Nobody gets to where they get or becomes who they become, without some help along the way. Maybe a little help, maybe a lot. So as a writer, I’ve had a lot of help, people who taught me – whether they knew they were teaching me or not. And you look back and you think about where you get your ethics, and your work ethic, your ideas, and your way of coming up with ideas. And sometimes you just want to reconnect with those people who helped you – and you want to thank them. So not long ago, I had the chance to go back to Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C., where I was an undergrad a bunch of years ago. And I dragooned my three favorite professors into coming by the radio station there, WASU, for this conversation.
DUBNER: So I wonder if you guys would take turns introducing yourself? Leon, you want to just say who you are and what you do?
Leon LEWIS: I’m Leon Lewis, I’ve been a member of the English department at Appalachian for, oh, a long time, at least since the mid-70s.
Jim WINDERS: OK I’m Jim Winders. I taught European intellectual cultural history, especially French history, at Appalachian for 30 years. I retired in 2008.
DUBNER: And Joe?
Joe MURPHY: Hey, I’m Joe Murphy. I started teaching here in 1975. I teach in the educational media program – documentary film and film production and video production.
DUBNER: So each of the three of you, when I was a student here, something happened to me in each of your classes, or I learned something in each of your classes. It was often one very, very small thing that I’m guessing that you probably don’t recall because so much happens. But in each of these cases, these three things that I learned from the three of you stayed with me. You know, I think anybody that turns themselves into whatever you turn yourself into – a professor, a business person, a writer – you kind of carry around a little book in your mind of ways to live, ways to think, a cheat sheet, Harvey Penick’s little red book in golf, right? The rules you live by. And so for me, three of the rules that I’ve lived by – always – as a writer, I learned from the three of you.
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So I went back to Appalachian State University to talk to some of my old professors. At the time, we were working on a Freakonomics Radio episode about the value of college. And I’d already interviewed a bunch of economists on the topic – but they all had a blind spot, one question they couldn’t answer. So I wanted to see if maybe my old history and English and film professors could answer it.
DUBNER: So let me just ask this question to all of you, and any, all of you, or none of you if you hate the question can answer it. What happens to a college student that creates value? So, it seems as though, the numbers tell us, and the best economists in the field tell us that there’s a lot of value created at places like this. You take students and you turn them into more productive, healthier, happier people. I’m just really curious to know from your perspective of three people who have taught for a long time, how you think that transfer of knowledge or that benefit actually happens. It strikes me as some form of wild, wonderful alchemy, and I wonder if you know what you’re mixing and matching?
LEWIS: I don’t know exactly what goes into the process.
DUBNER: That’s Leon Lewis, my old English professor.
LEWIS: Even though I’ve been at this for a long time, in some ways I’m going on instinct and things that I like talking about, and things that I’m interested in, I still think have a great deal of value. And they’ve kept me energized. But one of the basic things that any English department is going to do is involved with helping students to write as effectively as they can. And I believe to have some sense of your own language, to know what it means, to be able to use it, can not only be useful and productive, but it can be extremely exciting. So I’m committed to that and doing the best I can with it.
DUBNER: That is, I think that’s a great point, because, I mean, one of the ironies of the digital revolution is that people thought that the printed word, the written word, would become less important, but the fact is now everybody writes all the time – if only in tweets, right? Jim, I don’t know, what do you…
WINDERS: Yeah. Back to your earlier question, you mentioned the word value. And I was very struck by something you said about something that happened in each of our classes is something that stays with you, that you remember and you use all the time. And I think that’s really essential, that a classroom is a place where something is going to happen. And no matter how much the professor is prepared, no matter how receptive the student is, there’s no predicting what that’s going to be. And it always amazes me when a student will tell you years later, I’ll never forget the day you said so and so. You don’t remember saying that. But the student has remembered that and it has meant something to that person. And one of the most important things I think that happens in the classroom is that a certain kind of student discovers, for maybe the first time, that he or she really has the talent and the capability to excel in writing, or some academic skill, or some area of knowledge. And it’s a revelation to them.
