Professor of Communication
B.A. English, Goshen College
M.A. Latin American Studies, New York University
Ph.D. Rutgers University
WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD, WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GREW UP?
Before I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a farmer because several of my cousins lived on a farm and called me a “city slicker” from New York. I figured if I were a farmer I’d be safe from the teasing. But when I started kindergarten and became more sophisticated, I came to see that I might want to put some other factors into that vocational equation. I had to follow Parker Palmer’s advice: “Before you [or your cousins] tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”
WHY OR HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?
In high school I had a teacher, Roseanne Brenneman, who asked me to read a poem aloud in a creative writing class and then invited me to serve as assistant editor of the school newspaper, The Millstream (“all the news that’s fit to float”). With that tap on the shoulder, I discovered a love for journalism and sharing writing that stays strong to this day.
WHAT’S EXCITING ABOUT YOUR JOB OR THIS FIELD?
The great thing about journalism, especially as a reporter, is that every day is different. You wake up and you may cover an election or talk to a 90-year-old airplane pilot or report on a plan to fix up a rundown hotel. As Lou Boccardi, the former president of Associated Press, put it, “You come to work every day not really knowing what you’re going to do.”
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
I don’t know about the best, but I like Anne Lamott’s observation: “Good writing is about telling the truth.” Being a writer, whether of poetry or essays or news or feature articles, is a high calling.
WHAT ARE YOU REALLY PROUD OF? (IN A MENNONITE, HUMBLE SORT OF WAY, OF COURSE)
As a reporter, I investigated a landlord who was illegally evicting tenants from an apartment building in Brooklyn. It so happened that the landlord’s name was Charles Raffa, the father-in-law of the governor at the time, Mario Cuomo. For tenants in the building, facing the prospect of eviction in a city with a bureaucracy so vast you need a GPS to get around, what do you do? As so often happens, it was most effective just to call the local newspaper, in this case The Brooklyn Paper, where I picked up the phone and began inquiries that would lead to Mr. Raffa agreeing to let the tenants stay.
Reporters don’t have the power to subpoena or indict. But they can shine the light on places where there is corruption or incompetency or mistreatment, and sometimes that alone can be the fix. At their best newspapers are an essential part of democratic life: a fourth estate, as they say.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
I’d study more languages (Spanish and German, for sure), and travel while in college and just after. Once you’re on a career track, it’s hard to get away, unless you’re hired to do just that, as with a foreign correspondent.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG PERSON JUST STARTING OUT?
If the question is, just starting out in journalism, I would say, take every opportunity to write and to develop a broad command of storytelling tools. To be successful, you have to have a story to tell, and the ability to tell it well, whatever the medium – in words, moving pictures, still pictures, audio narration, photos, graphics.