You hear it more and more all the time – science fiction is quickly becoming science fact. A world filled with robots to do all of our work for us while we lie back and relax, not a care in the world, is a dream of the 20th century. It looks like it may well be a reality of the 21st.
Lots of people are asking, however, if this way of life is really what we want. After all, humans have been working with some structure of employment for millennia at this point. So much of an economy’s worth is based upon the ability it has to regularly employ citizens.
Now, experts at McKinley, a global management consulting company, have calculated that as many as 1.2 billion employees could be affected by automation.
Now, Janna Anderson, professor at Elon University and researcher for Pew, says that “every job will be affected by artificial intelligence.”
Obviously, this has serious implications for human employment moving forward which will be difficult to grapple with. People will increasingly have to think about what skills they need to compete in this marketplace.
According to Anderson’s report for Pew, about 70% of 1,408 respondents think that “new educational and training programs” will emerge and be successful. One of these experts included Justin Reich, executive director at MIT Teaching Systems Lab.
“Educators have always found new ways of training the next generation of students for the jobs of the future, and this generation will be no different,” Reich said.
“You have to be a jack of all trades,” Anderson said. “You need to understand a wide variety of things and be curious and excited about lifelong learning.”
Some Elon community members expressed their views on the issue as well.
“You need empathy, sympathy,” René Jackson, Associate Director of Career Services for Grad School Programs said. “You need things that a computer cannot provide.”
Jackson stressed that she particularly meant one on one jobs such as doctors, designers and other jobs that we think of as requiring understanding between two parties. Even so, she seemed uncertain that even these jobs would remain safely with human workers. Jackson also sees a possibility in working to maintain the machines.
“Jobs like manufacturing I think increasingly continue to be assigned to computers, but somebody’s got to run them.”
She ultimately expressed concern at the increasing level of automation, citing uncertainty that enough jobs could be found.
Hannah Greenwood, Elon first year seems to understand where the workplace is headed.
“Technology in the workforce is inevitable,” Greenwood said. “There’s a growing knowledge bas about how robots are going to come into play.”
As for how to deal with this as people, however, she seems less sure. She does think that adding new classes relating to finding work in a changing field of employment is important.
Craig Morehead, English professor at Elon, is very interested in this topic.
“I know what I’ve read and researched: basically, that automation is one of the most pressing issues facing our workforce labor for the foreseeable future. I believe that not enough people are doing the long term thinking and planning that this issue requires,” Morehead said.
He tells his students that flexibility is the most important thing moving forward in order to avoid being replaced and that education reforms need to be carried out.
“It will take all sides involved to rethink the kinds of interdisciplinary models of education that we can emphasize that will better prepare students for the conditions of the future labor market.”
As a professor, Morehead is especially concerned because “some of my fellow educators and my students are not as aware of this issue as they should be.”
Ultimately, there will be tons of changes throughout the rest of the 21st century. Will we be living like Jetsons or are we getting too big for britches? Only time – and the hard work of humans and machines – will tell.
The Elon Poll has just released data from their surveys conducted April 18-21, 2017. The results indicated that North Carolina voters were displeased by President Donald Trump’s general performance, as well as his use of Twitter and the border wall. It was also found that approximately half of North Carolinians think the government should move on from repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act to other issues.
Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll, sees that the Trump administration is not getting traditional support.
“Typically, presidents enjoy strong support during their first 100 days, even from former opponents or critics,” Husser said. “The Trump presidency is different. His level of support both for himself personally and for his key policies is as low as we’ve seen them in the history of opinion polling.”
Of three Elon students interviewed for this story, only one was surprised by the results:
“If it was mainly conducted within the research triangle, I’m almost surprised it’s not less of an approval rating,” said sophomore Thomas Coogan.
Coogan was not surprised, however, by the poll results regarding Trump’s Twitter account.
“Even Trump supporters are like ‘knock it off,'” Coogan said. “He’s getting less likes as the weeks go on. When he’s blaming other people, it doesn’t go over well.
