Category Archives: Teaching @UU

Breaking ties

Those who have kept in touch with me already know the obvious: I am not continuing with Union  University this term. Which was not how I planned things would go.

Graduation day at Union: I'm on the right; to my right is the department head, Web Drake, and professors Ashley and Chris Blair

Graduation day at Union on May 18: I’m on the right; to my right is the department head, Web Drake, and professors Ashley and Chris Blair

When I got the offer to come to Union on June 6, more than a year ago, it was a dream come true. I dropped thousands of dollars into my 101-year-old Maryland home to bring it up to a point where it could quickly sell, as Union was three months late in securing a journalism prof. So I had to make tracks. And the house did sell – in two weeks – thanks to my real estate agent and the realistic price at which I set it. The 800-mile move to Tennessee happened in late July and I was the last of the new faculty members to arrive. Camping out for five weeks in campus housing while getting Veeka into a new school, starting up three new courses that I’d never taught before while also getting the campus newspaper off the ground was off-the-charts stressful but I made it happen. The former adviser had my computer – which I got back about a month into the term – which added to the craziness of my life. One thing I set in motion right away was the design of a new web site for the campus newspaper. That was something the administration told me they wanted done and I am glad to say the revived site premiered this past April.The campus newspaper, which was in some disarray when I arrived, pulled in several awards this past spring. By the time final grades were turned in, I’d filled all the newspaper staff positions for the coming year, thanks my having secured some hefty raises for the editors several months before.

I'm on the right, talking with two seniors at Union (who have since graduated).

I’m on the right, talking with two seniors at Union (who have since graduated).

But last September, we’d barely moved into our new home when crises kept on arising at Veeka’s school. Those weeks were a living hell as the folks at her former school had an unpleasant habit of calling me at work  – sometimes in the middle of class – and demanding I show up pronto to pick Veeka up. Happily, a second school has worked out much better but things didn’t even begin to settle down until December. My parents visited Jackson over Christmas and my brother Stephen came in February and at that point I figured things were pretty much under control and that I could take it easy. Thus, we visited DisneyWorld over spring break. On April 1 when I got back, I was faced with multiple crises to the point where I spent much of that month searching for and conferring with lawyers. What I thought would be a happy decade or more in west Tennessee has turned into a briefer visit. My one-year contract with Union ends this month.

A good-bye party put on by the journalism students for departing professor Jim Veneman (foreground right) at a local restaurant. Veeka and I are to the left near the back.

A good-bye party put on by the journalism students for departing professor Jim Veneman (foreground right) at a local restaurant. Veeka and I are to the left near the back.

Thus, I’ve been trying to figure out where to go next.   At many universities, anyone who teaches journalism has to have 18 graduate credit hours in the subject. Since my masters is in religion, I never had that; however, not only have I *taught* journalism in places like the University of Maryland, I have more than 25 years experience in newsrooms around the country. I’ve put in the equivalent of three doctorates in terms of work time and books written, something that Union took into account when they hired me. But in this era of zillions of journalists getting laid off, work experience doesn’t count for so much any more. Two of my long-time friends on the religion beat in Pittsburgh and Nashville announced this month they’re leaving newspapers for better-paying and more stable jobs. They don’t want to wait until someone lays them off. Other folks I talk with who are still in the field tell me how salaries are shrinking more and more; how positions that once paid in the 60s are now paying in the 40s. And so I decided to enroll at the University of Memphis for a second master’s degree – this time in journalism – with classes that started this week. Some of them are online during the evening, which allow me to be at home with Veeka.

The University of Memphis' Wilder Tower

The University of Memphis’ Wilder Tower

Sooo….from professor to grad student. Must say the folks at the University of Memphis have been quite kind to me, as I’m taking an overload to get all my course work done in a year. I’m having to do all these student things: Getting passes for commuter parking, ordering $200 worth of textbooks (!), setting up a student account and visiting the campus to talk with my adviser. I alternate between mourning my losses – 95 percent of my colleagues walked away from me once it was announced that I was leaving – and the realization that this change could be a blessing in some way. Already I’ve had an academic paper accepted at a conference and I’ll be traveling to Colorado in a few months to present it. UM has a fund for graduate students to attend such conferences, so I’ve already picked up an application form for financial help. I go to Memphis twice a week (a 160-mile round trip) for my two on-campus classes as well as my fix of newspapers (they have stacks of free USA Todays, New York Times and Memphis Commercial Appeals. I’m already planning my first presentation in ethics class and learning Photo Shop and Dreamweaver in a Web I class. So far, so good.

