in the past year?
  2. What would it be like to learn through the radio? What do you think were some of the obstacles to this approach? How would that be different from lessons through Zoom or other video platforms?
  3. Not everyone had a radio then, just like not everyone has a computer now. What does it mean for the children who are left out in remote learning? What can be done to help families who don’t have internet access or computers?
  4. Radio learning led to the use of more technology in the classrooms. How will distance-learning now lead to new kinds of learning in the future?
  5. Media content from the past give us a glimpse into different cultural moments, like the radio school. After the COVID pandemic is over, what will people know about this time period from the news, social media posts, and other content produced in this time? If you only watched TikTok or Youtube videos from 2020-2021, what would you think that living through this pandemic was like?

Creating a Balanced Content Diet and Assessing Information

Drawing of moon creatures that appeared in the New York Sun
The fabrication of media content occurred long before digital technology made it easy, as illustrated with “The Great Moon Hoax” of 1835.
(Benjamin Henry Day (1810-1889), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As we are all well-aware, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and distrust have become a rampant plague on society. Our seemingly-infinite media outlets mean we have choices, but also leave regular consumers without a guide. You may feel like many do, either that one falsely-clumped homogenous system of messages — considered “the media” is solely misleading or that the wealth of information is just so much that you don’t know where to turn. So how do you create a regular slew of media sources that provide checked information?

First, no matter how overwhelmed you become, don’t reduce yourself solely to Twitter or other social media sites as your only place for news. Although great for entertainment and superficially connecting with others, social media platforms are vehicles for media content sharing, not fact-confirmed producers of information.

Statements and Terms to Avoid

  1. “The Media” (as one homogenous entity). People love to throw this dismissive phrase out there. If you think about it, “the media” doesn’t make sense since “media” are comprised of all of the millions of different types of individual, organizational, and industry content producers in the world. In some countries, government officials run or produce the media content. However, in the U.S., corporations and individuals are competing against each other for consumers, therefore, cannot be lumped together.
    In other words, since there’s no alien overlord overseeing and coordinating every news broadcast, print article, horror film, book, etc. created across all countries, “the media” does not exist. We can’t (accurately) make the generalization that CNN.com is featuring the same content/perspective/sources/images/framing at the same time as 9News in Australia, right?
  2. “Fake News.” This phrase is often used to disregard media content/perspectives/information. While it can to be synonymous with “made up information,” the term has morphed into a heavily-politicized, dismissive buzz term. What does one mean by “fake news?” Fabricated information? Satire? Content of which you disagree? Read this article in The Atlantic to better understand why this term is problematic in itself. Instead of just exclaiming, “Fake news!,” be specific in your critique of particular content, identifying why you either disagree with the content and/or the extent to which it is parody or includes untrue information (disproved with sources, of course).
  3. “Unbiased.” Nope. All content is biased in that it is produced by people for specific purposes, outlets or platforms, and audiences. Media creators can be transparent in what shapes their products, strive for balance when appropriate, include a diverse array of sources and perspectives, and adhere to the ethical tenets of a news organization, but can never be truly unbiased.

Some Types of Media Content

Especially if you grew up in the digital era, it might be a bit confusing to discern the agenda of a media creator, how messages are created, and the extent to which the content is checked. Let’s start with the least filtered/fact-checked and work our way to the generally agreed-upon most fact-checked.

  • Social media & video-sharing sites (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube, TikTok etc.): Posts to these sites are not fact-checked at all, with the exceptions of major violations of site policies, like hate speech, copyright violation, or big-time conspiracy theories. In other words, never believe something you read or see on a social media site unless you can verify the information through external sources.
  • Blogs, Vlogs, and personal websites (like this one): Anyone can create a blog, vlog, or website and no one checks them for accuracy. As with social media and video-sharing sites, verify what you consume in these forms with outside news sources. Don’t just trust that a cooking blog, for example, that promotes the “best banana bread ever!” recipe really has the best banana bread ever. You can look at who the content creator is and the # follower/views as indicators of who might provide more credible info, but still double-check. There’s a reason that I link content to outside news sources as much as I can.
  • Anonymous, editable sites (i.e. Wikipedia): While these types of sites can be useful to give you an overview of an unfamiliar topic, never cite them. Anyone can add, subtract, or modify the content and they aren’t checked.
  • Websites of businesses, corporations, & organizations that seek to profit from consumers: These are helpful for purchasing items directly from a company, learning its history, or identifying possible contacts. That said, this content is created in such a way as to make the business look good. Its agenda is to present a positive image, while minimizing damaging or negative information or feedback. Useful, but know what you’re getting.
  • Sites for nonprofits, universities, and government agencies: Generally, this content is fairly reliable, but may not be updated on a regular basis. Look for the reports and documents produced and linked by organizations more than just the surface-level content on the websites. What is the agenda? Audience? Rigor (or process of producing the information)? When was it produced? For what purpose?
  • News sites: Exist for the purpose of disseminating information. The content is created by journalists and undergoes an editing process. As we know, some news organizations have more partisan-leaning than others. This “Media Bias Chart” is a helpful tool for identifying where the online content of these organizations stand.

