This semester marks the 25th year I’ve taught journalism at the college level. Just writing that makes no sense to me, but I did the math and it checks out.
In January 1997, Susie Brandscheid made good on her promise to give me my very own Journalism 205: News Writing and Reporting section to teach as a second-semester master’s student. How she pulled it off, given the number of qualified people there and the number of doctoral students who needed funding, I’ll never know. Still, there I was in Vilas Hall on the second floor (which was still somehow below ground) walking into a lab filled with Mac Classics and at least a few students who were older than I was.
I’d like to say that after that day, I never looked back and everything since has been part of a legend. The truth is, I think it’s a miracle I made it through that whole semester without doing something to get fired. If the Silicon Valley motto is “Move fast and break stuff,” my motto seemed to be “Move awkwardly, curse too much, break stuff, confuse people, try harder, see what happens, eventually get somewhere.”
One thing I believed in back then and even now is that nothing you ever do is a waste if you learn something from it. I learned a lot from that first class, and the one after that, and the one after that. Suddenly, I’ve gone from “as old as my students” to “as old as my students’ parents” and I have no idea how that happened. Youth has been replaced by experience and maybe even a little wisdom as well.
To kick off this year, here are 25 random thoughts I had in reflecting on the last quarter century of my life as a college journalism teacher.
- The first day I showed up for my first class, I had the feeling of anxiety and excitement. Anxious that I wouldn’t be good at this and excited that I got to do this amazing job. I still get that feeling each semester. The year I don’t have it, well, that’s when retirement becomes an option.
- Teaching brings with it a lot of emotions, but the one I find myself engaging with a lot these days is gratitude. When I look back at the past 25 years, there were some pivot points that really made the difference between me being who I am and me being someone totally different. Susie Brandscheid took the risk of hiring me to teach that first class. Tim Kelley took the risk of giving me my start in professional journalism, even after I misspelled his name on my cover letter. George Kennedy took the risk of hiring me, even though he had “four people for this job and everyone is more qualified” than I was. I realize I got lucky a lot because other people saw something in me that wasn’t evident on paper. I keep that in my mind a lot these days as I try to find those things in the kids I teach.
- I have to admit, it’s really weird reading the same kinds of papers, journals and websites I’ve always read and seeing my former students’ bylines the things I’m reading. I get a kind of a “proud parent/Johnny Appleseed” thing going and immediately start reading what they wrote. That said, I have no compunction about emailing them and expressing my displeasure when they use the word “allegedly” or write “verb-noun” attributions.
- I can’t remember the last time I saw a student of mine reading a book for fun. Every time I see one of them reading something and I ask, the response is, “Oh. I gotta read this for a class…” I have spent my life as a voracious reader. During the summer, I would ride my bike to the local library or the Hobby Shop a few miles away and load up on books. I’d then ride over to my grandma’s house and climb up into her giant maple, where we had rigged a little seat for me. I’d read all day until it was time to go home. The house was sold after she died. The tree was subsequently cut down. Even the library moved. Still, I think about that tree a lot and wonder if anyone does that kind of thing anymore in today’s age of phones and helicopter parents.
- I learned more in life by screwing up than by doing something correctly and I found my students are the same way. When students in their 30s, 40s or even now 50s reach out to me, the stories they tell are of things that got their grade smacked down hard. Fact errors that cost them half a grade, failing to look up stuff in the AP book because “I just know it” and other similar disasters still sit in their minds and guide them to this day. They also tell these stories to their colleagues and subordinates as lessons learned. There is value in failure.
- Laugh. It always helps.
- It’s not important to know all the answers. It’s important to know which ones you know, which ones you don’t and how not to confuse the two. When I don’t know something, I tell the students, “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll get it for you.” I then find someone way smarter than me and get the answer for the kid. This technique would make me great at PR if I weren’t bad at everything else associated with PR.
- After all this time, I joke that I’ve developed “grad-nesia,” which is a mental state where you forget that people you taught continue to get older and eventually graduate. I’ll be walking on campus and I’ll see a young woman outside the union and I’ll think, “Hey, there’s Emily! Hi Emily!” Then it hits me: Emily is now 32, she graduated about 10 years ago and I just scared the crap out of some random freshman.
- Reading a lot has helped me find bits of writing that help me try to explain myself to other people, a ridiculously difficult task, I’ll grant you. When it comes to personal motivation, I remember this line about Herb Brooks: “He grew up on the east side of St. Paul, the son of an insurance underwriter, and the only thing that ever frightened him was failure.” When it comes to explaining how I view my job, I always liked this line from Jim Valvano’s obituary, “He was a little boy in a man’s suit, giggling because people were paying him to do this kind of work.” And when it comes to looking back on how lucky I’ve been, I go to Mike Eruzione when he described scoring the goal that beat the Russians in the Miracle on Ice: “The puck bounces out to me coming across the blue line… As my friends say to me to this day, ‘Three more inches to the left and you’d be painting bridges.'”
