Whisper a message in someone's ear. Then tell that person to pass on the information to someone else. In turn, that person will tell yet another... . Well, you know the rest. It is a familiar game, the end result of which is often a garbled message that barely resembles the original.
Linda DeLibero, an instructor in The Writing Seminars, says games like this are being played out on a large scale nearly every day. Yet, instead of "a message," it's hard news that is being passed on. DeLibero says, in the case of the recent presidential election, trying to find out what actually happened largely depended on whom you asked, or more precisely, to what media outlet you went.
"Since so many stories start out as rumors, and rumors gain life on the Internet and get picked up by respected newspapers, a lot of the stuff that gets put into print today, more than ever, has to be questioned," says DeLibero, who is also an associate editor at Baltimore magazine. "How do you know what is really going on, and what really happened down in Florida? There are just many questions about how this coverage affected the perception of the whole democratic process. For some [people], it made them even more cynical than they were before, and that, I believe, is very dangerous."
DeLibero is exploring this cynicism and other media-related themes in her intersession course titled Fifteen Minutes of Fame: How to be Media Literate in Our Rapidly Changing Culture. For the course, DeLibero lined up speakers from a variety of media industries--film, the press, Internet and advertising--to address her students on the crucial issue of how media affect our lives, our politics and our perception of ourselves.
The one-credit course is part of a growing number of the university's intersession offerings with an applied "real world" bent.
Two years ago President William R. Brody led a push to "reinvigorate" the intersession by adding courses that were both fun and practical. The result today is classes that run the gamut from ballroom dancing and acupuncture to financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Brody himself has taught for two years in a row a class called Uncommon Sense: A Practical Approach to Problem Solving for Your Personal and Professional Life. The course deals with such everyday, functional issues as making money and prioritizing one's time.
"We wanted to give students something valuable and of meaning that they couldn't get during the course of the year," says Deborah Cebula, special assistant to the dean of Arts and Sciences. "Our students work really hard during the academic year, taking five to six courses, some working on two majors. The students themselves thought the intersession wasn't being used to its full capacity."
Intersession courses, which are not mandatory, have been at Hopkins since the 1970s. The courses taught by the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering are one or two credits, and are typically taken pass/fail. The Office of Student Activities offers a program of noncredit, informal classes for personal enrichment.
Cebula estimates that 10 percent of Hopkins undergrads take intersession courses, a number she says is likely to swell as the program expands. Three new "applied" courses were added last year, and more than 75 students signed up for each course, each limited to only 25. One course--Practicum in Journalism, Communication and the Arts--is so popular that selection is done by a lottery system.
This year six new intersession courses were added: Biotechnology: Integration of Science and Business, Intro to Interdisciplinary Research in Injury Biomechanics, Invitation to Entrepreneurship and three classes with a travel component. Hopkins students this year will have been in Cuba learning foreign policy, in Florence appreciating Renaissance art and in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands studying biology and ecology.
Cebula says that what is making many of these courses possible is the participation of Hopkins alumni. In the biotechnology course, which takes the students from the development of a drug to its arrival on the pharmacy shelf, guest speakers include alumni employed at pharmaceutical companies and regulatory agencies. For her media literacy class, DeLibero enlisted alums working for such heavyweight news outlets as The New York Times and National Public Radio.
"One course was completely funded by an alum. The response from them has just been incredible," says Cebula, who has been working closely on this project with the Career Planning Office and the Development Office. "These are company CEOs and presidents who are traveling in from New York or Washington to connect with our students. They are so enthusiastic about the program, and it shows. It is a great opportunity for the students to network with these people and explore possible careers they will be entering when they graduate."
For the students, the expanded intersession offerings are a welcome addition to their Hopkins career.
Nara Han, a junior majoring in classics, calls the new courses a breath of fresh air.
"They are so different from what we have to take during the year," says Han, who is taking DeLibero's media literacy course. "Whether you're in the sciences or the humanities, you are so stuck in that one groove. You want something more practical and more immediate, especially if you are not planning to go to graduate school."
Han and her 24 fellow classmates were visited last week by Ann Hornaday, the former film critic of the Baltimore Sun. Hornaday, who left the Sun to work on a book, talked to the class about the power of the film media and its influence on popular culture.
The students were engaged by Hornaday's themes and pelted her with questions about such popular films as There's Something About Mary and Pulp Fiction. One student mentioned the ostracism she has felt for not being a fan of the well-liked film Forrest Gump.
Hornaday quickly confessed to being a kindred spirit and jumped right into a lively discussion. The student smiled--it's not in every class that you get to talk about a Tom Hanks movie.