Armor against looking lonely

Navigating the tricky etiquette of using cellphones in public can be full of minefields What is polite? What is just the way it is? Pew Research Center explored those concepts in a survey, and what the survey found was we have conflicting views.

“Mobile devices play a complex role in modern social interactions — many Americans view them as harmful and distracting to group dynamics, even as they can’t resist the temptation themselves.”

I posed the questions from the survey to my Information Concepts class. Their responses echoed the idea of tricky navigation — the cellphone can be very helpful in finding your way, meeting up with friends, keeping in touch with friends and family. (Most text or receive texts from parents daily.) Some of the places where phone use is not OK on the survey included family dinners, though students said their parents are so connected to their own phones that that stricture depends.

closeup photo of an iPhoneOne of the survey responses asked whether people used the phone to avoid interactions. The percentage number was low and that felt wrong to me.  I know I have used my phone to avoid talking to people in elevators  or to avoid initiating contact. The students agreed with that, but they took it a bit farther. Your phone can help distract you when you are waiting in line or have nothing to do, but it also can make you look and feel connected  when you are somewhere by yourself. You’re saying: See, I’m not really alone.

My take on their discussion was that being on the phone, whether talking, pretend talking, texting or just scrolling Instagram kept them from what was perceived as looking lonely. It’s a subtle and interesting shift from the Pew Research Center’s category of “Avoid interactions.” How do we nurture the idea that being alone can be OK? It doesn’t always translate to lonely. I understand how hard that can be when social anxiety hits me on occasion. Years of being a reporter have helped make me a wizard at small talk, at being able to strike up a conversation almost anywhere with almost anyone. Those same years of constantly having to answer the phone, knowing that every call meant someone wanted something have made me more appreciative of the beauty of  the moments of just being alone, of the freedom of not being connected.


Anchor or tether?

You’ve probably all experienced it. That frantic feeling when you’ve misplaced your phone. For many, it’s a tether to organizing life with the calendar, maps,  alarm clock, clock, music, messages and connections. Is it a tether or is it an anchor, weighing us down and leaving us without a moment of peace?

A class discussion triggered this post for me. I don’t think I am as anchored to my phone as some. Messages come mostly from family and sometimes students. I do check, somewhat incessantly, Twitter and my email.

photo of an anchor neon sign in blueThis summer I spent some time in West Virginia on a farm that had spotty service as well as a one-week phone ban during part of our three-week stay.  Live in the present. In the moment. With those right here and now. I also was in Africa, where WiFi service was hit or miss. I found I didn’t really miss it all that much. Those weeks of travel helped to curb my social media addiction.

When I got back to my Omaha life, I realized that my incessant checking is more of a way to fill time, a distraction. I don’t have to be distracted every minute. I find social media interesting and useful for following the news, finding out new developments in social media, journalism or entrepreneurship. And sometimes, it just makes me laugh. But there is such a thing as too much distraction. I need to focus more. I’m not getting rid of the phone or the Twitter account. I can set it aside. I can turn off the tweets. I would like the phone and what it represents to be less of an anchor dragging me into distraction and more of a tether keeping me connected.

That little voice in your head

We usually think of an earworm as one of those 1980s one-hit wonder songs or any-generation pop song that you can’t get out of your head. Let me pause for a minute here while you try to get something unstuck. Sorry.

But I’ve learned of a different kind of earworm: the academic/mentoring kind. That voice in your head that sounds like one of your professors — perhaps a mentor or a relative — that goes off when you are about to commit a grammatical sin. Or when you are about to tweet something that common sense would tell you is a bad idea.

Chuck Zuegner at work

Chuck Zuegner at work

My father, Chuck Zuegner or Mr. Z as he was known, also was a journalism professor. He taught hundreds of Creighton students and I always love when I run into someone who had him as a professor. One recent exchange with one of Mr. Z’s students — Glenn Reedus, a talented Chicago journalist  — made me think of the earworm. Glenn told me he was about to write “which” and a little voice that sounded a lot like Mr. Z made him stop, think and use “that” instead.  Mr. Z’s editing advice is one thing Glenn remembers, but he also remembers the encouragement and tough love when it was needed that Mr. Z doled out.

I am lucky enough to have Mr. Z’s voice in my head and my heart all the time, doling out encouragement and tough love in my teaching, my journalism and my life.

