Last summer, some colleagues and I published a paper on how high school students can communicate their understanding of science through songwriting. This gradually led to a press release from my home institution, and then (months later) a feature article in a local newspaper, and then appearances on Seattle TV stations KING-5 and KOMO-4.
It’s been an interesting little journey. I haven’t exactly “gone viral” — I haven’t been adding hundreds of new Twitter followers, or anything like that — but even this mild uptick in interest has prompted me to ponder my relationship with the news media. In short, I do enjoy the attention, but I also feel some responsibility to influence the tone and emphases of these stories. In this post, I share a few bits of advice based on my recent experiences, and I invite others to contribute their own tips in the comments section.
(1) Find out how your school/department/committee views media appearances. In April, I was invited to appear on KING’s mid-morning talk show, which sounded cool, except that the show would be taped during my normal Thursday physiology lecture! My department chair and my dean encouraged me to do the show, noting that this sort of media exposure is generally good for the school, and so, with their blessing, I got a sub and headed for the studio.
(2) Respect students’ privacy during classroom visits. After some students were included in a classroom-visit video despite promises to the contrary, I realized that I needed to protect their privacy more strongly. I subsequently established an option by which any camera-shy students could live-stream the lecture until the TV crew left.
(3) Anticipate and explicitly address potential misconceptions about what you’re doing. I’ve worried that these “singing professor” pieces might portray the students simply as amused audience members rather than as active participants, so, during the classroom visits, I’ve used songs that are conducive to the students singing along and/or analyzing the meaning of the lyrics. (Well, mostly. “Cross-Bridges Over Troubled Water” wasn’t that great for either, but I had already sung “Myofibrils” for KING, and KOMO deserved an exclusive too, right?)
(4) Take advantage of your institution’s public relations expertise. Everett Community College’s director of public relations offered to help me rehearse for the talk show — and boy am I glad that she did! Being familiar with the conventions and expectations of TV conversations, Katherine helped me talk much more pithily than I normally do. In taking multiple cracks at her practice question about “how did you get started [using music in teaching]?” I eventually pared a meandering 90-second draft answer down to 30 seconds. She also asked me a practice question to which my normal response would be, “Can you clarify what you mean by X?” — and convinced me that in a 4-minute TV conversation, you don’t ask for clarifications, you just make reasonable assumptions and plow ahead with your answers.
(5) Ask your interviewers what they will want to talk about. Like a novice debater, I struggle with extemporaneous speaking; the more I can prepare for specific questions, the better. Fortunately, my interviewers have been happy to give me a heads-up about possible questions, thus increasing their chances of getting compelling and focused answers.
Readers, what other advice would you add to the above?
Gregory J. Crowther, PhD has a BA in Biology from Williams College, a MA in Science Education from Western Governors University, and a PhD in Physiology & Biophysics from the University of Washington. He teaches anatomy and physiology in the Department of Life Sciences at Everett Community College. His peer-reviewed journal articles on enhancing learning with content-rich music have collectively been cited over 100 times.