Press "Enter" to skip to content

An assignment for a real professor

Column by Hal Walter

Education – January 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

LET’S FACE IT. It was only for lack of a real professor that students taking “Feature Writing” this fall at the University of Southern Colorado found me scribbling at the blackboard.

OK, so I’m not a real professor. But I did teach USC’s news-editorial sequence in 1990-’91 when blackboards really were black. And I do have more than 20 years of what academics call “real-world” experience in the newspaper, magazine, book, and online publishing field. So it’s not like I’m completely unqualified.

While I know a few things about writing and publishing, I didn’t know when I signed up to teach the fall semester class that I was about to get schooled in some other topics, including social studies, human emotions, and real life.

I prepared for my first lecture on the way home from a business trip to Chicago during a plane ride that began only after the pilot informed us that the small problem with an oil leak in the No. 2 engine had been repaired. In between panic attacks and sips of cabernet nerve sedative I soaked up the works of two-time Pulitzer-winner Jon Franklin and realized that none of my students would likely turn in any feature stories as discussed in his text, Writing for Story.

It seemed like my student writers should learn to crawl before they could walk or run. So the next morning I tore through old filing cabinets in my garage to find my yellowed notes from 1990 about topics that would be more pertinent to a beginning feature writer: things like personality profiles, sidebars, aftermath stories, news-beat features, brights, how-to features, and product reviews.

That afternoon my classroom was packed with more students than were on my already-full enrollment sheet. Before the class started I went outside to take a deep breath and shrug off the paralysis of stage fright before I came back in and rambled for what seemed like an eternity — but was really only 90 minutes — about the importance of human-interest feature stories in newspapers and magazines.

Despite my less-than-professorial public-speaking skills, the surplus students still sought admittance to the class. So after the lecture I signed the papers with the vague idea that perhaps some of the others would drop out.

For the first assignment I asked the students to draw names out of a hat, pair off, interview each other and write a type of feature story known as a “personality profile” about the fellow classmate.

When I taught in the mass communications department a decade ago the written work the students turned in was, as a whole, poor. So I prepared for the worst when my students turned in these first assignments, and then was startled by how good some of the writing actually was. None of these students was Jon Franklin, but all of them could write a complete sentence and most seemed to grasp the basic concepts of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style. They obviously had benefited from an improved educational system over the last 10 years.

BEFORE THE SECOND assignment was complete, the Sept. 11 nightmare happened, and a troubling pattern began to emerge. The day after the tragedy I knew it would be very difficult to hold my students’ attention, so I put together a discussion about “aftermath sidebars,” a type of feature story written to help people more fully understand the impact of such disasters. It was the only time all semester that I felt like the students were fully focused on what I was saying.

But from that day on attendance dwindled and class participation dropped. On any given day only eight to twelve students would show up for my class. Almost all of my students had difficulty completing assignments on time. I soon realized that if I stuck to my hard-nosed syllabus, only a few students out of the original 20-plus would even pass my class.

I made exceptions to deadlines. I listened to my students’ feature-length excuses which were just short of Pulitzer material. I heard stories about illnesses, deaths in the family, brushes with the law, migraine headaches, bosses who wouldn’t let them leave work, a psycho boyfriend, broken-down automobiles, broken-into automobiles (My burglar stole my homework!), and even one pregnancy. At some point I realized that these were not the usual “my dog chewed up my homework” stories. These tales were very, very real.

Then there were the seven or eight students who did not have any such stories. They simply quit turning in assignments. Over the weeks, most of them quit coming to class altogether. However, from time to time, some of these students would make a surprise appearance for reasons unknown to me.

Most troubling was that all of these students, even the more inattentive individuals, had more skills than my students a decade ago, but they lacked the motivation to put their skills to use. I remembered my own college days and how unthinkable it would have been to not turn in an assignment or even to miss class.

PERHAPS THE SEPT. 11 crisis had something to do with it. But moreover, I felt in them something else: an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and an inability to see any sort of a future. Apparently this problem was not unique to my class. One of my students turned in a story from the campus career center about how few USC students had been taking advantage of career-seeking opportunities.

I knew that few of my students had probably set foot behind the lobby of an actual newspaper or magazine, so I scheduled a field trip to the Pueblo Chieftain. During this trip I also arranged to have reporter Peter Roper and managing editor Steve Henson speak to them regarding the importance of feature stories in a daily newspaper. After this, we toured the newspaper library, museum, and production facilities, including the paper storage room with its towering rolls of newsprint and the pressroom with its three-story computer-controlled machine. It was good to see the lights turn on in some of my students’ heads when they saw that there really were people out there working in this industry. Better yet, they heard from Peter and Steve that the principles and skills I had been trying to teach them did actually have real-world value.

Most of the students who went on the field trip continued to attend the class. They turned in their remaining assignments and will receive a passing grade. But I am haunted by those students who did not. Is there something I could have said or done that would have inspired them? I’ll never know.

Pass or fail, I’d like to thank all of my students for the true learning experience. I wish the best for all of them in the future, and I hope that those who lack motivation and hope will find those things somewhere along life’s road. These lessons are more important than anything I could have taught. But that’s probably an assignment for a real professor.

When he’s not doing some part-time teaching, Hal Walter writes and tends burros on some acreage in the Wet Mountains of Custer County.