Coogan seems uncertain of what the future holds for Trump.
“There’s only so long you can scapegoat before people say, ‘you’re not the person for us.'”
He thinks that the 2018 midterms could be a turning point, with traditionally red areas who voted for Obama potentially switching blue again.
Sophomore Kristin O’Neill was neither surprised nor amused by the results.
“Doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “I wish it was that way earlier.”
O’Neill also anticipates the approval ratings to go up and down in the future because some people want to like Trump and some people just want to hate him.
Sophomore Betsy Albritton also understands the ratings, saying that “there aren’t a lot of reasons to like him.”
She also acknowledged that a large portion of North Carolina is red, which might be why he has such even approval and disapproval ratings.
It’s worth noting that North Carolina has shifted since the election, with 50% of voters choosing Trump and 46% choosing Clinton.
According to Kathleen Woodruff Wickham, author of Math Tools for Journalists, it’s the precision of numbers that scares most journalists. Despite that, they are present in every newspaper without fail. At the end of the day, numbers are essential to good journalism – they provide solid context and framing that even good writing may not be able to provide. It’s important for journalists to understand basic style rules from the start, such as knowing when to spell numbers out as opposed to using numerals.
Ch. 2 – Percentages
Percentages can be used to great affect when attempting to show how meaningful certain numbers are. There are several techniques that journalists should understand in finding percentages, according to Wickham.
Percentage of a whole is the most basic type of percentage used – all you do is take a numerical value that is part of a whole and divide it by the value of the whole. From there, simply move your decimal point two spaces to the right.
Next is calculating percentage increase/decrease. This is used when a change in values within a whole has occurred over time and you need an understandable representation of that change. To do this, take the new figure and subtract the old figure from it. Then take the solution of that equation and divide it by the whole – this will give you the percentage change.
Finding percentage points also has to do with increase and decrease, but it’s a little more abstract and it starts from before and after percentage values. To find them, start by subtracting the original percentage value from the new percentage value – this gives you change expressed in percentage points. From there, you can divide the change value by the original value to see the percentage change.
Calculating interest is also of interest to us. Ha. To find this, you’ll need a few values: money borrowed, interest rate and the length of time it’s borrowed for. All you do is multiply those values together.
Compound interest is the next and more complicated step. Instead of interest that grows at a constant rate, the rate of compound interest is built over time by have interest charged on interest. To calculate this, you will need values for the monthly payment (A), the original loan amount (P), the interest rate (R) and the total number of months interest is being charged for (N). Also note that the interest rate should be expressed as a decimal and divided by 12. The formula is as follows:
A = [P x (1 + R)^N x R] ÷ [(1 + R)^N – 1]
Ch. 3 – Statistics
According to Wickham, statistics are the second most common number journalists use, after percentages.
“Having a basic understanding of statistics and the role played by the manipulation of numbers is an important element in a journalist’s toolbox.”
First, we need to understand mean, or average. It’s very straightforward. All you have to do to find mean is add together all of the values in a data set and divide by the number of values.
Next is median, and it’s just about as easy. All you have to is order each value in a data set from lowest to highest and find the center value. If there is an even number of data points, just add those two values together and divide by two.
Mode is the next statistical value we can find. It simply refers to which values in a data set occur the most often, and all you have to do is count the number of times each value appears. If multiple values are tied for most appearances, they are all the mode. If none do, there is no mode.
These are all measures of average that serve their own purpose, but what else is there? For starters, we have percentile – a way of measuring where a score falls in comparison to others. This is done by dividing the rank of a value in an ordered data set by the total number of values in the set.
Next, we have standard deviation, which is used to express how much a figure differs from what is normal. The formula is represented in the following image, copied from Wickham’s work:
Probability is also useful to journalists. It’s also very easy to calculate. All you have to do is (using deaths from a certain disease as an example) take the number of people affected and divide that by whatever population you are considering. That number will probably be difficult to understand, so just divide one by the value and treat it as an “every one in x” value.
