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Thank You, Professor Crist

By Charles Fountain ’83
Journalism Professor -- Northeastern University

The semester at Columbia was 14 weeks long when I was there. I was in class with Judith Crist for two hours every week. It is amazing what an impact those 28 hours have had on my life.

I’ve spent most of my time since Columbia in front of a journalism classroom at Northeastern University, and I hear her voice in my head almost every day. If I can teach for another 23 years I will match her longevity. I’m healthy, and I like it, and have nothing else to do, so I just may make it. But her longevity, alas, is all I can ever match.

I’ll never master the withering look as she peered over the top of her reading glasses at the beginning of class and asked: “Can anybody tell me what the assignment was?” and instantly make us all understand that we had again put our writerly pretensions ahead of clarity and/or focus, and over the next two hours she was going to explain word-by-word exactly how we had failed.

I’ll also never have the chutzpah or the clout to do what she did the week she took us to a movie screening. We’re sitting in a screening room, somewhere around Columbus Circle as I recall, and, they’re fifteen minutes late or so starting the film. She asks one of the other grown-ups in the room why the delay, and was told we were waiting for Janet Maslin. With the same exasperated tone she had when pointing out something particularly stupid in our writing, she said, “Oh, for God’s sake,” stood and walked back to the projection room and told them to start the film, Janet Maslin or no Janet Maslin. They did.

There are moments when I teach—in a graduate magazine writing class, or an upper-level feature writing class—when I can sense the discussion move beyond the mechanical into the passionate, and in those magic, but fleeting moments, my students are—maybe for the first time—thinking of themselves as writers. And I think back to the Thursday nights before our Judith Crist pieces were due, when those of us in the class used to call one another and read each other our pieces, and of the Tuesday afternoons in class, and afterwards at the West End, when we were thinking to ourselves—just maybe we can do this.

In her end-of semester critique, she said I was too nice in my comments in our class discussions, that I needed to be more concerned about the quality of the writing than the feelings of the writer. I’m not sure any of my students over the years have felt I was too nice, but I’ve tried to make all understand that my allegiance is to the quality of their writing. And when the chance presents itself, I tell them about the teacher who taught me that.

I’ll always remember a conversation I had with her when she invited us to her apartment at the end of the school year. She was asking about what came next. I had had an all-but-insignificant little career as a television reporter prior to Columbia, and had some encouragement on some resumes I had sent on that front, and told her I was thinking about going back into local television news. “Oh Chuck”—it was the first time she had called me anything other than Mr. Fountain—“it’s such an illiterate profession.” I’m sure she meant it only as an observation on the sad state of local television news, but I took it to mean that she felt that I could do better than illiterate. Anyway, I took it as high praise.

I am now in the middle of writing a book, which is too slowly, but ever so steadily taking shape. And it suddenly seems very obvious that on this day my obligation to Prof. Crist’s memory is to make today’s thousand words something with just a little extra precision and polish, and perhaps even a little élan.

Charles Fountain

Posted by: AlumniAlumni August 2012

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