Professor Chris Palmer, School of Communication

“Don’t seek comfort; rather seek something to be passionate about.”

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  • How to Manage your Daily To-Do list, and other essays 

    Here are my essays published in my regular column in Realscreen magazine:


  • “Shooting in the Wild” now available free online 

    Shooting in the Wild (a 26 minute film for public television hosted by Alexandra Cousteau and inspired by my book of the same name) can now be viewed on YouTube.

    Here  are some critical comments on the film by scientist, author, and filmmaker Dr. Randy Olson.



  • Whale Wars: Blood and Water 

    I wanted to share an innovative and important new project from Animal Planet.  Whale Wars: Blood and Water is an online, interactive episode of the hit Animal Planet show Whale Wars. Besides being a new story-telling format that anybody interested in the future of media should explore, it’s a very important piece on conservation that everybody should experience.

    Animal Planet leveraged this revolutionary new format to have a deeper conversation about our oceans in a way the television show couldn’t. I commend Animal Planet for using the power of their voice and influence of a hit show to tackle this issue.

    I encourage you all to follow the link to this breathtaking and sometimes heartbreaking experience:



  • Katy Perry Roars, Elephant Whimpers 

    “You hear my voice, you hear that sound, like thunder gonna shake your ground,” hollers Katy Perry in her new song “Roar.” Although the tune is a hit with Generation Selfie, one notable young lady is clearly not a fan: Suzy, Katy’s reluctant elephant costar in the song’s video.

    Elephants don’t like loud noises, bright lights or hectic sets with dozens of people running around. As an Emmy-winning wildlife documentarian who has spent decades producing nature features for IMAX, Animal Planet and the Disney Channel, I am among many filmmakers who film animals only in their natural habitat. How did Suzy, a member of a threatened species from Africa, find herself next to Katy Perry on a deafening California set? She was violently captured from her free-roaming herd in Zimbabwe when she was 2 years old and shipped to the U.S., where she was most likely bound and beaten in order to make her perform without complaint. This video shows how it’s done in the industry.

    It’s ironic that Katy’s song “Roar” is about female empowerment since elephants are matriarchal—the females stick together for life in the wild, for up to 70 years. Suzy, on the other hand, has spent 10 of the last 20 years deprived of the companionship of any other elephants. She is stored like a studio prop and trotted out at the whim of producers, directors and stars. The reason I’m singling out Katy is because this isn’t her first time making a mockery of these highly intelligent animals—earlier, she had made her grand entrance at a gossip blogger’s birthday party riding on the back of an elephant.

    The “Roar” video was a hot topic at the recent Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in Wyoming, but the buzz wasn’t good. Among the speakers was PETA’s Dan Mathews, who was quizzed about the music video since he is known for his campaigns to protect elephants with artists such as Pink and Paul McCartney. He said that he has met Katy and had sent her detailed information about the cruelty that captive elephants endure after her first offense but wasn’t sure whether she had read it. Frustrated, PETA went from privately prodding the singer to publicly blasting her repeated use of captive elephants.

    Katy shot back with a letter from the American Humane Association declaring that no animal had been harmed on the set. So PETA explained to her that the AHA doesn’t monitor cruel capture and training methods and that its rubber stamp in Hollywood has become a public travesty. Just last year, the AHA was on set during the making of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (27 animals died during the making of the film) and the HBO series Luck (which was canceled after three horses died during production). The meaninglessness of the AHA’s seal of approval can routinely be seen in the news.

    I hope Katy will find a few minutes to read this piece. I don’t imagine that she’s mean—just distracted. Only when stars, directors and producers stop forcing exotic animals onto soundstages will these sensitive and sophisticated animals get a reprieve. Katy Perry may be one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but next to that sad elephant, she looks like a very small person.


  • The Best Death Possible 

    “The sobering fact is that there are worse things than having someone you love die. Most basic, there is having the person you love die badly, suffering as he or she dies. Worse still is realizing later on that much of his or her suffering was unnecessary.” So writes Dr. Ira Byock, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School, in his thoughtful and deeply felt book The Best Care Possible, published last year.

    I’ve written before about Byock’s pioneering efforts to help us think more clearly about death and dying. In his new book, he asserts that we make dying a lot harder than it has to be and, as a result, we are “scared to death of dying.”

