The decision that changed everything

March 9, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writing, Writing for the Mass Media.

Early in my academic career, I made a decision that seemed fairly minor and local at the time, but it turned out to be enormous and to change the entire trajectory of my 38 years teaching at the college level.

I had come to the University of Alabama’s Department of Journalism in 1978 and had liked the people and the campus more than I expected to initially. After about three years, my wife and I had purchased a house, we were raising a child, and I had settled into my career very comfortably. My teaching load and the courses that I taught were more than satisfactory to me, and I was beginning to establish an area of research that I found interesting and productive.

Our Department was part of a School of Communication that included a Department of Advertising and Public Relations and a Department of Broadcasting. Each department offered its own courses, and faculty in each department’s faculty contributed to the general courses offered by the School of Communication.

One of those courses was a freshman-level course that was an introduction to writing for all of the majors in the school. The course was known as MC 102, and at the time it enrolled more than 200 students each semester. As with many other freshman-level courses, there was a large lecture session once a week, and then each student was assigned to a writing lab that met twice a week. The writing labs were conducted by graduate teaching assistants.

(Right: Denny Chimes, University of Alabama)

The structure of the course and the number of students that it enrolled each semester meant a very different approach from what I had been doing to that point had to be taken to the course. That was evident to everyone who was on the faculty at that time, and most people were glad not to have all that responsibility.

One day late in the fall, my Department chair came into my office and told me that the person who had been teaching that course was leaving for another teaching position at the end of that semester. He was wondering if I would be willing to take over that course. Without thinking about it too much, I told him no, that I was happy teaching the courses that I had been assigned. He accepted my response without much of a comment.

That evening I went home and thought more about what I had been asked to do. I was not particularly interested in teaching the course, but I did feel some obligation to be a team player. With the other faculty member leaving at the end of that semester, I knew it would be difficult for the school to find another person to assume the teaching responsibility. I felt a little bit guilty about turning down the request so quickly. I may have even said something to my wife about it, and if I remember correctly, she encouraged me to consider teaching the course at least for one semester.

The next day I went into the Department chair’s office, told him that I had reconsidered, and that I would teach that course for the spring semester. That one decision did something that I did not have the wisdom to foresee. It changed my entire academic career.

One of the things that I did not realize at the time was how unusual MC 102 was. This course had very few equivalents in other journalism and communication programs. Consequently, because academic publishing is a market-driven business, there was no standard textbook for a course like this one. There were journalism reporting textbooks — quite a few of them in fact — but there was nothing on the market at that point that seemed to be suitable for this course. The professor who had been in charge of the course had been using a journalism reporting textbook, but I quickly realized that this was not an appropriate book to require of students. Nor did it cover the parts of the course the advertising, public relations, and broadcasting students needed as an introduction to their fields.

One of the goals that I had when I entered academia was to write a textbook. In the short time that I had been in academia at that point, I had been able along with a couple of other colleagues to write a text in the field of journalism and to acquire a publisher for it. So at least I had a publishing record.

As my frustrations in finding the text grew, I slowly came to realize that if I wanted to continue teaching this course beyond a single semester, I would have to write my own textbook for it. And that’s what I did.

Writing the textbook is anything but easy. It is a time-consuming, energy-draining, and daunting task. But I was determined to see if I could put together something that would work for this course. For each Christmas vacation when we lived in Tuscaloosa, my wife, son, and I would drive to East Tennessee to stay with her parents for a couple of weeks. At the end of that semester, we did that, and I remember sitting in the front passenger seat of the car — my wife driving and my son in his carseat in the back — and outlining what was to become the textbook that I would write.

During the next semester, I had to learn the ins and outs of teaching a large lecture course, directing graduate teaching assistants, and dealing with the myriad problems that the course presented. On top of that, I devoted as much time as I could to writing the text that had formed in my head. By the end of the semester, I had a workable draft, and I continued to work on it and add to it during the summer.

At that time, the campus bookstore had a service that would publish course material in a spiral-bound book form if it was not available in any other form. I took advantage of that service and had my draft published as a book so that the fall semester students could use it. It turned out to be a great way to test what I had written to see if it worked for the graduate teaching assistants and for the students. I gained a great deal of valuable feedback with that first edition.

