(*THIB only tangentially relates to this post but is the title of a great John Updike story that if you read, you will not regret doing so.)
As I’ve written in this space, I was on sabbatical last semester. When I returned, the pace of my blogging slowed down, so, sorry. The pace of everything has slowed down, but that is a subject for another day. I did find it a little hard to get back into the pace of teaching. I experimented with holding one of my classes at 5 PM, and that proved to not so good an idea, especially for the first couple of classes, when we were in a windowless room. (We actually missed the real first couple of classes because of snow, but that is a subject for yet another day.) Even when we changed rooms it was dark at the start of class. Sustaining energy was a problem. I will retain for a long time the image of one particular student’s eyelids, which I often had a good view of in the early weeks. 5-6 PM does not appear to be the optimal time on his biological clock.
The subject today is happy teaching tidings, and they have come this semester at a gratifying pace, in big packages and small. I was really pleased to hear, a month or so ago, that one of my best students of the 90s, Todd Frankel, won a prestigious Headliner Award for his work as a feature reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I knew Todd and I saw eye to eye when he wrote a story for my features class about the engineering challenges involved in designing a coffee cup top that both kept the beverage hot and allowed the consumer to drink out of it easily. That may be quirky, but it is my idea of a good feature story, especially with the in-depth reporting and literary style that Todd brought to it. And anyway, I like quirky.
My other (non-5 PM class) is called Introduction to Journalism. It’s a relatively new class, and focuses on themes, issues, history, concepts, and the like, as opposed to practice, which is what all my other classes are about. I’ve had a lot of guest speakers come in, so as to expose students to different aspects of the field, and it has been especially gratifying to host some UD alumni now doing good things. We’ve had Archie Tse, an outstanding graphic journalist for the New York Times, and Paul Kane, who covers Congress for the Washington Post, and in a couple of weeks, Pat Walters, a more recent grad who works for the public radio show “Radio Lab,” will talk to the class via Skype.
However, I would have to say my favorite guest in the class was someone not on the syllabus, a current senior who I asked to speak to the class because she is currently interning (read: working as a part-time reporter, for free) for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I will not give her name, so as not to embarrass her, but as she spoke to the students, I was really moved. This is someone who, when she was in one of my classes two years ago, was a sweet shy girl with a talent for writing. She has somehow turned into a go-get-em shoe-leather reporter whom her editors like so much, they invited her back for a paid internship this summer. She talked to the class, with gusto, about her work on a grisly double teen suicide in the Philly suburbs. She basically hung out in the town for days, looking for interviews, at times stopping random cars full of teens and asking if they knew the victims. I would not be surprised to see her name sometime in the not too distant future on the list of Headliner Award winners.
The last good tiding came yesterday, in that same Introduction to Journalism class. We had spent the previous week or so talking about journalism ethics (not an oxymoron) and had spent a long time on the idea of conflict of interest. We had talked about the idea of the editorial and advertising departments of a publication ideally being like “church and state,” where the interests of the one (e.g., not offending a big advertiser) shouldn’t be a concern of the other. Ideally.
Our guest on Wednesday was the scintillating David Bianculli, longtime TV critic of the Inquirer, and then the New York Daily News, and now the proprietor of a website called TVWorthWatching. He was talking about the challenges of making money out of the site, which for the most part consists of reviews of TV shows, written by him and other critics. He said he was able to sell an ad to a PBS show called “P.O.V.” and is trying to get more ads. Sensing a teachable moment, I apologized for interrupting him, and addressed the class:
“Given what we’ve been talking about in terms of ethics over the past week, does what Mr. Bianculli said raise any questions that anyone would want to ask him about.”
Silence. No hands went up. I actually started to despair, because making a connection, asking a question, at that particular moment was exactly what this course was all about, at least to me. Still silence. Then a hand went up. It belonged to another soft-spoken girl, who reminded me a little bit of that Philadelphia Inquirer intern.
“Well,” she said, “I guess I wonder what you would do if you were reviewing ‘P.O.V. and you really hated it.”
That was the happiest I’ve been in the classroom this semester, for sure.