Thursday, January 06, 2005

I Asked George if He Led His Band Boldly on a Big Bass Drum? He Said No.

If a bar does not have several visible eccentricities to put one in the mood for a little mood-altering, it makes me uncomfortable. A bar should not look like the salad station at an Outback Steak House. I think in a bar one should have the sense that a degraded intelligence has been at work in the production of the decor, like the last plastic surgeon who worked on Michael Jackson's nose.

By this low standard (which is simultaneously a high standard) the Stork Club on Telegraph Avenue measures up. The wall behind the bartender -- it's a short bar that a single bartender can handle with ample down time between customers for caressing the broken veins in his nose -- is a wall of boxed Barbie dolls. Last night, I picked out the "Marilyn Monroe" Barbie right away, two rows up a little to the left, and then I quit caring.

I was at the Stork Club to meet an old student whose band was scheduled to play either at ten or midnight, one of three bands scheduled, with the order of presentation to be determined. Turned out George's band would play at midnight and I couldn't stay that late. Wednesday is a work night, that is, it's a work night for my wife, though not for me, the Sultan of Sabbatical. But it is just common sense that even so lovely a parasite as myself better not strain my goodwife's patience by carousing with the youth into the wee hours.

Also, I get so sleepy now in the wee hours. I did stay to hear part of the first band's "set" -- if that word was good enough for Thelonious Monk, it's good enough for a band calling itself Thighs of the AntiChrist....

I made that up. I wasn't really paying attention because I was there to support George's band, not the Pasty-Faced Screamers. (Oh no that's not the name that's not the name i'll stop it.) This blog has the power to make and the power to break, and I must be careful with my product endorsements. Did I mention I was drinking Jack Daniels on the rocks? I mention it now in case some public relations consultant -- understanding that even the most obscure blog may prove an asset if cultivated early on, as the Stasi cultivated cipher clerks in certain West Germany ministries -- might want to drop a case of something on me. I'm a Gentleman Blogger, not a journalist. I'm the gift that takes and keeps on taking.

Anyway, George's band is named Rum and Rebellion. I thought I knew the historical source for that, but when I googled it to get a link, I discovered I was thinking of the late 19th Century slur against the Democrats, that they were the party of Rum, Romanism and Rebellion. The Romanism part refers to Roman Catholicism, and I taught George at a Jesuit university, so I suppose I naturally assumed ... a country-punk band with a theological subtext?

When George told me his group's name, I should have done what a good reporter always does, ask him just exactly why they named the band that with an illustrative anecdote please if available. One really good thing about being a reporter is that you must become one with your ignorance, you must own your ignorance.

How dare I pretend to understand! What a bad role model! For you see George is a reporter for a daily somewhere south of here. Last night while we were enjoying our beverages under the steady empty stare of a hundred Barbies -- all different, boys and girls, but all the same -- he got several calls on his cell from his editors, asking about a story that was working for the next day. Tears of joy in an old man's eyes! USF's own, George a young man of promise with his heart in the right place, by which I mean on the Left but possessed of the highest journalistic ethics and sense of fairness.

It was his choice to become a journalist. I would never encourage a student to go into journalism no matter how great his or her talent for it. The money is not that good, newspapers are ever more timid, alternative media pay minimum wage, plus a map of the nearest dumpsters -- and TV news really is LIKE BEING LOCKED IN THE DAMN BOX THERE WITH BARBIE STARING OUT THROUGH THE CELLOPHANE.

Not always but pretty much. I didn't mean to raise my voice.

I certainly encourage students to develop their special talent or pursue their ruling passion, casting all else aside, but many jobs can serve as a vessel for talent and for passion. I will encourage a student's interest in journalism -- if that interest already exists. I am supportive and, I hope, informative. But I don't try to proselytize like a recruiting officer, like some avatar of empire.

George, however, says I encouraged him to become a reporter.


I suppose some students can see how much I yearn for them to want to do it, to try it for a year or two, all the while carefully practicing their contraception and being careful not to run up any credit card bills. In George's case, I thought he was way out front of any encouragement I could provide. All on his own he got an internship at Mother Jones, an internship at at the Center for Investigative Reporting, a fellowship to go to Chiapas to cover some kind of international drug conference and a summer fellowship at Northwestern.

That's initiative, you may say, but a few others have it as well. I tell you now that George did something unique, something that so filled me with pride ....

