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Mike Tharp: Teach your children well

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

For seven years I was a teacher. From 2000 till I came to the Sun-Star, I taught journalism at California State University, Fullerton.

Usually part time, once full time. Public Affairs Reporting. Feature Writing. And once, for a half-semester, Public Relations Writing. (The regular prof had "fallen ill" in Bangkok.) And one semester as the college's first-ever writing coach.

(At the same time I freelanced articles for People magazine, usually about sports or crime. Or, as in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case, when they merged. Quite smartly, People kept me away from celebrities.)

At Fullerton, whatever the name of the course, I taught 'em all the same. My student journalists had to report and write two stories a week. That's it. But, as they found, that's a lot. And it's the best way to learn. Just do it.

I don't know any other way to become a good and better writer than to write. And, of course, to read. As much as you can.

On the first day of every class, the kids were beaming -- for a minute. In this class, I told 'em, there'll be no textbook. I'm the textbook. No tests. We'll take a field trip at the end of term where we'll do some good, then you write about it. The final exam will be in a bar -- you fly, I buy.

Then the kicker that knocked the wind out of 'em: All you have to do is report and write two stories a week. If you miss deadline, and you haven't given me a good reason ahead of time, the grade goes down one level, automatically. If you miss one assignment during the semester, regardless of your grades on all the other stories, you cannot get an A.

Why? Because you can't get away with that in the Real World. What's your editor gonna do if you fail to turn in your story? Print white space? What's your producer gonna do? Broadcast white noise?

My class imposed four rules:

Show up.

Be on time.

Do the work.

Tell the truth.

If a student reporter was late without informing me beforehand why he was gonna be late, I made the student apologize to the whole class and to me. What? You're gonna be late for an interview? Keep your subject waiting? Not in my class. And not in the Real World.

These rules, of course, led to some tears. One girl, after I made her apologize for coming in a minute late, marched right to the chairman's office and complained. I told the chair my rules. He backed me. She turned out to be one of the brightest kids I ever taught.

Over seven years I must have taught 300 student journalists. I'm still in touch with dozens of 'em. This week I've heard from several. Ericka Santos wrote that she'd landed an internship at a magazine. "From the first day of class I'll never forget you taught us that writing was more than just a 'profession' or 'career,' but a craft. I just wanted to share some good news with you."

Stacy Clements, in the last class I taught at CSUF, wrote that one of her colleagues at the Long Beach Business Journal had written a story on the president of Ronald McDonald House Charities. "It reminded me of our semester-end trip to the OC House -- that was pretty heartbreaking."

Our field trips twice took us to the Orange County Ronald McDonald House, where we cooked, as a class, for the parents of the kids with cancer who stayed there. Then the student reporters wrote a story about it.

Once we all took a sandwich to the Santa Ana Rescue Mission for the residents. Student reporters stood outside and interviewed some of them, as well as those who ran the place. Courtney Bacalso, a girl I knew who, within two weeks of reading her work, would make it in journalism, turned to me in tears. One of the bedraggled guys she and Jaime Fletcher had been talking with was her cousin. Karma. Courtney's story was strong.

My very first class, in the fall of 2000, went to an assisted-living place in Fullerton. I'll never forget the sight of 6-foot-9 red-haired Matt Hodgin kneeling next to the wheelchair of an old woman, reading a book to her.

The point of the field trips was to do something good for some outfit so that the student reporters knew they were part of a community. But then they had to discipline themselves to distance themselves to write about it. As Courtney did. And as Matt did.

A night class in the fall semester of 2001 spent time after 9/11 on a class feature about Muslims. Ryan Blystone, already a copy editor at the Long Beach Press-Telegram, suggested we call it, "Why do they hate us?" We were pleased when Time magazine's cover a week later asked the same question.

In mid-March 2003, I took the class outside and we sat on the grass. War was coming in Iraq. They were scared. I answered their questions and tried to ease their fears.

The most worthy class project we did was to write about Urmi Rahman, a student in our spring 2007 class. She turned in six "A" stories in a row, then stopped coming to class. It took me awhile to find out that she and her boyfriend had been arrested by the FBI on immigration violations.

