The Rapidian

Local journalism instructor reflects on The Rapidian's role in his development

Calvin College English professor reflects on how The Rapidian has benefited him and his students in their journalistic development

The Rapidian partners with Calvin College's student newspaper

To read about The Rapidian's partnership with Calvin College's Chimes newspaper, see http://therapidian.org/rapidian-partners-calvin-colleges-student-newspaper

I remember that late May phone call that turned my summer plans on their head.

It was less than two weeks after Calvin's 2012 commencement ceremony, and I was hoping to settle into a peaceful but productive June through August that would balance scholarly work on a book project on John Milton, time with my family and a genuine attempt to raise our backyard garden to at least a high level of mediocrity. 

My teaching preparation for the fall? Minimal. I was slated to teach three sections of a literature course I'd taught many times before. Many times in my mind did I rise up and call my department co-chair blessed for that assignment.

Until she called me that late May afternoon to tell me that my services were needed to teach our department's fall semester Basic Journalism course. Our colleague who'd taught the course for some two decades was in very bad health, and his fall teaching was uncertain. That fall, and for the foreseeable future, I would be teaching Basic Journalism, and I had the summer to prepare for it. 

Although I accepted this responsibility with some excitement, as the days went on, I became overwhelmed with fear and dread. I had taught college composition for nearly two decades, but this was a different kind of writing, and my own scant journalistic experience was years behind me.

I will spare the reader my tales of the emotional paralysis I experienced in the face of my new assignment as I sought the right textbook, struggled to put together a syllabus and, more than anything else, tried to convince myself that I was qualified to teach this course. Suffice it to say that the Milton book didn't get done and the garden was as lousy as ever.

But as I currently teach Basic Journalism--a course primarily dedicated to news writing--for the second time, and as I see my students' news stories again pepper the feed of The Rapidian, I'd like to reflect on how The Rapidian has helped me develop both as a journalist and a teacher of journalism. 

More than anything, The Rapidian has given me a reliable and respectable platform for my own journalistic writing. I decided soon after that fateful phone call that if I was going to be teaching journalism I needed to be writing journalism. I searched for some appropriate forums for my work.

My first journalistic piece last summer was an article for Calvin News and Stories on professors who regularly teach in Calvin's Entrada Scholars program, a summer college immersion program for ethnic minority high school students. My occasional writing for News and Stories has been a good experience, but because News and Stories is a medium specifically designed to promote the college, the subject matter and perspective a writer can offer through it is necessarily quite restricted. 

By contrast, The Rapidian has given me the freedom to develop my journalistic sense in various situations and craft stories on various subjects.

My latent journalistic instinct started kicking in before I wrote my first story for The Rapidian. My family was attending an Eagle Scout Court of Honor for a troop my oldest son was considering joining. We didn't know the Scout being honored, Nathan Iacopelli, but I quickly recognized that the event had the makings of a newsworthy story with a fun twist: Nathan was the sixth and youngest Iacopelli son to earn his Eagle badge. Sitting at the ceremony, I excitedly poked at my wife, Adrienne, and said, "I could write a story about this!" As I began interviewing people after the ceremony, I discovered that Nathan's mother and father even sported license plates that read, respectively, "6 SONS" and "6 EAGLES." The resulting story was entitled "Six sons, six Eagles." 

I had similar experiences for my second and third Rapidian stories. My family and I were attending local events--a wheelchair pilot leading a group of volunteers giving plane rides to disabled children and a memorial gathering for a recently deceased Le Leche League International leader. At both events, Adrienne received the excited poke. "I could write a story about this!" I again said. And again, in both cases, the interviews started and the stories were written.

In the ensuing months, I made a commitment to write one substantive story a month, and I found myself building relationships in the community in ways that helped me develop something resembling journalistic "beats" with the Grand Rapids Griffins and the Griffins Youth Foundation as well as with Boy Scout Troop 200. I've achieved a degree of journalistic regularity, but Adrienne tells me I'm in a rut. Do something more adventurous, she tells me. Write about local whole food activism. 

She's probably right. But the point is that The Rapidian has given me the opportunity to write journalism consistently, to get feedback from editors and to teach Basic Journalism from the perspective of an one who is actively writing journalism--someone who is striving to write effective leads and elicit significant quotations from my interviewees and put together effective stories just like my students are. And even as I encourage my students to take risks to pursue more daring stories that offer more daring perspectives, The Rapidian offers me the forum to pursue such stories myself.

The Rapidian also offers a valuable forum for my students. When I teach Basic Journalism, I require my students to write for Chimes, the Calvin College student newspaper. Since last fall, The Rapidian has had an arrangement with Chimes that enables student authors to cross-post appropriate stories from Chimes onto The Rapidian. Such stories are generally drawn from Chimes' local news section but also from Chimes' religion section and even campus news stories that cover events of particular interest to the greater Grand Rapids community.

In the past week, students in Basic Journalism have cross-posted stories on the Center for Inquiry Michigan, Bras across the Grand, student leadership at Shawnee Park CRC, discussions of the church and homosexuality at Calvin College's Sexuality Series, the upcoming Calvin January Series, and the upcoming Grand Rapids Turkey Trot.

Publishing in The Rapidian provides student journalists with a broader audience for their work, also giving them the chance to revise their Chimes essays in ways that target those essays to that broader audience. Part of my role as my students' designated mentor and editor for The Rapidian is to help them make such appropriate revisions.

And publishing in The Rapidian also gives students the opportunity to develop their writing portfolios in a visible Grand Rapids venue, a matter that Rapidian managing editor Holly Bechiri and various Calvin students- including two who interned at The Rapidian- discussed in a December 2012 article I wrote on the Rapidian-Chimes partnership.

And so, 20 Rapidian stories later, I continue to develop as a journalist and journalism instructor, and I continue to value the partnership my students and I have enjoyed with The Rapidian. And for those who may wonder, my colleague's health has improved considerably, the garden did a little better this past summer and the Milton book is, well, almost done.

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