My own version of the earworm came when awesome Creighton senior Lauren Dries tweeted that she was going to use “comprised of”  but a little voice that sounded suspiciously like me warned her off that “of.” (Not needed with comprise.)

I want my students to remember grammar/punctuation and syntax rules. I want them to write cleanly and accurately and always keep the reader in mind. I want them to bear witness, to always think of the people they write about and film as people, not just sources. I can only hope to be that little earworm that offers encouragement and tough love. (And that says don’t use “of” with comprise.)



Always learning (I hope)

Students in my Entrepreneurial Media class started out the semester on a creative note as we used an improv exercise I had learned at the terrific MediaShift-sponsored Collab Space Atlanta in 2013. Watching my students come up with media-based products developed from nouns I generated on a random noun generator was really fun. The noun “Cent” became a random advice generator app (2 cents worth) while the noun “pull” led students to come up with an idea for an app that quickly listed hours for restaurants and bars. All of the ideas were terrific, perhaps not ready for prime-time development, but ideas that I think let them begin to see the process of finding a pain point or solving a problem.

students working at tables

Students Madeline Zukowski, Mikayla Savell-Flott, Rachel Cain and Maggie McCormick turn randomly generated nouns into apps.

The real work is to come, of course. But one of the main things I want them to get out of this course (and all of my courses) is that you never stop learning, never stop thinking: Hey, that’s an interesting idea. Whether sitting at a conference, following a link on Twitter or even sitting in a class, there’s always more to learn.

Reflecting on a semester

I’m assigning myself the same assignment I give to my students in most of my classes at the end of the semester: Write a reflection on what you’ve learned, what you liked, what you didn’t like. What could be better in this class? Students also fill out confidential evaluations, but I ask them to be candid in these blog posts.

I really enjoyed this semester. It was a little rocky at times because I was on sabbatical in the fall. Getting into the academic rhythm again was tough. At times, I felt a step or two behind. Now I can hardly believe the semester is over. My classes range from one that focuses on international mass communication, including freedom of the press and human rights to social media and entrepreneurial media.

Photo of social media class with pie.

Julianna Zieno and the rest of the social media class like pie.

What I learned:

  • My students are doing some pretty amazing things. For the social media class, students develop an analysis and strategic social media plan for a client. I ask them to choose a student organization or a small business that they know something about. I have students who ride horses, ice skate, skateboard down mountains. They developed plans for a tanning salon, insurance agency, nail salon, wedding gown store, dogwalker, art and sip shop, Grants Farm, contractor, fitness studio, community garden,a restaurant, Creighton’s rowing team and for the off-season of Creighton men’s basketball. There were plans for the Creightonian, New Student Orientation, DoIt for Students, Skutt, a boutique, Creighton Students Union, a group promoting designated driving and a dentist. And while some may scoff at a class requiring students to be on Twitter and Pinterest, the social media plans were strategic and included metrics and creative ideas.
  • Requiring an elevator pitch strikes terror into the hearts of my students, but they generally rate the experience as one of the best learning moments of the semester.
  • Local entrepreneurs are incredibly generous with their time. Thanks again to Creighton Otter of White and Blue Review, Andrew Norman of Hear Nebraska,  Steve Gordon of RDQLUS, Josh and Nick of MTRL Design. JMCAwesome alums Brittany Mascio, Bridget McQuillan and Peter Freeze talked to us about life at startups. And Danny Schreiber of Zapier talked to my Social Media class about content marketing. In these fast-evolving worlds, it’s great to have people on the frontlines offering advice and encouragement. I heard so many great pieces of advice but two stick with me. Steve Gordon told them to live big. And Andrew Norman: “Don’t be afraid to be afraid.”
  • Focusing on genocide at the end of the semester can be depressing, but students see the arc of the international class and reflect on why we have to value human life everywhere on the planet.
  • Bringing in pie is very popular.



Always a student

I always learn something from my students.

I love having my students write blogs because  I think it’s good for their professional portfolio and because I can learn so much from them.  I just finished grading a group of freestyle blogs — no prompt from me for the assignment. Write about what you want, preferably something to do with the course topic of social media.

Creighton social media class

The social media class that teaches me many things.

One of my favorites came from Morgan Ryan, who wrote that she wants to hire herself as her own intern this summer to really work on her design portfolio and website. A heavy class load, extracurricular commitments and three jobs have gotten in the way of spending the time needed to develop her work. I think that’s a great idea.