As 2013 rolls in

To no one’s great surprise, The Washington Times laid off about 25 people today. Kind of a repeat of three years ago but not as many people, mainly because the staff had pretty much been eviscerated. Many sympathies to those cut. Trying to pack up your desk in only a few hours is not a fun task. Been there and done that. But we have moved on and the past week has been a quiet one. I dreamed up going away but the finances weren’t there plus long road trips aren’t Veeka’s forte so we’re enjoying lots of cold sunny winter days here. Might take a trip to Memphis this weekend just to enjoy the big city.

We're enjoying sunny winter days. Here's Veeka at Chickasaw State Park, south of Jackson.

Have also used my time to watch movies. Took Veeka to see “The Hobbit” and she did pretty well with it (I was expecting she’d want to leave after seeing all the orcs and wargs but it was Gollum who really creeped her out). We’ve started reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” at bedtime and it’s amazing how much you notice about a book when you read it outloud. Like how Tolkien kept on remarking on the weather during the first part when Frodo and the other hobbits were trying to get to Rivendell. He was constantly writing about this and that patch of blue sky or clouds. If I was writing a mega-trilogy, cloud patterns would not be a major part of my prose but no, Tolkien wrote a lot about what the weather was like on their trip. Tonight I sat Veeka down to see if she could last through the first part of the movie version of “Fellowship” but after 15 minutes (and this is before they even got out of the Shire), she was begging me to turn it off. So, that will have to wait a few more years.

Me and other new faculty at Union - I am in front in yellow pants. This was taken in August.

And last night, I watched “The Hunger Games,” one of the weirder pieces of cinema I’ve seen lately. No way would I have let Veeka into the same room with that movie. “Downton Abbey” starts this Sunday; now is that better fare for the first-grade set? Her school starts next Tuesday, so will have more free time after that, although I’ve got several sets of syllabi to make up (am trying to whole new pile of textbooks so can’t use what I did last semester), plus more new faculty orientation (two day’s worth, in fact), plus finish two book manuscripts that have languished for many moons plus unpack all my things. I just purchased a new sewing table; something I’ve wanted for years, so finally there is a place to plunk the machine all tons of scraps that have been laying about for years.

Second week of Advent

Second candle lit

It’s been in the mid-30s the past two nights here so my banana plants outside are definitely fading away and I wore my winter coat for the first time today. And we’re lighting Advent candles; the second set during a pleasant visit by Estine Nwakwuo, a Catholic priest from Nigeria who began writing me nearly three decades ago when he and fellow seminarians discovered my “Purity Makes the Heart Grow Stronger” book. Estine and I had never met, so he happened to be in Oklahoma visiting another priest friend and the two of them drove 400 miles yesterday so Estine could see us. He had a lot of stories about what it’s like to work out of a parish in Zamfara State, which is in the heavily Muslim northern part of the country. Amazingly, he’s gotten through five years there alive! Then they drove back this morning – seven hours of driving on I-40.

Veeka and Estine

I’ve been thinking over what 2012 has been like and the second half of the year may have been the busiest in my life. There’s never been such a time when I had so much to do that had to be done right away and when there seemed to be one crisis after another that had to be tended to. Or huge things to get done, ie moving a household and starting a new job, not to mention an entirely new career. One task I took on in all this madness was getting my “Quitting Church” republished as an e-book with a different publisher that was willing to pay me better royalties. So, amidst everything else that needed to be done, I wrote an 11th chapter, an update if you will, as to what’s happened in the four years since “Quitting Church” came out. A lot of things, including the new cover, are still under wraps, but Bondfire Books, the publisher, just came out with this press release about me.

Cardinal & Cream Christmas party chez moi

Other than that, I’ve hung up Christmas lights in front of the house, made a batch of Christmas cookies containing eggnog (which weren’t all that great, oddly) and gotten most of my shopping done. I attend a Christmas lunch on Thursdays at Veeka’s school. Finals at UU are this week and I gave one today. Now I have to grade it. I and the school newspaper assistant adviser met with the editor and managing editor today to discuss staffing for next semester. And the days keep on getting shorter with the sunset at 4:30 at this point.

