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A Toast to My Students


Once a week for the past four-and-a-half months, I've trekked over to the CUNY Graduate Center to teach a group of thirteen graduate students how not to write like academics. The course, which is offered by the political science department, is called "Writing Politics." It's been my first experience teaching at the college level, and it's been a blast.

I've taught the class mainly as a workshop, with students producing fresh writing each week and learning to develop their own editorial sense for better writing by reading and critiquing each other's work. The idea behind that is that good writing always requires rewriting, and the hardest thing to learn about improving one's own writing is a critical eye. It's easier, I think, to spot good and bad qualities in someone else's writing first.

Since the focus on the class is training budding academics to speak to a larger public, we've spent most of our time practicing writing op-eds for newspapers and opinion magazines, along with that neglected necessity, the pithy query letter. The first of the semester we also studied the evolution of the opinion business, reading William Greider's Who Will Tell the People, Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?, and Dan Gillmor's We the Media. (Note, I've linked to each of their blogs--you know how to find their books.)

I had always planned on taking the second half of the course into the new media of self-publishing, but it wasn't until Jay Rosen made a guest appearance that I decided to make it a course requirement that my students all start their own blogs.

The results have been terrific. In every case, the process of building a personal blog has caused my students to take a solid step forward in defining who they are as public voices. Since today is our last class, I thought this was as good a time as any to give them a great big public plug. (Or is it hug?)

Here they are, in no particular order:

Jennifer Hopper: The Pop Culture Presidency. Check out her sly post comparing the presidential elections to the selection process on American Idol. She's got a longer version of this that someone should publish as an oped. Plus her take on the conservative reaction to the Revenge of the Sith is pretty entertaining, too.

Dora Fisher: Urban Dora. A specialist in housing issues, Dora combines a hilarious sense of humor about landlord horror stories (starting with her own) with a rising anger about the rapid pace of development in New York's second city, Brooklyn. Here's the first part of her interview of Daniel Goldstein, a local activist leading the fight against a stadium development that hasn't gotten 1/4 the press of the Jets stadium, but raises many of the same concerns.

Binnaz Saktanber: the other's cortex. A Turkish student here on a Fulbright explains how she sees the world through her "foreigner/immigrant/woman/graduate student/political scientist lenses." My favorite post is her tale of returning to America after renewing her visa in Turkey this spring, written in the form of a "how to survive US customs" missive. See also her more serious take on Hollywood and foreign policy, wherein she relates a little-noticed episode in February when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commiserated with her Turkish counterparts about how they both get mistreated by Hollywood.

Alan Koenig: Old Town Review. Technically this isn't just Alan's blog, it's a group site that he helps edit and contributes to. Alan follows US foreign policy and the neo-conservative movement very closely, and lately he's been keeping a sharp eye on the political divisions inside Iran as it approaches its presidential elections. Reformist tendencies in Iran? Don't tell W! Alan also has a thing for Christopher Hitchens' fall from grace.

Joe Dallarda: Towers of Babel. Joe is also focusing on the Middle East, and it's fascinating to read his explanation of how he came to this subject, as someone who was previously "pretty much apolitical." Check out as well his pointed critique of the US intelligence community's translation gap. Seems we have more Arabic translators on the payroll since 9-11, but the amount of raw intel needing translation has increased at an even faster pace.

Dan Skinner: this self-titled blog is subtitled "Ruminations on language and politics," and that is indeed Dan's specialty. Today, he nails the fatal flaw in the Democrats' deal with the Republicans over the nuclear option (if putting Priscilla Owen on the federal court isn't an "extraordinary circumstance," what is?). Good stuff, deftly done.

Curt Ricci: Beyond Visual Range. Curt is one of two veterans taking my class, and he's rightfully haunted and angered by what he experienced in the 1994 invasion of Haiti, and by the lies and deceptions taking place today. He writes, "In the Pentagon's terminology, Beyond Visual Range refers to the guidance system of an air-to-air missile, which allows it to see and understand targets that are beyond the distance that a pilot can view. For this blog, Beyond Visual Range refers to aspects of the Pentagon's wars that are beyond what the American people are allowed to see or understand in the corporate controlled mainstream media." Check out his post "The War Criminal Next Door," on discovering that a Haitian paramilitary thug trained by the US lives near him in Forest Hills, Queens.

Thurman Hart: Xpatriated Texan. Our other vet, and a self-described liberal Christian and "Maverick Believer" who is one of most original writers on the convergence of religion and politics that I have encountered in a long time. You can get a taste of Thurman's thinking in this post, where he takes a whack at my Personal Democracy Forum and a panel that Arianna Huffington was on, for failing to successfully push liberals to reach out to middle America.

Kevin Commins: Why Political Corruption Makes Me Nuts. The title says it all, the story that he tells will get your blood boiling too.

Liz Lenton: CityScapeThree. Liz is different from most of my students in that she isn't in a graduate degree program and had to really lobby her way into the class, but I'm very glad she did. She's a hardworking journalist and budding columnist, and even though she says she's stopping her blog, I think her work is going to be popping up in lots of other places, on line and in print. Right now she's juggling covering three cities (NY, Philly, and Springfield, MA), and doing some blog culling for an online operation, but hopefully she'll zero in on one (NY?) soon.

Karl Baisch: Pacific Demeanour. Karl plays with his blog's double-edged name (yes he's from the west coast) by adding a coy subtitle, "sometimes looks are deceiving." I think Karl is still figuring out exactly what topic he wants to call his own, but if you read closely you'll find a sly wit that ranges broadly over everything from the latest media inanity to pharmaceutical fads to the Kafkaesque qualities of today's anti-terror policies.

Jen Gaboury: Alternatives to Marriage. Jen is well on her way to a fruitful career running a public interest organization devoted to transforming public attitudes about marriage. Check out her lovely essay about the many different forms of social bonds that can make a family, including the story of two sisters who lived in a big house through several marriages and divorces and ending up deciding to raise five children together. You won't think about this issue the same way again.

Kevin van Meter: I Am Multitudes. Kevin runs a youth center on Long Island that he helped build from the ground up. These days he's keeping an eye on the FBI's purported crackdown on animal rights and environmental activists, two groups that overlap a lot of with the youth-DIY-punk culture scene.

A toast to all of you. May you continue to enrich the public discourse with your words and your deeds.