Processing A Hoax

A few months ago, my wife was taking our daughter for a walk in her stroller and accidentally left the garage door open. When she returned, the door in the garage that led into our house was also open. She couldn’t find her house keys, car keys and wallet — which usually hung on a hook just inside that strangely ajar interior garage door. It was freaky.

She made sure no one was in the house, retraced her steps, and tore the house apart looking for the keys and wallet. Since there had been quite a few recent incidents of people stealing unlocked cars and intruding into unlocked homes in the middle of the night — even in our very safe neighborhood — we decided to file a police report. The cops recommended that, if we couldn’t find the keys, we change the locks the next day. As an added precaution, we ended up sleeping at my parents’ house that night. My wife got the locks changed the next morning, but soon after doing so, she found the keys under a random flap on my daughter’s stroller. All turned out to be OK, but not without some tense moments of losing all sense of security that we had moments earlier completely taken for granted.

This story played out on a grander scale today at Northwestern University, my beloved alma mater. The stakes were obviously much higher: Evanston police received a call from someone claiming to have killed his girlfriend in a Northwestern graduate residence building. Northwestern’s emergency communications protocol swung into action, sending texts and making calls to all students, faculty and staff to alert them of the situation and urging them to take cover in a safe place.

It was more than an hour before the official “All Clear” message was released, and the incident was revealed to be a hoax. The call had come from somewhere near Rockford and the woman referenced was unharmed and in no danger, according to police. While this is probably the best possible outcome for a harrowing situation like this, the incident still caused a university-wide panic.

While for many people following the news, this was simply a moment of relief from “what might have been,” to me it was so much more than that.

Having studied and worked at Northwestern for more than 13 years, this was the equivalent of a home invasion for me. I also spent six years working in the office tasked with handling emergency communications (and was there for some tough stuff), which made receiving the news of today’s events particularly jarring.

I had just turned my phone back on after landing in Dallas on my way back to Chicago, when it immediately blew up with text message. Several other former University Relations coworkers were trading what little details were available via text and pondering what must be happening at our former office in these moments. Another former coworker and a fellow alum were sending me several tweets related to the situation.

Most importantly, my Mom texted me to say that my youngest brother — a current junior — was not on campus when the alert went out and was safe.

Scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds — filled with posts from students I had taught and staff and faculty I had worked with — painted a horrifying picture of the terror that gripped the place that was my home as a student for 5 years and as a staff member for 8 years. There’s a photo of 18 students huddled on the floor of a professor’s tiny office. There’s a photo of a classroom door with all of the chairs and desks stacked against the door. There are accounts of students running to closets and other hidden away areas of the student center upon receiving the emergency alerts.

While the shooting might have been a hoax, everything else that happened this afternoon was for real: the emergency texts, the police activity, the chaos, the uncertainty and the immediate coverage of little old Northwestern by national media outlets. It prompted visions of an alternate reality in which NU joined the statistics of all the other recent shootings in schools and public places.

Even though I wasn’t there to experience it in person, I feel that with today’s developments, the long shadow of gun violence in our country has finally touched me on a more personal level. I don’t pretend to have the political answers or perfect gun control policy changes, but something’s got to give. The value of human life is too sacred and our safety is too important for us to allow these kinds of things to happen so easily.

The reason that a hoax had to be taken so seriously today is because current events remind us that this is so often not a hoax. It is our sad new reality — a reality in which I can get on a plane for an hour and land to the news of violence and terror engulfing the people I love in a place that I love.

I’m praying a little bit harder tonight for all of the victims of the many violent incidents that resulted in far more than fear and false alarms. May their pain and loss be a constant reminder to us of the dignity of human life and the need to care for one another.


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A Professor Without A Class

Cancer has forced me to miss a lot of things. I don’t like to dwell on it, but it’s true. I’ve missed parties and dinners and weddings and concerts. I’ve missed monthly visits to Theresa’s family and southern Indiana’s warmer climate. I’ve missed making spur-of-the-moment plans.

I’ve missed going to work. I miss my moments of zen on the Metra–listening to a podcast, reading a book or even just napping. I miss having the stamina to stand on the platform in the chilly morning air and wait for the delayed train and then stand some more when the train that shows up is inevitably packed to the gills.

I miss reporting to my cube and saying good morning to my coworkers. I miss putting my lunch in the refrigerator. I really miss the days that I didn’t pack a lunch and took the elevator down to my office building’s all-too-convenient Potbelly’s location. I miss oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies. Do they cause cancer? If so, we might have found the missing link here.

