The Poynter Center

I recently processed digitized media from the Poynter Center records held by the University Archives.  The purpose of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions is to advance the study and teaching of ethics and the materials I worked on reflect that focus. In addition, many of the works that I cataloged examined American institutions, such as the press, the branches of the government, and political parties. Nelson Poynter, Indiana University alumnus and founder of the institution, was a journalist himself, and was dedicated to journalistic ethics.

Portrait photograph of Nelson Poynter.
Portrait of Nelson Poynter. Archives Image No. P0021628.

I find the Poynter Center’s mission highly compelling; the institute was founded in reaction to the Watergate scandal back in the early 1970s. It focused on the causes behind a decline in trust behind American institutions. Even though the Watergate scandal was nearly 50 years ago, I think that the discussions around this event, and the general mistrust of the news from the time, are highly relevant today.

There are several programs the Center published, mostly in cooperation with WTIU, to cover these issues. These include Conversations on America, Citizen & Science, and About Time. They often speak with the same guests, which allows them to get a well-rounded view from their subjects.

One series of interviews and discussions I would highly recommend is the set from senator Andrew Young. Senator Young was a congregational minister and prominent leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and spoke on several Poynter Center programs about the movement and the political climate of the South during and before the movement. Young speaks from a place of optimism in the mid 70s, and illustrates the deep changes he observed in his and other communities in the South over the course of only a decade. Young’s discussion is a reminder not only of the history of racism and the fight for rights in this country, but an illustration of the work left to be done. Young’s optimism is a place where we can consider what hopes and promises have gone unfulfilled for the Black community in this country.

Young also comments in his interviews on the way that elections and the more local political climate changed after the expansion of enfranchisement in his and other southern districts. His description of pre-movement politics is, I think, a strikingly accurate statement today, over 60 years later. Young says:

“… you had a kind of politics where people catered to the fears of their constituents, the anxieties and frankly the ignorance of their constituents. If you got people worked up and emotional and afraid enough, then you got elected and could do as you pleased. With Blacks coming into the political system, you have candidates appealing to the better instincts of the voters… Because they have a constituency not based on fear, but who are following them because of their hopes and aspirations, they’re willing to do some more courageous things.”

It’s very easy to draw parallels between the politics of fear that Young describes and the politics of reaction and fear that prevails today. What Young’s discussion also shows is that it takes decisive action to break this cycle of fear.

The discussion that I’ve just laid out comes from about half of one thirty-minute program; this is where I see the terrific value in the Poynter Center recordings. Despite their age, they focus on issues fundamental enough that they can serve as the beginning of a discussion on American institutions and issues 50 years later. I could have, as easily, discussed the views of a Poynter fellow on the press and compared it to today. Andrew Young’s interviews are just one particularly important and relevant example of this.

I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on any of the topics that these Poynter Center lectures cover; however, I clearly see their usefulness. The other thing I clearly see is a need to continue the conversations started in these programs. The atmosphere of uncertainty, of questioning, of doubt around the political institutions of 1972, and the spirit which founded the Poynter Center, is keenly felt today. I think that discussing our issues in this formal way, removed from the cycles and pressures of the news while still concentrating on the salient issues, has tremendous value in our current world.

We need to reinvest in the Poynter Center concept; to bring it into the modern day and direct it at our institutions and issues. The Center as it exists today is not the same; it has no dedicated building (they left their previous one in 2016) and is incorporated into the Media School. Their programming is limited. However, the Poynter Center’s potential is still immense. It’s no coincidence that Andrew Young’s interviews are still so relevant today. The issues addressed by the Poynter Center are often enduring. With and adjustment of scope and focus for the issues of our time, we have the opportunity to contribute to a serious understanding of how to improve our society, not just for now but for a long time to come.

The Poynter Center Building
The Poynter Center building on Third Street circa 1956. The Center vacated the building in 2016. Archives photo P0022315.