Ch. 4 – Federal Statistics
The government doesn’t always do the public favors with the numbers it releases. Oftentimes the statistics are difficult to understand or unclear in purpose. That means the onus falls on journalists to provide accurate and valuable versions of that data.
Unemployment is a federal statistic that many people hear about almost daily. It’s consistently in the news, so we have to be sure to know how to properly calculate it. Fortunately, it’s a pretty easy equation: all you have to do is take the number of unemployed people in the labor force and divide that by the total labor force and multiply it by 100. Essentially, the labor force refers to the total number of people above the age of 16 who is employed or looking for employment.
Another frequently used term in reporting is inflation, which is measured using the Consumer Price Index. When finding this for a month, use this equation:
Annual inflation rate can be found by changing “Prior Month’s CPI” in the last equation to the CPI from one year earlier.
It may also be necessary or helpful to adjust for inflation in certain stories. For example, if you need to change a past value into current dollars, you would divide the original value by the CPI for its year. Then multiply that by the CPI for the present day.
Gross Domestic Product also comes up quite a bit. This can be found simply by adding consumer spending on goods and services, investment spending, government spending and net exports. GDP is important because it can tell a lot about how a nation’s economy is changing.
Finally, net exports – the last piece of the GDP equation – simply refers to number of exports minus the number of imports. It is also commonly known as trade balance and is a helpful perspective on an economy.
The term ‘fake news’ has picked up fairly constant levels of search interest for the past five years, according to Google Trends. All of that changed, however, right around one specific date: November 8, 2016. You might remember it as the United States presidential election.
Perhaps it is no surprise. Fake news has constantly been in the conscience of the American people since Donald Trump’s inauguration. In the past he has called news outlets such as CNN and BuzzFeed “fake news” on multiple occasions.
President Trump’s free use of this term is only part of the fake news hubbub, though. This brings us to a defining question of this article:
What is fake news?
Unfortunately for us, Donald Trump (along with everyone else) popularized a very poor term for what it is trying to describe.
(Disclaimer: this article will disregard Trump’s use of “fake news” except as a possible explanation for the popularity of the term – his use of the term is consistently inaccurate, even when dealing with something as general as fake news.)
According to Wardle, the first step is to know the difference between misinformation and disinformation – misinformation being “the inadvertent sharing of false information,” and disinformation being “the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false.” Obviously, disinformation is the more troubling of the two.
From here, Wardle gives us a very helpful infographic:
Specific names are helpful, if not essential, when discussing fake news. As previously mentioned, fake news is a broad and misleading term in itself. Fitting, isn’t it?
The scale goes from least insidious to most insidious as it moves from left to right, making fabricated content the most dangerous. For example, The Onion article (satire) is nearly harmless while the Alex Jones video (manipulated content) is dangerous and dishonest.
This information, however, only begins to scratch the surface.
Where does it come from?
Buzzfeed News media editor Craig Silverman has some answers.
“Using domain registration records and Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, BuzzFeed News determined that both sites are owned by American News LLC of Miami.”
That’s right. These two stories with diametrically opposing viewpoints came from the same source.
Silverman found that American News LLC is tied to several clickbait fake news sites posting content tailor made for people of different ideologies. From this, we can assume that the biggest motivation behind the sites is not political, but monetary.
It’s not just Americans trying to make money off of this phenomenon, however. Fake news that concerns American politics can come from anywhere.
As Samanth Subramanian reports for Wired, there is actually a town in Macedonia that gained attention during the election for being “the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites.”
It is unclear how much impact these websites had on the election, but it is quite clear why so many of them came out of such a faraway place: money. “Boris,” the main subject of this article, dropped out of high school to run pro-Trump websites. It paid off, too.
“Between August and November, Boris earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites,” writes Subramanian. “The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371.”
Despite how unsettling that may be, perhaps the scariest origin of fake news is intentional misinformation campaigns. Essentially, these are social media campaigns to profile all individual members of a targeted group (we’ll say voters in a Presidential election) and give them bits of information that are tailored to them.
