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Lew Serviss (DJNF/Temple 1976) gave up the news rooms of New York for
the classrooms and mountain peaks of Arizona. Serviss, pictured after
one of his favorite climbs — Camelback Mountain in Phoenix — is an
adjunct instructor in journalism at the University of Arizona in
Tucson. He also writes and edits when inspiration, or a good gig,
comes along.

I’d been a writer and editor for 30 years, so how hard could teaching possibly be? Ha!

I’m closing out my first semester (don’t tell my students that they’re my test rats) as an adjunct instructor teaching editing. Have I ever learned a lot.

I thought the tough part was getting the gig in the first place in this fractured economy, with seasoned journalists being pitched over the side daily as if they were the detritus scooped up in fishing nets. The first challenge came in building the dreaded syllabus. There was the 200-page university policy guide to digest first, and a dozen crucial caveats that needed to be worded just so, to ensure the students knew what to expect and what was expected of them (mainly the latter). That accomplished, the real question was: What would I do with 45 hours of class time?

Thinking back to effective teaching regimens I’ve encountered, my first thought, of course, was of the Dow Jones crash course of 1976. Dr. Ed Trayes took a group of raw recruits (well, I was raw) and turned them into ready-for-primetime editors. Lots of drills, lots of editing, lots of repetitions, not unlike a team running through the playbook over and over until muscle memory takes over.

Now it’s time to bring on the students. My course is a prerequisite for journalism majors. They are almost all juniors, but it’s not clear that they pay much attention to the news. Fundamentals of grammar and usage seem about as familiar as the major cities of Turkmenistan.

W.W.E.T.D. (What would Ed Trayes do?) I gave them maps. The empty U.S. map (fill in the states). Western Europe. South America. The Middle East. We followed the textbook: verbs, tenses, moods, punctuation. I stressed the things that I knew, from 30 years of observation, that professional writers quite often get wrong. We mined the rich veins of the AP Stylebook (abbreviations, capitalization et al).

The class took on a certain form that the students seemed to find familiar and comfortable: A quiz, a lecture, a drill. Gradually there emerged … a learning curve! They began to change “pled” to “pleaded,” to edit out “allegedly” and to change errors they weren’t sure about into different wording that eliminated the problem. They would sneer at clichés.

And then, they began to nail the news questions on the quizzes. Before class one day, I overheard two students in animated conversation. “Are they putting the automakers in the bailout?” one asked. Quiet to a fault through the early part of the semester, they began to emerge. “Can we review the quizzes in class?” a student asked. A reasonable request. We added a discussion of the way, or ways, the questions could be correctly answered. The news questions became a starting point for an examination of the big, big, big issues of the day and a realization of the momentous time we were in – a historic presidential election, a calamitous economy.

I began to see that along with transferring the nuts and bolts of taming language and sniffing out factual blunders, the class was instilling a thirst for understanding how the world fit together from day to day, year to year. Isn’t that the best lesson in journalism?

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