Conversation with Michael Balter: On Not Teaching

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511910343_323121f371_bMichael:  Hi Ann! After six years of teaching in NYU’s science journalism program (SHERP), and a year before that teaching at Boston University, I have decided to take a break and hand over my beginning writing, research and reporting class to someone else. What a tough decision. I love my students–so many of whom have gone on to be successful science journalists–I love teaching, I love my colleagues, I love New York, I love–wait, why I am doing this? Oh, right, because I hate doing the same thing over and over, because I feel it’s time to hand things over to someone younger and more multi-media and Web savvy than I am, because I want to explore some other things in my life, because I’m tired of long absences from my beautiful wife who is back in Paris (where I am now headed as soon as the semester is over). But hey, didn’t you stop teaching at Johns Hopkins a while back? Was it really hard? Did you feel the intense pain I am feeling now? I’m all ears (or eyes.)

Ann:  Yes indeedy, I certainly did stop teaching, and after 25 years mind you.  The thing I liked most, and miss most, was knowing those grad students who in a few months were going to be my professional colleagues, for whom school wasn’t a graded academic exercise but a prelude to real life, and who in the meantime, needed to figure out what they wanted to write about and how they wanted to write.  Watching them was like — I can think only of cliches — watching buds go fast forward into full bloom, like watching lambs get born and totter around like broken toys and a day later race full-tilt around the barn.  So yes, not having those shiny new guys to watch is hard, and yes, it hurts.

Michael: You really took the words out of my mouth (or out of my MacAir) when you mentioned that the students would soon be your professional colleagues. I am writing this during my last class, while my students are peer editing their last assignment (a profile), and in a half hour I am going to dismiss class early.  As I always tell them at the beginning of the semester, you are journalists now, the minute you walk into this program and my classroom, and they always prove that I am right in very short order. I like all the buds opening and lambs a’ borning imagery, it really is that way.

Ann:  But you know, I also agree with what you said when we started this conversation, about hating to do the same thing over and over.  In the last few years of teaching, I did have the feeling of knowing how to do what I was doing, and after a while that stops feeling masterful and starts feeling a little easy — like maybe if you’re going to be alive, you should keep doing things that are hard.

Michael:  Yes, and I also worry about the students, about how hard it will be for each succeeding group to get jobs or freelance opportunities and compete in this constantly changing marketplace (and pausing here to lament, as so many have, that it is a marketplace when it should be something else, anything else.)  And that brings me to another thing I want to do in my new, non-teaching life:  I want to think about all the issues I raised in this piece I wrote a few years ago about science journalism programs. By the way, I hope SHERP’s fearless leader, Dan Fagin, doesn’t realize this time around that I gave the wrong title for what SHERP stands for (at least he can’t fire me for it now!)

Ann:  That’s a thoughtful, Balter-like essay you wrote about the science journalism programs.  

Michael:  Thanks! When I wrote it, I concluded that we were still good to go in producing new cycles of budding (your term!) journalists. I would like to think that is still true, but now I’m going to take some time to think about it–as well as exploring some new directions of my own. I may be going into some sort of semi-retirement, but I am still a budding journalist/writer myself!   

Ann:  That question of the supply of science writers meeting or not meeting the demand is so complicated — it’s all wound up with whether the demand is actually rising and if so, whether the rise will, you know, pay actual money or allow enough time for good reporting.  So I don’t have much of an opinion on it.  I do have an opinion about what happens when you retire from teaching.  Yes, it does hurt a bit, and yes, you’ll miss those springy new students.  But hoo boy, the minute I considered not pushing that rock up that academic-politics hill, I had three story ideas — really, in that minute, in a flash.  It was a Sign unto me: I might be a dandy teacher and a dedicated academic battler, but what I really want to do is write.  Like you, I feel I’m still budding.  So what new directions are you thinking of?

