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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Growing pains as a grown-up student

Clocks dictate the rhythm of modern life. For journalists, it’s deadlines that rule. So when a group of overworked mid-career hacks were plucked from shrinking newsrooms and conflict zones, relocated to the cerebral US city of Cambridge to indulge in personal growth and academic exploration – and ordered off deadline for 10 months – there was more than a degree of post-traumatic stress.
Going through my crammed sabbatical diary this week as my Nieman fellowship at Harvard University draws to a close, I see how my class contained the jitters. We set our own chaotic rhythm. Talks, media workshops, interviews, Harvard classes, conferences and media award-ceremonies competed with social events, music gigs and squash round robins, family-friendly soccer and sight-seeing across the Charles River in Boston - plus an obligatory Red Sox baseball game.
We dipped into the events calendar of the 34 other institutions of higher learning in Boston, but diary fatigue inevitably kicked in.
“The fellowship is like a hose,” former Nieman fellow, Gail Smith, told me before my departure from South Africa last August. “It just does not stop flowing.”

I left South Africa with my husband Steve Pike and children, Tyler, then 13 and Ella, 7. During “course shopping” in Orientation Week, I sampled classes at the Faculty of Arts & Sciences and Kennedy School of Government. In a Leadership class, a self-assured student dominated discourse with an intimidating professor, Ronald Heifitz. I discovered afterwards that the student was used to seizing centre stage – she was actress Ashley Judd.
Last a student (and not a very studious one) more than 20 years ago at Rhodes University, it was intimidating to walk into an undergraduate class. Here, ambitious, super-privileged young brains gather before world-renowned professors. Instead of pen and paper, students are armed with Apple Macs. They toggle effortlessly between note-taking and social-networking. When they raise their hand to ask a question, they don’t get stage fright or verbal dyslexia. The words flow melodically from their lips.
This is, after all, Harvard with a big H. More than 70 years ago, Nieman founder and benefactor Agnes Wahl Nieman battled to convince the Ivy League university bosses to let a Motley Crew of journalists loose on campus for a year of intellectual enrichment. Considered a “very dubious experiment” at the time, the first class of experienced journalists – some with basic education – were put to the test. The programme flourished. So far, more than 1,300 journalists – including about 80 South Africans starting with Aubrey Sussens and Lewis Nkosi in 1960 – have made the pilgrimage to Harvard for “a year of learning, exploration and fellowship”.
I have had the privilege of observing famous professors in action. Like an extra on a TV show, I saw African-American studies Professor Henry “Skip” Gates impress students with his provocative social oratory. In my modern African History class, Professor Caroline Elkins, who won a Pulitzer for her book on British atrocities in Kenya, Imperial Reckoning, shattered preconceived ideas about my misunderstood continent.
Lippmann House, the headquarters of the Nieman Foundation, became my second home. There, I succeeded where Palestinians in Gaza were thwarted when linguist and US rebel, Noam Chomsky, shared his views with fellows at one of our weekly seminars. At Lippmann, I also experimented with fiction writing under the razor-sharp eye of author Rose Moss – a former South African.

In our weekly New Media class, the crisis in journalism dominated discussion. We quickly grew tired of writing our own epitaph. We looked for solutions. Slow learners like myself embraced new challenges. Switching from seeing the digital era as the Grim Reaper, I latched on to the label “tra-digital journalist” – one who adapts to new mediums, but retains traditional principles and values.

Surrounded by many journalists who have adopted social networking and self-promotion to survive in the revolutionary news business in the United States, I opened a twitter account and a Linked-In account. I started a blog. I downloaded tweetdeck, audacity, realplayer, dropbox and Skype.
Our class of more than 30 fellows and affiliates (spouses) swapped notes about experiences in different corners of the globe – such as Gaza, Venezuela, Chile, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Britain, Portugal, China, Cuba and Peru. Fellows who covered the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and others who have been hounded by the state shocked us with stories about death and destruction, cover-ups and self-censorship.

We became a family. We bonded over shared passions and principles – non-fiction storytelling, press freedom, justice and truth-telling. We agreed that the craft of journalism needs to be cherished, no matter the medium.

End-of-year panic set in a few weeks ago. Over-stimulated and exhausted, I reached out for more. I toured the Boston Globe – the daily metropolitan newspaper. I sneaked a visit to the Lampoon – Harvard’s satirical magazine. I ventured into one of eight all-male final clubs, The Spee – which stands chauvinistically today 50 years after feminism. I also popped in to the court house in Boston to say howzit to the Chief Justice of Massachusetts, Margaret Marshall, a former South African anti-apartheid activist.

The Nieman tap is still flowing, but I have reached my word count and missed my deadline. I wonder, do you think my editor-in-chief will be sympathetic if I ask for a sabbatical from my sabbatical when I get back to Cape Town?

This article appeared first on the South African media web site grubstreet:

Pictures: top: Harvard commencement on May 27. middle: Nieman sports team
bottom: With African American studies professor, Henry "Skip" Gates