Notes to Pundits of the Trump-Russia Stories: If you were my students …

Sorry if this sounds patronizing, as you are stellar journalists and politicians, but if you were my students, writing a paper for a college class, what would I say?

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teaching commons.stanford.edu

I would definitely give you points for effort, and creativity, but would mark your work down on its analytical precision. Happy for you to come in during an office hour, but briefly, let me give you a few examples of my concerns. Apologies in advance for these quick notes.

First, take your vague attributions, which change over time. Who is responsible for meddling with the 2016 US Presidential election? Is it hackers in Russia, Russian oligarchs, Russian nationals, Russians, government hackers, agent’s of the government, the government, the highest levels of government, or President Putin? Your essays keep veering across these various actors. You must see that it makes a difference, so you must be more precise to be credible.

Likewise, what did they do – what was the meddling? Did they hack into email of the DNC, RNC, John Podesta, or others; gain access to county voter registration files; change voter registration files; meet with members of the campaign; loan money (at some point in the past) to members of the campaign; compromise members of the campaign; pass material to WikiLeaks, or one or more of the above? Your discussions keep shifting from one to another accusation as if this were a shell game.

When did this happen? Was it during the 2016 elections, happening now, or is it something that is likely to happen in the future? When you sometimes veer toward the future, it undermines your case.

Where is the evidence? Is it simply based on authority, the intelligence agencies, all of whom happen to agree, even when they seldom or ever confirm or deny anything? Is there evidence beyond hearsay? [By the way, you should not equate the heads of intelligence agencies with scientists, or doubts over Russian interference with climate change denial, as the analogy so flawed that it further undermines your credibility.]

Finally, in line with a major problem with undergraduate writing today, is it something that you often just feel is right? As you would have heard me say in class time and again, your feelings don’t count.

So you can see that given all the possible permutations of who did what, when and where, and all without strong evidence, the essays end up in an analytical muddle. You’ve constructed a wicked problem out of a set of vague accusations that are not critically assessed.

This would be funny if your work did not have such serious consequences. [I should add you do get high marks for impact.] And the impact will last decades and shape governmental institutions in the US in major ways, such as with respect to the role of Congress in foreign policy.

Finally, it would have been good to focus on some things that could be done to avoid the risks you identify, such as shoring up cyber security in all aspects of campaigns and elections, and not moving to electronic voting – a plea that has been made for well over a decade. [See Barbara Simons’ work, for example, who has been warning people about the difficulties of securing electronic voting systems for decades.] You might also reinforce the wisdom of how decentralized voting systems are in the US, meaning that there is no one system, even in a single state, and the need to keep it that way.

That said, great effort, well written, and convincingly spoken, but I regret to say that I cannot give you high marks on your work. And apologies for not addressing every individual journalist and politician talking about the Trump-Russia story, as that would not be possible given the number of you that chose this topic. Nevertheless, as a group, try to focus on developing a more analytically rigorous argument, and ensure that your evidence drives your conclusions rather than the opposite.

 

Wonderful Student Team on Study of Whiteboards at MSU

I am working with two of my masters students on a study of the issues that arose over whiteboards in the dormitories at MSU. The students presented their conclusions yesterday, and today they finish their paper. I’ll then work with their paper to develop a working paper that we might blog or disseminate in various ways. It was a fascinating and fun project is several ways. It was for a course on media and information policy, so this led us to quickly see the whiteboard as a media for communication and information. It is simple – everyone understands it, but it raises many of the same issues that are raised by social media and the Internet on college campuses. It also fits into the rising debate over speech on college campuses. Can’t wait to share our findings, which I believe to demonstrate the value of research in contrast to journalistic coverage of events such as the whiteboard controversy at MSU. It also really does speak to the issues of freedom of communication and civility in the university context.

Most importantly, it was a delight working with Irem Gokce Yildirim, an international student from Turkey, and Bingzhe Li, an international student from China, on this study of communication on an American campus. This is the kind of experience that makes teaching so enjoyable and rewarding.

[We are all laughing about my clumsy efforts to take this with my selfie stick.]

Irem, Bill, and Bingzhe

All-Star Class: A Record for this Professor

Attending an awards ceremony at MSU I discovered to my surprise and delight that every member of my class this semester was a recipient for an award for their academic achievements. True, I have a small seminar, of 5 students, three MA and 2 PhD students in a seminar on Media and Information Policy. But all five had received awards, along with other students of mine from the past semester.

Needless to say, of course, I had nothing to do with their accomplishments, as my course is still in progress. Nevertheless I feel very proud of ‘my’ students.

Doctoral students, Ruth Shillair and Whisnu Triwibowo, received graduate student fellowships, with only three being awarded. Ruth was chosen as well for the Outstanding Doctoral Student ‘Triple-Threat’ award, for her achievements in research, teaching, and citizenship.

MA students, Menglei Cheng and Shenzi Su, received Academic Merit Awards, for their performance in course work, along with my student from last semester, Michael Nelson, who also received the Thomas F. Baldwin Endowed Fellowship. Along with these A students, Thomas Potron, received recognition in being chosen as one of our Academic Exchange Semester Students, visiting us from France.

It is little wonder that I have been enjoying discussions over the semester. I should add that in a university of 50,000 students, with hundreds in our Department of Media and Information, it is a seriously remarkable accomplishment to be among the top. Congratulations to all of the students who received awards, and to my all-star class. I must add that for all of my students to receive such recognition, it goes down as a record for me as well!

Here is a photo of me along with my students and a Visiting Professor, Jingwei Cheng, Communication University of China.

L-R: Bill, Menglei Cheng, Chenzi Su, Prof Cheng, Whisnu Triwibowo, Ruth Shillair, and Thomas Potron
L-R: Bill, Menglei Cheng, Chenzi Su, Prof Cheng, Whisnu Triwibowo, Ruth Shillair, and Thomas Potron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is another photograph of some of the students, along with faculty, at the awards ceremony set in the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.

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The Pleasures of Teaching

I am coming to the end of my first graduate seminar since moving to MSU, and finding the experience particularly rewarding. Perhaps many stars aligned, such as having a small seminar, or as I get more experience in the classroom, I simply enjoy the experience more, but this semester was terrific.

My class was on Media and Information Policy. It covered a wide range of broad topics, such as privacy and surveillance, intellectual property, access and more (850 Course-22JAN15). The students could then do presentations related to the topics of most interest, and write their paper on one particular topic, allowing them to go into depth on what interested them most. This is pretty standard, but what a pleasure to spend three hours a week talking about topics that I find valuable to my own work with students who are bright and engaged, and writing papers on such issues as interesting and diverse as the right to be forgotten, municipal broadband, copyright in the music industry, cybersecurity, and media concentration, focusing on the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger? During the term, one of the students won a Presidential Fellowship to pursue these issues, while another arranged the music for a parody music video of the MSU basketball team that generated tens of thousands of views. Looking forward to seeing the completed papers this week. On top of that, I had a couple of doctoral students auditing, and a Visiting Fellow from Israel, Dr Avsha Ginosar, sitting in and adding to the mix of perspectives. Great to be back in the classroom.

Our class in the Quello Meeting Room
Our class in the Quello Meeting Room
A Blog from a student about a 'typical' class
A Blog from a student about a ‘typical’ class
Another blog from the classroom
Another blog from the classroom
Avsha Ginosar
Avsha Ginosar