The reason I asked Jim Winders and Leon Lewis and Joe Murphy specifically to come talk was because something happened to me in each of their three classes that would change the way I would think about writing, and about working, for the rest of my life. Now, I had no idea if they would remember what happened … but I wanted to ask.
DUBNER: So Joe, this is not something you said, I’m going to warn you. It’s something a guest said. You had a guest come in, a filmmaker. So, Joe, you taught a filmmaking course that I took which was a great deal of fun, it was great. And this filmmaker came in to talk about whatever the – I mean, I literally don’t remember who this person was, what kind of films he made, anything. But I do remember this: I had a question for the guy. And it was a kind of smart-ass question, it’s embarrassing to say now. And I was… He was talking about this and that, and I raised my hand and I said, “Well y’know, the stuff you’re talking about sounds really great, but our equipment is not very good. Like, we just have a little basic camera, we don’t have any budget or anything for light, we don’t have this and that, da da da…” And this guy in a very friendly but very curt way said, “Never, no matter what you are, no matter who you are, writer, filmmaker, blah blah … you don’t blame your equipment. Your equipment is your equipment. You’re the creative person, you learn to do what you do with the equipment.” He didn’t mean to embarrass me but I was chastised. It was a phenomenal life lesson for me. So I’m just curious as to whether a) you might have any recollection of that, and b) how that kind of, teaching figured into the way that you ran your class, ran your filmmaking life yourself?
MURPHY: Actually I don’t remember that specific incident, because there’ve been many incidents along the years. But I do tend to support that philosophy, and always have. I tell students, you can be creative with a rock. I mean, it’s all, creativity is in your head. And too many people use the excuse of, “I don’t have the, I’m gonna make my great film as soon as I get my camera, I’m gonna make my great film as soon as I get enough money to…” No, you can go out there and make a great film tomorrow. I mean, there’re ways to do it. You can get a hold of equipment from the library, or from, there’re public access places, I mean. Equipment shouldn’t be an excuse.
DUBNER: Alright Jim, let me tell you what happened in your class. And I should say, so you’re a history professor. The history course of yours that I took was, I think the single coolest course on the campus, no offense to Leon or Joe. It was called the history of rock and roll course that you taught. What I remember this one day is there was an exercise, where you gave a sheet of paper, and started at the head of the class, and we were supposed to go through it, and the only instruction was to write one line. I think it was very open-ended like that, which I think is what made it so great. And I don’t remember if it was supposed to become like a story, or a lyric, or a description of something we were talking about. Now, do you remember … first of all, do you remember that at all, and was it something you regularly did, or no?
WINDERS: I do not remember that at all.
MURPHY: That’s great.
DUBNER: Alright, well let me tell you about it then. You were supposed to pass it around. And obviously, you’re a human being, you get the sheet, you read what’s come before it. And then you think “what’s my contribution, and how do I further the cause?” Well again, me being immature and kind of a smart ass and kind of a snob, I guess, because I felt like, I’m in a rock and roll band, and the line that I wrote was “20 years ago, this” meaning this exercise that we were doing, “this would have been great.” And I think what I was trying to say was, if we were all stoned, in 1967 or whatever, this kind of free-form association bullsh*t that those people loved so much, yeah, that would have been great. But we’re in a more enlightened era now. Then it goes on to the rest of the class and it’s completed. And if I recall correctly, you then read the whole thing, and it became this story. And the thing that I remember, it’s probably going to make me cry, because I feel, like, so joyful about it and miserable at myself at the same time. The person who had come right after me took my smart-aleck, snobby line and just went with it, and just like made a rhyme off it. “20 years ago this would have been great,” then it was like, something like, “20 years ago, walkin’ down straight,” and then the next person took it. And it became like this fantastic thing, and I felt like such a schmuck. To me, it was about me the idea of coming in as a student, thinking I was really smart, thinking I had something to, I had commentary to offer. And in fact, it taught me that this attitude that a lot of writers and artists get, of being superior, being snobby – you know what, I personally have come to think, that’s the worst. As a writer I think, my job is to find out what’s going on in the world, talk to people smarter, more interesting than me, write down what they say, and tell people about it. That taught me that arrogance and snobbishness are really, it’s counterproductive. So, thanks.
