As a gangly high school sophomore, I towered over my 10th-grade English teacher. Even so, I was more than a little nervous when she asked me to speak with her in the hall outside her classroom before she started the lesson one day.
It was a life-changing three minutes. Her message was simple: She had observed that I wrote pretty well and she recommended that I sign up to write for the Holmespun, the student newspaper at Holmes High School in Covington. It was something I had never considered. But because she suggested it, I did it.
And almost 50 years later, my life still revolves around journalism.
Another life-changing moment came about three years later at the start of my first semester at the Northern Community College of the University of Kentucky. While I waited in line to sign up for classes, another short woman accosted me. Knowing my background with the Holmespun, she told me I was going to help her start a newspaper at the campus in Park Hills. It didn’t sound like an option.
I thought about Wilhemina Boswell, my English teacher, and Lois Sutherland, my journalism professor, the other day when a colleague forwarded an opinion column from the Wall Street Journal written by Adam Falk, a professor of physics and president of Williams College, a private, liberal arts college in Massachusetts.
President Falk decried the recent recommendation of distinguished economists to define the output of higher education as a combination of credit hours awarded and degrees earned.
Instead, he offered a different view, to measure the development of what he identified as the most important skills students should hone during their college careers – to write effectively, argue persuasively, solve problems creatively, adapt and learn independently.
Then he took aim at another trend in higher education.
“By far, the factor that correlates most highly with gains in these skills is the amount of personal contact a student has with professors. Not virtual contact, but interaction with real, live human beings, whether in the classroom, or in faculty offices, or in the dining halls. Nothing else – not the details of the curriculum, not the choice of major, not the student’s GPA – predicts self-reported gains in these critical capacities nearly as well as how much time a student spent with professors.”
By contrast, this summer I taught a course online. It’s all the rage these days because you can do it without a classroom, and students can take a course and do the work regardless of their schedules or even their geography. It’s called distance education, but it might better be called distant education. Despite the fact that I worked harder on the distance course than on the same subject when I taught it during the spring semester, it was the least satisfying course I’ve ever taught.
The reason is just what President Falk put his finger on: I met my students only via the Internet and only because I required the students to meet me on a computer screen for an oral mid-term exam. For 20 minutes, we talked face-to-face. I never got to shake their hands, pat them on the back for a job well done or look into their eyes in real time. Our communication was 90 percent virtual. I sent them emails, they sent me emails; they sent me assignments, and I sent them back with comments and grades.
They may have learned the material I presented to them via the Internet and by reading the text I assigned and by completing the research and writing assignments, but none of them developed a relationship with me during those eight weeks.
During the first class of this fall semester in my journalism class at the University of Kentucky, a student asked why I choose to be a teacher after 20 years of newspapering. Those are moments when you dare not utter a syllable unless it is straight from your heart.
I explained that I love to teach and I teach because of students.
It’s not just because journalism can help make the world a better place, although I believe journalism independent of government interference is absolutely essential for our democracy.
It’s not just because I’ve had a love affair with words and stories for as long as I can remember, writing and rewriting until a sentence sounded almost right.
It’s not just because I love history and politics, both essential elements of my media law class and my journalism history class.
The reason I teach is the same one that explains Miss Boswell and Mrs. Sutherland: students. Teaching gives me the chance to leave a small fingerprint on the mind and soul of every student who comes to my classroom.
I’ve never believed when I walk into a classroom that I am just an information-provider. I’m a guide, an inspirer, a challenger. Sometimes I have to wipe some tears, sometimes I get to cheer successes, and sometimes I have to threaten to kick some posterior. Teaching is not just about introducing information and ideas.
I cannot, 50 years later, identify a single principle I specifically learned in Miss Boswell’s 10th grade English class. But her face is as clear in my memory as it was that day when we stood in the hall, and her impact meets me every day. I remember stories Mrs. Sutherland regaled us with about her journalism career, and I remember her sermonic lectures about getting it right. But I most vividly remember how much she took us under her wing and pushed us to do our best.
I teach because I have a debt to Miss Boswell and Mrs. Sutherland and all my teachers at Ninth District in Latonia and at Holmes. They believed in me, they encouraged me, and they pointed me toward opportunity.
Virtual classroom? Virtual education? Think of all the money we could save if we could just give students books and let them learn on their own. We’d save enough to fix all the infrastructure deficiencies in this country and have money left over. But who would motivate and inspire them? Who would answer their questions and question their answers? And who would point them to opportunity?
I’m glad 50 years ago there was no distant education. My education came through meaningful relationships with real teachers who cared, and that has made a huge difference in the path of my life.
Mike Farrell is the director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He was a journalist for nearly 20 years at The Kentucky Post. His views are his own and not those of the university or of KyForward.