That means that all of your likes, comments, friends and countless other data points could be gathered by one of these companies to feed you propaganda.
Essentially, CA’s job was to attempt to individually profile every American voter using data gathered from social media, internet history, ad interactions and many more data sets.
That’s still not all that’s going on here, though. As we know, Cambridge Analytica aren’t the only people gathering information from internet history. They provide a good example of what Facebook and Google do as echo chambers of emotion and bias (in a more sinister way), but that wasn’t good enough for Albright. He wanted to figure out exactly where it was coming from.
“For the most part, I’m looking at fake news from a system-level perspective,” said Albright. “I found evidence that many factors are overlooked in the fake news debate. These include ad tracking technology, content delivery and web hosting providers, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and that misinformation tends to flow from smaller sites in the hyper-biased political news sphere into social media platforms.”
He’s referring to the piece on Cambridge Analytica as well as the rest of his series on fake news in which he thoroughly investigates the complete path that far-right propaganda and fake news takes – where it starts, where it ends, where it goes in the middle.
This brings us to our next question:
How do people fall for it?
When it comes to the “Military Grade Psy-Ops,” it is not so much about people falling for it as it’s about people having it fed to them strategically.
As previously mentioned, Cambridge Analytica (CA) used internet data points gathered from individual voters to create personality profiles on each different person. From there, advertising could be targeted on a level mostly unprecedented in American politics.
This is a good lens through which to look at the fake news we see today. Fake news takes advantage of our social media and search history “echo chambers” by being sensationalist. It uses language that preys on people’s existing prejudices.
Breitbart, a well-known fake news publication, has plenty of headlines that do just this. Take for example “Planned Parenthood’s Body Count Under Cecile Richards Is Up to Half a Holocaust.” This is an article written by former senior editor and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos about undercover videos of Planned Parenthood employees. The article itself is filled with inaccurate or misleading statements about the business model of Planned Parenthood, among other things. All of this is done to fire up pro-life individuals in order to get more shares and push Breitbart’s alt-right ideology.
What’s being done?
At the end of the day, it’s tough to say what the best course of action is for dealing with the systemic problem that is fake news.
“I don’t think there is an easy fix,” said Albright. “What’s currently happening is a problem that will never really disappear.”
Alexios Mantzarlis, a journalist and fact-checker working for Poynter, doesn’t think we should sit back and watch the problem grow. He thinks we should put a stronger emphasis on fact checking.
In this instance, a newspaper was fact checking its own work after publishing an unfortunate but mostly innocuous error.
“The Texas newspaper’s top headline on Feb. 21 incorrectly indicated that Lt. Gen. McMaster would be replacing Vice President Mike Pence — rather than the outgoing National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.”
The error must have been horrifying to the newspaper, but it seems more comedic than problematic when looking back. That’s the opinion of this writer – not so of some commenters.
“Hey, did anyone think of proofreading your headline today before the paper went to press?” reader Barbara Tyler asked. “I am pretty sure Trump did not replace his vice president. Fake news at its best. Sometimes I wonder why I continue to subscribe to your paper.”
This sort of outlook on fake news is a different level to the issue entirely. It’s why the carefree use of the term by public figures is dangerous. It also goes hand in hand with why fact checking is so important to Mantzarlis.
The study worked by asking people to assess several different statements used during the presidential campaign. Some were factual, others were not, some were attributed, others were not. From there, participants were asked to assess the statements after seeing a fact-check either confirming or denying it.
“The results are clear: Regardless of partisan preference, belief in Trump falsehoods fell after these were corrected.”
As Mantzarlis points out, this study doesn’t show that fact-checking has a measurable impact on ballot choices. That should not be too concerning to a journalist, however. What matters is that fact-checking does work in the fight against misinformation.
John Robinson, adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina and former editor at the Greensboro News and Record, thinks that fact-checking is an imperfect solution.
“There are two responsibilities,” Robinson said. “One is on the news consumer to make sure that they are getting factual information and absorbing it and understanding what the information is as best I can.”
“The other side of it is the people who are presenting the information. There’s a lot of responsibility to go around.”
What can be done/Wrapping up
By now, you may have figured out that talking about fake news isn’t easy. There are lots of things to cover and, as with all new problems, solutions are not clearly defined.
Stephanie Brown, director of Park Library at UNC, wants to help bring solutions to students.
At this point, Brown is especially interested in bringing information about fake news to students outside of the communications field.
She wants to “teach non-journalists what reporters do – you talk to sources, you gather information.”
This is an interesting idea. So much discussion coming from certain politicians is focused on undermining mainstream news media sources that it seems to have lowered trust in the press. Maybe helping people to understand what it is the news media does is the key to rebuilding that trust.
Beyond that, Brown wants to help students with determining the trustworthiness of an article online.
“Let’s say you see a story on Facebook and you are not sure if it’s true or not,” Brown said. “Before you share it, you should check it out. So how would you go about checking out whether a story you see is in fact true.”
In terms of what universities should be doing, Robinson wants to see media literacy classes taught.
“For a couple years now I’ve proposed that UNC-Chapel Hill should require a media literacy and understanding media course for all students in the same way that English and history and econ courses are required.”
The purpose of a media literacy course would be to help students understand the news media a little better. This would help to foster trust in the decisions of mass media because more people would understand what goes into making those decisions.
“It seems to me as if it’s a failure of the education system that they don’t have a stronger place for a media literacy requirement,” Robinson said.
Brown also thinks that media literacy courses are a must.
“Not only universities, I think high schools should be doing it, I think it should probably be taught in middle schools,” Brown said. “I think it needs to be taught to everyone in some way and I think librarians are uniquely positioned to do that.”
Outside (and inside) of schools, lots of work is being done by lots of people – journalists and researchers especially. It’s important to support these people in their efforts to quell this threat. You can do so by actively following and sharing the work of the people mentioned in this article as well as taking some of the tips from the following guide:
For more thorough information on checking your own facts, please check out this page created by Brown. It features many helpful resources for teaching yourself to be a better news consumer.
Online fake news may well be looked upon as the defining media issue of this time. It will be written about in textbooks and it will be referenced in scholarly discussions for years to come.
Although we will likely never leave it all the way behind, do your best to at least be aware of it and talk about it. Discussion can only help shed more light on the issue.
Al Drago, photojournalist and Elon University graduate, took time out of his busy schedule to visit Janna Anderson’s Reporting for the Public Good class early on Friday.
Drago spent his time at Elon gathering extensive experience, completing internships at four newspapers and spending time abroad in Morocco. He now works with the New York Times, covering the president.
“Every holiday, you’re gonna be working. You’re gonna be loving it and you’re gonna be embracing it,” said Drago of journalism.
“Knowing that, I kinda got to jump in head first and get a head start.”
Drago began working in high school at the Independent Weekly with dreams of being a sports photographer – just like all high school male photographers, he said.
It was a given for him to jump right in at Elon as well, covering his own Freshman convocation only days after moving in. But that’s not all he did. Again, Drago worked extensively at various internships at Elon. This is a story about one photo that he took for one of those internships:
The story went national and Drago’s photo ended up in the New York Times.
While in college, Drago listed all the places he wanted to work according to how much he wanted to work there, with the New York Times way up in the top tier.
Now, Drago works for that very publication in the president’s travel pool, which follows the president around wherever he goes.
“I’m one of those ten or fifteen people crawling around at the president’s feet.”
Drago’s first tip for getting your work out there effectively – start networking on day one. He started emailing editors when he was only 16. From this communication, editors sent him tips on improving his work for building a strong and appealing portfolio.
Next, “I worked nonstop.” He worked every day the summer after first year from 2 p.m. until 5 a.m. and then slept until it was time to work again.