    According to this physician and researcher, a large majority of Americans die in hospitals or nursing homes, suffering from poorly controlled pain and other physical miseries, and often enduring their final days feeling embarrassed, humiliated, lonely, confused, and a burden to others. Prolonged serious and chronic illness, physical dependence, extreme frailty, and mental confusion are now common facts of late life. It is not easy to die well.

    Byock reports that hospitals remain the site of more than 50 percent of deaths in most parts of the nation; nearly 40 percent of people who die in a hospital spend their last days in an intensive care unit, where they will likely be sedated or have their arms tied down so they will not pull out breathing tubes, intravenous lines, or catheters. While acknowledging that dying is hard, the author asks if it needs to be this hard.

    Too many people suffer needlessly at the end of their lives, he says. Indeed, Byock says that the way many Americans die is a “national disgrace.”

    My wife and I had dinner recently with good friends, a lively couple who are in their sixties. Toward the end of a delightful evening, I brought up the topic of how they were planning for the time in their lives when they became frail and ill from old age. Our friends plaintively responded, “It’s so depressing” and didn’t want to talk about it.

    They’re right of course. The topic can be depressing. It’s natural to want to avoid serious conversations about the end of life. Who wants to think about annihilation, pain, loss of autonomy, despair, vulnerability, physical dependence, and the excessive cost? A dying person’s identity, relationships, work projects, aspirations, hopes, and plans are pretty much doomed.

    But we must think about the end of our life, plan for it, and talk to loved ones about it, especially while we are physically healthy.

    Byock suggests that fresh approaches to discussing death and the decisions associated with it actually create a way to honor and celebrate our dying loved ones, as well as ease their pain and suffering. Writes the good doctor, “We can provide excellent lifesaving treatments, while respecting people’s right to determine when enough is enough, always ensuring that their pain is treated expertly, that they and their families are treated tenderly.” The 1997 book by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie, is worth reading on this point.

    Offering the best care possible in this way also means offering practical help and emotional support to the loved ones of a dying person.

    Byock notes that not only patients and potential patients (all of us) are reluctant and afraid to talk about dying. Doctors themselves have “an aversion to talking about dying and death.” They dread it. Medical schools could change that reluctance by giving medical students more training in palliative care. Doctors need to know if elderly patients want to die gently and how to give them that option.

    The Dartmouth professor justifiably grouses, “Most medical schools do not require hospice or palliative care rotations, many do not even offer them as electives. Medical schools generally provide a lecture or two on pain management and discuss the ethics of end-of-life decisions and palliative and end-of-life topics within other courses. The total course content of these topics probably amounts to fifteen to twenty-five hours over the four years of medical school curriculum.”

    Byock emphasizes that there is no universally right way for a person to die. What constitutes dying well for one person might be entirely wrong for another. The key question is: How do we make full use of lifesaving medical science and technology while ensuring that people are comfortable and allowed to die gently when their time comes?

    The big question is when does one acknowledge the inevitability of death? At some point in the course of illness and decrepit old age, more treatment will not equal better care. When you are dying, do you want to be gently released in order to relieve your suffering? If so, how will you make sure that happens when the doctors treating you may have a different goal?


  • Gone Solar! 

    About a year ago, my wife Gail and I installed 31 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof of our home in Bethesda, MD. We’ve been delighted by the experience.

    Our solar system is a 10 kW carbon-free, smog-free, power plant that supplies the bulk of our electricity needs for air-conditioning, appliances, lights, computers, and so on.

    We sell any surplus power back to our utility company Pepco, and over this summer, while our meter has been going backwards, Pepco has been giving us a credit on our bill.

    We can’t actually disconnect from Pepco because we need it as a backup for those dark, overcast days when the sun is minimal and when we’re using more electricity than our solar panels can produce. But now, that’s mostly what Pepco is—a backup, not our primary energy provider.

    Before we installed solar, our electric bill averaged about $200 a month. Since then, our bills have plummeted. After eight years, we should easily recover the up-front cost of installation through these lower bills. And over the next 20 years, we are predicted to save $30,000.

    For me, as an environmentalist, the best thing about solar panels is that they are good for the Earth and our health. I hated relying on our utility for the bulk of our electricity, knowing that the power was coming mostly from carbon and mercury-spewing fossil fuels that cause air pollution and climate change.

    And I cringed at having all that beautiful sunshine landing on our roof going to waste. Whenever we want, we can go online to view the amount of electricity being produced by hour, day, week, month, or year.