WINDERS: That’s very interesting.
DUBNER: So you don’t remember it?
WINDERS: I really don’t. I can think about things in my intellectual background that might have led me to attempt that kind of an exercise, but I have no memory of that event.
DUBNER: Did the way that you taught that course, and the way that it was in such demand from a lot of people, did that change the way you thought about the history of rock and roll, and did you learn a lot by teaching that course?
WINDERS: I learned a lot from the people in the course who were interesting and memorable people like yourself, and I cherish those things. My initial response to having taught the course was actually kind of negative. It was sort of the sense that either this really can’t be taught, or that too many students are not taking the course seriously, or they get stoned and come to class ‘cause they think that’s cool. And so I think I got kind of sour on it.
DUBNER: How long did you teach it?
WINDERS: I taught it only 2 years.
DUBNER: You’re kidding. I can’t believe you only taught it two… I thought this was this legendary…
WINDERS: No, in fact, and now, if you look at the Appalachian course catalog, it’s a regular fixture in the school of music. Someone teaches it all the time. Gives them tests on everything – something I would never have done.
Okay, so I struck out with two of my former professors. After the break, we’ll see if I go oh-for-three.
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DUBNER: Leon, let me now come to you for my last kind of Proustian rush moment of …
LEWIS: You going to pass me a madeleine? Is that what it is?
DUBNER: Uhh, well we can have a few after, yeah. From talking to Jim and Joe, I’m not sure my memories are at all accurate.
LEWIS: Don’t count on me…
WINDERS: But they’re Proustian maybe.
LEWIS: Yeah, right.
DUBNER: You taught this film course. So you’re teaching English but you also started this film program, right?
LEWIS: Well, Introduction to Film, or it started with what we called film appreciation in those days.
DUBNER: Film appreciation. Here’s the way the conversation was going. You were lecturing, you were talking about stuff, and I think on this day, if I’m right, you were talking about Citizen Kane, and I think you were talking about Gregg Toland…
LEWIS: Very likely.
DUBNER: …the cinematographer, not Orson Welles the director, necessarily at this moment.
LEWIS: Well you know that collaboration. We don’t have to go over that again…
DUBNER: Sure sure sure. But you were talking about Toland, and the concept of this deep focus and this pulling that was…
LEWIS: Exactly. I’m still doing it.
DUBNER: All right, good good. It was worthwhile. I remember it, see, it was good stuff. But here’s what I remember. I remember you said, raise your hand – to the students, however many there were, 20, 30, 40 – raise your hand if you’ve seen Citizen Kane, I think was the film, right? Bunch of hands go up, right? And then you said, put down your hand if you’ve only seen Citizen Kane on television or on a videotape – in other words, if you haven’t seen it in a theater with a projector on a screen. And about 90 percent of the hands, including mine, go down. And you said, “Why is this important? The people who made this work of art, Gregg Toland and Orson Welles, didn’t intend for it to be seen on a piece of glass that was 2 feet wide. And there are things in the process of the making that are… can only be appreciated, or are meant to be appreciated in the format in which they’re made.” But what it taught me as a writer was, hm, when you write anything, what’s your audience, what’s your format, what’s the way it’s going to be perceived now, and maybe the way it’s going to be perceived 10 years from now. And what you did was you made me appreciate it from the side of the creator, that what Gregg Toland was doing wasn’t just something cool to talk about. It was the fact that when you have a medium that you can take advantage of – in this case, film – where you can see the pull of the focus, that’s an effect, that’s something to put in your bag of tricks. So I think about that all the time now. When I’m writing a book, it’s one thing. When you’re writing a blog or doing radio, it’s a different thing. All these idioms are different. You have different ways to communicate, different things to show, different tools to use. And for that, I thank you, Leon Lewis.
