Opinion: Taught to teach ourselves

EJ StoutBy EJ STOUT

 

Never before have I found such fulfillment than I have during my time as managing editor at The Voice.

I arrived at Washtenaw in the fall of 2009 after a short-lived stint out of state. I spent a few years going through the photography program and then transitioned into graphic design, all while working full-time on the side. I knew that I wanted to be in the creative arts, but I struggled with feeling untapped and uninspired.

It only took one meeting in TI 106 for those feelings to dissipate. Here was an intelligent, engaging, witty, snarky group of people who worshipped grammar and revered punctuation. Hell yes.

What started as a job in page design quickly grew into a newfound sense of ownership. Here was my chance to combine all of my creative passions into one. I wanted to be involved, make suggestions, fight for solutions.

As I moved into my role as managing editor and creative director, the newsroom became my home, and the people in it, my family.

We went through many ups and downs in my first year, but it wasn’t until this past fall that we really learned to fight.

It was a painful experience, losing Keith Gave in December. We knew the fallout was going to be difficult, but we had no idea exactly what was in store.

Most of our staff had never met Pete Leshkevich before he sent out a blast email alerting them of Gave’s departure. We had asked that we deliver the news to the staff ourselves, but we were denied the ability to act as leaders to our own team.

As tensions rose, questions swirled and fear of the unknown loomed, we wanted to protect our whole staff – to guide them through this transition and help make the next semester run as smoothly as possible.

So we played along. We spent hours meeting with our superiors, talking through the needs and goals of each student, and we waited patiently as they pushed our start date back further and further.

According to that first blast email, we had been assured that the college was committed to providing “appropriate advising support” in the coming semester. We wanted to believe it. We pushed through fears of naivety and allowed them the benefit of the doubt.

We did everything they asked of us.

And whether it was beyond their control or simply an all-too-familiar “misunderstanding,” we never did get that adviser.

Would a student publication without a seasoned adviser strip us of our credibility? It seems ridiculous to think that anyone would hope for honest mistakes to pile up and to watch our authority and impact as a publication dwindle and die.

No one could be so caught up in preserving their image that they didn’t care who suffered as a result.

Or would our new autonomy only deepen our sense of confidence and raise the standards we now had to set for ourselves?

We might not have been given a title – and we certainly weren’t getting paid for it – but, by all accounts, we were expected to become our own teachers.

When I expressed fears about the future of the paper, I had instructors tell me, “This administration can do whatever the f— they want.”

After months spent witnessing tensions between faculty, staff and administration, it’s easy to see how instructors on this campus could feel so defeated.

The faculty have grown weary of fighting. They’ve spent two years distracted from what brought them to this college in the first place – students. So with many faculty retreating to hunker down and wait it out, the burden of fighting slipped further down the line.

As I continued to stumble through the hallways in preparation to graduate, my schoolwork inevitably suffered. It wasn’t just about me anymore. I now felt a much greater sense of responsibility to my team in the newsroom and the student body as a whole.

Despite encouraging comments behind closed doors, the severity of our situation became hard to deny.

No one was going to fight for us.

The atmosphere of fear, intimidation and manipulation that seemed only to circulate in third-floor offices and staff meetings had finally hit students.

With our training wheels ripped off, we set about creating our own code of ethics – both inside and outside the newsroom. What kind of people did we want to be? What values did we most want to emulate? Were we content to follow the chaotic example of miscommunication and misunderstanding set by those supposed to be guiding our futures?

Or did we have our own voice?

We became stronger, no longer fooled by vacant smiles or empty promises.

We could no longer rely on a safety net to catch our mistakes – we had to pour over our reporting and writing to ensure the utmost accuracy and credibility. Instead of being scared and unsure, we had to trust in ourselves, our instincts and the power we held as a unified team.

When Shel Silverstein wrote his poem “The Voice,” he couldn’t predict how meaningful it would be to a confused young reporter searching for answers.

There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you – just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.

This place, this experience, has left a permanent mark on me in more ways than one. It’s been one of the hardest seasons of my life, yet I haven’t lost the feeling of excitement whenever I walk through the newsroom doors.

It has ripped me apart, taught me to question everything – most of all myself. It has reintroduced me to my creative passions and formed me into a meaningful member of my community.

It’s created unbreakable bonds within the team who have walked with me hand-in-hand on this intimate journey, and I couldn’t have gotten through this without their unwavering support.

Six years within the walls of this college have changed my course forever. I came here dejected and untapped, not sure how to change my past mistakes into successes – or whether it was even possible.

I wouldn’t have stayed here so long if I didn’t absolutely love this college. I love my instructors; I love my classmates; I love my coworkers, and I don’t take for granted the opportunities here that many students across the nation are never afforded.

So when I walked out of my last class at Washtenaw, I cried.

I cried for the abandonment I felt during my last semester, and I cried for the future of this paper and the future of every student on campus.

I can only hope that the cycle of disregard for students can be reversed and repaired, and that teachers who have retreated in fear have the courage to step up once again and advocate for those who need this institution most.

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