The Balanced Media Diet:

Draw from different geographic levels, partisan positions, and types of media (i.e. online news, TV broadcasts, radio briefs). You’ll also want to differentiate in the various types of news reporting (hard news, features, editorials, etc.). For my students: we will talk more in class about what this looks like in Murfreesboro, TN.

  1. Local/community news
  2. Regional news
  3. National news
  4. International news
  5. Nonprofit/government/medical sites (depending on the topic)

Building Media Literacy: An exercise

Select a timely topic — one so important that it is likely to be covered across sources. Look up that topic in your local, regional, and at least two national mainstream news outlets. Then examine the international perspective in multiple sources outside of the United States. What are the common threads? How do the stories differ in their points of focus? Framing? People interviewed? The overall takeaways?

Checking Information

So how do you verify a post that you came across on social media or know when to believe what you read? Since anyone can create and share messages on social media, assume the content is untrue/strictly opinion until you can verify the actual source. For example, in this blog post, I demonstrated how a viral meme was spreading misinformation.

Questions for blogs and websites

  • Who created the content? Is a name given? Who is the person? What is the person’s expertise? Position? Purpose for creating the content? Does the person directly or indirectly profit from the content?
  • What is the purpose of the blog or website? The purpose of my site is to provide (hopefully) useful information about media literacy, epidemics, writing, and/or teaching.
  • Do legitimate outside sources support the information given? Good blogs/sites give links to back up information. If you can’t find sources for the content, take it with a grain of salt.

On News

Generally, you can trust information that comes from mainstream news organizations that has an established history of solid journalism. I’m talking about The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and other credible news sites. In this Forbes article, Paul Glader outlines what makes for a trustworthy news organization, listing the extent to which a news outlet corrects misinformation, adherence to the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics, and other tenets of quality journalism. You should be able to trace the facts given in a piece and verify with other sources.

Keep in mind that news is fluid. Information, especially about an emerging issue, is constantly changing. For example, we know much more about the COVID-19 virus now, compared to one year ago. Therefore, news articles on COVID from today differ greatly from last January. That doesn’t make them false, but simply a product of their time (similar to how scientists in 1918 believed that influenza was caused by bacteria).

For heavy partisan-leaning or alternative news, understand that the content is presented through a distinct filter to best attract and appeal to audiences drawn to those sites or channels. The balanced media diet will help you identify outlier perspectives and take them for what they are.

How to Avoid Getting Overwhelmed

I recommend subscribing and following scholars who study, analyze, and synthesize timely news topics as a means to help you navigate through the latest issues. To start with, I recommend Dr. Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American daily digest and Dr. Kathy Roberts Forde’s Letter from a Region. Additionally, Dr. Amanda Sturgill’s #DetectingDeception on Twitter provides timely advice on identifying false information, drawing from her book, Detecting Deception: Tools to Fight Fake News.

Lastly, balance news consumption with fun media content. It’s okay to indulge in a YouTube video about ballet dancers or watch a ’90s sitcom on Netflix. You can also enjoy your favorite social media platforms — just don’t use them as primary sources of information.

Why aren’t higher ed instructors considered teachers? (And where they stand in different parts of the country)

Not everyone has been teaching online.

On December 30th, The Tennessean announced that K-12 teachers and child care workers would receive the COVID-19 vaccine in phase 1B, after health care workers and senior citizens. Many states have similarly modified their COVID immunization hierarchies, some of which include higher ed in phase 1B.

Note: I recognize that all states are lagging behind in the vaccine rollout and that most places aren’t even to close to phase 1B. The lack of a clear, consistent, unified, plan contributes to the implementation struggles.

My quest to learn more about higher ed’s status prompted me to ask questions in a private Facebook group. The more than 580 posts abundantly demonstrated the lack of information communicated about the rollout, inconsistencies with who can receive the vaccine in 1B, and what constitutes an educator. Aided by the (very helpful) vaccine tracker in The Washington Post, I studied individual state plans and the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ascertain if higher ed instructors were addressed at all.

