Banned Books Week – Sept 26th to Oct 3rd

I blogged about this early in the summer, but since this is Banned Books Week, I thought I would repeat some of that post today.

As communication scholars, we take the right to free speech pretty seriously, and that includes the issue of censorship.  While we often confuse acts involving private companies (e.g. an online forum has a policy against profanity) with censorship, true censorship involves efforts by the government or governmental agencies to restrict the rights of free speech.  One example of censorship is book “banning” in public school or community libraries.  Book banning (the removal of particular works from library holdings due to a challenge regarding content) is an example of censorship because it impedes the right for “unpopular” opinions to be expressed or heard.  Such restrictions have impacts that go far beyond the availability of a particular book.  As stated by Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in 2002, “First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.”

You can support the work of the ALA by reading or recommending some of the following books, which were in the top 10 for most challenged books of 2008 (descriptions provided are from entries):

  • And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell – This tale based on a true story about a charming penguin family living in New York City’s Central Park Zoo will capture the hearts of penguin lovers everywhere. Roy and Silo, two male penguins, are “a little bit different.” They cuddle and share a nest like the other penguin couples, and when all the others start hatching eggs, they want to be parents, too. Determined and hopeful, they bring an egg-shaped rock back to their nest and proceed to start caring for it. They have little luck, until a watchful zookeeper decides they deserve a chance at having their own family and gives them an egg in need of nurturing. The dedicated and enthusiastic fathers do a great job of hatching their funny and adorable daughter, and the three can still be seen at the zoo today. Done in soft watercolors, the illustrations set the tone for this uplifting story, and readers will find it hard to resist the penguins’ comical expressions. The well-designed pages perfectly marry words and pictures, allowing readers to savor each illustration. An author’s note provides more information about Roy, Silo, Tango, and other chinstrap penguins.
  • His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman- In an epic trilogy, Philip Pullman unlocks the door to a world parallel to our own, but with a mysterious slant all its own. Dæmons and winged creatures live side by side with humans, and a mysterious entity called Dust just might have the power to unite the universes–if it isn’t destroyed first. In The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman has written a masterpiece that transcends genre. It is a children’s book that will appeal to adults, a fantasy novel that will charm even the most hardened realist. Best of all, the author doesn’t speak down to his audience, nor does he pull his punches; there is genuine terror in this book, and heartbreak, betrayal, and loss. There is also love, loyalty, and an abiding morality that infuses the story but never overwhelms it.  (The other books in this series are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
  • TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle – (summary for first book in the series) Three high school sophomores, lifelong best friends, are now facing a variety of emotional upsets in their personal and social lives. Angela is boy crazy and emotive, but able to lend support to her friends when they need it. Zoe is the quietest and most self-effacing, considered by some to be a goody two-shoes but in fact headed full speed into a very dangerous relationship. Madigan is the hothead, less certain of how to grow up than she allows anyone, including herself, to see. The entire narrative is composed of the instant messages sent among these three, from September into November, as they each get involved with dating, sort out how to have friendships with others, cope with disasters that range from wardrobe issues to getting drunk, and offer one another advice and defiance. Each character’s voice is fully realized and wonderfully realistic in spite of the very limiting scope of the IM device. Page layout mimics a computer screen and each girl IMs in a different font and in her own unique verbal style. (The title is IM jargon for “talk to you later”). Myracle not only sustains all this but also offers readers some meaty-and genuine-issues.
  • Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz – Creak… Crash… BOO! Shivering skeletons, ghostly pirates, chattering corpses, and haunted graveyards…all to chill your bones! Share these seven spine-tingling stories in a dark, dark room.
    Alvin Schwartz is known for a body of work of more than two dozen books of folklore for young readers that explore everything from wordplay and humor to tales and legends of all kinds. His collections of scary stories — Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, More Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, Scary Stories 3, and two I Can Read Books, In A Dark, Dark Room and Ghosts! — are just one part of his matchless folklore collection.
  • Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya – Besides winning the Premio Quinto Sol national Chicano literary award, this novel of a young boy in New Mexico in the 1940s has sold more than 300,000 copies in paperback since its 1973 debut. Here, however, the book gets the hardcover treatment, with a few illustrations added for color. LJ’s reviewer asserted that “the novel has warmth and feeling” (LJ 2/1/73) and a place in all fiction collections, especially those serving Chicano populations.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky – What is most notable about this funny, touching, memorable first novel from Stephen Chbosky is the resounding accuracy with which the author captures the voice of a boy teetering on the brink of adulthood. Charlie is a freshman. And while’s he’s not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. He’s a wallflower–shy and introspective, and intelligent beyond his years, if not very savvy in the social arts. We learn about Charlie through the letters he writes to someone of undisclosed name, age, and gender, a stylistic technique that adds to the heart-wrenching earnestness saturating this teen’s story. Charlie encounters the same struggles that many kids face in high school–how to make friends, the intensity of a crush, family tensions, a first relationship, exploring sexuality, experimenting with drugs–but he must also deal with his best friend’s recent suicide. With the help of a teacher who recognizes his wisdom and intuition, and his two friends, seniors Samantha and Patrick, Charlie mostly manages to avoid the depression he feels creeping up like kudzu. When it all becomes too much, after a shocking realization about his beloved late Aunt Helen, Charlie retreats from reality for awhile. But he makes it back in due time, ready to face his sophomore year and all that it may bring. Charlie, sincerely searching for that feeling of “being infinite,” is a kindred spirit to the generation that’s been slapped with the label X.
  • Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar – (summary of first book in series) – At a New York City jet-set private school populated by hard-drinking, bulimic, love-starved poor little rich kids, a clique of horrible people behave badly to one another. An omniscient narrator sees inside the shallow hearts of popular Blair Waldorf, her stoned hottie of a boyfriend, Nate, and her former best friend Serena van der Woodsen, just expelled from boarding school and “gifted with the kind of coolness that you can’t acquire by buying the right handbag or the right pair of jeans. She was the girl every boy wants and every girl wants to be.” Everyone wears a lot of designer clothes and drinks a lot of expensive booze. Serena flirts with Nate and can’t understand why Blair is upset with her; Blair throws a big party and doesn’t invite Serena; Serena meets a cute but unpopular guy; and a few less socially blessed characters wonder about the lives of those who “have everything anyone could possibly wish for and who take it all completely for granted.” Intercut with these exploits are excerpts from (the actual site launches in February), where “gossip girl” dishes the dirt on the various characters without ever revealing her own identity amongst them. Though anyone hoping for character depth or emotional truth should look elsewhere, readers who have always wished Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz would write about teenagers are in for a superficial, nasty, guilty pleasure.
  • Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen – When her favorite uncle, Bobby, announces that he is getting married to his boyfriend, Jamie, Chloe worries that he won’t have time for her anymore. The characters are all guinea pigs in human dress, and the sweet, double-page spreads in watercolor and graphite show the idyllic bond between the child and her uncle, as they walk together in the woods, row on the river, and more. In contrast are the scenes of her sadness and jealousy until she learns to have fun with both Bobby and Jamie together—even as they talk about their plans to raise their own kids. The climax is the joyful, exciting wedding—the couple in tuxedos, Chloe as the flower girl, and the big, extended family all together, smiling and teary. A celebration of same-sex marriage, this is about family happiness. Pair with Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three (2005).
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini – In his debut novel, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini accomplishes what very few contemporary novelists are able to do. He manages to provide an educational and eye-opening account of a country’s political turmoil–in this case, Afghanistan–while also developing characters whose heartbreaking struggles and emotional triumphs resonate with readers long after the last page has been turned over. And he does this on his first try. The Kite Runner follows the story of Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Kabul, and Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant. As children in the relatively stable Afghanistan of the early 1970s, the boys are inseparable. They spend idyllic days running kites and telling stories of mystical places and powerful warriors until an unspeakable event changes the nature of their relationship forever, and eventually cements their bond in ways neither boy could have ever predicted. Even after Amir and his father flee to America, Amir remains haunted by his cowardly actions and disloyalty. In part, it is these demons and the sometimes impossible quest for forgiveness that bring him back to his war-torn native land after it comes under Taliban rule. (”…I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”)Some of the plot’s turns and twists may be somewhat implausible, but Hosseini has created characters that seem so real that one almost forgets that The Kite Runner is a novel and not a memoir. At a time when Afghanistan has been thrust into the forefront of America’s collective consciousness (”people sipping lattes at Starbucks were talking about the battle for Kunduz”), Hosseini offers an honest, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, but always heartfelt view of a fascinating land.
  • Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper – Like many teens, Emily has tons of friends, thinks her parents are totally uncool, and wishes for a boyfriend. For her birthday, Aunt Chester sends her a set of blank cards called Flashcards of My Life. Each card has a label like Friends, Kiss, Identity–different topics to spark some writing. Emily starts on the cards and, in the process, readers learn about her. Her best 24-hour friend, Sandra, doesn’t like her school friends, Sarah W. and Sarah J., leaving Emily stuck in the middle. The girls all have crushes on different boys and there’s the constant swirl of rumors of who likes whom. The story is full of early teen angst–being uncomfortable in one’s body, not sure why parents act like they do, crying over the smallest things. The style and language are aimed at younger readers; however, some of the topics make the story a better fit for older readers. For example, the girls think their gym teacher is a lesbian because of her roommate’s picture on her desk. The font appears to be handwritten, and numerous doodles, charts, and diagrams adorn the pages. An entertaining but hardly earth-shattering look at junior high life.
  • For more information about Banned Books Week, visit the ALA at

    Communicating with Students and Parents – An Exercise in Perspective Taking

    In an article recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept 21, 2009), author Steve Cohen reports on a study of 1,100 college bound high school seniors, conducted for   Cohen’s study examined the decision making process regarding collegiate education and the factors that impact that process.  Some of the results weren’t particularly shocking, but others I found much more so.

