You should feel sorry for me.
Oh, sure, I do have my health. I have some money. Lots of people genuinely like me. A few may actually love me.
But you should feel sorry for me, because right now I’m going through a serious case of withdrawal. You see, I just completed teaching my first course at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism. Now I’m off for the summer, before starting up again in September for another semester. I hate to sound wimpy about this, but I already miss it all.
And what exactly do I mean by “it”?
Standing in front of a roomful of undergraduate students and lecturing them about the course, The Business Of News. Getting to know the students. Trying to help them learn about the ‘la vida loca’ of the 2014 journalism scene. Navigating the media industry. Getting paying jobs. Helping them become better — if not accomplished — journalists, and setting them on a course of possible greatness.
I had taught a few adult-education courses many years ago. But that didn’t really count. On my first day, I remember asking the class — most of whom were older than I was — why they had signed up for the class. One man shrugged and said, “My wife is taking Chinese Cooking down the hall. So, it was either that or this.”
On my first day of leading The Business Of News at Stony Brook, I asked the students why they had signed up for the class. The majority of the answers centered on this theme: “Because I have to for my major.”
Oh. Ok, then.
I proved to be a fast learner. I figured out on day one what the students care most about: their grades. I understood this fact of life during the first class. I was going over the syllabus and the 33 students in the classroom were talking to one another (loudly), eating lunch, checking out their cell phones and yawning. Then I hit on the sweet spot: Plagiarism. I tried to sound as much like Luca Brasi as I could when I said, “If you are caught cheating, YOU FAIL. Yes, you will get an F in the course.”
Suddenly, the talking, eating, perusing, and yawning came to a screeching halt. I finally had their attention. I had hit them where they lived.
Throughout the semester, though, I could have told them that President Barack Obama, the entire cast of Glee, and Beyoncé would be speaking at the next class, and I would have gotten the same six-word reply as ever: “Will this be on the exam?”
And I guess I can’t blame them, either. I was the same way when I was a student at Stony Brook (in the last century).
That’s right. I am an alumnus. As my friend, Professor Bob Thompson at Syracuse University laughingly remarked, “Ah, so you’re doing your ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ bit, eh?”
As the semester moved on — through a series of crippling nor’easters — I began to feel comfortable. I knew I had crossed the Rubicon one day in early March, about five weeks in, when one of my better students handed in sub-par homework and I gave her a grade of 80, instead of her usual 85 or 90. I could tell she had just mailed in this assignment, instead of doing her typical thorough work.
Perturbed with me, she approached my desk after class and noted that she had gotten only an 80 and said: “I deserve better, Professor!” I shot back, “So do I.” As she drank that logic in, she smiled and nodded.
The hardest part was recognizing how to straddle the line of uber-disciplinarian and ‘lassiez faire’ leader. When a student tells you she’ll be missing class that day because of emotional difficulties, you have to decide if her malady is legit. Same thing when another student calls and says he’ll be late in arriving because he’s at the doctor’s office to treat a problem in a very private part of the body.
I met all kinds of students. Of course, there was the overachieving, obsessive, ‘Tracy Flick’ type from Election, who challenged just about every grade I gave. I didn’t quite pinpoint a ‘Jeff Spicoli’ (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) type; the students were too grade-conscious to take things so casually. (No. I in no way ever resembled ‘Mr. Hand’ from that movie).
I made friends on the faculty, and grew to respect their commitment. My nephew, who had recently graduated from Duke University, asked me what had been the biggest surprise of the semester. I immediately answered, “Seeing how dedicated the faculty is.”
I’d like to think I fit right in.