4/04/2014

Reflections on being at this stage of my journalism career

Soon I will buy a book because of a review written by Siva Vaidhyanathan. The book is called Should I Go to Grad School? and the pages tell the story of 41 people who faced that decision. I'm curious to know more, because after reading the piece I'm somehow wondering why my own answer has always been no.

I met Siva once at an event at the University of Virginia a few years ago based on his book, The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry)He is an incredibly engaging media studies professor who can explain the complexities of this ever-changing communications landscape. During the University's crisis in 2012, he became a leader who explained precisely why the situation going on was important to the future of universities across the nation, and perhaps the world. 

I've read many of his articles, though I'll confess I tend to skim them because my own attention is so focused on work I do covering local government in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Most of my focus is on drinking information from a firehose and trying to turn it into cases of San Peligrino to enjoy. 

I read his review several times because it tells his own story of why he decided to go to grad school after spending five years trying to become a journalist. The article hooked me by beginning with a musical quote that Siva says he sang in response to a visiting professor's request in a American Studies class if anyone was familiar with Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

 Swept away by the enthusiasm of the moment more than by my affection for Oklahoma! or South Pacific, I raised my hand and sang my reply.
Professor William Stott smiled and held his arms akimbo. He paused. Then responded. “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.” His voice was rich and joyful. We had broken the fourth wall of academic performance protocols; the expert’s lecture had somehow threatened to become a song swap.
Somehow this interchange triggered Siva to realize that he had a calling to the humanities after a false-start in journalism. He writes about how had a further conversation helped him articulate that he wanted to write books. Stott encouraged him to apply to grad school.

***

For me, thoughts of further education were put aside when I considered the expense but also because I couldn't decide what I actually wanted to do. 

Hence I became a journalist. 

In 1992, I went to an activities fair in Cassell Coliseum at Virginia Tech. I was a sophomore who bombed out of computer science after realizing I was completely unprepared for whatever that entailed. While I understood how math and programming worked, I didn't have the discipline to prove it. I understood principles, but that was about as deep as my brain wanted to go. After a disastrous first semester (GPA of 1.8!), I ended up taking political science and history courses just to do something.

No one ever told me in high school, middle school, or even elementary school, what college was supposed to actually be. The main idea was that you went so you could get a good-paying job. Computer science was supposed to pay a lot, so I went with that. How hard could it be? 

Before college, I just loved the thrill of learning how things worked. Everything I learned fascinated me, but then something else would jump out at me. I never felt any need to become an expert on anything. I had taken advanced math and loved the puzzles embedded within, but I had no idea what the practical worth of becoming an expert in that field might actually be. I didn't care about any of it except I was just supposed to do it so I could go to college. 

I also loved chemistry, so much I took a second advanced course my senior year at Brookville High School. I seemed to have an aptitude for understanding how things worked at a very small level. When I got to Tech, there was no need for me to take chemistry because it wasn't a prerequisite for anything. I remember sitting in my girlfriend's class in freshman year and being able to follow the discussion about how atoms are structured, with electrons circling a proton due, and how different numbers of electrons could create different elements. 

But computers? Programming languages? Somehow I thought I was supposed to be a computer science person because I'd spent a lot of time in high school running a BBS, one of the precursors of the Internet. I'd learned to piece together software and hardware in order to connect to something called Fidonet, which allowed the people who called my board to interface with others in the Lynchburg area. I learned to be an online communicator on the fly, and when I got to Tech I was fascinated that people had set up boards that could be accessed easily through the data network. 

However, I didn't explore any of that. I spent more time with the girlfriend than I did working through my assignments. I had a troublesome roommate who was a sophomore and lorded it over me. I was living away for the first time and more interested in social things. Oh, and I worked in the dining hall. 

Somehow my parents let me back that second semester of freshman year. And, I really enjoyed delving into the humanities because they would end up preparing me for my career. I remember one professor, Thomas Howard, exposed me to novels by Graham Greene in a course that dealt with geopolitics in the 20th Century seen from a historical lens. I knew I wanted to keep pursuing knowing things for the sake of knowing things, even if I didn't know what I would do with any of it. 

I also took an introduction to communications with a professor whose name I think was Doug McCallister. The basics he taught about how humans interact with each other was amazing to me, and helped me understand Negativland better. I need to over the notes for the course before commenting further. 

Somehow, my parents let me go back for a second year even if I didn't quite know what I was going to do. It's probably that none of us really knew what else I was supposed to do. In retrospect, I would have been fine had I just gone to work for my father, who at the time had a factory in Campbell County. I'd spent all summer there, another piece

Thankfully, though, I had my own South Pacific moment, though it was not nearly as memorable as Siva's. And it's an era of my life that has faded away from me until now. 
I didn't want to go to the activities fair in Cassell Coliseum, but I went to humor my girlfriend. But 
somehow I got recruited by a weekly newspaper called The Preston Journal that had been operating since the mid-80's. It was the tabloid ugly step-cousin to the Collegiate Times, a broadsheet twice-weekly that our editors seemed to hate. 

I didn't care about any of that. I just knew I had been given a place to write. I was amazed that people could actually pick up a paper and read something I'd written. Maybe they'd actually react to it. Send in a letter to the editor. 

Somehow, everything was fitting into place. The newspaper became by real purpose going to college. Classes were an afterthought, but I somehow managed to learn things about in my coursework as well as learning how to interview people and write a story. I was made opinions editor second semester, and helped transform The Preston Journal into The Tech Independent, a twice-weekly broadsheet that sought to compete directly with the Collegiate Times. 

