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About Ralph W. Whitehead Jr.

RALPH WHITEHEAD, JR., professor, teaches the press and politics, social reporting, writing about popular culture, covering elections, and media criticism. Whitehead was a political writer in Newark, N.J., and at the Chicago Sun-Times, and has been a Fellow of the American Political Science Association, and of the Center for Policy Study of the University of Chicago. His articles and reviews have appeared in The American Scholar, The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, Commonweal, Saturday Review, The New Republic, and other journals. He has worked as a consultant to political campaigns and government agencies. Whitehead earned his bachelor’s degree at Lawrence College and his master’s at the University of Wisconsin (1967).
One of the courses that I teach is a writing course. I sit down with each student every week for 30 to 45 minutes. In the first week or two, we begin to discuss topics for what they're going to write. The idea is for them pick their own topics, driven by their own interests and experience and aspirations. This way, they provide their own motivation to get the work done. This makes it less likely that I have to push them merely to get a piece of work done, and more likely that I can push them to make it better.
For the rest of the semester, a student and I will devote a typical meeting to discussing and editing something that they had written and handed in a couple of days before. We might also discuss something that they've got in the works.
One of the benefits of these sessions for me has always been easy to identify: the students get me interested in their topics, and lead me to books and articles and movies and websites and tunes and places that I otherwise might not know about, let alone sample.
One of the benefits for them, as far as I could tell, used to be harder for me to express. I could sense it, but couldn't define it very clearly. Until I was talking on the phone with a college classmate. He's a brain surgeon and a fine writer. His name is Dr. Richard Rapport. One of his books is entitled "Nerve Endings." A rough paraphrase of one of the things he said in this conversation is this:
Out of every 10 patients that I see, there are maybe three or four who have a
condition that I have been prepared by my education and my experience to treat successfully. Once I make the diagnosis, I can see these are the patients that a neurosurgeon typically has the knowledge and tools to be able to help. And so I know how to help them. BUT: My success as a doctor depends on my ability not only to help those three or four, but to help the other six or seven patients besides.
What my friend made me realize is this: Helping students to improve their writing is sure a lot easier than doing brain surgery, and so the proportion of people who can be helped by it is probably a lot higher. But there are still going to be some students who aren't helped that much by the teaching per se. Some are already good at writing. So it's hard -- at least it is for me – to help them to get a lot better. Some are those whose writing needs a lot of work. Though they will get some of what they need, they probably won't get it all. However, because I'm talking with every student every week, both the ones who are easy to help as writers and the ones who are not, and because the burden is each student to set a large part of the agenda for each conversation, I'm able to discover other ways for me to help them. These are ways that might not be connected directly to their writing -- but have much to do with their education.


Present Professor of Journalism, Department of Communication, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst


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Contact Information

110E Bartlett Hall
130 Hicks Way
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Amherst MA, 01003
Tel: 413-545-5922

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