Robert Byrnes and Distance Learning: Then and Now

Over the past (very turbulent) month, I’ve been working on describing digitized media from Collection C388, the Robert Byrnes papers. I started my work on this collection the week before spring break, and for that reason my conception of the collection is overshadowed by the circumstances around my work on it. However, the transition to remote work over the past few weeks has highlighted one part of this collection in particular; a film series Byrnes produced in 1959 on the history of Russia. It stood out to me because of its intended use, which was as a correspondence course. I found myself in the interesting position of transitioning to remote learning while working on an approach which was used 60 years ago.

Robert Byrnes portraitj
Robert Byrnes in 1958, IU Archives P0020758

In some ways the contrast is pretty stark; Byrnes’s approach and our own are on opposite ends of a technological and educational revolution. The ability to speak with my classmates despite sometimes immense physical distance is extraordinarily powerful. In some ways, I imagine that the correspondence course of 1959 faced some of the same challenges as we do today. The lecture and the classroom are institutions with centuries of tradition. Physical, shared learning spaces were as or more important back then as they are now. The same can be said of student-professor interaction. There are few things which are valued more in the pedagogical process.

That said, there are some successes and failures with the Byrnes course which I think we can apply to our own attempts at remote learning.

One thing that Byrnes really succeeds at is his presentation of his material. As a lecturer and presenter, Byrnes is smooth and articulate on camera. He outlines his subject in clear terms and speaks on his subject matter with a formal yet conversational style. I think this sort of clear and direct presentation style is really important for remote learning; without the physical cues of a classroom and the pressure to reduce distraction during class, it is important to simplify and clarify a message for students.

Something else I thought was really important to the success of Byrnes’s lectures is that they don’t rely on graphics. This is something that I think we especially, as students and professors who rely on PowerPoint, could learn from the presentation of the past. We use presentation slides for a reason, but it’s important to consider their role in a classroom setting. Students look at the professor when they’re presenting information, so retaining that cue also helps retain attention. By using graphics sparingly and intentionally, they can serve their intended function; as a teaching aid, instead of as a teaching crutch.

Robert Byrnes on television set, standing at lectern
Robert Byrnes on television set, IU Archives P0048278

One downfall of Byrnes’s lectures is that they lack student interactivity. This is a genuine success of our modern educational tools. The ability for students and professors to talk is one of the most valuable aspects of a classroom environment, so its remote replication should be seen as a huge advantage.

While Byrnes’s lectures demonstrate clear understanding of the topic, the ability to engage his knowledge and ask interesting questions would elevate the experience greatly. Since this is one of the advantages we retain with an online format,  it is something we should turn to often in our lectures. In my few weeks of online instruction, I have yet to see student questions engaged with. I see this as a lack of integration with the system on Zoom; the tools for question asking/answering are there, but professors have to make use of them. Real integration of the tools we have for online teaching would improve the experience greatly. For example, Zoom includes a chat bar in its client; professors could use this feature to get information and field questions from students, while allowing moderation to ensure that there isn’t chaos in the audio channel. It will be interesting to see how teaching styles adapt to the tools available online; to succeed in this environment, a different skillset and teaching style is necessary, and I’m interested to see how learning changes over time as a result of this abrupt change to online courses.

One last downfall of Byrnes’s lectures is their bias. In many ways the lectures are a product of their time. An American series on Russian history, in 1959, is doomed to bias as a result of the political climate of the time.  While we are more aware of this issue today, it is just as important (or more so) to examine our discussions and beliefs for bias in our time.

Byrnes had a lot going on in the course of his life. These video lectures form an early part of his work, but his examination of Russian history, and the events of his time, never stopped. He was still thinking, writing, and speaking on Russia and Eastern Europe through the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lived through some of the most serious international crises of the 20th century, and indeed of modern history. To study an area of the world which was subject to so much bias, so much uncertainty, and so much speculation, must have been uniquely challenging. I hope that we can apply some of Byrnes’s perseverance in the difficult times that we’re living through, and continue to be the best students, researchers, and professors we can, no matter the circumstances.