    Cohen’s respondents indicated that parents have the most impact on student decision making regarding college selection.  Because many students are minors at the time of selection, and many will have some or all of their education funded by their parents, this probably isn’t too shocking.  It’s somewhat more surprising that no other group, including friends, counselors, teachers, and coaches, was even close to as influential as parents.

    So, how are those parents, and by extension the students, selecting a college?  The results of this study suggest that cost is extremely important, with more than half of the participants indicating that it is a significant factor, and almost a quarter saying it was the most important element in the decision.

    University members frequently believe that the reputation of the school is very influential, and this was supported in Cohen’s study, though more so for parents (45%) than their students (35%). School location, as we might predict, was a factor in the decision making process.  However, while 1/4 of parents wanted the student to live at home, only 6% of students desired to do so.  Interestingly, the ultimate choice made was within 1-2 hours of home for almost 60% of the students. Small class size, a major part of the US News and World Report rankings, was important to only about a third of the students. This suggests that students and possibly parents may be less concerned with the size of their classes than we believe them to be.

    Universities utilize a variety of means to communicate information with students and families, including open houses, online efforts, visits to area high schools, targeted mailing, etc.   For this group of respondents, visits to campus were the most influential means of informing students about the school, and most students visited between one and four schools (with parents generally accompanying them).  During their visits, students found the tours that they took with campus guides (often students) to be largely influential in their ultimate feelings about the school.  Websites were also very important, but admissions/counselor visits to the students’ high schools, direct mailing, and college fairs did not appear to be particularly useful in the decision.

    What can we, as a university, take away from this?  We need to be able to take the perspective of the students and parents in order to effectively communicate information in a way that will encourage attendance at Rowan.  First, as Cohen argues, we need to communicate with parents.  They do have an impact, and we can’t assume that providing information only to the student will result in the parent having equal information.  Second, we need to focus less on factors that interest us, even if we really find them important (class size, for example) and more on those that are of interest to parents and students (making the cost of college more affordable, proximity/ease of travel to home, university reputation).  Finally, we should carefully attend to those channels of information that students and parents find most influential (having many opportunities for campus visits that feature well trained and enthusiastic tour guides and possibly some sort of financial incentive for touring the campus before admission – and developing an informative and easily navigable website for students and their parents).

    As we experience cultural shifts, from our preferred media forms to our economic health to students’ level of connectedness with family, the process of college selection will also shift.  If we, members of the Rowan community, wish to see students here who have selected a school that truly fits them and works for them, we have to provide them with the information they and their parents want/need in the venues that they seek it.

    So, how do we, as administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, and students of Rowan University, best prepare ourselves to adequately understand the communicative preferences and needs of future students and parents as they embark on the process of choosing a university?

    Participatory Media in Communication Courses – It's a Brand New Day

    You know, back when I was in college (go ahead, roll your eyes, it’s ok, my kids do it all the time), I had to go to every class, find articles by going to the library and waking through the stacks and then photocopying what I needed; print all of my assignments on paper, and contact my professors (if I got up the nerve to actually speak to them) by phone.  Isn’t that charming?  And, now it all just seems so antiquated.  It’s a brand new day in communication, and the changes have reached higher education, as well as our personal relationships.

    Obviously, we all know that the Internet and email are major parts of a collegiate education in the year 2009.  Libraries carry far more of their journal subscriptions in electronic form than on paper, and it’s easy to access most of what you need for a class from the comfort of your home/dorm/office.    Emails are a regular part of the communication between students and their peers, as well as between students and faculty – and have greatly increased the ease of getting messages to the desired audience.

    But, utilization of participatory media forms has gone far beyond email and online libraries.  Faculty in the College of Communication are using a wide variety of “new media” forms to enhance the educational experience.  In this post, I present some of the innovative uses of participatory media in fall communication courses at Rowan.  This list is certainly not exhaustive, but should give you an idea of some of what is happening.

    Professor Kathryn Quigley (Journalism) utilizes a Facebook page for the 42 students in her Media Ethics class.  She notes that Facebook is useful because, while some students do not regularly check their emails, they all seem to use Facebook regularly.  On her page, Professor Quigley posts links and discussion topics to generate student interest and interaction.  She has received positive feedback about this form of communication.

