New bonds, fresh perspective.
The University of South Florida at Tampa had not offered and editorial writing course in two years, so the first James A. Clendinen Professor in Editorial and Critical Writing had to ask himself the question: Can a pudgy, balding editorial page editor in his md-50s find a rapport with students of the late '90s in a journalism school that hadn't been teaching editorial writing for awhile?
Turns out we could, although the process was a bit tortured at first for teacher and students alike. Neither party quite knew what would happen. Yet having come to the class with no set expectations, we finished all the richer for the experience.
Three nights a week, I taught a three-hour seminar to the same four students.
The regimen delivered to me a profound new respect for the teaching fraternity. The quick, short lesson I learned in the first week was that nobody was going to sit still for three hours to listen to a teacher pontificate and get anything out of the process. So the class soon got multiple writing assignments that required them to turn out editorials based on a limited set of facts on deadline during part of the classroom time. For homework, they produced better-researched pieces dealing with more complicated subjects.
There were both virtues and pitfalls in having such a small number of people in the class.
The virtue was in getting to know everyone well in a very short time. Because we were a small group toiling together, I learned the idiosyncrasies, temperaments, and talents of each student well. Knowing when to push and when to let up provided a classroom atmosphere that was demanding without feeling too pressured. All four students were working 25 to 40 hours in paid jobs elsewhere, both in and outside the newspaper business. They did not resist tough assignments, but they also gave me a sense of realism about the demands of the course.
As a result, the course was amended this year to provide two nights of teaching and one night in which the professor (Van Cavett) critiqued the students' work.
The pitfalls of the course lay in the fact that because we got to know each other well, no one minded voicing a feeling or complaining about an injustice, real or perceived. Sometimes such familiarity can breed contempt, but we learned from one another.
The students were candid, honest to a fault and prepared to work hard. Some began to show professional competency quickly.
Much has been made of the awesome burden of being on the West Coast of South Florida in the winter, especially the obligation to do research comparing the quality of beaches at, say, Clearwater and Siesta Key. I shirked neither duty, I assure you. But the overriding benefit of the professorship was the opportunity to be with young people on a college campus and to pour fresh thinking into my brain.
The hiatus from daily editorial writing offered a new perspective even if the teaching responsibilities often resulted in just as much work.
Gradually, we settled into a comfortable arrangement. They satisfied their concerns about what strange new burdens might be imposed by opinion writing; I developed confidence as the classes went more smoothly and their writing improved.
Their writing got better because their thinking got better. The notion that good editorial writing flows organically from good thinking got across to them. Soon, they were punching out editorials that had strong opinions in the first sentence or paragraph. They accepted my admonition that editorials had to have strong leads, just as news stories do.
Throughout the course, we were united by the common desire to write better, more dearly, and with greater conviction.
In the end, we celebrated with a meal in a good Italian restaurant down the road from campus. Three of the four dropped me notes at home to say they had learned a lot in five weeks. Judging from their writing, I'd agree.
NCEW member and former president Morgan McGinley is editorial page editor of The Day in New London, Conn.
Apply for professorship by October 2
The University of South Florida is accepting applications for the James A. Clendinen Professor in Editorial and Critical Writing in its school of mass communications. Deadline for submitting applications is October 2.
Next year's Clendinen professor will teach "Critical Writing: Editorials, Reviews, Columns" to undergraduates three times a week from January 22 until February 22.
The professorship honors James A. Clendinen, a past president and life member of NCEW who was editor of The Tampa Tribune for 25 years. The endowed position was established by his employer, family, and friends and is also funded by the NCEW Foundation.