Drago also encouraged the students to work hard now and relax later. “I think you can advance your career more in the first five years out of college than the 15 or 20 years after.”
Branding is also very important. His brand is very serious to him, but interestingly he mentions dancing and biking at the top of the list and following the president around at the bottom, which is pretty telling of his character. He really means that order.
Another one of Drago’s specialties is using social media to reach new audiences. His work is a blend of everyday Snapchat and Instagram stories and television news packages and he knows quite a bit about how to best use each.
“Snapchat prioritizes content creation over consumption. Instagram flips that formula.”
Along the same line, Drago says that you have to treat each social media platform differently. For example, use Twitter to show your work, but use Facebook to show your work and a little bit that didn’t make it – it feels more personalized.
With each story he talks about, Drago tends to repeat that “I hit all the things I needed to do.” This follows right along with his tips to work hard and use early communications courses to build on.
This comes through again in an Instagram story he did for the New York Times on the Land of Oz festival in Beech Mountain, NC. In only the first three videos of the assignment, he essentially had told all of the important parts of the story told, so the rest is even more open to entertainment and information.
At the end of the day, he sums his “belief in the struggle,” as professor Anderson would say, up in just two sentences:
“I chose work every single time,” said Drago, “and I think it shows.” However: “You have to have me time or you will totally explode.”
Daniel Gilbert is a psychology professor at Harvard University. He has completed important research in the field, but is perhaps most commonly recognized for his international best-seller Stumbling on Happiness and several popular TED Talks. At Elon’s 2017 Convocation, he will discuss the flaws in common understandings of happiness and how applications of psychology can have large implications for business practice. More information can be found on his website. Check back for updates starting at 3:30 p.m.
3:30 – Processional begins.
3:36 – Invocation begins, delivered by associate chaplain for Protestant Life Joel Harter and director of Jewish Life at Hillel Jessica Waldman.
3:38 – President Leo Lambert welcomes the audience.
3:42 – Lambert challenges audience to “dive into national dialogue about higher education,” and “to prepare yourselves with the fundamental facts about the importance of education.”
3:45 – Assistant professor of psychology India Johnson introduces Daniel Gilbert.
3:47 – Applause as Gilbert takes the stage.
3:47 – “I get to talk to a room of several thousand really nice people who don’t have to ask me what’s on the test,” Gilbert begins, to laughter.
3:50 – Gilbert begins by offering a brief discussion of human history, culminating in present day happiness: “People who have everything they want aren’t any happier than the rest of us.”
3:53 – Gilbert shows old product advertisements for cigarettes, Coke and TV, all promising happiness – we don’t think the same thing anymore because of science.
3:54 – “Lucky for us, for the last couple of years, scientists have gotten into the happy business.”
3:56 – How do we measure happiness? Gilbert says EMG, EEG and f-MRI – but none is as effective as asking people questions.
3:59 – Marriage, money and children – his mother’s recipe for happiness. Gilbert later discovered that moms all over the world give the same advice.
4:01 – But do they actually work? Gilbert begins with marriage and polls the audience – almost none of the students and surprisingly few adults think it makes us happy.
4:02 – But they’re wrong! Married people, according to Gilbert’s research, are happier than single people or unmarried people who live together.
4:06 – He also covers the happiness levels of divorced couples – it’s sad beforehand, but happiness tends to shoot up afterwards.
4:09 – Now it’s on to money – people tend to think that money can’t by happiness but, “NO! THEY’RE WRONG!” says Gilbert, emphatically.
4:11 – Happiness actually goes up quickly with increased money until about $65,000, interestingly.
4:12 – “If money doesn’t bring you happiness, you’re not spending it right.”
4:16 – So how should you spend your money? Gilbert says experiences (not things) and others (not yourself).
4:18 – Now, children. Almost everyone thinks that children make people happier – unless they have kids themselves.
4:19 – It’s also harder on stay-at-home parents – stay-at-home moms are almost twice as likely to experience depression than women with no children or working women with children.
