I just finished applying to the Columbia University Ph.D. program in communications, so as a special treat to my loyal reader (singular intended), I’m posting my application essays. Why the heck not?
This first installment, of two, is mostly biographical, but if there’s anyone out there who isn’t Rachael, I suppose this could give you an idea of how I came to be the (slow to blog) media hound that I am. Next up: why I want to study communications, and what I hope to do with the degree.
When I graduated from high school, I knew only that I wanted to be a writer, but I hadn’t narrowed it down any further than that. I had written maybe six short stories and one 80-some page “spy novel” with more than a small debt to Ian Fleming. But I was already a voracious reader, and language came easily to me, so I called myself a writer when I came to the University of Pennsylvania. I wasn’t then planning on becoming a journalism and communications professor and a media critic, but my academic and professional careers since then have led me clearly in that direction.
At Penn, I majored in English, practically declaring my major before I got to campus. By my junior year, I had almost taken enough literature courses to double major in English and English, and I was so sick of writing academic literary criticism that even though I had taken an interest in teaching, I ruled out a career as an English professor.
In the Fall of 1997, I studied in London, where I read and wrote about more literature, but more importantly had my first encounter with studying criticism, which would become a passion, taking a course in the current London theatre with Michael Billington, the critic for The Guardian. On my return, I took a course with Paul Hendrickson, who was then writing for the Style section of the Washington Post. This class, advanced non-fiction writing, was my first real exposure to journalism, and I liked it enough to change my concentration to creative non-fiction.
I also became involved with the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s independent student newspaper. The same semester that I took Hendrickson’s course, I became the editor-in-chief of the newspaper’s weekly magazine, 34th Street. The magazine had always incorporated humor and snarky we-know-better-than-the-mainstream music and movie reviews—both of which I loved writing—but I made a real effort to commission magazine-style journalism for the cover stories. This allowed the magazine to hew closer to the traditions of journalistic excellence of its parent publication, where I also sat on the executive board.
That brought me to graduation with a slightly more concrete idea of what I wanted to do with my life. Academe appealed to me in principle, but I had eliminated English as a discipline, and I had thought of journalism more as a profession than as an academic discipline. So I did what every other graduating English major does: I applied to law school.
I also threw in one other application, and that was to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Despite my innate repulsion at the idea of bugging strangers, I had taken to the idea of journalism because it was a profession that would keep me writing regularly. I hadn’t written a single short story since high school, but loved writing the reviews, essays, and journalism of 34th Street.
While the daily demands of the Fall reporting and writing class forced me to fight my shyness, I turned in work that I was proud of, and the final piece I wrote for the class, about Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel, appeared in the New York Times two weeks after my graduation. At Columbia, I particularly loved two courses. One was the magazine workshop, led by Victor Navasky, where I profiled The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, and wrote about Mad and Esquire. I also loved The Critic as Journalist and Essayist, taught by Michael Janeway. In this course, filled by students from both the journalism school and the school of the arts, I developed critical and essayistic skills that I hope to use in my career, writing media criticism.
While working at Architectural Record, as the magazine’s first web editor, most of my job consisted of reformatting stories from the magazine for publication on the web, which I found unfulfilling. I did, however, participate in the magazine’s award-winning coverage of the World Trade Center attacks and their architectural aftermath, writing a history of the buildings, and interviewing Kenneth Jackson, whose New York City history course I hope to be able to take. My biggest contribution to the magazine was my supervision of a new department devoted to covering young architects. I wrote a monthly profile of a promising emerging designer or firm, and the magazine gave me leeway to choose subjects and to write with style.
Hoping to find more work that I would find as intellectually stimulating as the young architects section, I had sent resumes to several local colleges. In September of 2002, the LaGuardia Community College English Department invited me to teach a journalism course. That academic year, I taught one or two courses per semester, while working half time at Record. Impressed by my student and peer evaluations, and despite my never having taught before, LaGuardia hired me as a full-time, tenure-track lecturer after only two semesters.
As the Department’s only journalist, I was given almost full control of the curriculum. I now regularly teach both the introductory reporting and writing class and a course that serves as an introduction to media studies. This Spring, I will be offering a magazine writing workshop. Outside of class, I developed a major in writing and literature for the College, created a course in creative non-fiction writing, and wrote a proposal to overhaul the Department’s journalism offerings.
I unequivocally love what I do now, teaching college students (despite often staying up until 2:00 a.m. to grade papers), and continuing to write as a freelancer. This mix of the theoretical and the practical has led me back to Columbia’s journalism school, this time to pursue the ideas behind what I do. As I read widely to prepare to teach my courses, I have become engrossed in the literature of media and communications, and I’m ready to study it formally. I’ve finally discovered the type of professor and writer that I want to be, and the Columbia program in Communications is where I want to finish becoming that person.