Late-breaking news

Standing firm at 3600 New York Avenue

And in case I ever yearn for the life back in my old newsroom, here are two posts from MediaBistro about impending layoffs again at the Washington Times. The first is about the mess that Tom McDevitt is making of the whole place and the second has to do with the black humor that reporters have adopted to cope. If anyone cares to read this post from my blog entry on New Year’s Eve 2009 (aptly titled ‘Surviving the Massacre’) about 110 people getting laid off, you’ll quickly pick up the zeitgeist from tons of reporters being shown the door during the Christmas season. Obviously the Times’ management didn’t learn any lesson from the horrible PR it received for cutting so many people lose three years ago this month, so they are playing Ebenezer Scrooge again. MediaBistro says they’re monitoring peoples’ emails, which was not done when I was there. (Not that I know of, that is). I vaguely remember security being ramped up but I knew my job was safe, so I was a lot more careless than most, even walking outside to have my photo defiantly snapped in front of the Times’ building. And it sounds like the misery index this time is much, much higher. Because they’ve been through this how many times before? I remember in the spring of 2008 when a bunch of people – including my immediate boss – were let go and we were promised by John Solomon, the editor at the time, there’d be no layoffs, firings, what-have-you after that. Solomon only lasted another 18 months (although he was brought back this year as a consultant – no doubt a highly paid one) and all the editors since him have been sacked or pushed out in one form or another. As for the employees, I wish them well and hope they end up as well as I have, at a higher salary, mind you. And I wonder if the interior of the building is in as much disrepair as it was when I left. Hopefully they re-hired the exterminator to get rid of the snakes!





One last WaPo piece

Veeka at a local pumpkin patch

It appears this is my sayonnara article, but I’m glad I could go out the door with a piece about Susan Wise Bauer, an amazing woman who’s been a huge leader in the homeschooling movement. I researched it in July when I was in the midst of planning a move and the Post folks insisted that my first two drafts be done by the time the moving van came. I wasn’t happy with that rule, but as it turned out, things were so nuts when I got to Tennessee, I was happy that I’d been forced to get much of the work done beforehand. This was article #13 for the Post magazine or Style section. Twelve of those articles were done within an 18-month period – not bad for a former Washington Times staffer – so I was on a roll there for awhile. I’m not done with magazine writing, though, as I have another piece pending for an even larger publication.

University of Tennessee agriculture folks put together a display of colorful gourds and pumpkins that came in shapes you've never before seen

Back to Jackson, changes are pending and for reasons I can’t go into here, Veeka is switching schools next week. The reasons are complex and I’m sad to leave the nice place she was at, but certain things just weren’t working out and we all agreed it was best to part ways. I spent Friday afternoon plunking down more than $100 in new uniforms and I’m hoping the new place has a lot more friends than she found in the other school. That’s been one of our chief problems here: the lack of little buddies for her. After three months, she only has one. This move has been good for me, but disastrous for her; something I never anticipated. I’ve tried to brighten things up, by taking her to things like the pumpkin harvest display put on by University of Tennessee horticulturalists of which you can see photos here.

College President David Dockery talks with Cardinal & Cream staff earlier this year/photo by Jacob Moore

What else am I doing with my time? One activity that eats away the hours is advising the campus newspaper: the Cardinal and Cream. We’re now working on issue five. I usually spend much of every other weekend doing massive amounts of editing first drafts. Every other Tuesday is when the paper gets laid out and I usually show up in the afternoon with a stack of doughnuts to cheer everyone up. Whereas students last year commonly didn’t make deadline until past midnight, this year they’re getting their pages done by 6:30 pm, a major feat. Of course it helped that their adviser has a 7-year-old who has to go to bed early, so it was made clear early on that late nights would be a thing of the past. The web site is going to look better shortly as the campus digital media class is re-doing our web site. Last week, I spent an hour with a student learning how to do online advertising so I too am learning new stuff.

