Veteran San Diego journalist bids farewell to USD teaching stint

by Ron Bonn

I figured I’d give it a couple of semesters, maybe three.
When June and I arrived in San Diego from the East coast, just before the century turned, I realized I’d had a great working life. I’d wrapped up 40 years in television news and, coincidentally, those were the 40 years when television news was inventing itself — the years that saw Ed Murrow’s triumph and tragedy, the years that brought the half-hour nightly network news program—still the gold standard of the industry—the years of the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war, Apollo to the moon, America’s civil rights revolution, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, the years when Don Hewitt invented “60 Minutes”

I understood that I had done what the Brits tell us to do: “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” So I decided I ought to pay something back—find a school where I could spend a couple of semesters passing on what I’d learned about television journalism. I marketed myself around San Diego’s Big Three, and Beth Dobkin, at the smallest of the Bigs, said, “Let’s talk.”
That was 12 years ago. With some time off to mess about with a book, I’m now completing my 20th semester teaching Comm.220 at USD…nice, round figure. A while ago, I blew into my ninth decade on the planet, and I find I’m getting just a bit tired. And I thought I should go away before my students realized that I was getting tired.
The reason that “a couple of semesters” turned into 20 is, of course, that I liked it. Maybe, a little, loved it. Perhaps the greatest single advantage of a career in journalism is that you never stop learning. Every new story requires that you learn something you didn’t know going in. And teaching shares that marvelous quality. It’s one of Hammerstein’s crummiest lines, and it doesn’t scan, but it’s true, nonetheless: “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”
Actually, I think my 350 or 400 students and I have taught each other some good stuff.
There’s this one great difference between the professions. Producing “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” my colleagues and I could, each night, have a very fleeting impact on a vast number of Americans—11 or 12 million at our peak. But then, all the hard work of that day and preceding days was just a swirl of electrons, headed out beyond Jupiter, never to be seen on earth again. Here at USD, I have a genuinely intimate relationship with a couple of dozen young Americans, lasting over months—and, if I’m lucky, beyond. Seriously enriching, certainly for me and, I hope, for them.

When I arrived, Beth didn’t tell me how to do a journalism class (I’d given guest lectures, but never taught before).. Instead, she handed me a mission statement and said, “Write a syllabus.” I still build Comm. 220 around that mission statement, and it still leads the syllabus:
“…to find a good blend of basic journalism skills, such as strong writing, solid research, and story development with an introduction to journalistic ethics and the importance of the news media to democracy.”
I thought that a pretty good description of what I’d been working at for four decades.
But that first semester produced quite a culture shock. Journalism is a craft; it’s not one of the learned professions and it’s certainly not rocket science. I aimed to teach my students enough in our one semester (a year would have been better) so that when they got that first journalism internship, or entry-level position, at a newspaper or TV affiliate, they would be of some real value to their employer their very first day on the job—they would understand what those folks in the newsroom were doing, and have an idea of how to do it. For these brand new adults, I wanted to produce a class that would be no harder than, but certainly no easier than, their first real job in journalism.
But I found that the students and I were on different wavelengths. Basically, they were astonished at how much work I expected them to do, and I was astonished at how little work they expected to get away with. So I added this sentence to that mission statement, starting with the second semester syllabus:
“A word of caution: To accomplish the goals of the previous paragraph is not easy. This is not an easy course. Even though it is described as introductory, you will be expected to learn a discipline called journalism. That discipline is rigorous, demanding and unforgiving, and this course will be the same.”
Then, after I warned each new class just what a tough semester they’d be facing—after I shook my rattles at them–I told them I would make them only one promise: If you stay with this class, then three months from now you will be a better writer than you are today.
Of course, my astute colleagues will see the sleight-of-hand here. I never promised to make them good writers. Writing well is part art, is at least in part genetic. Only a minority—a fairly small minority, I think—will ever achieve it. But writing better—writing well enough to get a job doing it—that I could promise. And that’s because of the high schools.

