Not a student; a learner

A week or so ago, I was trying to describe to a friend the kind of student I was in college. I said, “I wasn’t a student; I was a learner.” I meant that I liked to learn stuff — to read, to listen, to watch and experience — but I didn’t care to recite it back or answer a bunch of true/false questions. I was a B-/C+ student in a family of straight-A brilliance. I was a learner; my siblings just called me dumb. (That’s what brothers and sisters do.)
I think that “learning chip” is partly why I became a journalist. I got paid to observe, to ask questions about things I didn’t understand, and then write what I found out. Yes, I ended up “reciting” what I learned, but I wasn’t overtly given an A or a B. People either read me or they didn’t. If I found an interesting story and I didn’t get in its way in the telling, I passed. If I put a dull finish on a story, I failed.
And then I got to go out the next day and try to do a better job on something else. I got to keep learning something new every day, and it was my job! For a learner, how awesome is that? So what that it didn’t pay much.
When I became an editor, I had to adjust my reward and recognition system. I found stories, but I wasn’t writing them. (Except, of course, when I had to rewrite someone’s  sloppy reporting/writing job.) I needed to find another outlet and I discovered the online world. It was new and exciting. It seemed as if it changed every day, with new processes (blogs?) and practices (linking out?) and terms (viral?) and ethics (transparency, how?). It morphed into digital and social and networks and mobile. The learning curve looked sharp, but once I started, I found it was smooth and gradual and easy. It fit my mode of education: observe, read, ask questions, experiment.
The grading system is the same, except it’s faster and, honestly, more fun. If you have something to say, people read you. It might be a story, a blog, a Facebook post, a Tweet, an Instagram, a video. I could go on for awhile on that track. And people would do more than read you. In real time, they would tell you that they enjoyed it or that you sucked or that you got this or that wrong.
You learned something, you told people and they reacted. Not bad for a journalist.
I thought of this when I read Steve Buttry’s excellent “Dear Newsroom Curmudgeon” post. I don’t know that I ever feared being a curmudgeon. I think I just feared getting bored and being left behind. Maybe that’s what happens to B & C students whose siblings are straight A students.

6 thoughts on “Not a student; a learner

  1. That seems to be true for so much of us in newspapers. It’s one job where it’s OK – actually better than OK – to ask really “dumb” questions. You’re under no obligation to show your sources how smart you are. You’re only obligated to explain things to the reader. And that’s a process you work out independently while sitting at your computer. It’s permanent school.

    Nice post.

  2. Some people, and I’m lucky to be one of them, just don’t hesitate to indulge their inner geek. If they think something might be interesting, they look at it some more, and if it actually is interesting, they immerse themselves in it, whether it’s old maps or insects or video-game graphics or what-have-you. Margaret’s like that. Jim Schlosser was probably more like that than anyone else I’ve ever known. That man’s curiosity contains universes.

  3. As someone in her first reporting job, I know I’m greener than an unripe banana. Sometimes I focus too much on the day-to-day highs and lows making rookie mistakes and figuring out how this business can work. Then again, I think back to just a few short months ago when going to school felt like going to a job I hated. Reporting doesn’t feel anything like that. Thanks for writing this — it’s a good reminder of how lucky some of us are to have irrepressible curiosity, a high tolerance for long meetings and an incorrigible habit of saying, “I just have one more question.”

    Hope this comment finds you well. I’m enjoying the blog!

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