Throughout my 31 years in higher education, from assistant to full professor at three universities — Oklahoma State, Ohio and Iowa State — I cannot recall doing anything that produced a lingering feeling of pride.
I’m not talking about ego-related pride in a promotion or an award; you outgrow those as years pass. No. I’m talking about an act so challenging that you doubted that you could perform it but undertook it anyway as a test of character or acumen.
As an ethicist, I know that pride is a deadly sin — the deadliest, in fact, and "sin of sins" of the seven — responsible for the fall of Lucifer from heaven (and many an assistant professor from the Ivory Tower).
The pride of which I speak has certain characteristics. It is done for internal rather than external reasons, often as a barometer of validity, and requires:
- A test of one’s talents, knowledge, research or skill beyond what is routinely achievable.
- The witnessing of that test by others so that the specter of public failure exists.
- Courage to go through with the test in spite of feelings of dread or potential embarrassment.
To be honest, I never have taken much pride in my work as a teacher, researcher and administrator. That’s not a boast; it’s a treadmill fact. I dislike networking socially with former students because current ones need my time and attention. By the time my research is published, I’m doing other experiments that may end up refuting former hypotheses.
I'm sharing my sense of pride today not to celebrate myself but to remind you that renewal is essential with the academy in recession. The institution will take from you without acknowledgment or reward. Over time, that may cause you to question or doubt your validity and worth.
In fairness, though, educators who test students semester after semester may neglect to test themselves on the very principles and practices they embrace in the classroom or conference room. Theory is one thing; applying it in real life, another.
I purposefully did not mention my specific challenge because I didn’t want you to dismiss my experience as journalistic. You can conjure challenges in any discipline, the range of which will vary person to person and pedagogy to pedagogy. Neither should you do anything risky that can potentially harm you or your career and then litigate because Inside Higher Ed incited you with this article. You’re an adult. Do what you will within reason and accept responsibility and consequences — that’s part of the challenge, anyway.
Here was mine: I and colleague Dennis Chamberlin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, left our posts as journalism educators and worked for a week as writer and photographer for The Des Moines Register, seeing if Watergate-era reporters could succeed in the digital newsroom after a decades-long hiatus.
Before we began, we got official sponsors for our blog, including the social network NewsTrust.net, the Washington Post’s Writer’s Group and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Our plan was to post daily for one week before, during and after our Register gig.
Because we grade students, we asked that the managing editor, Randy Brubaker, grade us. Did I mention that our 750 undergraduate students and 35 teachers and staff and untold alumni and donors were following our blog via shared link and RSS feed on our school’s home page?
You might wonder what prompted two educators, secure in their careers, to take that risk before such an audience, knowing the political impact could be huge, especially on Internet. For instance, I have written widely and skeptically about consumer technology. I would be tweeting and blogging in my Register experience. Moreover, in addition to our constituents at Iowa State, other blogs would be following us as we tested the unpopular hypothesis that education and industry put too high a value on new technology and too low a premium on principles.
Chamberlin and I worked in media during a highly technological period — the switch from typewriters to computers — and so understood how complicated computing was in the DOS Age of the 1970s and 80s. Today’s technology, we felt, does everything for and about you, announcing upcoming appointments, providing driving instructions for interviews, and taking dictation or photos on demand and on site.
You can read about our experiment at “My Register Experience," which begins with comparisons of technology then and now. By the end of our journey, we were among the first in media to report on “The New Poverty,” about the Middle Class that paid bills and taxes and who suddenly found themselves at homeless shelters or in need of food and medical care in a state known for both. We also wrote and shot in narrative style — with beginning, middle and end (rare in today’s reportage) — and interviewed on the street rather than in the suite, finding the unemployed at a public lake rather than at the Unemployment Office, based on the notion that Iowans with their strong work ethic needed something to do in the morning.
We also used intuition more than Global Positioning Satellite software to track the depth of the recession. Doing so we broke a big story along with one journalism principle. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were known for using anonymous sources. We did, too, knowing the practice eventually became taboo (for purists, anyway) because it undermined credibility.
At that lake, we encountered an unemployed nurse who at first identified herself and then later asked for anonymity. Her personal plight was dramatic, and her reason for not being named very legitimate — it might hurt in her job search. So we honored her request.
Shortly after our story appeared in the Nov. 23, 2009, edition of the Register, Buffy Renee Lucas, an unemployed nurse with similar demographics, drove her SUV into the lake at the same shore where Chamberlin and I conducted interviews, killing herself in the accident. Of course it was assumed this was the very same nurse that we had interviewed for our story, but it wasn’t. We used the blog to clarify that after publication, appreciating the instant publication of the Internet.
We tweeted when we had an update to our story, and that integrated well with our blog, driving audience to the blog and the blog, ultimately, to the print product on its run day.
In the end we received a passing grade from the managing editor.
Much good came out of our report, with food banks replenished and even television network follow-up, culminating in free psychiatric workshops on the untreated effects of persistent unemployment.
I returned to my journalism school with new appreciation for the work that modern-day reporters do in the digital newsroom, producing content on demand. Also, our methods inspired younger journalists who wanted to practice street reporting. We learned from them the value of digital devices in meeting deadlines every login.
Months later, something deeper than pride occurred within me: validation. As a reporter and bureau manager, I had witnessed firsthand the trauma and sorrow of spot news working for United Press International. I covered serial killings, prison riots, natural disasters and uprisings on Native American reservations. Because of that, I left the newsroom for the classroom. Returning to the newsroom involved courage more than the specter of public failure; it required inner strength to silence the demons of hard news past.
As such, I remain indebted to the Register for trusting Chamberlin and me to work a week without preparation and to file a human interest story that resulted in some good and that disclosed some bad, including escalating suicide rates that correlated in part with recession.
I look back at recent awards, promotions and even published scholarship with little sense of pride. I am paid to do that. But not this, which was a statement — or maybe a punctuation point — in my career, knowing that my principles still had value and that I, as an educator, was genuine in conveying them to students and sharing them with colleagues, as I am doing now.
In closing, I encourage you to share in the comments section below or even in a submission to Inside Higher Ed how you may have tested your own talents, knowledge, research or skill beyond what you knew you could achieve, requiring courage in the wake of dread or embarrassment.
We need to hear courageous stories that inspire others in this lingering recession, as we face budget cuts and larger workloads or even furloughs, firings and program elimination. If ever there was a need for uplifting stories, it is now, reminding us why we dedicated our lives to higher education and taking pride in our work, whether or not others appreciate or even acknowledge it.