Thursday, October 16, 2014

Best of the best at University of Oregon J-School

I learned the basics of my craft while attending the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon. Yeah, I learned a lot of other things at UO, but these two professors gave me the foundation for a career. Their lessons didn't seem comfortable at the time, but I look back and appreciate their work. Sometimes you need a tough push to move forward.

1. Dean Rea. I could write about Dean's Reporting I class and his famous "truth is a dime disappearing into the distance" speech, but every J-School grad knows that wasn't his acid test. That test was Law of the Press. I had upperclassmen tell me that you had to bring your A game to class, and even then there would be unexpected challenges. Turns out they were right.

Law of the Press centered on the important legal precedents of the day regarding major factors in journalism such as impact of the First Amendment, libel, pornography, rights of privacy, etc. It took me only a couple of classes to realize I loved the subject matter. I enjoyed diving into case law and learning about the foundational court decisions. Of course, Dean made sure to spice up the lessons. Classes dealing with pornography included photographs that cut close to legal boundaries. Lessons about the reporter's ability to adequate report events included a staged event in which Dean was shot by a student who "had a grudge" against him. Dean collapsed on the stage, and the "shooter" ran out of the room. We had to jot down facts about what we saw once Dean picked himself up off the floor.

The toughness of the subject matter didn't fit Dean's standard demeanor. He was soft-spoken and had a gentle personality. He seemed like a friendly uncle from Iowa. He was, however, a stickler for knowing the body of knowledge we were supposed to master. The method by which we were to show our mastery was the final exam, which carried almost all the weight toward a final grade. The test was held early on a Monday morning, and I tossed out my regular schedule in order to get ready for the final. Friday at 4 at Duffy's? No way. Going out with friends for a night of cards? Nope. Call up a female friend for a date? Not on this weekend. I ate breakfast with Mass Communication Law: Cases and Comment as my companion. My conversations centered on New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan and Time, Inc. vs. Hill, which meant that not many people wanted to talk to me. I was focused on nothing but Law in the Press. Studying for my other finals would wait.

The final was as brutal as advertised. True-and-false questions were hardly present. There were numerous long essay questions in which we were presented with a situation and asked to select a particular court case and justify our reasons for that selection. I tapped my brain, which was like opening the spillway on a dam. I wrote feverishly. I rolled out my arguments, and I listed my reasons. I walked out of the classroom feeling good about my performance.

Grades were posted a few days later, and I rushed to Allen Hall to see my results. I missed an A by three points!!! Three points!!! I went to Dean's office and pleaded with him for leniency, and I asked whether there was any way I could earn the necessary points. There wasn't. He said journalism meant performing at your best at a particular moment, and I had fallen short of A-quality work. I walked out of his office as a crestfallen young man.

I had chances to talk with Dean several years later when both of us worked as copy editors at the Register-Guard in Eugene. I brought up the matter of the grade I received. "Three points?" he said. "I should have given you those."

Thanks, Dean.

2. Ken Metzler. He was the practitioner of tough love. No professor or teaching assistant ever attacked my ego as often or with as much strength as Metzler. (Notice I call one professor Dean and the other by his last name. That tells you something about their personalities and how they impacted a young journalism student.) If Rea's acid test was Law of the Press, Metzler's was Reporting II.

Here's where the tough love comes in. Every assignment I turned in for Reporting II got a terrible grade. I never got a D on any assignment until Reporting II, and I got several of them within the first few weeks. By a twist of fate, several of us in the class happened to meet up in the lobby of the library. We matched our experiences. Everyone in the class was getting the same feedback. Anyone getting a C was immediately lifted to an exulted status. Metzler went a step further with me. He pulled me aside one day and asked if I was serious about becoming a journalist. Of course, I replied. He said I should consider another major. Really? I worked my butt off for his class, and that was the response I got? That session only sparked a "I'll show you, you s.o.b." response from me.

Metzler softened his stance as the term continued. There weren't any A's given on assignments, but there wasn't the deluge of failing grades. I later got another side session with Ken, and this one went a long way to changing my outlook on a journalistic future.

One of our assignments was to line up an interview with a notable person in the state of Oregon. I chose to interview Larry Lawrence, who was a vocal advocate for gay rights. Back then, gay rights centered on not getting fired from jobs and not the right to get married. I interviewed Lawrence in the Erb Memorial Union, and it was a good session. I aimed to get information on his foundational beliefs and personal history. I can't remember how long we stayed and talked, but I felt good about reaching my goals. I wrote my story, and it got a good grade. It was only after class that I received that upbeat event. Metzler took me aside, and he said several students interviewed Lawrence. He told me Lawrence said my interview was the best of the bunch. Talk about a straight shot of confidence from my former "taskmaster."

I ended up getting a good grade in the class. All those failing grades early in the term were a method to apply pressure and see how we reacted. His advice about seeking another major was another way to crank up the heat. Hey, journalism was sure to bring controversial articles into my experience, so why not get a taste of real life while I was still a student?

I could talk about other professors because I had a bunch of good ones. Rea, Metzler, Roy Halvorsen, Charles Duncan, Bill Winter, Karl Nestvold, etc. all gave me a wide-ranging foundation for my career. I owe each of them a debt of gratitude.

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