My vaccine distribution scavenger hunt was more difficult than it should have been. A few state health departments provide clear graphics on their vaccine homepages to guide users through (like Arkansas). But most states barely convey any distribution information. Instead, I had to dig through lengthy PDFs to find the info. Adding to this, different states opted to name and number their plans differently. Most states use “phases,” but differ on how many phases (1A, 1B, 1C for some, but Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island use whole numbers. MA has 3 phases. The other two have four). Alaska has tiers. At least three states don’t explicitly list phases (Florida, Georgia, and Indiana), but somewhat describe the order.

No wonder people are confused.

At the state level, 44 include teachers in an early phase of the rollout. A few more states appear to do so, but aren’t clear in their plans. Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, and West Virginia specifically include higher ed instructors in the same classification as K-12 teachers. Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wisconsin list higher ed instructors in the phase after teachers. The remaining states directly exclude higher ed and/or are vague in their plans. Furthermore, in some locations, counties decide the distribution and have elected to vaccinate specific groups of local college or university instructors, as exemplified with the immunization of Arizona State University instructors teaching in-person. I will note that vaccine plans do continue to change, especially at the local level.

In the midst of my research, Elizabeth Redden’s Inside Higher Ed article gave me hope about the possibility of instructors receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in the teacher phase of the rollout. In it, she quotes CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund, who clarified that the CDC recommendations did indeed include “college, university and professional school teachers, support staff, and daycare workers” (as quoted in the article). Redden went on to outline the positions on vaccine priority from different organizations and then highlighted counties and states that plan to vaccinate higher ed instructors. I appreciated this well-researched article and felt optimistic overall about our possible inclusion in the rollout.

However, this clarification is not part of the CDC’s official recommendations. This is a big “however,” given that the written CDC guidelines served as the foundation for the state and county vaccine plans. In other words, unless your state already listed higher ed. instructors in the rollout, Redden’s article and Nordlund’s CDC endorsement means little for the implementation. My communication with my own local and state health departments unfortunately confirmed this statement.

The omission of higher ed. instructors from COVID vaccine plans draws from the false assumption that all colleges and universities continue to only offer classes online, thereby eliminating contact. In reality, modality has depended on the program, school, and state COVID responses. I won’t go into the economic, technological, and pedagogical reasons that colleges and universities have decided to offer forms of in-person learning, but instead acknowledge that it has and is happening. According to “The College Crisis Initiative”, approximately 48% of the 2,958 colleges and universities studied included some form of face-to-face contact between instructors and students for Fall 2020. Nearly 27% of schools were primarily or fully in-person. Even in some COVID hotspots, in-person returns are underway for Spring 2021. Staff also have interactions with students and other people, putting them at higher risk for transmission.

Why is this an issue? The age range of traditional college students aligns with those most likely to transmit COVID-19.

The CDC COVID Data Tracker Cases by Age Group. Found here.

Masks and social distancing have helped to protect instructors thus far, but may not be enough for the far more contagious COVID-19 variant spreading throughout the world. Thus, given the extent to which instructors must interact with a highly-transmissible sect of the general public, they should be clearly included in vaccination distribution plans. And aside from public health rationale for this inclusion, isn’t it also problematic to suggest that higher ed. instructors are not teachers?

Farewell, 2020: Reflecting on This Cultural Moment

Picture of people in line, January 2020.
January 2020. In a line to pick up crates of Florida oranges.

One year ago, we were preparing to leave for Florida on a family vacation on New Year’s Day. By the time we were at Universal Studios on January 6th, I had heard a little bit about the new strain of coronavirus, but wasn’t too concerned at that point. When the semester began, my teaching assistant mentioned trying to buy masks to send home to her family in China. I casually remarked that I just couldn’t imagine that Americans would ever be willing to wear masks — that individualism would prohibit such collective action. I had no idea that we were on the cusp of a global pandemic.

By the beginning of February, the epidemic was raging in China and cases had started to appear in other countries. Stories of the quarantined cruise ships signified the virus’s potential spread. Locally, some people were, as I perceived then, irrationally worried about catching coronavirus, prompting me to write this op-ed. (Oddly enough, I’ve observed the same folks disregard the threat of COVID now). As cases spread throughout the world, I became addicted to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, an invaluable resource that has visually depicted the rise of the pandemic in-real time. Watching the numbers increase, first in Seattle, then in a scattering of other places, I wondered what was to come. I got an email from a New York Times reporter, asking about the politicization of the pandemic (even in February). This inquiry and subsequent article prompted me to really delve into what was being done and the skewed messages conveyed to the public.

COVID-19 entered my county in March. On Wednesday the 11th, MTSU President Sidney McPhee announced that all classes would resume remotely after an extended Spring Break. With this news, I advised my kids to bring home everything that they needed on that Friday, suspecting that they would be out for a bit. March 13th marked the last day of regular school, although we didn’t know it at the time.

