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The Rites of Fall

by on September 04, 2019 5:00 AM

As entrances go, Jeff Brown’s was the grandest.

Brown stormed into his first-year seminar with his phone to his ear, barking something along the lines of, “If you flunked the class, you flunked the class. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

He sighed heavily, exuding powerfully unenthusiastic vibes about the start of a new semester. Then he glared at his trepidatious troops and told them if they weren’t enrolled in PSU 9, they should get out -- now.

And then he got out. 

Seconds later, he returned, all smiles, clapping and then rubbing his hands together while breathlessly promising a fun-filled semester of learning about the wonderful world of broadcasting.

He came up for air. Then: “Who do you want to teach the class, the first guy or the second guy?”  

It was a rhetorical question. Brown, known locally as a radio personality and the public address announcer at Penn State basketball and State College Spikes games, assured his whipsawed freshmen that he wasn’t the first guy, but wasn’t quite the second guy, either – though he’s more cheery than churlish.

His point: “First impressions mean everything.”

Thus began one of the nearly 5,000 classes offered at University Park this fall. I’m not teaching any myself (I’ll be introducing myself to a room full of students in Greece next month), but I wangled invitations to four other opening days last week so I could observe the semester-launching rituals.

Two of the classes were small: Brown’s first-year seminar and Sajay Samuel’s upper-level management accounting class had about 20 students apiece. The other three were big-bigger-biggest: 50 in Shaheen Pasha’s News Media Ethics class, 120 in Ford Risley’s American Journalism: Values, Traditions and Practices class, 340 in Matt Jackson’s Survey of Electronic Media and Telecommunications class.  

Sartorially, my hosts’ attire ranged from the formal-with-flair electric-blue swirl on Jackson’s necktie and the emerald green of Pasha’s dress to Brown’s très cazh khaki cargo shorts. 

Four of my five pedagogic pals offered a peek at their lives outside the classroom. Jackson showed slides of himself scuba diving, eating ice cream and reading to his 3-year-old daughter. Risley drew attention to his southern roots and shared the happy news of his daughter’s impending marriage (there were murmurs of congratulation). Pasha talked about her childhood in Brooklyn, her three kids and what it was like interviewing Kim Kardashian. (“Like putting a fork through my head,” she said. “I hate interviewing celebrities.”) Brown mentioned his kids and grandkids and admitted that he was terrible at radio when he started. 

Fittingly for one who teaches in the Smeal College of Business, Samuel got right down to business.

“Rule No. 1,” he said at the start. “You’re on time. After three minutes, don’t come to class. Rule No. 2: No phones. I detest phones.”

Like Jeff Brown’s drill-sergeant persona, this, too, was something of a performance, though Samuel only let his martinet mask slip once in 75 minutes, when he confided that he was “not as difficult as I seem on Day 1.”

The rest of the time he put everyone in the room on the spot, some more than once, which established a daunting but clear expectation: This is a no-zone-out zone. “I have an uncanny ability to see people who are sleeping with their eyes open,” he told them. The result was a lively and fast-paced discussion – of accounting!

Let me express my admiration for Samuel’s approach this way: If I, the old lit. major in the back of the room, were to make a list of academic subjects in order of my interest in them, accounting would go at or near the bottom. Yet I found Day 1 of Management Accounting compelling from beginning to end. I think the students did, too.

Other moments from Opening Day: 

  • When Risley asked his class what’s in the news, he got responses that did my little journalistic heart good: Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide, one said. The G-7 conference, said another. Fires in the Amazon, said a third. (Less surprisingly, news of Andrew Luck’s retirement and Spider-Man’s exit from the Marvel Comics Universe had also left an impression.)

  • Jackson told his SRO telecommunications class that they spend more time consuming media than they spend doing anything else. Then he warned them that he would ask them to forgo their “pacifiers” for 36 hours this semester. 

  • Pasha, new to Penn State, informed her class – at exhilarating New Yorker speed -- that she’s loud, obnoxious, yet painfully shy. “How many of you are shy?” she asked. No one raised a hand. “Liars!” she said.

Students call the first days of the semester Sylly (as in syllabus) Week, expecting little more than a fluffy succession of ice-breaking activities and previews of the work at hand. Four of the five classes I attended included those elements. But mostly I saw teachers teaching.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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