When I was a newspaper journalist, it occurred to me, as it does to many a newsroom naïf, that the seas might be calmer as a journalism professor. Making the switch three years ago from crusty journalist to classroom ingénue, trying to impart important ideas, has been quite a stretch.
Perhaps my experiences might benefit other journalists contemplating launching their craft into academic waters.
Observation 1: This teaching job is a good gig. Forget about working holidays. Forget about the night shift. Forget about angry sources who insist you misquoted them even though you have their words on tape, in your trusty notebook, or typed into your computer. Forget about those pesky readers who want a reporter and photographer to cover their son’s eighth-grade graduation. Forget about the co-worker whose HoHo crumbs encourage an army of ants to use your desk as their bivouac area. Forget the editor who was an understudy to Vlad the Impaler. Once you sail into your academic harbor, the above will be just amusing anecdotes with which to regale your students.
But you’re a journalist, a trained skeptic. You know there must be storm clouds ahead.
Observation 2: You’ll need an advanced degree unless (and maybe even if) you’re a Pulitzer-Prize winner. Are you prepared to quit your job to pursue your Ph.D.? If you’re truly schizophrenic, you might pull off landing that degree by spending every second for the next five years when you’re not in the newsroom, attending classes or studying. Does contemplating how the panopticon described by Foucault resembles a newsroom appeal to you? Does counting how often a reader blinks when she reads agate sports listings sound like a fun time? If so, academia might have a spot for you.
Observation 3: Some colleges may hire you if you have an M.A. or M.F.A. if you have mucho experience. You’ll still be expected to present papers at academic conferences and publish academic works. The long road to the Ph.D. just may better prepare you for the short road to tenure.
Question 1: Do you really have any clue what undergraduate students at small private colleges or midrange public universities (the places where you’ll most likely find employment) are like?
Observation 4: Most undergraduates are not like you. This may be a good thing for society, but it won’t necessarily be a good thing for you. Yes, there are students who work hard, write well, go the extra step, call the additional source, respect deadlines and agonize over accuracy. But what about the ones who loathe writing, who think pasting Internet information into their story is the height of resourcefulness, who can’t believe the attendance policy applies to them? You can’t flunk them all. You need them to keep your journalism program alive. You must motivate and inspire them.
Question 2: How do you motivate and inspire them? Sarcasm, threats, public humiliation, even helpfulness and patience don’t work the same magic with some undergraduates as they do with newsroom wage slaves.
Math Quiz 1: Do you really think all there is to teaching is showing up for class, relating some war stories and tricks of the trade, and then retreating to your ivy-covered office, where you’ll have time, blessed time, to pen your novel or book about the media? Have you considered it’s not unusual to teach 100 or more students each semester? And each of them is writing multiple papers. Who is going to grade those papers and write pithy, helpful comments? That would be you. It takes about as much time to grade one set of papers for one class as to teach all of one’s classes all week. Do the math.
Math Quiz 2: You’ll soon run out of war stories and tricks of the trade. You will need to actually think about what you’re going to teach, do research and make lesson plans. Add a couple hours for each class you teach for each day of the week.
Math Quiz 3: Hate going to newsroom budget meetings and staff meetings? How does attending a curriculum subcommittee meeting sound? Add a couple hours here and there most weeks for committee meetings.
Observation 5: That novel you were going to write or book about the media? Better get busy. Publish or perish is no joke, and a few freelanced articles in the local daily aren’t going to cut it. Fortunately, most journalists have a strong work ethic.
Observation 5: Is that all there is? No. If you enjoy the wonderful and bizarre things you learn each day as a journalist, you’ll get a buzz working with students. They’re honest. They’re in your face. And they’re fun. If you like helping reporters express themselves elegantly, you’ll get high when a student approaches competency.
Working in a newsroom or classroom is intense, frustrating and joyful. Only the hardy survive. For those journalists still thinking of taking the academic plunge, come on in, the water’s fine — and near the boiling point. But, hey, you’re used to it.
Margo Wilson teaches journalism and English at California University of Pennsylvania.