Monday, February 24, 2014

Eighteen fine years

Standing in front of a class of students for the first time is intimidating, even if you’re wearing a suit.

There I was in November 1996, perhaps looking like an instructor and even sounding like one but definitely not feeling like one.

Two weeks earlier Red River College phoned me, asking whether I would like to teach.

Having been chewed up and spat out six months earlier by my bosses in corporate journalism, I said, “Sure.”

So I found myself standing in front of students in such programs as Culinary Arts and Business Administration, teaching how to write reports and letters.

I learned to teach – to get to know students, to respect their knowledge and interests, not to treat them like employees – by doing it in those classrooms. Thank you, students, for putting up with me.

In 1998 the job I really wanted, teaching journalism full time in Creative Communications, became available when Donald Benham left the college for CBC Radio.

I was ready and willing to step in. Able? That could come later.

Now, after 16 almost completely happy years teaching journalism, it’s my turn to leave.

In May, at the end of this semester, I plan to retire. My wife and I plan to move back to Toronto to be closer to family, but I know I will miss students and colleagues.

Many instructors have guided, corrected and amused me, none so memorably as the bitter veteran, one of the first I met, who slammed her papers down at the end of each day and exclaimed, “This job would be great if it weren’t for the students.”

She glared at me and I stared back, and I resolved never to be that person.

For me, it’s been the students, with their energy, their individuality and yes, their enduring capacity to be exasperating, who have made each day an energizing prospect.

The students, and the discovery that I don’t have to wear a suit every day. Or any day.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Muscular, crepuscular

“Is the literary world elitist?” asks the headline on a provocative piece by Laura Miller, a senior writer for Salon.

Miller takes as her text an essay in Metro by Eleanor Catton, a New Zealand novelist and the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize for her second novel, The Luminaries.

Catton, in her turn, was reacting to a comment on Twitter complaining that the use of the word “crepuscular,” relating to twilight, is self-indulgent and elitist.

Because what is Twitter for, if not to complain about self-indulgence?

My colleague K.I. Press, author of three books of poetry with another one in progress, shared these essays with Creative Communications instructors this week after we indulged in another of those discussions about what language skills we should expect from post-secondary students.

I would love to see a student use “crepuscular” properly in an assignment in journalism, my area.

Vigorous, specific language works well in journalism – even if it sends a reader to a dictionary. Especially if it sends a reader to a dictionary.

The person who dies with the largest vocabulary wins.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thursday Reading & Writing Club

Kudos to my fellow Creative Communications instructor Kenton Larsen, who has started a voluntary Thursday after-class writing club.

Because reading makes anyone a better writer, Kenton wanted to ask students to read something.

To aid the cause, I have donated a few books, good, bad and otherwise. Many contain my comments and questions; I love talking back to writers.

Five of the books are by Mike McIntyre, a grad of our program and a prolific reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Kenton and the students can agree on the rules. But I suggest students take one book at a time and keep it. The following week they would share (or, even better, demonstrate) something they have learned about writing from the book.

If all the books go, I have more.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The most disabling thought

Powerful writing about the horror of Amanda Lindhout’s repeated rape and torture during her 460 days as a hostage in Somalia in 2008 and 2009:

It didn’t matter whether it was the tenth time or the thousandth; enduring their cruelties never became any easier. It always had the same effect, consuming me, putting me in a knotted and unhopeful rage. I’d spent my life believing that people were, at heart, kind and good. This was what the world had shown me, But I couldn’t find anything good about these boys, about any of my captors. If humans could be this monstrous, maybe I’d had everything wrong. If this was the world, I didn’t want to live in it. That was the scariest and most disabling thought of all. (293)

Tortured almost to death, Lindhout feels herself become a disembodied observer.

From above, I could see two men and a woman on the ground. The woman was tied up like an animal, and the men were hurting her, landing blows on her body. I knew all of them, but I also didn’t. I recognized myself down there, but I felt no more connected to the woman than to the men in the room. I’d slipped across some threshold I would never understand. The feeling was both deeply peaceful and deeply sad.
What I saw was three people suffering, the tortured and the torturers alike. (337)

From A House in the Sky by Lindhout and Sara Corbett (Scribner, 2013).

Also see Sara Shyiak's blog about the book.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Waiting for Joe

This week we heard that Joe Clark, Canada’s prime minister in 1979 and 1980 and author of How We Lead: Canada In A Century of Change, was coming to speak to Creative Communications students.

We waited.

But he didn’t come.

As Samuel Beckett almost wrote in Waiting for  Godot (tragicomedy in 2 acts):

(peremptory). Who is Joe?
You took me for Joe.
Oh no, Sir, not for an instant, Sir.
Who is he?
Oh he's a . . . he's a kind of acquaintance.
Nothing of the kind, we hardly know him.
True . . . we don't know him very well . . . but all the same . . .
Personally, I wouldn't even know him if I saw him.
You took me for him.
(recoiling before Pozzo). That's to say . . . you understand . . . the dusk . . . the strain . . . waiting . . . I confess . . . I imagined . . . for a second . . .
Waiting? So you were waiting for him?
Well you see—
Here? On my land?
We didn't intend any harm.
We meant well.
The road is free to all.
That's how we looked at it.
It's a disgrace. But there you are.
Nothing we can do about it.
(with magnanimous gesture). Let's say no more about it.

But at least Joe showed up on Strombo’s show.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The best writing about Rob Ford

My nominations for the Top 3 pieces of writing about the crack-smoking, drunken liar who masquerades as the legitimate mayor of Toronto:

No. 3: John Doyle in The Globe and Mail Nov. 6.

Ford represents a triumph of hoser culture over liberal Canadian values, Doyle writes.

A total hoser, Ford talks hoser and acts the hoser lifestyle. He even leads a hoser community, one that’s hardcore suburban, scorns urban sophistication and is well-pleased when Rob Ford and his brother Doug do an achingly close simulation of Bob and Doug McKenzie, on their weekly radio show. “I shouldn’t have got hammered,” as Ford said, is hoserdom defined.

No. 2: John Cruickshank’s elegant, angry and sorrowful column Nov. 1 in the Toronto Star, of which he is publisher.

Cruickshank concludes, “We feel tremendously proud today of our unwavering pursuit of a shocking story about a popular mayor.”

No. 1: Rob Ford on his radio show Nov. 3, jumbling a minimum of insight with a maximum of ignorance about the real problem:

“I shouldn’t have got hammered.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Thank you, Sam Katz

Say what you want about Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz.

You could say, for example, he is tainted by the scandal of the fire hall contracts that went to local developer Shindico Realty.

You could say he looks foolish – at best – for waffling on what he knew, and when, about the recent resignation of his close friend Phil Sheegl as the city’s chief administrative officer.

But you can’t say he runs and hides.

Katz routinely responds to questions from the professional news media, which is part of his job.

But he does more.

Yesterday, as he has done annually for nearly a decade, Katz stood outside his office and took questions from more than 70 first-year Creative Communications students after a city council meeting.

He doesn’t have to do that.

Students and instructors appreciate the mayor’s willingness to talk to us and thus to help teach good journalistic practices.

Thank you, Mayor Katz.