That launch began well in the fall semester of 2003, but having to publish a paper twice a week completely drained all of us. I watched as the brains behind the move self-destructed in front of me. Yet, I had deadlines to file, and I instinctively knew how to assign stories, collect them, edit them, and get them put to bed twice a week. In the first days, we had to drive the lay-outs to Salem in order to have them converted to print. I loved doing that drive, sometimes at 4 in the morning. 

I ended up as managing editor, but the business end of the paper more or less faded away and we folded just over a year.  We didn't really have anyone pulling for us in the communications department or in the administration. And we owed a lot of money. 

We worked so hard, and we failed. 

I remember sitting in the wreckage of our news room in November 1994, not knowing at all what I would do. I felt like my career was over. A history and political science undergraduate degree didn't really seem very useful, especially when I hadn't nurtured any further relationships with Howard, McCallister, or any of the other great professors who definitely gave me the initial basis for my understanding of how government worked. 

But, all of those classes laid the foundations for what has ended up to be a career in which I still am allowed to explore my wonder of the world around me. The time I spent getting journalism experience helped pave the way to the next stop on my journey. 

We'd put the final paper to bed the night before, and had a celebration in our offices in Schulz Dining Hall. But no one was there the next day except me to mourn the short history of our ambitious endeavor. 

The phone rang, the double-ring on the ever-present ROLM phone indicating it came from off-campus. I answered. On the other end of the line was the news director of WVTF Public Radio. He had seen our paper's obituary in the Roanoke Times and wanted to know if anyone wanted to apply for an internship. 

Nineteen years ago around this time, I was driving to the station's studios in Roanoke three times a week. I cut my teeth as a radio producer, rewriting wire copy, and putting soundbites on carts. After learning how the professionals did this, I tried my hand at doing my own pieces and suddenly I could be heard by thousands of people all across western Virginia. I pushed myself to learn multi-track editing so I could make layered sound pieces. 

I was hooked, and my life had purpose. 

Since then, I've worked in public radio, worked for a publishing company, created a podcasting network, and have spent the last seven years helping build Charlottesville Tomorrow. I've had an amazing career because I get to explain things to people and help them understand how this crazy and confusing world works. 

But, I want to do more. I want to write books, which is the same thing Siva was encouraged to go to graduate school to do. For me at 40, I don't think it's a valid option for me but I will never fully discard it. I have always had an instinctive sense that I can learn by doing, and I've challenged myself frequently. I'm still in awe that I'm still doing this twenty years later, and I've probably got the most important job of my life right now. I'm helping shed light into how the community in which I live makes decisions about how it will go forward into the future. 

Why didn't I go to graduate school? A dislike of classrooms, most likely. I don't know where that comes from, but I suspect it comes from having a personality that doesn't want to ever be nailed down to doing one thing. I get bored easily and choosing a discipline to commit to would have been misery for me. 

But, I suspect it's also because I didn't want to spend the money, not when I could perhaps learn by doing. 

Over the years, I've though about law school, business school, and urban planning school. But I've also thought about buying a restaurant. I have a lot of meaning and purpose in my job now, but the world is ever-changing. Gone are the days of certainty, for some reason. 

Why is the world ever-changing? How does this world we live in actually work? Why is there so much conflict? Why am I so reluctant to express opinions on things? 

I don't know. 

But, why not grad school? 

Siva's review has prompted me to buy a book that can help me understand why other people haven't pursued that option and why some have. 

I agree with his general idea that universities have played a vital role in creating the society we have now, and that we need them to be robust. Other than that, I can't comment because it's not an area I know by choosing not to participate directly. Before this job, I interviewed academics a lot and really felt a kinship with those probably felt a similar wonder to mine that they got to study the thing that they felt passionate about. But we all know by now that passion as seen from others can be completely taken out of context. 


In the United States, and increasingly in the world at large, we tend to reduce the conversation about the value, role, and scope of the scholarly life to how it serves short-term and personal interests like career preparation or job training. Sometimes we discuss higher education as an economic boon, attracting industry to a particular location or employing thousands in a remote town. Or we probe it as an engine of research and innovation. And sometimes we use academia as a tableau for satire or social criticism when we expose the excesses of the lazy and self-indulgent professoriat or giggle at the paper titles at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.
But none of these appraisals of the life of the mind gets at the real heart of the matter: the now quaint-sounding matter of the university’s “mission”—the bigger-picture question of what our institutions of higher learning do for and with the world. In sizing up such issues, every account is a vignette. So sometimes the best we can do is assemble the widest array of vignettes and try to maintain proper critical distance.
The more I re-read this article I see so many parallels between aspiring academics and aspiring journalists. We both sacrifice a lot for our work. Both of our professions are fueled by the youth of people who have felt the calling. I certainly continue to sacrifice a lot for what I do, and I'm proud to be able to do so despite my profession being similarly maligned. 

This review and hopefully this book will help guide me as I think more about this possible connection. We all have so much to explain about this confusing world we live in now. For me, I want to learn how can we learn to avoid unnecessary conflict. 

***

I know I so often want to use my skills as a writer to explain so many things outside of my job. I want to tell people how awesome it is that probes will be reaching both Jupiter and Pluto next year. I want to write about David Letterman's retirement and what that means in terms of American culture. I want to learn more about Russian literature. I want to indulge fully in what it means to be a human being connected to so much despite constantly feeling disconnected from everything. 

But, I am paid to explain a particular kind of public policy, and my writing strives to give everyone the chance to understand how they can make a contribution. In seven years of reporting this beat,
I've become an expert on so many things that would not have been possible without my college education, the actual coursework. I benefited from living in a society that put a premium on the experience. 

I thank my parents for sticking with me and believing in me. They invested in a college education that put me on this path, and I am thankful I went to an institution that was flexible enough to allow me to explore what I wanted to do. 

And now I'm curious about the state of the academy. 









1 comment:

Sean Tubbs said...

I never got the book.