Remember your first year of college when you got that first “F” on an exam or paper and thought, “Holy, shitballs, I’m in trouble here. I don’t know if I’m smart enough for the big leagues.”
(If you never had one of those Come-to-Jesus freshman moments, you can just stop reading now. You won’t get this post. Also, we can’t be friends.)
I was lucky enough to experience that sinking feeling twice — once in Philosophy 100 at Edinboro University in the Fall of 1989 and again in the science lab at Penn State Behrend in the fall of 2012.
One of my first interviews after starting my new gig at Behrend ( I write stories that are used in the college’s magazine, school newsletters, blogs, and various other channels), was with a biology professor who was — wrap your head around this, kids — mapping the genetic material of the bacteria that exists inside scale insects. You know, those microscopic bugs that infest plants? He was studying the itty bitty bacteria that is found inside those microscopic bugs.
Five minutes into the interview, I knew I was screwed. He’d lost me on about the third sentence. I did what any trained journalist does — panicked internally and faked it externally. I nodded. I repeated information. I wrote stuff down. I summarized and parroted information back to him.
But it didn’t change the fact that when I got back to my desk, I had no freaking idea what we had just talked about for 45 minutes and I needed to write a story about it.
It was Philosophy100 all over again.
What to do….what to do? OK…think. I’m an experienced journalist. I can do this. What would I do at the paper? OK…I’m just going to have to ask him to boil it down for me.
I typed up an email to the professor in which I said I enjoyed meeting him and thanked him for the interview and then I said something like: I’m having trouble putting your research work into concise terms that will be easily understood by a mass audience. Do you think you could explain it to me as you would, say, your mom?
The next day I got an email from the professor that said: “Dear Mom….” (which made me actually LOL) and included a simple explanation of the project that even I, a communications major, could understand.
And that’s when I realized that one of the greatest things about my job is that while I’m often tasked with writing about complicated science, math, and technology research projects, I’m writing them with the help of professors who are really good at explaining that stuff. They are teachers.
I’m amazed at the things I’ve learned and been able to understand — physics, engineering, biology, chemistry, even mathematics — well enough to write intelligently about them.
It makes me wonder what I could’ve learned when I was in school if only I would have…say it with me, kids….applied myself.
I spent most of my life dismissing and refusing to even try to learn anything related to math or science because I bought into the label slapped on me in grade school after not doing well in those subjects on the standardized tests. I vividly remember one of my early teachers telling my mother at a conference: “She’s probably always going to struggle in math and science, but she’s going to do really well in English and Social Studies.”
I wonder now what I might have done/been/learned had I not overheard that conversation.
About Just Write “What ends up revealing itself when free writing is that everything has meaning. That is a magnificent gift of writing. If we write from a free heart-gut place, our souls start speaking.”