Monday, August 20, 2007

MEMOIR: Teaching at a college that wouldn't take me as a student

Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism enjoys the same eminence in its specialized field as the Harvard Graduate Business School or Yale Law School possess in their professions. A degree from one of these institutions is a cachet on the resume of a young graduate. The prestige attached to his or her degree presumably gives the student a leg up in the search for a job in the student's field.

That's why I decided to apply to Columbia's Graduate J-School when I graduated from New York University's School of Commerce with a major in journalism in 1948. The job market was exceedingly tight that year as young war veterans, fresh out of college, swarmed to find a newspaper or magazine job. I figured that a Columbia Graduate J-School degree would strengthen my unimposing credentials.

But I was discouraged from submitting a formal application for admission. I was told that Columbia's Graduate J-School sought applicants with B.A. degrees in the liberal arts. My hapless degree from NYU was a bachelor of science, which suggested to Columbia authorities that I was obviously culturally disadvantaged. (I do not know whether the school still maintains the same admissions policy.)

I was disappointed by the rejection. But I rationalized that I might have wasted my time and money at the Columbia Graduate J-School. As an undergraduate journalism major at NYU, I had taken occupationally-oriented courses in news reporting, editorial writing, editing, critical writing, typography, and other tools of the journalistic trade.

These very same professional courses were what Columbia's Graduate J-School offered for a master's degree. In short, I decided that I really had nothing new to learn there and nothing to gain other than the prestige associated with a degree from that exalted school.

In 1981,I was finally in a Columbia J-School classroom--not as a student but as an adjunct lecturer, teaching a course on reporting and writing about business. This was essentially what I had been doing since my undergraduate college days. For nearly two decades I had been a Washington correspondent and writer and editor at Business Week magazine and a Washington correspondent for the Newhouse Newspapers. Even without a master's degree, the J-school dean decided that I had the credentials to teach the course.

In all candor, I got the job only because the professor who normally taught the course had suddenly become ill. I was a last-minute selection as a substitute before the course began. I had been recommended by a colleague who was a regular adjunct faculty member. My assignment was only for the upcoming semester. I had never taught before, and I was given no guidance on how to conduct the course. As I recall, there were about 30 students in the class.

At the time, my primary job at Business Week was to write corporate profile articles that usually ran as cover stories in the magazine. I decided to employ some of my published profile articles as case studies. My plan was tell in clinical detail how I reported and wrote the pieces, and in the process reveal the tricks of the trade in reporting and writing about business.

I would explain how to find and use news sources, interview techniques, methods of double-checking critical facts, handling attribution questions, and related news-gathering techniques--all in the context of the corporate world.

The course ran for nearly five months. I was amazed that I was never monitored by the school's dean or other authorities, nor was I ever asked to submit reports on the course's progress. Evidently, however, I must have done something right. The feedback on my performance as a first-time lecturer was impressive. That was the conclusion I drew from the overwhelmingly favorable teacher evaluation reports submitted by the students at the end of the course.

I never did follow up on the careers my students established after graduating. But three young women in the class were subsequently hired by Business Week--and without my intervention or influence. One eventually became a senior editor of the magazine shortly after my retirement. Another was recruited by a rival news magazine, wrote two books, and is now a journalism professor at a local college.

I like to think that even though I had been rejected as a student applicant to Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, as a faculty lecturer I had done my bit to maintain the school's image as an Ivy League-type collegiate institution.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It must have felt really good to be teaching a class that worked beautifully in a school that didn't want you in the first place.
Great story!

Thursday, August 23, 2007 3:04:00 AM  
Blogger Observer said...

Norm, from you I would not have expected anything less.

Stay well.

Thursday, August 23, 2007 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

I really like this story. You probably were better off not having gone to Columbia as a student in the first place. "How sweet it was" to be accepted to teach there! ;-)

Monday, September 03, 2007 5:57:00 AM  

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