This story shall begin at its beginning. My teaching style involves a certain modest flamboyance, a certain buoyancy, a certain tendency to aim at entertaining. I could give you reasons why I do it -- certain rationalizations, certain carefully crafted justifications -- but who knows what neurotic compulsions drive me? I feel like doing it the way I do it. It seems to work. I'm old: It's too late to change. I'm tenured: I don't need to change.

Okay, beginning again: First day of any of my journalism classes, I give students my home phone number. Some teachers won't, figuring they will be bothered at home. Fine, though that philosophy seems a little a priori to me. Fact is that over the years only a few students have called me in spite of the invitation. I'm actually pleased when someone does. My idea is that since it is hard to get people to agree to interviews in a timely way and since problems in organizing and writing can arise at the last minute and since as an editor I would want to know about problems sooner rather than later and to work in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect -- for all these reasons I want to be available to my students at home, particularly if I am going to enforce deadlines for their assignments.

In other words, I don't want them to be able to offer the excuse, "You weren't there." I'm always there. Call. Your cell phone plan probably has more minutes than a Tibetan prayer wheel.

Now, when I explain this to the students, I like to make my little joke. I add, "Call me any time. But if you call me after ten o'clock, one of us better be drunk."

And thus they are put at ease -- or tumbled into lives of addiction.

Five years ago. My wife and I are in bed. It's 2 a.m. or maybe 3. The phone rings. My wife answers. She starts to laugh. She hands me the phone. It's George. I don't remember what he said or what I said. The point is that there was in my statement on the first day of class a kind of dare, a kind of challenge, something that made George say, "Oh, really?"

He was curious. He wanted to know what would happen if he took me at my word. Here was an opportunity to add to his understanding of human nature. And that is why I hope George stays with journalism for a time, even if he does not make journalism his life's work. If you are a little impudent, a little cocky, somewhat willing to be just a little irritating, if you are possessed almost against your will with a certain spirit of effrontery, if you are always curious about what happens next, in the big picture or in the little picture, you might do some good as a journalist and you will certainly have some fun.

Don't quit the day job, George. Not yet. Lot of people out there sleeping soundly.


G Pabst said...

I, too, look upon pedigogy as stand-up. Sometimes it's stand-up comedy, sometimes melodrama, sometimes I'll do my best "Mad Lear On-the heath." I have a few more.

In other words, I use the same communication techniques that work on clients in the other, more profitable, world.

A couple of years ago I was subscribed to a mail list for graduate students on H-NET, a service run through Michigan State. Many of the readers were new graduate assistants were bemoaning the need to entertain "this new generation of undergrads" - most of us (but not me) just a few years older than the freshman/sophomores they were teaching or TA-ing.

Let me paraphrase a post that I seem to remember well:
"I don't see why I should have to learn to do a Letterman monologue in order to earn a PhD! I just want to get the degree and spend the rest of my career thinking."

Man-o-man. I sat through outside-my-major lectures by grown up "spending the rest of my career just thinking" types at Arizona State (always ranked high on Playboy Magazine's "Party School" index) and it was - well, if Rumsfeld had've been thinking creatively at all, he'd have rounded up a dozen of them and made 'em all supervisors at a certain camp in Iraq.

Let's say that we're not teaching college but training dogs.

Two philosophies seem to emerge:
- develop your arm and always throw the ball as far as you can. The smartest pooches will find it and bring it back. That's your job.
- throw the ball short, long, high, bouncy - as many ways as you can think of. The smart ones will see what you're up to and play along and you just might catch the attention of a few more. That's your job.

But you've also got to spend time thinking, "What about the ball?"

....J.Michael Robertson said...

I sometimes think the dreariness with which some college teachers teach is the greatest threat to the institution of tenure. I always say that I have no idea if I am actually a good teacher. I know only that I am I never had a college teacher better than I am, and most were -- by my rather generous standards -- miserably inferior. I concede that many friends tell me of some magnificent *uber educator* who moved their lives several degrees up the the compass in a better direction. Never had one like that, never. No Oedipus Complex for me, when it comes to teaching. And let us here in this place to which no one else may ever come give mad props to Brother Pabst, who gives his students giggles, job leads, the inside skinny, more ideas than Liza Minelli has regrets, etc. etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, like the late sainted Lewis Grizzard, a blogger
before his time without knowing it, you produce titles that
far outstrip what follows. But I must say, you have outdone
yourself with this one on the teacher/mentor role. This loyal
reader votes vociferously for more pieces on the challenges
of teaching today's youth -- especially teaching'em the strange
craft of journalism. By which I mean, of course, real journalism,
not the mutant in the electronic box.