    Dr. Deb Martin (Writing Arts) utilizes the website VoiceThread as a presenting and revising space in the class Writer’s Mind.  She believes that the multimedia aspect of the site allows writers experiencing block in one medium to “find the meaning they are after in other media.”  Each student is able to build the space he/she utilizes and thus takes ownership of the writing and the way reader feedback is solicited. In her Tutoring Writing course, Dr. Martin asks students to anonymously blog about their tutoring experience, in order to encourage an open exchange between them.

    Professor Mark Berkey-Gerard (Journalism) is another faculty member who uses blogging as a classroom tool.  In his Online Journalism course, students pick a topic (“beat”) for the semester and create an online publication including multimedia content.  Professor Berkey-Gerard notes that the public nature of the blog pushes students to cultivate and audience, interact with readers, and think about the ethical/legal guidelines of journalism.  It also allows students to network and be noticed by professionals in journalism.

    Dr. Maria Simone (Communication Studies) is using Twitter for the first time this semester in her Participatory Media course.  She has asked students to tweet about the readings and finds that this tool is providing not only insight into the article, but into how students think about the works as they experience them.   To integrate the tweeting with classroom work, Dr. Simone reviews student postings for common themes or questions and then utilizes them to help steer class discussion.  In addition to Twitter, Dr. Simone has students in her courses utilizing Wiki and blogging.  On the course wiki, students are able to post notes, links, definitions, etc. and also upload their own work for peer feedback.   Dr. Simone describes the wiki as a“class project in collective intelligence.”  Blogs are being used in Political Communication to connect course concepts with current political events, encouraging interactivity between students out of the classroom.

    Bob Tulini (Journalism) is also asking his students to collectively create an onlinne artifact.  In his Enterprise Journalism class, the students write a story/sidebar and gather multimedia elements about major news topics.  This material is developed into a class website, utilizing blog format, with approximately 20 full stories, that is then available to the public for reading and response.

    Professor Larry Litwin (Public Relations/Advertising) has created his own blog that covers public relations news, trends, and tips, as well as posting material and readings to his website.  Similarly, Lisa Samalonis (Journalism) maintains a blog site regarding magazine article writing that expands on class discussion and includes information about professional writing.

    Deb Woodell (Journalism) also maintains her own blog site, on which she offers links and ideas about journalism.  Additionally, she asks her students to blog about copy-editing topics.  She provides the starting question or issue and students then prepare a response in the ensuing week.   This method of participating allows students who are reticent about speaking in class to have more of a voice.   She has also been working with Blackboard and Facebook, to give students even more opportunity for chat and discussion.

    Dr. Ed Moore (Public Relations/Advertising) is another fan of the Blackboard/WebCT portal.  He utilizes the discussion boards there to “allow students to extend and expand classroom discussions and to react to the comments of others in a thoughtful and reflective venue.”  Dr. Moore believes that such boards provide a less time-constrained or interpersonally threatening venue of communication for students who prefer not to speak in class. Additionally, Dr. Moore utilizes the trends he sees on the discussion board as a way to direct classroom discussion.

    Jerrold Haught (Journalism) is also using the web as a way to encourage discussion between students.  On his Enterprise Journalism Facebook Fan Page, he and his students discuss stories in the media and how they were developed and researched.  He believes that this venue will encourage students to extend the once-weekly class discussion across time and give them ideas/thoughts to bring into the face-to-face class each Monday.

    Dr. Bill Wolff (Writing Arts) is using flip cam videos as a means of teaching students about the power (and process) of oral histories in his Writing, Research, and Technology course.  Students complete various assignments using this technology, culminating in a final oral history project.  You can read more about this in the article “How Tiny Camcorders are Changing Education,” including a link to Professor Wolff’s blog about tips for using flip cams in a sound pedagogical way.  Dr. Wolff also utilizes blogs, wikis, rss feed readers, social bookmarking sites, Twitter, and YouTube in his courses on a regular basis.

    In my own Senior Seminar: Communication and Identity course, I’m using both WebCT/Blackboard and blogging this semester as a way to encourage student discussion and interaction, as well as individual development of critical thinking.  On the class WebCT/Blackboard space, students can find their grades, course readings, the syllabus, information about writing and reading scholarly work, etc.  In terms of blogging, I have asked each student to select a subtopic related to communication and identity and to blog about that topic, in relation to the class readings, each week.  A blogroll of the student work, and my own reflections on the readings, are maintained on the class blog. Most students have elected to combine their blog topic with their major research paper in the course.  This allows them to gather valuable feedback from their peers, and develop their thinking about the topic throughout the semester.

    As you can see, the College of Communication has been very active in bringing participatory media forms into the class experience, and this list is but a portion of what is being utilized.  It’s exciting to consider how these new methods of communication will provide additional means to enhance our community of learning!