    I’ve worked in the environmental and energy field for 40 years and I’ve always promoted renewable energy. We’ve insulated our home, use energy efficient appliances, and about ten years ago, we installed a solar hot water heater. But to install electricity-generating solar panels—that feels like a real achievement. I’m very happy to be doing my part in my home—no longer just talking the talk!

    We all can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and our dependence on the grid. We all can encourage the shift from centralized plants to decentralized rooftops.

    In addition to solar hot water heating and solar panels, smaller scale solar alternatives also help save energy and money. For example, solar powered attic fan are usually feasible and cost effective in reducing air conditioning bills for homes with minimally ventilated attics.

    According to a Kelton Research survey in October 2011, nine out of 10 Americans think it is important for the US to develop and use solar energy, yet wherever I look, very few homes have installed panels on their roofs.

    If you decide to consider solar panels for your home, you’ll find many different companies to work with. They offer a variety of options, including buying the equipment versus leasing it. You will most likely be able to find a plan that matches your desired level of up-front expense and other considerations you have.

    In many communities, solar co-ops help homeowners with the process of evaluating and installing solar systems, providing savings through bulk purchase of panels, offering guidance and hand-holding, etc.

    If you value convenience as much as I do, then you can choose a plan that takes the burden off your shoulders. The company we used handled everything, including installation, tax credit, insurance, monitoring the system, repairs, guaranteeing performance, and so on.

    I encourage you to think about investing in solar for your home, assuming you don’t have a tree shading your roof. Not only does it help create a cleaner, safer world, but it can save you money.

    For the record, I have not been paid, or even asked, to write this essay. I simply feel passionate about the importance of clean, renewable energy.


  • Shark Week 

    It’s Shark Week once again!

    Last night I was on ABC Nightline talking about the noxious influence of Hollywood shark films on shark conservation, and two days ago Scientific American did a great story on Shark Week. Here are the links:


  • Prostate cancer 

    My father died of prostate cancer. My body is very similar to his, so I suspect there’s a good chance I will die that way, too. So when my PSA score (which is a measure of prostate cancer) started rising last year when I turned 65, I was naturally concerned.

    It rose to 4.7 by last December. Two independent urologists strongly recommended I have a biopsy.

    I resisted their advice. The procedure seemed barbaric, risky, and potentially misleading. I didn’t have faith that it would produce a useful result.

    Instead I intensified a diet I started many years ago, cutting out all meat, processed sugar, cow milk, and anything else which has been shown to feed and nurture cancer, while eating significant amounts of fruits and vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables, which have been shown to fight cancer.

    Every morning for breakfast, I have blueberries, pomegranate seeds, an apple, kiwi, walnuts, raisons, flaxseed, an orange, soymilk, raison bran, raspberries, and blackberries. And for lunch, I have two raw carrots, four tomatoes, a glass of green juice, a banana, an apple, raw mushrooms, spinach, dark chocolate, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, almond nuts, and whatever else I can find which is healthy and organic. Dinner is similarly healthy. Tonight my wife and I ate mushrooms, garlic, red pepper, cauliflower, black beans, corn on the cob, tomatoes, lettuce, and spinach.

    I’m sure the hour of daily vigorous exercise I do helps me combat any prostate cancer I might have (or potentially have). Also I lead a meaningful and happy life virtually devoid of stress. I’m sure that helps, too.

    I saw a TED talk recently by Dr. Dean Ornish, and he showed a slide of a patient’s prostate cancer, and how the tumor had literally shrunk after the patient had consumed a diet similar to mine. It was Dean Ornish who persuaded Bill Clinton to become a strict vegan for health reasons.

    I read another scientific paper recently which said that when you drip apple juice on cancer cells in a petri dish, you can actually observe the cancer cells shrinking.

    I hope I don’t sound too smug or complacent. I realize that I need to keep working on this. And I realize that there’s a chance that I will need traditional medical intervention at some point.

    Anyway, my PSA last week tested at a reassuring 4.0 level, thus improving the chance that I will see my wonderful grandchildren (now both under three) blossom into middle age.

    I’ll get tested again in six months.


  • Thought you might be interested in my two… 

    Thought you might be interested in my two articles on teaching, which were published in Faculty Focus last Thursday and Friday.   Here are the links:

    Below is the opening:

    Reflections on Teaching: Mistakes I’ve Made

    By: Chris Palmer

    I started teaching at American University at the age of 56 after a rewarding career as an environmental and wildlife film producer. That was almost ten years ago, and I’ll be the first to admit that I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had never taught before and I wasn’t even sure where to begin. I had no teaching philosophy beyond some vague, unarticulated feeling that I wanted my students to do well. And so, I started asking lots of questions.