I just had a sabbatical, where I  had a semester to devote to research and writing. Though I didn’t get everything done I wanted to, that time was invaluable to advance a research agenda and project that have been difficult to navigate with the demands of teaching, committee work and life.

It takes time and effort to do creative work. Time can be the most elusive commodity. I applaud Morgan for realizing her professional portfolio needs that time and attention. I’d still want to hire her as an intern though.

Put me on the Puppy Bowl team

I’d call it one of the best ideas ever for Animal Planet. A Puppy Bowl. Two hours of puppies playing. And all of the puppies are from shelters. But Animal Planet didn’t stop there.

Now there are tail-gating dogs. A waterbowl cam. The National Anthem with police dogs. A sideline re-parrot-er tweeting during the game. Keyboard kitty and cat half-time show. Too cute cam. Penguin cheerleaders. Hamsters piloting a blimp. Background stories called “Pup close and personal.” The Kiss-Cam. Sure, there’s a ton of product placement. But it’s puppies. From shelters.

It all reminds me of my high school days as one of the planners for my all-girls school’s annual Field Day. It’s a huge event at Marian High School where classes each choose a theme, makes costumes, a float-like thing, a demonstration (think band half-time show) with songs.

Carolyn Zuegner in Field Day costume.

My niece Carolyn Zuegner during her Marian Field Day.

My sister really was the genius behind our Field Day ideas, able to keep coming up with funny and creative twists to the theme. The similarity to the Puppy Bowl comes with the What-else-can-we-come-up-with vibe. When our Field Day theme was bees, our cheerleaders were flowers. When we were firefighters, the cheerleaders were Dalmatians and we turned a nun who was our class sponsor into a firebug.

The Puppy Bowl in its 10th year reminds me of that what-else-can-we-come-up with? I’d love to be on that team. I’ve got some great ideas for next year.

A life sentence

What’s my sentence? That’s the question I asked my social media students to ponder for their assignment this week. I wanted to join in because I think it’s an important exercise to distill what you want and who you are.  I am lucky enough to work at a job I love with people I enjoy and respect and terrific students who make me laugh and cry and marvel at what they’re able to do.

The assignment is based off of Daniel Pink’s “Drive,” a book about motivation. I found the trailer and thought the exercise was one that would work with students trying to develop a personal and professional brand. I’ve used over a few semester and students have a love/hate relationship with it. It’s hard, but at the end of the semester, they reflect that it was one of their favorite things about the class.


Here’s what I’ve come up with:

I teach and every day try to practice the idea that the power of telling people’s stories accurately, colorfully, compassionately in any medium can help change the world.

That’s a strong sentence. And my students probably think: “Hey, that’s not what I hear from her every day.” They hear: “What’s AP style? Use commas correctly. Where’s the nut graf? How many sources have you talked to? Don’t miss deadlines. Plan. Work hard.”

Through all of those statements, I’m trying to show students that every person’s story is important. We owe it to people to tell them accurately. We can use journalism to make the world a better place. We can treat our sources like people and recognize that every story is important to someone.

News without words

I love that there are so many different ways to tell the story of what’s happening in the world. It can be overwhelming, but it’s good. I discovered one of the most interesting, thanks to an NPR story, headlined: Picture this.  That story introduced me to illustrator Maria Fabrizio, who is behind the project  Wordless News. , touted as “One headline a day, vowel and consonant free.” I love words, but I also like this idea. Her illustrations are terrific and make one think.  The work is different from editorial cartoonists, who also have a great role in helping us understand the world.

I think I also was taken by her first Wordless News image, which was when Pope Benedict decided to retire, to hang up his hat.

Maria Fabrizio's image from Pope Benedict announcing his retirement.

Maria Fabrizio’s image from  her blog  from Pope Benedict announcing his retirement.


Time to read

I love reading. I always have. From when I was little and went to the library with my siblings and my mom, I have devoured books. But lately, I’ve been more distracted by social media, by the Internet and by television. I aim to change that with a reading challenge for 2014: eight books each month. This is slight compared to others who read 10 or so a month, but I know myself and I know I will watch some television — there’s “Downton Abbey,” “Chopped,”  “Sherlock,” and college basketball at the very least.

Showing pages in a book.I’m posting the list here to keep me honest and to remind myself that I need to turn off the TV and read. Any suggestions are welcome. I love fiction, mystery, nonfiction — everything. This is a varied list with books for school and work and books just for fun.

I’m off to the library.

Here’s my January list: