John Updike scribbled the outlines to his novels and short stories in the margins of Episcopalian bulletins during Sunday services. Those ethically wrenching books and stories no doubt reflect his moods as he sat on those hard New England pews.
I'm outlining this blog entry during a graduation ceremony. This blog entry will no doubt reflect the increasing triviality of communication -- Rabbit, Run has devolved into the brief musings of the Henry Wiggen Blog. It will also probably reflect my mood, which you will no doubt find hopelessly cranky.
Here’s what I have written:
· What difference does it make if journalism students don't know the difference between student's -- possessive -- and students -- plural -- if their readers don't either?
· If you can take a pretty good to very good picture with a digital camera and a trip to Walgreen’s, why learn to use PhotoShop or start from scratch and learn to make images the hard way with film and chemicals?
· I have colleagues who send me articles about the demise of of journalism as I have known it. Generally, these articles tell me journalism, and the way I have taught it, are both dangerously lost in the past.
Some send articles because they think I’ll be interested. One article sender does so because it is her nature to disseminate information – and peanut brittle at Christmas – and she does it with a happy heart. Another – an alumnus – sends me articles because we enjoy imagining the future and brainstorming how journalists might find a way to get paid in it.
But one -- I sense this because I don’t know -- sends me articles as a warning.
It is as if I am standing in the sand at the edge of the ocean at Waimea Bay and the historic waves of last week's "Eddie" are about to break over me.
Academics are terrified of being on the wrong side of the wave.
These warnings hurt. This is, after all, how I have interacted with the world for nearly half a century. It is what I have labored to teach... a labor of love to be sure. Journalism has been a proud way to make a living and contribute to the community of man throughout my lifetime. It is not easy to read about your profession dissolving.
Let me be clear. I have loved journalism but I have never liked the business of journalism. I have known a few publishers who understood their readers and knew why, as publishers, they were placed on this planet, but not very damned many. If any industry was apt to be caught with its collective pants down, it was journalism.
But now, it seems from all the articles I've been sent, there's really nothing much to teach. Journalism is now an "anything goes" profession. Get yourself a place on the Web and write what you please. Or, what pleases you. Those old farts at the university, why, they're just a bunch of eight-track cassette players. If I did what those articles typically suggest, I'd get out of the way... take a long walk off a short pier, as we used to say. Declare myself the dead wood some people think I am and start a fire.
Listening to the graduation speaker talk about his trouble staying inside the lines in first grade, it came to me that I don’t mind living outside the margins so much. Being marginalized, dismissed as hopelessly unaware, as dead wood, a naïve traditionalist, is the reward you get for staying alive and believing in doing what you do the best you can.
Asked to define “art” by a student once, I said art is anything you do that you care about doing right. If you really cared about designing that Coke can, then that design was art. If you really cared about adjusting that carburetor perfectly, then you are an artist with grease under your fingernails. It’s a simple test. Now, if you just designed that Coke can to get the job done and please the boss, or you were too busy listening to the radio to hear the sound of the carburetor when you adjusted it (my uncle, who raced stock cars on dirt tracks, could time an engine purely by sound and beat any car timed by machine) you are not an artist. You’re an employee. Nothing wrong with being an employee. It’s just life inside the margins and it usually works better than taking on life as an artist.
Same goes for teaching journalism. If you design a curriculum to make you look like you’re on the right side of the wave at a national conference, well, you’ll make a good showing among your buddies but … you’re not an artist. And, that’s what’s really happening to the art of journalism and the art of teaching.
OK, that's more than enough crankiness for one entry. Besides, I can hear the wave now. And it's a big mother.
Image courtesy of The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Website