4:21 – The more you know – spending time with children is about as invigorating as vacuuming for average parents.
4:23 – “The young people are all thinking ‘Oh my God, do my parents hate me?'” Seems like the audience might think he’s not far off.
4:24 – Why is this so backwards sounding? “The answer is that it might not apply to you because you are not average.”
4:26 – “Children are hardest on the people who have the fewest resources to deal with stress,” and on people hardest hit by the stress, young people and women, respectively.
4:29 – “The more we learn about the true cause of happiness, the more of it we can get for ourselves.” Gilbert steps down from the lectern (or minibar, as he had called it earlier,) to great applause.
4:31 – President Lambert takes the stage again, recognizing fourth year students, students on the President’s List and students in various honors societies.
4:34 – Lambert also takes time to recognize faculty and staff, pausing for a round of applause as they stand.
4:36 – Another round of applause for Gilbert as the recessional begins.
Carey Bina, a senior at Elon University, shows up to Jon Metzger’s jazz improvisation class. He is ten minutes early and is carrying a saxophone. He begins preparing for the class, running through a scale on his instrument over and over again, perfecting it. He uncovers a vibraphone and pulls it into the center of the room.
Not long after this, Jon walks in. Carey finishes his scale successfully.
“You did it!” says Jon.
What follows in the next few minutes is a sort of musical conversation with a few instructive and questioning words thrown in. Jon stands behind the vibraphone, showing Carey variations on the scale, prompting him to follow.
It is immediately evident that Jon is one of the most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure and good fortune of meeting, but he didn’t just stumble across this talent.
Jon’s experience with the vibraphone began when he was 15. His parents convinced his school to let him borrow their vibraphone for the summer. It was around the same time that his sister, Lise, granted him a life-changing experience.
Lise brought Jon to see legendary vibist Milt Jackson, an exposure to jazz vibraphone that profoundly affected Jon.
“As a 15-year-old, I couldn’t articulate what was going on in the room, but I knew I just had to have it,” said Jon. “Milt said, ‘Never stop playing.’ That was a lot of the impetus to do everything that I had to do.”
And it is very clear that this impetus was strong.
Jon Metzger, Jazz Ambassador
It’s not a title that sounds exactly real. It sounds a little bit too good to be from this world.
In fact, the position of jazz ambassador is quite important. The program originated in 1968 as a sort of cultural bridge to make the United States seem more appealing in the midst of the Cold War. The program has continued for similar reasons to the present day.
Like any regular job, being a jazz ambassador requires an application. What’s more, you have to apply for each round as ambassador. Jon applied and got the job – after his first round, he was given a “highly recommended” rating to tour again. Jon felt confident and reapplied.
He was denied.
So, he asked why. As it turns out, they still really wanted him, but there were two sizable obstacles standing in his way.
Those obstacles were none other than jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton.
“I don’t know, I was probably around 27 or 28 at that time. I said ‘Yeah, okay. I’m not competing with them quite yet.’”
Jon looks back at the denial and is clearly amused. He has good reason to be – his chance came not long after that and he got to play with Gillespie and Hampton out of the connections he made with them there.
“It’s interesting, you never know who’s going to apply.”
He certainly deserves the position. Jon’s résumé is probably among the most extensive at Elon University. According to the bio on his website, he has worked as bandleader on seven albums, lectured and conducted masterclasses at numerous institutions and has had praise heaped on him from all sides.
The way Jon talks, it’s easy to see how his value of hard work got him to where he is today.
“I’m still fascinated by the music, I’m still very eager to explore it. I still want to practice all the time. What I can learn or take way from any experience is really really meaningful to me.”
That’s Jon talking just a couple weeks before this article was first published. The drive has never left him.
Jon Metzger, Professor
For the rest of the class I sat in on, the atmosphere was truly remarkable.
Despite not being a member of the class or really knowing anything about music theory at all, I can confidently say there are few times that I have felt so invested in the classroom.
