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Learning from giants

December 9, 2009
By Rhea Yablon Kennedy
Arrow Buff

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Taking Robert Weinstock’s English 385: “Fundamentals of Journalism” class means more than writing assignments.

The students do their share of written work to hone their craft, in addition to required reading. However, they also have a chance to learn directly from major figures in the field. In recent years, Weinstock, who himself has written for many publications and now both teaches and serves as special assistant to the provost, has brought in successful reporters from news outlets like CNN, The Washington Post, and NBC 4 TV. He has also introduced students to professionals who use writing and editing skills in the communications and public affairs arena.

“Having guests come motivates us to find new passions and expand our horizon with our writing skills,” said class member Renca Dunn, an English, communication studies, and education major from California. She found the presentation by Newsweek magazine’s Washington bureau chief Jeff Bartholet especially enriching. His visit showed students the possibilities that lay in voice, the literary technique that shows a writer’s personality on the page.

Bartholet’s presentation to the 11-member class and a writing exercise showed how word choices and sentence structure can lend a distinctive character to a piece. The result showed students “how to lure the readers,” Dunn said. She and several fellow students gave Bartholet’s presentation high marks, saying that it will stay with them.

The benefit of the visits often went both ways. Andy Blackburn, who worked for several years as a photographer for the Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania, had a chance to return to his alma mater when he made a presentation to the class. He shared some of the secrets of visual reporting that won him the Keystone Press Award from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers from Harvard University. Blackburn, now a freelance photojournalist, also had an opportunity to see how the campus had changed over the years. Another perk was reconnecting with people he had known as a student in the 1990s–including Weinstock, who taught the photographer during his college years.

Another guest, Pulitzer Prize-winner Gene Weingarten, both gave and received inspiration. During his session, the Weingarten shared morsels of wisdom that he gleaned from more than 25 years as a journalist and editor. He encouraged the students to infuse their writing with passion, use nuance, and find basic human truths to tell. A quick lesson on libel laws and privacy issues also worked its way into his presentation.

In return, Weingarten had the chance to tell a joke he said he had been dying to let fly for a long time. “I feel my whole life…has been leading up to this moment,” he said excitedly at the beginning of the class, and the humorist proceeded to tell an off-color yarn about a deaf man in the Mafia. He also took feedback about a potential writing project involving the deaf community. Soon after that visit, the class saw another way they had helped him. The writer’s syndicated humor column on November 1 drew on his visit to Gallaudet.

Rounding out the group was Bob Drogin, an assignments reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and Catherine Murphy, director of communications and public affairs for the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Like Weingarten, Drogin holds a prestigious Pulitzer Prize, as well as an Overseas Press Club of America Award, two Robert F. Kennedy Journalism awards, an International Center for Investigative Journalism Award, and a George Polk Award. Murphy has extensive experience in crisis communications, public affairs, and media relations. She also directs the organization’s editorial department and oversees a broad range of media, from the 120-year-old research journal Volta Review to electronic newsletters and web content. She is also co-chair of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Alliance, a coalition of 14 national organizations.

The five guests this semester represented decades of experience in the news industry, portfolios covering hundreds of topics, and renown that makes their names instantly recognizable to readers across the country. The instructor, though, is nonchalant about his ability to draw major players. “I basically just ask, and they come,” he said. He also admits he has “a few ‘connections’ in the journalism community,” that he can leverage.

The payoff does not come from the guests’ name recognition, however. Kirsten Swanson, a philosophy major from Texas, said the value lay in the content of their presentations. “They help us gain ideas and methods of making our writing and gathering of information more effective,” she said. “Learning from those with experience is one of the best ways to improve our skills in journalism.”

–Rhea Yablon Kennedy

9 December 2009
By Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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