Sunday, January 27, 2008
Like Casey, I'm now "The Old Professor"
You’ll be issued a sweet laptop and textbook, but not markers for the wipe board.
I learned this the hard way on my first day teaching a journalism course at a local university.
Yup. Like Casey Stengel, you can call me the “Old Professor.” Well technically, I’m an adjunct instructor. But I’m excited about my moonlighting opportunity.
After more than 20 years of writing about teachers, I’m going to see what it's like from their perspective.
This came out of the blue.
Journalism students were attending a Board of Education meeting as an assignment, and it just happened to be the night when frustrations boiled over and were directed at your favorite education writer.
Students apparently went back to their class, told the professor about what they saw and wondered whether that type of behavior was something reporters deal with frequently.
I know the professor, and have spoken to his students over the years. So he invited me to speak to his current crop about what transpired that night. I guess it went well, because he later asked if I’d be interested in leading a class for the spring semester.
Here’s a little secret about reporters. We sometimes wonder what it would be like to be the people we cover. After sitting in the audience for school boards or city councils or even state legislatures, we think would could do those jobs – sometimes better than the people elected to do them.
So I jumped at the chance, and got the OK from my boss. It’s an advanced news writing class one night a week, so not likely to get in the way of my main job.
And after one class, I can tell you that teaching is harder than it looks. Much harder.
I thought I was prepared, in fact, over-prepared. I went over the syllabus, I pondered over potential stories for the kids to write and had my introductory speech all planned out. I also met with the university’s IT staff and picked up my laptop, then got my ID card – which lands me a free meal a week in the dining hall – and parking pass.
As luck would have it, there was actual news to cover on the day of the first class. I sent all the students – there are only five in the class – an e-mail telling them that a hazard of having a practicing journalist teaching a journalism class is that such things might happen and to not flee if I’m a little late.
I rolled in right at 6 p.m., juggling the laptop, textbook, a folder with copies of the syllabus and other information, a batch of my famous chocolate chip cookies and copies of the day’s paper for each of them.
I like that they’ll be able to read my work every day as I’m reading their work. It’s a little extra pressure. I better not do things in a story that I deduct points for in class.
It just so happened that I had a story bannered atop the front page that day. I didn’t plan that, but I sure wasn’t bummed about it. I was pretty happy to hand out papers and show that the instructor knows his stuff.
The classroom was set up with a series of narrow tables forming a square with a lot of space in the middle. The students all sat on one side. I looked around to the wipe boards – slate blackboards are a thing of the past – and saw erasers, but no markers.
OK, I panicked. A big part of my planned lesson was to write on the board words that are banned from news stories – like “implement” – and talk about why they were bad to use. I promised to buy pizza for the next week’s class any time the kids find one of the banned words in one of my stories.
The book store is in the same building as the class, and I told the students I’d be right back.
“Relax, we’ll be OK,” one said.
She must have sensed I was tense. Maybe because I was walking around in a circle with my hands in the air saying “Why? Why? Why?”
And I made it to the store just as it was closing. The manager took pity and allowed me to buy a package of markers. Phew!
This threw me completely off track, and all the things I practiced saying somehow disappeared from my mental lesson book.
Using my markers, I wrote on the board and looked at the kids. They seemed so far away. And sitting all in a row, I felt like a lawyer making a case to a jury.
“Guys, this just isn’t working,” I confessed.
We rearranged the tables, pushing them together to get rid of the gap. This made the class seem more like co-workers sitting around a conference table, talking about stories. I don’t know about the kids, but I was a whole lot more comfortable.
After that, everything seemed to go a lot better. And, again, I don’t know about the kids, but I learned many things.
First, college has changed since I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1986.
Kids used their laptops to take notes, rather than spiral notebooks. We conducted a paperless class, sending assignments back and forth through e-mail.
Students even took turns helping me with my new Dell, which is loaded with Microsoft XP but seems to have some Vista features, especially with the Works and Outlook programs.
And, if you want to see some big smiles, release the kids five minutes before “American Idol” comes on.
The students were patient and engaged, and I think it’s going to be a fun semester. And I already have a new appreciation for the people I cover.
Another reason I was excited about this opportunity is to give back a little.
Robert Block, a professor at Nassau Community College, made a dramatic impact on my life. You can read about that here.