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College, Then and Now

By Skip Tate

I suppose what I did was illegal. Still, considering the circumstances and the fact that it was 2:00 a.m., it seemed justifiable. Especially to a college student. When you’re 20 years old, logic and law don’t always exist in parallel universes.

What happened was this: Unlike some majors where the necessary knowledge and skills can be perfected in a classroom, when studying journalism—my chosen path—what’s needed is practice and experience. That’s practice and experience in reporting, practice and experience in writing, and practice and experience in working on deadline. And the only real way to teach this in the classroom is to make the students do it. So often classes would involve the professor standing up and saying, “This is going on right now. I want you to cover it and write a story about it by the end of class. You have 45 minutes. Go.”

One class in particular was structured to do nothing else but this. It took place once a week from, 3:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m. in a basement classroom of the journalism building, which at the time was Lasher Hall. And it was taught by a professor whose grading style and unbending nature earned her the nickname “The Slasher from Lasher.” She would invite in a guest, we would collectively interview this person for two hours and then be required to have a rather lengthy feature story under her door by 8:00 a.m. the next day.

All of which was fine and offered great practical experience, except for two things: One, I had a job working at a local newspaper and had to report to work as soon as the class was over. And, two, I lived about as far away from Lasher Hall as anyone could and still be considered on campus. That meant that I couldn’t start writing the paper until my work duties were done, which on a good night was around midnight. That also meant that if I wanted to get the paper in on time, I had to get up early and trudge all the way across campus to be there by 8:00 a.m. Or, even worse, risk oversleeping and getting an “F” because I didn’t get the paper in on time.

What was needed was another plan. What I needed was to drop off the paper before I went home from my job that night. The problem was, by that hour—usually around 2:00 a.m.—the building was locked. This is where the waters of legality became somewhat murky.

While I consider myself a legally, ethically and morally responsible person, apparently not all of my youth was productively spent. That is to say, somewhere along the trail of my boyhood I learned how to open locked doors. This was not a skill I ever put to any real use—or even thought about—but combining the circumstances of the moment with what were probably too many philosophy classes, I reasoned that no harm would come if I just slipped in, dropped off the paper and slipped out.

So I did.

Each week.

For a semester.

I never said anything to anyone except one of my co-workers at the newspaper who was also a student and who also had the same class—and the same problem—the next semester. She asked how I dealt with the issue and I fessed up.

“Can you teach me?” she said. I was reminded of this sordid piece of my past recently while editing a story about the new Learning Commons and how it’s going to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While college has always been a place of odd hours for students—study when you can, sleep when you have to—that hasn’t always been the case for the facilities. Until recently. We’re living in a non-stop world, and the University is following that trend. The library now offers access to a librarian 24/7. The Gallagher Student Center recently began staying open 24/7 after much student clamoring for a place to go late at night.

It’s all part of college in the 21st century, which seems to be becoming more and more a distant relative of the college I went to. Oh, the concept is the same—teaching people to think—but the ways and places that gets done are barely recognizable. Students want to learn in groups instead of individually. They want to sit around in café-like environments with their computers instead of holing up in the library with a stack of books. Classes are interdisciplinary. Classrooms are flexible. Technology is everywhere.

If that’s what it takes for students to learn, though, that’s OK. If nothing else, at least they won’t have to worry about how they’re going to have to turn in their papers at 2:00 a.m.

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