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I worked for BBC radio in England as a reporter for several years where every story was assigned a producer who framed the story and wrote the script. This producer, it was assumed without embarrassment, had a point of view, or an emerging point of view, as the story was reported. There were no restraints on anyone.

Re-entry into the American commercial media marketplace was a culture shock. Do we, in fact, have a free press when the advertisers signal their preferences to the editorial department for placement within a story—electronic or print? Once there was a firewall between the business/advertising departments and editorial; no longer.

I think of this conundrum at the beginning of every term especially if I have a Chinese student in my class, which is often these days. As I teach literary nonfiction, not fiction, I make a little speech about the writer/reporter’s mandate to develop a full-throated voice, to find the story and report it as thoroughly as possible, and to remain a transparent, credible narrator. I ask the Chinese students directly if they will be able to do this. They always say yes and then run into problems.

Such was the case with my thoughtful Chinese student last term. She wrote a story about an earthquake she experienced, but couldn’t tackle the government cover-up of the casualties. She side-stepped most of the story by keeping it very personal without straying too far from the dorm room where she had been living when the quake hit.

And so the discussion of her piece was interesting and a lesson for the American-born students, as well. How transparent are we? How credible? How do the constraints of the commercial marketplace determine what we write here in America? What gets published in the mainstream press and what doesn’t? We can’t be self-righteous about our so-called freedoms, we all decided, because we are not entirely claiming them. And we certainly have understanding for the Chinese students studying here and what they have to face—with a heightened awareness—when they return home.

But then the class was over and it was time for official evaluations which, sadly, are anonymous. I can’t remember when these evaluations started exactly, or why, but they are certainly being scrutinized now because they allow disappointed, truant, or cruel students to slam the professor without consequence. It’s as egregious as denouncements in a police state, though I am sure that was not the initial intention. Still, evaluations have been abused. Shockingly, a prominent Columbia University professor friend was denounced anonymously after 9/11 and followed by the FBI for two years, as was her son. She is originally an Israeli Arab but has been an American citizen for decades.

A couple of the evaluations I received from students at the end of the term felt like denouncements. I had used the class as a platform for my issues, one said, meaning what? My political point of view? I had been too harsh on the students causing one or two to drop out, said another.

Because only six of the fourteen students filled in the form, and only two were disgruntled, I should have ignored what they had to say. What use were such comments to me? None at all. But I was upset by them because the students hadn’t come forward during the course of the term to talk to me. They were not transparent, they were furtive. So I had to remind myself that, mostly, it had been a good term, the end of term self- assessment letters were wonderful. Everyone who had worked hard developed at least two stories, a writer’s group had formed, strong, well researched stories written. And each one had potential and a credible, transparent POV, including the revised manuscript from my Chinese student who returns to China this month. I plan to keep in touch with her via email and hope that our correspondence will not be censored. Read More 
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Shooting Wars

I went to see “Django,” over the holiday at an old movie theater on Grand Street in Oakland, California, just blocks away from some of the highest crime streets in the USA. Given the recent gun-toting events in Newtown and elsewhere, it seems a travesty to applaud this movie as well-made, well-acted, and well-written. So I won’t.

One of many 2013 resolutions: boycott all gun-toting violent movies. Let them be well-made, well-acted and well-written, I will not go.

Sitting around a well-appointed dinner table on New Year’s Eve in the self-same city where I saw “Django” and once upon a time taught high school English and American History in a ghetto school, our hostess asked: “What do you wish for in 2013 that is realistic?” I liked the caveat: realistic.

The wine flowed, the food was divine, answers were thoughtful. We were in a safe haven, unthreatened by war or robbery or famine or guns. With my book “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories,” about to be published for a second time in China using the “simple” alphabet, I wished for the Chinese to develop a social conscience.

But what about our own politicians, what about corporations, what about gun owners? everyone asked.

I had met a young Chinese entrepreneur on the airplane on the flight out and was struck by his drive; he was reading a book about success and said that if he couldn’t be a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, he wouldn’t be a success. It reminded me of the market-driven entertainment industry. What is a movie’s measure of success: the millions it pulls in on opening weekend. By that standard, “Django” will do just fine.

When I asked my young Chinese friend if his life was in balance—an Eastern concept lost in the throes of the communist/freemarket revolution—he hesitated. “I’m a rock climber,” he said,” but I don’t have a girlfriend.” I told him about the article I was reading in The New Yorker of December 24 &31, “Polar Express” by Keith Gessen and the already evident competition between our two nations—and others—to take advantage of the melting polar ice cap. “We could have a shooting war,” he said. “And that wouldn’t be a good thing.”  Read More 
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End of Year Thoughts

I write this in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown; the first funeral took place yesterday, I believe, though I don’t know for certain as it has been so painful to read and watch the news. I overheard a man talking on his cell on a street corner : “When I watch the news, I don’t even feel sad, I feel sick.” Once again, a communal grief. President Obama’s well-crafted speech gave some solace. He’s a good writer and/ or his speechwriters are good writers. Still, I wonder how Abe Lincoln might have seized the moment with his well-honed oratory. In those days, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals,” words—written words—could make or break a candidate. A speech was delivered to a crowd and then printed in the local and national press. Few people, after all, could hear it when it was delivered.

What have we come away with here, what greater awareness? That we can do better, that we must do better—in every sphere of our American lives. At a party the other night, I met two young women, both studying opera and musical theater, who have given up on the idea of a well-rounded conservatory education—the path that most performers have taken in the past—because they couldn’t afford a loan with the prospect of no decent job at the end of it, albeit they are performers not scientists, or so I thought. One, in fact, was a scientist and had wanted to study chemistry, but because she knows so many who have wandered the country in search of work with doctorates in their pockets, she decided to wing it, study theater, and scramble for part-time jobs. She now has four—none of them satisfying—and had to leave the party early to work in a bar.

The next day I went upstate for a conversation with a Dean at SUNY New Paltz, one of New York State’s University campuses. Two years ago, I had been called in to discuss the possibility of a summer writing institute but there was no money to fund it, none at all. The Chairs and Deans were completely frustrated: they could no longer try anything new unless they proved in advance that the class had an audience. Nonetheless, they wanted to talk about it; they are educators, not marketers. Maybe one day, maybe one day soon, they all said. Well, nothing has changed, and won’t in the foreseeable future. Yet they still wanted to talk. Did I have any marketing ideas? Well, I am not a marketing person, I said, but I am pleased to be part of the continuing conversation about the changes in higher education, its greater reliance on virtual platforms, and so on.

Sad to say, both public and private universities are so desperate these days that they are competing with each other for students, many of whom have given up the idea of higher education—as my two young friends at the party the other night—or are attending two-year community colleges, which are cheaper. I wonder how will they expand their intellectual/cognitive abilities without more schooling? Will they become autodidacts? And will we continue to fall behind the EU and China in our educational and entrepreneurial accomplishments? I have had half a dozen Chinese students in my workshop these past two years, recruited by the university, and the Dean I spoke with last week has been to China twice this year on that same mission. Meanwhile, our home-grown students languish, and the excitement of a future in higher education has dimmed. Unless, of course, we are born into privilege or take the opposite route: study abroad, and stay there, as two PhD friends of mine were forced to do—one is working in Saigon, the other in Singapore. In a transnational universe this is not necessarily a bad thing so long as there is equal development and opportunity within our borders.  Read More 
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