- A student once asked if I had any regrets about anything I’ve done as a teacher. I wished I hadn’t done a couple things. For example, I once told a kid that I’ve “taken shits I’d be more proud of than what you’ve written.” Not exactly my best moment. However, I’d like to think I learned something from moments like that and that it made me more aware of how not to do stuff like that again in the future. If regret is based on perceived opportunity to do otherwise, I’d like to think I just tried my hardest to become more perceptive after each failure and take the better opportunity.
- I realized a while back that students remember things I’ve told them, even if I don’t remember actually saying those things. When they repeat the bit of wisdom (or sarcasm) back to me, I often think, “Well, I don’t remember that, but it sounds weird enough to be something I probably said.” This has led to maybe one true regret: I never managed to put a lid on my mouth some days.
- A student once explained me to a roommate like this, “He’s like a sewer pipe that’s opening is covered in a thin layer of tissue paper. When he doesn’t get enough sleep, it’s like someone removed the tissue paper.” Well… OK then…
- I feel like I have mellowed with age. Stop laughing… All of you…
- Analogies help. I believe in telling a story to get a point across. It was something I picked up in a lot of ways from other good teachers, like Steve Lorenzo and Greg Frederick. Mr. Frederick taught honors English at my high school and was great about helping people see things based on parallel stories. He also made me laugh a lot, like the time he told us about a class learning the Myth of Sisyphus. Shortly after that class, he brought up a parallel story to which one student said, “Hey, that’s just like that Syphilis guy!” It’s 30 years later, and I still remember that.
- How the hell was that 30 years ago? When I see his picture online, Mr. Frederick hasn’t aged a bit. Neither has Steve Lorenzo. I, on the other hand, now have the look of a rumpled semi-peeled russet potato.
- Speaking of Steve Lorenzo, my first journalism teacher, I realized how lucky I got in having him not only teach me but mentor me. There is a difference. When I got my first teaching gig, I confessed to him that I was worried I wouldn’t be as good as he was. He told me not to worry. I should just be as good as I could be and that I shouldn’t try to be him. His approach worked for him, but it might not work for me. Don’t be a copy, he noted. Be an original.
- When I started at the Wisconsin State Journal and when I started teaching at UW-Madison, I was always the youngest person in the room. The same was true at Mizzou and Ball State for quite some time. The people at these various places used to say I was “good for my age,” which meant that I was fine, but with experience, I’d grow into something better than I was at the time. The thing that always terrified me was that I would eventually reach an age where I just had to be good, not “good for my age” and I wouldn’t be good. It still terrifies me.
- The key difference between my first few years of teaching and my last few years has been how the students react when I give them a break in the middle of the class. Back in the days of a four-hour lecture/lab session at UW-Madison, when I called for a break, the kids grabbed their coats and rushed outside for a smoke break. They’d be puffing away like steam engines until I called them back to the classroom, which would then smell like a dirty ashtray. Today, the kids have the same reaction when I call for a break. It’s just that they grab their phones and start flipping through all the notices they received since the start of class. Same concept, different addiction, I guess.
- I recently heard this and I’m going to use it this semester: “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. It’ll only bring you down and make it harder for you to succeed.” That’s true in anything we do and it’s true in everything we are.
- I used to dress up for class each day until I got an evaluation that noted: “Question: What’s 14 inches long and hangs from an asshole? Answer: Filak’s tie!” Now I dress like a homeless elf. See? Evaluations do have an impact!
- In looking back and wincing more than occasionally at a few things I’ve done, I wonder if I would have gotten to 25 years of experience if I had to start today. I tried various ways to teach things that failed spectacularly, like the time I tried to use George Carlin’s “Airplane Announcements” to teach the value of precise language. Eeesh… In today’s age of everyone having an audio and video recorder and the ability to start a raging online rally against something in the blink of an eye, I honestly don’t think I would have gotten the chance to screw up and learn. That doesn’t make me feel sad for me, but rather for other folks who are likely better than I was, but aren’t likely to get to where I am now.
- Empathy is not weakness. It requires one person to take the perspective of another person and then act accordingly. I can’t always keep up with the musical tastes, fashion sense or youthful verbiage of my students, but I believe that if I’m empathetic, I’ll always find a way to connect with them.
- Some things are eternal: Water is wet, the sky is blue and attributions should go noun-verb.
- I might not think of every kid I’ve taught of as frequently as I would like, but if you were ever in my classroom, rest assured, at some random interval in life, I’ll be thinking about 12 other things and suddenly stop and say to myself, “I wonder what ever happened to (FILL IN YOUR NAME HERE).” Don’t be afraid to reach out and fill me in.
- I once said that best part of me has always been in the lives of my students. Wherever they go and whatever they do, I hope that I gave them what they need to be whatever they want to be. I see them like seeds that get planted in the spring, full of hope and promise. The joy comes when they blossom and become something so much more. If I do nothing more than help that process along for the rest of my life, it’s been a damned fine existence.