When I was an undergraduate, I took a little of everything: anthropology, sociology, comparative literature, history, philosophy, film, Spanish, biology. And, of course, my major: journalism. I liked some classes better than others, sure, but I’m of the opinion that you usually get out of a class what you put into it. And I generally put a good deal of effort into my courses. In other words, I got a high-quality, well-rounded education at the University of Illinois.
So if an admissions committee member put the following question to me – What was your favorite non-science class? – I would have a lot to choose from.
But “favorite” implies one. So I would have to go with J380. “J” standing for “journalism.” This was the advanced-level reporting class for journalism majors, usually taken by seniors. I took it as a junior so I could study abroad my senior year. I don’t remember the formal title of the class, but we students usually referred to it as “beat reporting.” Because that’s really what it was. For those of you outside the J-world, beat reporting is covering a particular issue, community, or other specific subject. In this class, we had to choose one such topic in the Champaign-Urbana area and write about it throughout the whole semester. We were to write several smaller stories in the beginning of the semester. Then the class culminated in a three-part series of at least 25 pages, which was equivalent to our senior thesis.
I still remember our first discussion section, when we chose our beats. Professor Bob Reid wrote a list of potential beats on the blackboard and we took turns picking from the list. I immediately knew which one I wanted – international issues – and crossed my fingers that no one would take it. I got my wish. International relations, and how they affected the local community, fascinated me. I really wanted to explore the subject. (I should also note that I minored in International Studies and had taken several related classes at UIUC.)
I will be honest: I did not exactly enjoy this class at first. In fact, a couple weeks in, I panicked (especially about having to write that 25-page series) and wanted to drop the course. I even thought about changing my major, since J380 was a journalism graduation requirement. But my advisor told me to stick it out, and I’m glad I did.
Why? Because I really came into my own in that class, in so many ways. As a reporter and writer, sure. But also as a young adult trying to find her way in the world.
For starters, Professor Reid had this thing about Curious George. (Yes, the little monkey who is always eating bananas and getting into trouble.) He said we should all be more like Curious George – wondering about everything we see and hear, touch and smell. And also seeking out new adventures. That is what makes a good reporter, he told us. I really took that to heart. So I didn’t sit around in my little apartment waiting for stories to come to me (that never works anyway). I went out and looked for them. And I mean really looked.
For example: I knew that one of the big international issues in the community was the increasing supply of crops from South America, and its effect on local crop prices. I figured the best people to talk to about that would be some farmers. I found out from an agricultural professor that a group of them met every Saturday morning for coffee in a little cafe a few miles outside Champaign-Urbana. So I made plans to meet them out there. Which doesn’t sound like a big deal, except that I didn’t have a car. So I rode my bike. More than 10 miles, round trip. On the highway. With semis rushing past me as I pedaled by on the shoulder. Not the safest thing I’ve ever done, but I felt it had to be done. I was curious, and wanted some answers to my questions. I learned that pounding the pavement – literally – is the way you get those answers.
One of Professor Reid’s pet peeves was that students rarely thought about accountability. He wanted us to call our local, state, and national representatives, heck, the PRESIDENT, and find out what they thought about what was going on in Champaign-Urbana regarding what we were writing about. You didn’t get an A on a story unless you did that. He didn’t think you deserved an A unless you had gotten that angle. And I came to agree: our government does need to be held accountable (to an extent) for what is happening in our community. So I would sit in the journalism department’s phone room (which was basically a little closet in the basement of Gregory Hall, with two landline phones – this was in the day before most people had cell phones) and call government offices to get their comments.
This was more of a reporting class, but I also learned a great deal about storytelling from Professor Reid. Because if you don’t tell your story well, there’s a good chance people won’t read it. So I gradually became better at weaving in relevant sights, sounds, and smells, as well as dialogue.
And when the time came around to write my 25-page series – which had me practically paralyzed at the start of the semester – I wrote, wrote, and wrote until I realized I had crafted a work of more than 50 pages. And it was not fluff, either. It was journalism. It was then I realized: I was a journalist.
While I discovered, after several years in the publishing field, that journalism is not where I want to spend the rest of my working days, I took valuable lessons from J380. That’s why I count it as my favorite class: it’s stuck with me. In the end, isn’t that what the best classes do?