First issue done

Cardinal and Cream editors write down story ideas. Photo by Jacob Moore

Tonight marked a big day in the life of this newspaper adviser. In the past, students have stayed up well past midnight getting their pages done for Cardinal and Cream, the student newspaper. When I was hired at Union, I made it known that those days were over and, thanks to my capable assistant adviser Ellen Kimbro and numerous helpful students, our last page rolled out at 6:32 pm. THAT is a major victory, folks. A few students from last year showed up to help out and several students did double duty, subbing in for some that weren’t getting their articles edited and pages done on time. After one overworked editor dropped the class, the intrepid novice editor who replaced her really stepped up at the last minute. A lot of these students were laying pages out with computer programs I was not familiar with so on my To Do list for this fall is to learn InDesign, a graphics software.

From left: Cardinal and Cream editor Beth Byrd, managing editor Katherine Burgess and arts and entertainment editor Kayla Oxford at a staff meeting. Photo by Jacob Moore

Tomorrow – Wednesday – is the other big hump: The Move into the new house. Am dying to move out of the apartment that’s been our home for five weeks but the thought of tripping over 122 boxes for the next few months is not the happiest. There are all sorts of things to get used to, such as the local cable companies making customers buy their own computer routers where I’m so used to Verizon providing all that. It is different living on the East Coast. Anyway, it may be several days before I can get wireless at the house so I won’t be as easy to reach via email. Fortunately my work computer just got installed so at least I’m wired at work. And I will be able to wear something other than the same set of clothes I’ve had on for nearly six weeks. And lastly, this day could have been a lot worse. If my site was still hosted by, you’d not be reading this, as godaddy’s sites worldwide got taken down today for many hours by hackers or internal problems. I changed to Bluehost last month. Great timing.

The longest month

We drove into Jackson 31 days ago late in the afternoon trying to figure out just which on-campus apartment would be our home for the next six weeks. We’re near the frat and sorority houses and tonight tons of women were walking about singing sorority songs near our place on the last night of their rush week.

Veeka on the Chinese carousel at the Memphis zoo

Got my first paycheck today. Am still assembling documents for the purchase of my third home. My parents were on their fourth or fifth home when they were my age and this won’t be my last. But getting a loan is much harder than it used to be and I’m not used to the lender scouring my bank account. I spent tonight going through an old purse and throwing out notebooks and keepsakes from four years back. Lists of Maryland and Virginia phone numbers – from babysitters to old friends – are no longer needed. I have moved on -and away. Every area code is now 731 and the time zone is now Central. I’ve made it through two weeks of school and so far, the syllabi have held up although there’s already changes I wish I could make. My co-workers have been beyond helpful and everyone has tried to make me feel welcome. Slowly I am memorizing students’ names. The big test will be helping in the production of the first issue of Cardinal & Cream, the student newspaper I’m advising. Ellen, the assistant advisor, and I have put together a rd schedule for how the paper will be produced and on Sept. 11, production night, we will see if we did the right thing. The next day, Sept. 12, is moving day.

Now that I’m teaching media stuff, am now perusing the blogs more than ever. In the what- goes-around, comes-around department, I noticed the firing of Yahoo’s Washington bureau chief  yesterday. I encountered David Chalian last fall when he had just arrived in Washington and just to find out his phone number I had to sneak into his building after hours, sweet-talk the security folks into letting me take the elevator to Yahoo’s floor (as I didn’t have the requisite pass), then cajole the secretary into giving me the guy’s work number. All this with Veeka in tow. Yes, I wanted work. When I finally connected with him to suggest how I could help Yahoo in DC, he let me get out about two sentences before hanging up. Washington is full of rude people but for someone who was trying to quickly hire a newsroom full of experienced beat reporters, there was no excuse for his behavior that day. And his remarks this week about Republicans showed the same shoddy character. Hope folks are kinder to him on his job hunt than he was to me.

This past month has been a whirl of so much to take in and learn. I’ve been visiting a host of new doctors and dentists, starting a new bank account, visiting new churches, changing the lender on my home-to-be, finding school uniforms for Veeka and keeping up with the lesson plans and meetings for new faculty. I’ve been wearing the same set of 5-6 changes of clothes for weeks, which is why I latched onto a great end-of-the-summer sale at Talbots for some new stuff. The temps have been in the 90s and 100s most of the time and it has seemed like this month would never end and I will never stop being overwhelmed. And my elderly cat, who required an emergency visit to the vet during our first week here, is not amused.