Most of the things that I miss cross my mind every day, when I drag myself out of bed and fire up my Macbook on my couch or attend another work meeting remotely and stare at my coworkers through my webcam. Don’t get me wrong: As surely as I think about what I miss, I also count my blessings on a daily basis that my job can be done remotely, that my employer has been beyond understanding and supportive, and that technology has allowed my work productivity to continue almost uninterrupted. (Maybe don’t take any surveys from my colleagues…but still.)

But today I was reminded of something that I miss dearly and will definitely not be able to resume until I’ve officially dumped da lump: teaching journalism at Northwestern. The impetus for this reflection was an article coincidentally shared on Facebook by my favorite journalism professor that asks the question: What’s the point of a professor?

The article basically posits that students are more concerned with grades than having their lives and mindsets changed by a wizened professor, and that professors are more likely to give away good grades than spend adequate time challenging and engaging their students. I’m not interested in debating those arguments right now. I just want to talk about why I like to teach.

profpayoI started teaching at Medill five years ago, when I was a fresh-faced 27-year-old who wasn’t sure he really had any business doing this. But I had a master’s in journalism and enough confidence to sit in front of a computer lab of 15 freshmen and teach them how to responsibly tell stories using multimedia tools. Several years and several labs’ worth of students later, I happen upon them out in the real world producing cool content and advancing in their own careers. I can’t take credit for their talent or success, but I do take pride in knowing that I was one of their first journalism instructors and that maybe something I said is still rattling around in their heads or guiding their storytelling instincts.

As an adjunct professor who is not working full-time for the school, I exist largely outside the machinations of academia and I can concentrate solely on the class I’m teaching and the students in my class–even if they don’t always concentrate on me. (I once had two students G-chatting with each other across the table and giggling aloud as I dropped my pearls of wisdom. Thus was born the “laptops closed when I’m talking” policy.) I enjoy getting to know my students and watching their work improve over the course of the quarter and the course of their careers. I love that end-of-the-quarter moment when they are out of their minds with exhaustion but I can still see that they’re actually sorta kinda a little bit proud of the final project they just spent a couple weeks producing. I relish reunions with former students–sometimes an organized affair over pizza–but more often just a brief chat before or after class as I prepare to teach the current batch of freshmen and they rush off to whatever student publication or activity they are now in charge of. Some seek me out specifically for letters of recommendation or advice on what classes to take or the all-important “Is Medill really for me?” chat.

Being a professor has been gratifying on other levels, too. I love reading my course evaluations. My head usually increases a few sizes from the compliments, but it’s mainly rewarding because I feel like my mission has been accomplished. I am not an easy A. (even if the points system of the class ultimately means that there are a lot of A’s given at the end of the quarter…) My purple pen (who grades in red?) bleeds all over student stories–correcting typos, removing Oxford commas and enforcing AP Style. More importantly, I demand that my students respect the craft of journalism and respect the power that comes along with the privilege of telling other people’s stories. When I read the course evaluations, I can tell that they get that. The evaluations can also be very creative sometimes. (skip to 0:36)

Almost exactly a year ago, I had the tremendous honor of receiving the Medill Students’ Choice award–selected by student vote from all adjunct and full-time Medill faculty. I even got to cross something off of my bucket list by giving an acceptance speech! It felt so good to be recognized for something that I have poured so much of my extracurricular time and energy into, and to know that my former students appreciated that effort.

Teaching is a rewarding gig because many of my students are just good people, too. When I learned at the end of January that I did in fact have cancer, the winter quarter had already begun and I was just getting to know another lab of students…including a few repeat gluttons for punishment who had me for the first half of the class in the fall and signed up to take the second half with me as well. It took every fiber of my being not to tear up as I delivered the news that I would have to stop teaching and saw a room full of very concerned freshman faces staring back at me. Even though it had only been a couple weeks, several of them sent me messages of encouragement and hoped to keep in touch.  So many of my former students–whether still at Medill or already graduated–soon reached out to offer their thoughts and prayers, and many even got on the #DownWithLumpy bandwagon.

So maybe I’m just happy that my teaching career has not followed the thesis of that article. For my students, it becomes something more than just a required, weed-out class. It affords me the opportunity to share my values and expertise with some really stellar students. I give them a bucket and a shovel and tell them how cool sand can be. Eventually I get to watch them build castles. I can’t wait to get back to the beach.