Our class project was a long story for the Daily Titan, the student newspaper, on Urmi's case. One team interviewed all the government authorities. Another gathered information about immigration in general. A third focused on Urmi's family. I visited her in jail in Santa Ana. Forbidden to take a notebook, I memorized what she said and wrote it all down in the parking lot after I left.

I was walking across the Save Mart parking lot that summer, after I'd moved here, when Urmi called me on my cell phone. She was out of jail. She had a new hearing. I'm not a believer in religion, but I nearly fell to my knees in joy. Did our story help her? All I know is that it was fair and accurate. And it didn't hurt.

We had a lot of fun in class. As the second hand swept past the hour to start, I called roll. Yeah, I know -- how many college profs do that? I did. Then I'd read a few e-mail jokes. Then if anybody in class had a story in the Titan or on the student radio station, I mention them.

Every session I'd pose an ethics question, and each student journalist would have to give her or his thoughts. Can you impersonate somebody else to get a story? When can or should you let a source go off the record? What, if anything, can a journalist accept from a source? They'd give their answers, then I'd give mine.

We'd have in-class writing drills when I'd show 'em an object (say, a piece of shrapnel from Iraq) for one minute, then they'd get three minutes to write about it. No wrong answers. Read what you wrote out loud.

Guest speakers were reporter and editor friends from over the years. Canadian war correspondent Matthew Fisher once even briefed the faculty about Afghanistan.

The kids also liked "Stump the Chump," a drill that let a team of four or five students each write one sentence. I'd then have five minutes to fashion a story out of those unrelated fragments. Used to get applause after that one. But sometimes they'd stump me.

The White Board Session became a class favorite. On one side I'd write, under "Technical," real mistakes from the stories they'd turned in last class. Anonymously. On the right side, "Stylistic" -- better or briefer ways to write something. I'd ask what was wrong with each example, pointing out phrases I didn't like, such as "due to," in a goofy, over-the-top ballet. There was a lot of giggling.

Finally, I'd read excerpts from the best stories turned in last class. Again anonymously. More than a few times I almost choked up, understanding what it took these young people to get that far in their reporting and writing.

The kids liked the class because it was fun. No BS. Opinions not only encouraged but required. They learned stuff every day and with every story they wrote. They knew I believed what I told them. Many weren't used to rules, but the Four Rules were so simple -- and so much in their own interest -- that they signed on.

I gave each class a nickname -- "The -30- Dozen," "The Shockers," the "BFCOAT" (which contained a bad word). One class had 16 girls. Only. Worked out fine. Each class took a team photo at the end of term. Then The Final in the Off-Campus Pub.

One of the highlights during the seven years came at a sushi place in the city of Orange. Four of my former students took me to lunch. They were all reporters for the Orange County Register. Over green tea, I squeezed my eyes tight and thought, this is what it's all about.

Why bring this up today?

Because today, if you haven't noticed, there are a helluva lot of fine experienced journalists -- on the street. Layoffs in our business have become weekly news, or even non-news. That means there are some veteran journos out there who'd make good teachers.

The problem with so many universities today is that they no longer teach journalism. They teach something called Communications -- in an effort, I think, to make what they do look valid in the eyes of other academics. It ain't about reporting and writing. It's about numbers-driven research into arcane areas of intellectual endeavor.

That's fine too. But please put some people on the payroll who've covered the cops, who've reported from Guatemala, who know the difference between "because of" and "due to."

A few places have never lost that. Tracy Dahlby and Ron Yates head up the journalism faculties at the universities of Texas and Illinois. We met in Tokyo and became friends. Tracy wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Washington Post and Newsweek; Ron was a lifer at the Chicago Tribune.

Like me, though, they're dinosaurs. Today, the craft is far too often being taught -- or not -- by people whose only visit to a newsroom was to drop off a press release before they went and got their Ph.D.

Why should you care who teaches journalism in college? Because in whatever form or platform it appears, storytelling remains a pivotal part of a democratic republic. Somebody has to teach youngsters to give a damn about correct spelling, proper grammar, getting the facts right, being fair, speaking up for the little guy, making an audience care about something they may not know they should care about.

So Honorable Deans out there in the Groves of Academe: please cast your gaze from the ivory tower down to the streets. Some good journalists on them now. Hire a few. You, your students and your community will one day be glad you did.

OK. Let's go to the White Board!

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2427/2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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