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On Teaching


“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” — Henry Adams, historian.

As I teach communication on the university level, I frequently think of the content of the courses I took, MY teachers and how they inspired me. After all these years, I still vividly remember them, their names and some of their lessons, which I in turn try to pass on to my students. I was privileged to have some great teachers and some “real characters,” starting with:

My mother, Lillian Secrest Buie, a high school English teacher and North Carolina English Teacher of the Year who taught her children that “happiness is seeing your own words in print.”

My High School Journalism Teacher, Jannie W. Nelson, who surprised me by seeing enough potential in me to appoint me co-editor of my high school newspaper, Scotland High School, Laurinburg, NC.

Instructors at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

News Writing: Jim Shumaker, editor of the Chapel Hill Weekly. “How come you blew the last assignment but did so well on this one?” I remember “Shu” writing on one of my papers. On another student’s paper, he wrote: “What you don’t know about grammar, spelling, syntax and the like – and that is considerable – can be excused in the name of real writing talent.”

News Editing; Photography: Stuart Sechriest. He had a sharp sense of humor, and you couldn’t leave even one session of a course taught by him without sharing a hearty laugh.

Feature Writing; Editorial Writing: Walter Spearman. He seemed to know every well-regarded author and journalist in the South, and was generous in introducing his students to them and their work.

Media History: Ed Mullins. He introduced his students to the Trial of John Peter Zenger in 1733, and pointed out how press freedoms cannot be taken for granted.

Media Law: John B. Adams, retired dean of the J-School. Some of the concepts he taught in mass communication law were difficult to grasp, especially because students were required to read actual case law. But he helped students to simplify complex legal language, into everyday English so that anyone could understand the concepts.

Advanced Reporting: Richard Cole, Dean of the J-School. On a 1,000-word submission, Dr. Cole would offer 200 words or more of precise feedback. You knew he was working really hard for his students.

Seminar on Media Issues: Vermont Connecticut Royster, former editor of The Wall Street Journal. He offered rigorous constructive criticism, especially challenging platitudes and ideas that weren’t well documented in fact.

Community Journalism; Media and Pop Culture: Andrew McDowd Secrest. My uncle. Probably one of my strongest influences for choosing the profession of journalism. I heard so much about his experiences as a crusading editor of a small-town weekly in the American South during the civil rights era. He later worked for the Community Relations Service of the US Justice Department and negotiated between segregationist Governor George Wallace and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Instructors at American University, Washington, DC, where I earned a masters degree in Journalism and Public Affairs:

Advanced Feature Writing: Rodger Streitmatter. A fine writer who did incisive critiques of my work and introduced me to literary journalism.

Washington Reporting / Business & Economic Journalism: Laird B. Anderson, Richard Stout and Nick Kotz. Anderson had been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal; Stout was a reporter for Newsweek; and Kotz was a Washington bureau chief and investigative reporter.

Business in its Social Environment: Thomas DeBaggio, who went on to write a best-selling book about his experience with Alzheimer’s. He was also the subject of a series on National Public Radio.


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