Jon’s ability to jump from big picture to one on one tutoring to personal story to everything in between escapes description. He is efficient – his fast pace does nothing to reduce the quality of his work.
There is no doubt that this efficiency is due in no small part to the respect his students have for him. I get the sense that they work diligently outside of class to learn their assigned work.
Thomas Erdmann, orchestra director and professor of music at Elon, shared his perspective on Jon’s relationship with his students.
“Jon has a unique ability to clearly and substantively share his knowledge of music, giving our students the theoretical and practical skills necessary in order to develop decidedly accomplished abilities,” said Erdmann.
Kavian Bina, a Junior in Jon’s jazz improv class, feels lucky to be learning from Jon.
“He is encouraging, patient and understanding when we are learning difficult things, and he is so gifted at teaching complex concepts in easy and digestible ways, which facilitates learning and creates a sense of accomplishment.”
Kavian cited Jon’s stories about his “heroes” – jazz musicians he grew up listening to and now uses them to teach his students. His personal ties to the music make for “infectious and enlightening” stories, according to Kavian.
His core philosophy on teaching is simple.
“I want to make sure they’re truly jazz musicians.”
He holds in high esteem a student’s ability to make the music their own – the ability to understand all the different ways they can improvise and to know what they feel they should do next.
Jon’s intimidating knowledge of jazz and music theory isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal, however.
“Jon’s experience navigating legal issues involved with a performing life – such as copyright and contracts for live and recorded work – allow him to share this knowledge with his students,” said Erdmann.
As Erdmann hints at, Jon’s understanding of the business side of the music industry is one of his greatest assets to the music department. Perhaps his most impressive achievement was working with Elon associate professor of entrepreneurship Barth Strempek.
“Barth Strempek took that improvisation II class, he’s a jazz pianist,” said Jon. “He did really really well. He stopped me after class because he had some new ideas about how he wanted his business students to gain this business acumen.”
They had the idea to produce a standards album performed by Jon and other professional jazz musicians as a business project for Strempek’s students and as a way for Jon to get his students to take an interest in business.
“Strempek got a $50,000 grant from the Coleman Foundation in Chicago and that was that first album – his business students won business plan awards in North Carolina.”
“The album, which was with my professional quartet at the time, sold more than 4,000 copies in North Carolina alone, which are good numbers for a jazz album nationally,” said Jon.
His eyes widen a little bit at this comment and he sounds a little in awe – he is still clearly very proud of what these students were able to accomplish.
“That led to another project, the two projects together Strempek used to apply for a FIPSE grant, which is from the United States Department of Education, and it was a matching $385,000 grant that Strempek won. That was really the beginning of the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership.”
Since then, Jon routinely speaks at the center and is proud to see his students still taking classes there.
For Jon, all this teaching seems to come pretty naturally.
“I see myself in my students. I do remember being 18 or 20 years old and that fire that burns in the belly, and the dreams that you have of being a professional musician.”
His instruction in class verifies this statement. His conversation with students is peppered with bits of advice and his own personal experience that backs him up.
“I know what I needed at the time.”
Jon Metzger, Still Learning
There was a magical moment early on in the class when the students were playing the assigned music for class and improvising on the melodic minor scale when Jon stepped up to the vibes and did a little playing of his own. The best word I can think of to describe his playing is arresting. It’s no wonder that his students obviously have so much respect for him – he fully embodies what any jazz instructor would ask their students to aspire to.
Like many professors, however, it’s not about his students looking up to him.
“I’m learning things from my students all the time, you saw them saying ‘Have you heard this,’ and I thought ‘No, let me check it out!’”
He’s referring to a funk band – Lettuce – that his students referred him to after class ended for the day.
“I think the minute we close our minds, our hearts and our souls to being open to something new like that, that’s not a good thing. I hope we never stop learning.”
At the end of the day’s work, Jon became serious for a moment. He told his students that they are the future of music, that in some time people will be learning from them as they are from him.