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Mid-career journalists transform classrooms, faculty say
STANFORD -- Knight fellow Anne Fadiman came to campus last fall to mine the university for story ideas, but the university also mined her experience.
The former staff writer for Life magazine is leaving behind a new history section for a biology course textbook and portions of a new history of science course she helped a faculty member develop.
Richard Sergay, ABC's South Africa correspondent, and Makena Aritho of the Kenya Times are leaving perspectives of Africa that they shared in classrooms, dormitories and seminars at Stanford and other Bay Area universities.
Steve Sternberg of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution left a mark on chaplaincy residents and pre-med, medical and health economics students in a medical ethics course by sharing his values shift as he chronicled the last 18 months of a colleague diagnosed with AIDS.
Around campus, the John S. Knight fellows in journalism have developed a reputation for giving as much as they receive in the courses they audit during their academic year here. The fellowship program, which has brought 521 mid-career journalists to campus since 1966, is one of the few regular injections of older, more experienced adults into Stanford undergraduate classrooms as students.
Other mid-career professionals become students in degree programs in policy studies, law, engineering and business. While they take some undergraduate courses, most pursue graduate courses in their specialties, faculty say. In contrast, the Knight fellows are encouraged to sample whatever interests them, which ranges from poetry to physics.
"They come into the class as auditors, but they end up contributing as much or more as other students" who are earning a grade and credit, said Ernle Young, professor of medicine and co-director of the Biomedical Ethics Center.
Knight fellows' presence in his introductory course on biomedical ethics is both "inhibiting and marvelously exciting" to less experienced undergraduates, he said. "The fellows bring a lot of world experience into class discussions, which is exciting to other students."
The fellows also have "developed a tenacity as journalists and they pursue their goals single-mindedly," he said. One fellow, Rasa Gustaitis, became so interested in Young's class in the ethical dilemmas of intensive care nurseries that she coauthored a book on the topic with him.
"It's delightful to have such vigorous, lively and mature minds" in undergraduate classes, said English Prof. Nancy Packer, the director of the Creative Writing Program. "They come up to you after class to ask questions and are somewhat demanding of a response."
"They are well trained to ask questions and sniff out inconsistencies," said Norman Naimark, professor of history and director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies. "The Knight fellows are so happy to be in the classroom that it's infectious for professors and other students."
"It brings poetry alive for younger students to see someone older and in a different field being enthusiastic about it," adds Ann Neelon, Jones lecturer in poetry. One fellow was so excited about poetry that he gave a class lecture on Yeats.
"Having Knight fellows interact is stimulating for the undergraduates," agreed Daniel Okimoto, associate professor of political science and director of the Asia/Pacific Research Center. Okimoto and Naimark both have other older students from the United States and other countries in their classes but say the Knight fellows are particularly willing to contribute.
"The press and the media play such an important role in the world that it's also useful to have these people explain the problems of the media from the inside," Naimark said. "The perspective of a journalist from Brazil, Germany or Poland is often very immediate and that's important for our students."
Some faculty take advantage of the journalists' experience in role-playing assignments. In Prof. Condoleezza Rice's class on the military in politics, for instance, ABC's Sergay was assigned to play the media involved in leaks of sensitive information during a simulation of a political crisis
Knight fellows' contributions are not universally welcome, Fadiman said. She and two other fellows were "told to shut up because we talked too much and didn't give the undergraduates a chance" in two undergraduate classes this year.
Fellows can be forceful, she said, because of "a desire to cram an incredible amount into one year."
Fadiman, for instance, wanted to improve her ability to write natural science. She begged her way into a limited enrollment biology class on Jasper Ridge that trains students to be docents in the biological preserve.
"Since I couldn't stick around to be a docent, I am writing a new history section for the class textbook," she said.
She also convinced Alex Pang, a visiting history of science professor, to offer an individual tutorial to her on British natural history and travel writing. With three other students from the Jasper Ridge course, she and Pang developed a spring quarter course in 19th-century American natural history writing.
Fadiman was "a co-teacher more than a student," Pang said. "It was nice for me, because it takes an immense amount of pressure off you to have highly motivated students the first time you teach a class."
"It's a lovefest," Business School Prof. Jeffrey Pfeffer says of the relationship between MBA students and Knight fellows in his course on "Power and Politics in Organizations." Pfeffer reserves a few spaces for the Knight fellows on the condition that they must contribute to the class discussion.
"Journalists, in general, are cynical. They have a nice, realistic perspective on power and politics," Pfeffer said. "Some of our business students tend to be naive on this, and the Knight fellows provide real- world examples. They enjoy interacting and develop a mutual respect for each other."
The journalism fellows also have left their impact on the Law School. Their presence in Gerald Gunther's classes in the late 1970s was partly responsible for prompting the professor of constitutional law to argue for changing law school admission standards. Gunther argued that the law school should give more consideration to the non-academic experiences of applicants in order to produce a more diverse and somewhat older, more experienced class.
"One of my reasons was that I had seen what the presence of two or three journalism fellows did every year for the class discussion when I was talking about what was going on in Washington or in state capitols," he said.
The change in standards was tried on an experimental basis in 1980, and two years later the law faculty overwhelmingly agreed to make the change permanent.
Today, Gunther has law students who have already been aides to members of Congress or held jobs in other branches of government or business.
"Age and experience tends to breed a greater depth and maturity of judgment," he said. "The Knight fellows are not as distinctive now in terms of age."
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