March 22, 2004

An Oxford exchange

Sheila Tefft is director of the journalism program of Emory College.

Oxford College may be an hour's drive out I-20 East, but after my semester in a teaching exchange last fall, it feels as if it's right next door.

The two-year school wasn't unknown to me when I arrived to teach my first class; I had worked with Oxford faculty colleagues in teaching seminars and committee meetings. And I had already connected with young journalists at Oxford. Christine Loflin, assistant professor of English and advisor to The Spokesman , the Oxford student newspaper, had invited me several times to speak to the news editors and staff. In turn, Oxford students had joined our annual writing workshops for students in the journalism program and student media.

So, keen for more contact, I signed on to teach our entry-level "News Reporting and Writing" course. I am one-half of this academic year's Emory-Oxford faculty exchange, administered by the Center for Teaching and Curriculum. Lucas Carpenter, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English at Oxford and the exchange's other half, is teaching a creative writing course on the main campus this semester.

After the college announced the exchange--and, indeed, throughout the semester--fellow Emory faculty grilled me as if I were driving to an institution in another state instead of to Emory's "mother campus" an hour away. "How are the students?" they first would ask. "How is the commute?" was the second question.

Let me deal with the first. My course was the first of its kind taught at Oxford. It also fulfills the post-freshman writing requirement, so the students were eager. The enrollment of 18 exceeded the usual number in journalism writing courses; students called during pre-registration to plead for an overload.

I arrived for the first time to a computer classroom with more students than computers. As a warm-up exercise, I paired them off and had them interview each other. Each student then introduced the interview subject to the class.

My class, I discovered, was a lively mix of ethnicities, nationalities and religions. Like Oxford itself, my students reflected cultures from across the country and the world. Their interests ranged from feminist politics and debutante cotillions to Asian tea festivals and Middle Eastern affairs. They included a championship gymnast and a would-be diplomat to China. The classroom mirrored the familiarity of a campus with fewer than 600 students; many students knew each other. As a journalist and teacher, I loved the diversity and informality.

From the first day, the students were eager to explore the news media. However, like their Emory counterparts, few opened a newspaper regularly, let alone read one thoroughly, so reading the news became a class exercise. Every meeting, two students reviewed the stories, news play, photographs and headlines on the front pages of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times . Disagreement and dispute usually followed. Those weekly news debates became a class favorite for many by semester's end.

Just as at Emory, the world is not far from Oxford's sylvan setting. Last fall the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East broke over Oxford and had the campus roiling for days. My journalism students were in the thick of it. They covered controversial speeches and tense student meetings. I watched them struggle, as real-world journalists do, to report the complexities fairly--and not always with success.

My students last semester told me they believe some people at Emory dismiss Oxford as an academic back door to the main campus. But I have found the performance of Oxford students in the journalism program nothing to sniff at. Our Oxford transferees are engaged at Emory and in the professional world. From their start at The Emory Wheel , they have gone on to prestigious journalism graduate schools like the Medill School at Northwestern University or internships and jobs at the Journal-Constitution and other Georgia newspapers and broadcast stations.

Of course, the "downside" of teaching at Oxford is the commute. Surrendering hours from my duties as program chair to travel to Oxford did create some stress, but then, is time away from administrative hustle and bustle necessarily a bad thing?

Like scheduling anything in Atlanta, timing the drive was crucial. I commuted one day a week to Oxford for a Thursday afternoon class session. I left around noon, held a two-and-a-half hour class, then usually met with students until departing for home in early evening. By avoiding rush hour timings and traffic, I actually enjoyed the commute as an opportunity to listen to music and think.

My time at Oxford was an investment in the future of the journalism program. Oxford students, who struggle to complete discipline requirements in their two years on the main campus, get a jump on their majors. In turn, we get talented and focused students. Two of my Oxford newswriters were admitted to the journalism program in February. And come next fall, I look forward to meeting my Oxford students once again on the Emory campus.

Students on both campuses gain from the exchange. Emory students have the opportunity to learn with celebrated and popular teachers such as Dr. Carpenter, and Oxford benefits from the presence of a new corps of talented reporters and writers.

Oxford Dean Dana Greene knows this first-hand. Last fall, I invited her as the "mystery guest" for the students' final exam on reporting and writing. We concocted a hypothetical press release and news conference in which Dr. Greene announced an anonymous $10 million gift to Oxford. "Don't give away the store," I told her. "Make the students work for the information."

What followed was a 45-minute give-and-take in which the students probed for information for their stories, and Dean Greene used the opportunity to walk them through future plans for Oxford and its campus.

Just like all journalists, the students enjoyed the chance to pose questions to the powerful. "That was fun," one student enthused as she settled in to write her news story.

As for Dean Greene? Well, Emory is on the eve of launching a new fund-raising campaign that will include Oxford. When that actual $10 million gift rolls in, Dr. Greene is rehearsed and ready.