With the shutdown, my blog became my outlet to the world. I wrote and shared so many blog posts that Facebook banned my website as spam. For me, writing these usually brief reflections has been cathartic. As our reality quickly morphed into a sweatpants existence, I needed a way to connect. At the same time, having just written a book on epidemics, I felt so many paralleled experiences to those of the past. Despite the blog format, I extensively researched all my historical entries — probably spending more time than one should for something with such little reach.

My explosion of media literacy activities stemmed from both my desire to give my kids something to do and to contribute to the wealth of materials that others were sharing last spring. Like many, my children had weeks with no school assignments and plenty of time to fill. I tried to give them something even remotely educational to help structure our day and attempt to teach them. (Note: they were often not thrilled with the theme days, essays, and other activities). Even though we were definitely privileged in our position, March and April were extremely stressful months for me. I was mostly failing at both teaching my own classes online and educating my children.

Picture of author dressed as Maria von Trapp
My kids were not amused when I woke them up dressed like Maria von Trapp on Sound of Music day.

Blogging provided me a way to express myself without the hassles of formal gatekeeping and to immediately respond to the moment, be it Trump’s outrageously dangerous claims about injecting bleach or the expectations of extending remote learning. Still, I periodically published pieces that went beyond this site, with articles on how past epidemics changed society, why the nickname “Typhoid Mary” shouldn’t be used, and on the shutdown’s disproportionate burden on mothers.

Summer brought more of a return to normalcy. I expect kids to be home then and we no longer faced the arduous list of online videos and assignments. Nice weather and the reopening of some businesses expanded our possible activities and made it feel more like vacation. I slowed down in blogging and writing to teach a class online and spend time outside with the kids. We focused on our Foss world, while keeping abreast of the turmoil of injustice.

With August came more mask mandate questions and school debates. Feeling like it was a lose-lose decision, we opted to send the kids back under the adopted protocol of required masks and distancing. I taught hybrid courses for the first time, lecturing under a mask in a ballroom-turned-classroom that seemed more appropriate for a time-share demo, rather than a college class. But, for what it was, it worked. We pushed through. The kids pushed through. Life seemed semi-normal for August through October as we anticipated that things would fall apart. And then they didn’t.

Masked up and ready for the mock trial of Mary Mallon
Picture of nearly empty ballroom lined with chairs
Last day of class in the ballroom.

November became the up-and-down month. The election and vaccine news delivered hope of a different reality, as did making it through the end of my semester. And yet, rising cases and school closings near locked us down again. Our family of four canceled plans and activities to return to just being us. No Friendsgiving or Christmas trip.

Picture of kids with four dogs in front of a Christmas tree
Fostering puppies to make Christmas at home a little more exciting.

What’s differed from the spring, however, has been this fractured picture of the true reality. News stories and charts have conveyed that Tennessee skyrocketed into a dire state for December, topping the list for new infections. And yet, a dissonance exists here. Everything is open. There’s no statewide mask mandate, just a county one with little enforcement. Aside from school, not much has been canceled. On local social media sites, people are asking about in-person church services, promoting “maskless Santa” before Christmas, and using the word pandemic in quotation marks. Obviously, the lack of public health observance is why were in this situation, but there’s not a lot of acknowledgement of this cause-and-effect.

We have such a split in what we know and what we’re seeing. Adding to this disconnect has been the near-absence of a unified recognition that things are bad. Aside from the numbers and the occasional story, very little media coverage has personalized the dire impact of the pandemic locally. Where are the lists of names and photos memorializing those deceased from COVID? Why don’t we have images of the COVID wards in our hospitals? And, more importantly, how is it that the leaders who endorsed and embraced the March shutdown are ignoring the actual crisis now?

I haven’t been blogging as regularly as I did in the spring, partly due to time, but also frustration. Some posts I never published because they were too heated or too intensely called out those around us. My popular articles focused on pandemic creative writing in 1918 and radio remote learning during a 1937 polio epidemic in Chicago.

Living through a pandemic is a fluid, diverse experience that shapes each person differently and at different moments. What we specifically knew in March has changed and expanded dramatically. As such, my reflective essays are very much a product of a particular moment and set of feelings, which all share uncertainty in the future and a serious concern about the pandemic. Even with the research I conducted for my book, I never could have imagined just what this would be like. I was unprepared for the large-scale denial of a disease that has killed so many people. These months have revealed both the worst in humanity and the best. I sincerely hope that 2021 brings the quick distribution of vaccines and overall, a more unifying time. Even more so, I want life to not just “return to normal,” but to become a better, more equitable version of a reality in which we can be together again, without the social distancing.

Here’s to 2021!