Monday, July 21, 2008

Learning Curve

Life is often not a straight line, but a lot of twists and turns. In high school, I couldn’t wait until the end of classes to get outside—to play sports, roam the countryside beyond our town and then the wider world. I was an antsy student. Now I’m working on ways of bringing what I’ve learned out in the world into classrooms.

This spring, I taught investigative journalism to graduate students at New York University, learning as much from the experience as I hopefully contributed. The final product of the course can be seen at One of the students, Jonathan Starkey, summarized their work well in an introduction to the class project:

“For weeks, a group of student-reporters at New York University set out to understand and describe skyscraper safety in New York in the post-September 11, 2001 era. The product became the stories you see posted here. Members of Prof. Jan Barry’s Investigations in Depth class looked into everything from the width of stairwells in commercial buildings to evacuation procedures, from problems in high-rise residential buildings to recent construction-related deaths in the city. New Yorkers, visitors to the city and workers want to be safe not just inside buildings, but also while walking by buildings and working on the buildings. The 15-part report was produced by a diverse group of student-reporters (see bios after each story) over the course of a semester. We hope these stories will add substance to the discussion about skyscraper safety in New York City.”

My students and I learned a great deal about this topic, which I proposed after walking upon the site of the horrendous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire (now part of the NYU campus)—where desperate workers trapped in a fire jumped out windows to their deaths. I wondered if high-rises in New York are any safer today in the wake of the 9/11 horror, where desperate workers trapped in fires at the World Trade Center towers jumped out windows to their deaths.

I learned from the NYU students, fellow professors and well-versed guest speakers helpful ways to improve my classroom skills. Students also showed me how to create and manage a blog that provides much more interaction and multi-media materials than my ancient Authors Guild web site (which is in the process of being updated).

I learned many other things, as well…such as it takes about 40 minutes to walk from the NJ Transit train platform in Penn Station to NYU’s Department of Journalism off Cooper Square. And in those 40 minutes of fast walking every Friday morning, I traveled back through 40 years of memories to when I lived in that part of New York, in my mid-20s, in a very different stage of my life.

In 1968, I was a West Point dropout with a checkered academic history of attending classes at five institutions of higher education in three states without getting close to receiving a bachelor’s degree. I couldn’t sit still in college classrooms. I walked off the first campus to join the Army and see the world. After a war tour in Vietnam, the Army sent me to West Point. But I couldn’t sit still there either and resigned from the military academy to seek an alternative to senseless wars. I took classes at three more colleges, but none had the kind of course—how to change the world—that I was looking for.

So by the spring of 1968, fed up with formal education, I tried to directly reform America’s addiction to war, as an unpublished writer and fledgling peace activist working out of a Lower East Side tenement apartment, squeaking by on a low-paid job as a filing clerk at the New York Public Library. Without much money, I walked a lot of pavement. That hard-scrabble pavement is still there. Another constant in the city’s ever changing skyline are the flocks of young people who come to the Big Apple seeking big things in their lives.

Back in the day, working with other Vietnam veterans, peace activists, writers and the woman who became my life partner, I learned how to focus my energies, set goals and get projects done—including poetry anthologies and other creative activities that helped shift public sentiment on the war in Vietnam. In an era when reporters learned their craft by running out the door and reporting whatever was going on, I then forged a career in journalism, learning by daily trials and errors and the guidance of good editors. Once I decided on what I wanted to learn in more depth, I returned to college and got a B.A. in political science and wrote a book on how to organize a grassroots social change campaign.

Much to my amazement, I’ve gotten astonishingly diverse invitations over the years to talk to activists, journalists and students from grade school to college on how to tackle tough issues in ways that hopefully make a difference. Those talks led to teaching college courses.

But I’m still wary of the traditional academic approach to teaching the elements of public life in America. Despite the civics books and the history books, not to mention the Constitution of the United States, the biggest barriers to getting vital information and acting on that information are those set up by bureaucrats and politicians—graduates often of the finest institutions of higher education—who prefer that ordinary people not participate in American democracy. That’s where civic activism and civic journalism come in, to give voice to affected citizens’ concerns. But grassroots citizen action gets less attention in the academic world than the traditional levers of power.

To convey citizens’ concerns effectively, I found, requires doing sound research, wide networking and a well-focused presentation; skills that are honed by seasoned activists, journalists and sympathetic government officials in the heat of doing a project. It requires getting out of the classroom/newsroom/office, interacting with people who are addressing an issue and applying analytical skills to systematically explore what’s going on and what’s being done about it.

Figuring this out took me on a long learning curve—one that I’m still on.

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