The real shock to my system, this past decade, has been the failure of the high schools. At USD, we don’t get the kids from the ghetto schools. We get the best and the brightest, products of the premier public and Roman Catholic high schools throughout California and beyond. And the absence of learning among those best and brightest was (and still is), to me, shocking.
When I do the session on The Bill of Rights—in my own mind, the single most important session of Comm. 220—I find that very few of my students have ever seen the thing. Almost none understands it in any depth. As to English grammar, spelling, usage—as we to say back in The Garden State: fuhgettabadit! The level of writing deemed acceptable—deemed A-level—in this country’s high schools came as a genuine shock, a shock that renews itself every semester.
And, truth be told, that’s one of the reasons I’ve gotten tired: I’m tired of teaching tenth grade English to university sophomores, juniors and seniors who are supposed to be learning journalism from me.
But I’ve learned something else: our students are capable of far greater effort, far better work, than has ever been demanded of them. In that first session, I like to quote Emerson: “Our chief want in life is for someone who will make us do what we can.”
I find most of my students have never worked flat-out—never been pushed to the limits of what they CAN do, once they set aside the idea that “I’m an A student,” and learn what it takes to do work that merits an A. And when they finally DO IT—they love it. They thank you for their misery.
I had a remarkable moment with a student last week. From the beginning, I’ve offered students two bites of the apple on every graded paper they write. They turn in a news story or TV script; I go over it and mark every single error in grammar, spelling, usage, structure that I can find (I find a lot; I’ve been editing copy for a long, long time). Then I write a cover page—sometimes two—of overall comments, and I write a grade in pencil. This, of course, mimics what happens in a newsroom: you give a story or a script to an editor, who’ll throw it back at you with comments and corrections. The student then has the same opportunity the journalist does: she can, if she wishes, rewrite the story in the light of my comments, and the old (usually pretty bad) grade will go away. Strictly voluntary, but if she doesn’t, the pencil grade turns to ink
I found students aren’t used to rewriting, but they’ll usually try for the better grade. And that’s when, in my experience, they learn to write English—between the first and second drafts.
Last week one of my students walked into the office, and showed me a paper she had just gotten back. And she said, quite indignantly, “He only put two marks on this whole paper. This does me no good at all!” The two marks that so annoyed her were an ‘A’ and a ‘+.’
I do, after these 20 semesters, believe: They want to be pushed to their limits—they just don’t know it, yet. When I ask students, on TE’s, what was the single MOST VALUABLE thing about Comm. 220, the one you WOULD NOT, under any circumstances, change, the feature they mention far and away most often is the chance to rewrite stories—to have to learn from their mistakes. (I know, at this end of a lifetime: the only thing I’ve ever really learned from has been my own mistakes. Luckily, there’ve been plenty of them.)
When Kristin asked me to write this ave atque vale, I had a couple of ideas, but I wasn’t sure I’d say the right things. I’m still not sure. I knew I wanted to thank my Comm. Dept. colleagues and (in some treasured cases) friends, for the pleasure of their company this decade. I won’t name names, for fear of hurtful omissions, but you know who you are, and your guilt will never go away.
Indeed, I’m finding that a lot of my terminal thoughts here are generational:
When we beat the odds and advance into our ‘eighties still marginally compos mentis, too many of us octos find that our social and intellectual contacts are restricted to other octos. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; a lot of my contemporaries are still pretty good company. But to work with, and knock ideas around with, smart educators a generation or two less sclerotic—that’s been a rare privilege.
But the rarest privilege of all, these ten latter years—‘the privilege and pleasure that we treasure beyond measure,’ to quote Willy Gilbert–has been the challenge of mixing it up with a gaggle of America’s brightest 19, 20, and 21-year-olds: to enjoy their irrepressible youth, admire their irresistible optimism, wonder at their selfless volunteerism (so notable at USD), and to try to stay just one mental step ahead of them. Those 350-odd undergrads (some, admittedly, odder than others) have given me a great deal more than I could possibly give them. And all of them, but especially those who actually chose careers in journalism, have made me feel that I have, after all, paid back some dues to the profession that got me here.
A little traveling music, Maestro!
Bless ‘em all, bless ‘em all,
The long and the short and the tall….


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