    First, I asked my three daughters, who at the time were either in college or recent college graduates. They gave me sound advice from the students’ perspective. Once I arrived at AU, I asked my new faculty colleagues for their best ideas. Again, the answers and guidance I received began to shape the kind of teacher I aspired to be.

    Although all this advice helped me to survive the classroom, I still made many rookie mistakes. I was repetitive, talked too much, and gave grades that were too high. I embarrassed students by brazenly pointing out their mistakes in front of the rest of the class, sometimes failed to allow a class discussion to blossom while at other times lost control of the class during discussions.

    I allowed verbose students to talk too much and did not properly listen to what students were saying. I was boring, ran out of material to teach, and was scared of being challenged by a student and not knowing the answer.

    I also made the mistake of rushing through material. I thought it was important to cover everything, not realizing that “getting through” all my notes had little to do with whether my students were learning.

    Occasionally my students described the homework I gave them as “busy work” and criticized me for wasting their time.

    I would sometimes say “Any questions?” to a roomful of silent, nonresponsive students. Usually, they were not asking questions because I hadn’t explained the issue well and they were afraid to look dumb. I mistakenly took their silence for understanding. I would get on such a roll with my ideas that I would forget I was talking to students, many of whom were being exposed to the information for the first time and would benefit from a little context.

    On some weeks, I was slow to return student papers, and when I eventually did return them, my comments on the papers were glib and superficial because I had 30 papers to grade and was sick and tired of doing it.

    I hated it when students obsessed over grades. “Professor, why did I only get a B on this paper?” Incessant questioning along these lines verged on harassment. I was sorely tempted to rid myself of the problem by agreeing to raise the grade, which would have been yet another egregious error on my part.

    Over time, I learned from these mistakes. I continued asking my colleagues for advice, pursued professional development opportunities, and studied some excellent books on teaching, such as McKeachie’s Teaching Tips.

    I also learned from my students. Every four weeks, I asked them for feedback. I gave out a blank sheet of paper and said to them, “On one side tell me what you like about the class and what you want me to continue doing, and on the other side write what you don’t like about the class and find unhelpful or missing. Make your comments anonymous so please be as brutal and candid as possible.”

    One day a student wrote, “You are not pushing us hard enough. I want to get as much out of this class as possible. Please teach us everything you can. I want to learn more.”

    This feedback hit me hard…READ MORE


  • Is SOC doing enough to teach our students leadership and professionalism skills? 

    Is SOC doing enough to teach our students leadership and professionalism skills? Are we adequately preparing our students to find jobs when they leave AU?

                When our students graduate, they face challenges that go beyond what we teach them in the classroom.  They need to take initiative and be tenacious. They need to network and create partnerships.  They need to be able to negotiate, listen, coach, and raise money.  In the real world, technical know-how (such as storytelling, cinematography, and editing) is not enough.

    These necessary skills all require leadership and professionalism.  Unfortunately, unlike business schools, SOC does not explicitly teach either.

    Specifically, leadership requires entrepreneurial skills, delegation, time management, listening, and critical thinking skills. A leader must be ready to think big and boldly. Team building skills, mentoring, and coaching are also vital. Perhaps the most important characteristics of a leader are the ability to take initiative and to have a moral compass.

    Professionalism involves civility, courtesy, a solid work ethic, balance, networking, and strong communication skills. Professionals acknowledge and learn from mistakes, act as team players, consistently give their best effort, always treat others with respect, and keep their promises. Professionalism includes resilience, resourcefulness, ambition, integrity, tenacity, kindness, self-discipline, and determination.

    SOC could do more to teach these crucial skills through classes, workshops and outside speakers. We could offer courses specifically focused on leadership, entrepreneurship, and professional behavior (or encourage students to take relevant courses in the business school, if offered).  We could encourage more group projects so they learn how to get along with others to accomplish a common task.  We could provide students with more opportunities to manage their own projects from start to finish.  Students could also gain professional experience through more internships with actual companies and filmmakers.

    The above are just a few ideas.  My hope is that they will help to start a conversation about how we can better prepare our students for the challenges they will undoubtedly face in the real world.


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