By the next summer, the book, which I had titled Writing for the Mass Media, was in good enough shape for publishers to take a look. I sent it to the editor at Prentice Hall publishers. He had published my first textbook, and I valued his opinion a great deal. He responded by saying he would send it out to some academic reviewers to see what they thought of it.

A number of weeks passed — I don’t remember exactly how many — and he called me back with what sounded like bad news. The reviewers liked the book, but there didn’t seem to be that much demand for it. I braced myself for a rejection, but then he said even though it was true what the reviewers had said, he believed that communication programs were developing so that there would be a market for this book. He said he was going to recommend to his bosses that Prentice Hall published the book.

If what he said was correct, that there would be a market for the book, this would be the first text available for that market.

He turned out to be correct on every count — to my great benefit. The book was published in 1984, and a market did indeed develop for such a book. Mine was the first. In the next two to three years, a couple of other books that covered the same material as mine appeared on the market. At first, I was concerned about that, but then I realized that this indicated that the market was growing.

In academic publishing at that time, the life of a textbook is about four years. Sometime in the third year, a publisher would decide if the sales of the book were enough to merit a subsequent edition. In most cases, they do not, and a book will die after one addition.

In the case of Writing for the Mass Media, however, the publishers did want a second edition of the book, one that I was happy to be able to produce. Sales continued for the book at a good pace, and after three years of the second edition, the publishers ask for a third edition. (By this time, I had a new editor.)

This cycle continued for the remainder of my academic career. By the time I retired in 2016, the book was in its ninth printed edition, and the publishers were transitioning many of their titles to digital formats to adjust to a changing textbook market. I was able to oversee that transition as one of the last things I did in my career.

While I was active, the book was used at more than 500 colleges and universities around the world. Occasionally I would meet students or graduates from other universities, and on hearing my name, they would say that they had used my book in one of their courses. One person was even kind enough to say that writing for the mass media was the only textbook that he kept on his bookshelf from his college days.

In many ways, that book defined my academic career. The book was a product and the consequence of a single decision that I made and for reasons that had nothing to do with the book itself.

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4 comments on “The decision that changed everything

  1. I was one of those students! Not only did it form the basis for a solid course at the University of Tennessee that I took as a graduate student, but Dr. Ed Caudill spoke of you in tones of wonderment and respect. I don’t remember the authors of most of my other textbooks, but that one stuck with me, and when I later became tasked with overseeing a similar course at the college where I fortunately landed, of course I chose your textbook.

    You were still in Alabama when I was at UT, but I knew that you came to UT later. Still, I still cannot believe my good fortune in stumbling into the Sunday school class you co-taught. As I recall, at the time I thought it was an interesting coincidence that you had the same name as my textbook mentor. It was some weeks before I put two and two together, and I am glad for the mentorship that continued.

    I’m now approaching retirement myself, only one or two years away, and sometimes I think about how your influence (and several others) has spread through your own students and your writing to plant seeds beyond counting, to the benefit of our society. Too often, teachers are like the mythical (vs. the historical) Johnny Appleseed, who planted his trees and moved on, never seeing the fruit. I am glad that you hear occasionally from someone whose life YOU changed. I know it is gratifying when I experience that rare “where are they now” moment.

    So along with thousands of others, I am glad to say: thank you!

    • Donn, your words are kind and heart-warming and have made my day. I honestly did not realize that when I was putting together Writing for the Mass Media that it would be something that so many other people — instructors and students alike — would find so useful. You’re right: scatter the seeds (as the parable tells us); you never know where they are going to fall and produce. I hope that you are doing well. We miss you very much in the Sunday school class, and I hope that things are going well for you. Jim

  2. Jim, I enjoyed reading your account of why you decided to write Writing for the Mass Media. My editing textbook came about for much the same reason — other textbooks on the market didn’t meet the needs of students I taught.

    I also enjoy your newsletters and marvel at how you manage to read, write and draw in such volume and excellent quality.
    Congratulations on your selection to the Writers Hall of Fame. It is an honor well deserved and past due.

    • Dorothy, thanks for your very kind words. I’m glad you enjoy the newsletters. Retirement, as you undoubtedly know, is a liberating experience, and I am enjoying it very much. Jim

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