8738927066_70a02e8cf5_kMichael: Okay so you want me to spill all my secrets? Are my editors at Science reading this? Let me take a deep breath. I’ve been a (S)cience writer for 25 years. But I feel like an accidental science writer. I am a refugee from a PhD program in biology at UCLA. As a disillusioned grad student, I took my MA as a consolation prize, cancelled my subscription to Science, and launched a new career as a journalist. Local politics in L.A. (where I did a bunch of investigative pieces), then a bit of travel writing; then I moved to Paris and became a freelance food and travel writer. But when our daughter was about to be born, I realized I needed something more stable, and so approached Science which was just then opening its European operations. I quickly became the Paris bureau chief, part-time at first and then full-time.

It has been a great run at Science, 25 years of the greatest stories, the greatest colleagues, and the greatest editors one could ever ask for. But time to pull back just a bit, and I’ve been warning them for some time (and then not following through, too many great stories, etc etc.) In 2016 I am really going to do it. I’m going to write a travel/expatriatism book I have wanted to do for years; start writing short stories (last one was in high school, not too bad actually); and wander the streets of Paris seeing how the city has been changed irrevocably after the Nov 13 attacks.

Oh, they can still count on me for an online story every week or two (I’m not giving up human evolution and dinosaurs completely, that would be nuts) and a very occasional print feature or occasional news story–of course I will try to keep the best stuff for myself–but my priorities will be different and I will be passing on more stories to other reporters.

I didn’t originally want to cut back both on Science and teaching at the same time. I was worried about my sense of identity, losing it suddenly all at once. Contributing Correspondent at Science, Adjunct Professor of Journalism at NYU, sounds impressive doesn’t it? It does to me in that personal way that we need if we want to feel that we have accomplished something in our lives. Even though I have started writing more often for other publications (Scientific American, Aubudon, etc.), and could go teach somewhere else if I wanted to, this is a lot to let loose at one time.

Ann:  And what does all this have to do with quitting teaching?

Michael:  Actually, a lot. If I had not taught the last six years, I would probably be an old man now both physically and mentally. The students have kept me young and made me younger; they’ve taught me how to be hopeful and optimistic when I am feeling gloomy; they remind me of all my hopes and dreams when I was their age; they are my role models, my mentors, my inspiration and they always will be as I go forward in whatever remains of my life.

Ann:  I do know what you mean about students keeping you young — that’s probably a cliche too — and for me, it was because I had to see the students in their own reference frames which, though full of anxiety and doubt, were also full of the greatest of hopes.  And the hope of youth is such a nice thing to visit.

Michael: Students are very dependent on their professors and count on us to guide them into an uncertain future. But I doubt they realize how much we teachers are dependent on them for our very sense of life and existence. How could they know? They are looking forward, and we are looking back, and it’s so hard to look both forwards and backwards at the same time. I hope you know what I mean.  At some point students have to leave their professors behind and strike out on their own; maybe, sometimes, professors have to leave their students behind and do the same thing.

Ann:  I like that idea — the odd equivalence of students leaving professors behind and professors leaving students behind.  And I think it explains this feeling of liberation.  Our old selves can go be budding lambs, all bouncy and new again.  But still.   I bet teachers never actually leave the students behind.

Michael:  I look at teaching very simply. It’s giving back what you were given, it’s taking care of the next generation, it’s nurturing lots of other buds.  But definitely hard to tend to a really big garden without neglecting your own. Wait until the buds have all bloomed or are well on their way to blooming. That’s what I have done. I’ve done my little part to send nearly 70 newly minted science journalists into the world since I started teaching at Boston University in 2008. Last night, with Dan Fagin at the podium, we sent off another dozen n the latest graduating class. Bon voyage, students, send me postcards.

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Michael Balter is a science writer and science-writing teacher who’s been everywhere and done everything and has been at Science magazine forever.

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Photo credits:  teaching the youngster to feed, by John Haslam; flying, by Robert Tilt; both via Flickr Creative Commons

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