LEWIS: Well, I thank you for recalling that moment. And true confession here, I guess I sort of remember but that’s because last time you were here, you mentioned that moment, whether it was to a larger audience or just to me. So at that point it was indelibly impressed in my mind. And I’m thinking if I can remember this next time something like that comes up, and it’s going to come up, because look what we’ve got, we’ve got people with these tiny little two-inch devices that are looking at things. So, I made the, I do remember kind of, because I did say things in class, but it was out of ire. I was irritated at the fact that people were not getting the chance to have the kind of experience that you could appreciate.
So, as a writer, I took away at least three life lessons from my college professors. Number one: do not blame your tools. Number two: be willing to learn from everything, and everybody. And number three: know your audience, or at least know your idiom. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that these lightning bolts didn’t strike my professors the way they struck me. But that’s part of the magic of education, I think. You might end up learning something that no one even meant to teach … It did make me curious about what they, the professors, get back in return. So I asked …
LEWIS: Well, this is really simple. When a student says, I really liked reading this book that you asked us to look at, and I enjoyed talking about it, and I enjoyed writing about it, and I would never have done it before, that seems so fundamental, but it always is very exciting. And it’s still very exciting in whatever form there is. When somebody comes across something that you’ve loved and wanted to share, and they respond to it positively, how can it be better?
DUBNER: Jim and Joe, what do you have?
MURPHY: Well, I think the joys in it are of course seeing people be creative. People don’t get enough chances to be creative in public school or in university, really. I think there’re more opportunities now than there’ve ever been, with new technologies coming out. But to see people in my classes create interesting videos, powerful videos, emotional videos, and that they’re really proud of themselves, is I think the biggest thrill for me.
WINDERS: The most positive thing – for all the good things that happen in the classroom, as wonderful as those moments can be, the most deeply satisfying aspect of teaching for me has been what comes later. The students that you keep up with, who stay in touch with you. Taking pride in their achievements and so on. And just ways they’ve made use of what they studied with you. One of my greatest examples comes recently, from a student I had probably three years ago, four years ago. And he recently hiked the Appalachian Trail, the entire Appalachian Trail. He wrote to me and said that on the last days, when he was so sick of it, and so, so weary, he kept repeating to himself – he had been in a class where I used Samuel Beckett’s writings, my favorite author – and he said, I kept repeating to myself, from Beckett, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”Now, of course, not every student can be reached. Here’s Joe Murphy again:
MURPHY: You’ve got to want it. It gets back to the old football coach I had in high school, the pep… you’ve got to want it! And I can tell you, when you were a student, I knew that you would make it because you wanted it. I mean, you’ve got to bring something to the table yourself, and some kids don’t, some kids do. That’s the tricky thing that I haven’t ever been able to figure out. Why do some people want it and other people don’t? Because that’s a key, that is really the key. If you want it, you’ll get it.
DUBNER: Are you ever been able to convert those who don’t seem to want it into those who do? I guess that might be one of the hardest things…
MURPHY: I have, on occasion. Yeah, it is hard, it is hard. But I have on occasion had people tell me
that I was, I got them real excited about film or video and they went into it and they did it. You know, you’ve got to learn to be passionate about something. And hopefully college is a place where you can discover that passion. ‘Cause if you don’t have any passion in life, who cares? You know?
DUBNER: Well, Leon, Jim, Joe, thanks a ton for joining me today. But moreover, thanks for everything you taught me, and everything you’ve taught thousands of other students. Job well done, thanks.
LEWIS: I gotta use an Appalachian phrase: back at you, Stephen.
DUBNER: I appreciate it.