By Christopher B. Daly
Much has been written about David Carr — as a writer, memoirist, editor, friend, mentor, reporter, and critic — and rightly so. He was a man of many parts.
I come to praise him for his last new venture: Professor.
When David died, he was the holder of an endowed chair in the Journalism Department at Boston University. There he was, inventing himself all over again. Far from the places in Washington and New York where he had made his bones, David was putting himself on the line to try something new.
And he was not just dabbling. He took it seriously, and from what he revealed, he was dead-serious about teaching. He saw teaching as another way to do most of the things he cared about — writing, thinking, criticizing, and nurturing this thing that we all care about so much.
David came to our attention early. Back in 2012, we were given a new chair in Journalism by a generous graduate of BU — Andrew Lack, a veteran news executive at NBC and Bloomberg. Andy wanted to use his donation to let us hire a professor who would be engaged in the big, noisy debate over the future of quality journalism. Specifically, he wanted to pay for a professor who thought a lot about the evolving economics of news.
Tom Fiedler, the dean who oversees BU’s Journalism Department, asked me to chair a committee to search for someone to fill the Lack Chair in Journalism and the Business of Media. (The others were profs. Bill McKeen, Anne Donohue, and Marshall Van Alstyne, along with Charlie Kravitz, general manager of BU’s NPR affiliate, WBUR.)
Almost from the get-go, David was on everyone’s wish list of people we hoped to attract. In fact, in an early meeting, Andy Lack, said he envisioned the position as one where the professor would be on David Carr’s speed dial for comment about the news business. It was a short step to think: why not David Carr himself?
A little while later, good news: Andy Lack had bumped into David Carr and mentioned the position to him, and he didn’t say no.
We were all very excited. He was at the top of our field, and he had more than 400,000 Twitter followers. What else could we want? But in academia, we have procedures that we must follow, and searches for new faculty come with more rules than the NFL. (Going back through my email, I can see 304 entries in a folder called “Lack Search”). We advertised for the spot, and we got in the low hundreds of inquiries.
But one got our attention: David Carr actually applied.
He wrote an amazing letter of intent (dated July 31, 2013). Here’s some of it:
Beyond my professional and educational experience, I’d like to suggest that my steady history of outperforming expectations in every job I have had makes me worthy of consideration. I’m a thinker, a journalist and a writer but I am also a worker, an earner, and a good colleague. I am reflexively loyal and ferociously represent the interests of the people and institutions with whom I affiliate.
While my teaching experience has been episodic, I have consistently given freely of what has been given to me by others who have shown me the way. I was taught that truth matters, fairness matters, excellence matters. Those values are relevant even as the skills required to prosecute journalism morph to meet a changing media landscape. . .
My intent is to establish a line of academic inquiry in class that is both participatory and observational. Whenever I spend time with students, I emphasize that they have to make things. The employment marketplace is far less interested in a prospect’s grade point average than what he or she has created, which historically been a clip from the college newspaper, but now takes many other forms. Since the students and I would be spending three hours together each week, I’d like to establish a parallel track of media creation and distribution. Apart from providing object lessons in using tools at hand to make things, the production and execution would give me criteria to evaluate and grade students’ understanding of the subject matter. . . .
In spite of my lack of a steady teaching position, I believe I have some relevant skills from my time as an editor and reporter. I took the liberty of attaching some letters of recommendation that I solicited and am proud of the fact that many mention a consistent history of finding and mentoring exceptional young minds.
Should you and the committee decide that I meet the expectations for the position, please know that I would work with the students, faculty and leadership to ensure that the college’s reputation for academic rigor and practical excellence only grows during what I hope would be a long and fruitful association. . .
I asked him: why teach?
He explained that in recent years, he had been asked many, many times to appear as a guest speaker in college classes. He accepted as many as he could, but it had begun to wear on him. He said there was a lot of travel time involved for a 45-minute appearance, and he wanted to improve the ratio of schlepping to speaking. Not only that, but he felt he was spreading himself too thin. He’d like to try his hand at developing a whole course and find out if he really had anything to say.
Besides, he said, he had worked as kind of a professor for much of his career — as an editor, he was famous as a spotter and developer of talent — and he had a genuine stake in the success of younger people he had brought along. David also submitted more than a dozen of the most amazing letters of recommendation I have ever seen — from colleagues, from younger journalists he had mentored — all over the moon.
Of course, we hired him.
As far as I know, he only presented one real demand: He insisted on keeping his column at the Times, which suited us just fine. He would commute to Boston on Mondays, teach that afternoon, then stay overnight and be on-campus for most of each Tuesday as well.
As soon as he was on board, I invited him to do a turn as a guest speaker in my beat-reporting class. It so happened that a student in that very class had just posted an item online that took off. He and a friend created a graphic that they called “Journalist guest speaker cliché bingo.” Each square had a cliché about journalism that they were already sick of. It was going to be a tough room for David. He never flinched. He went right at it:
And, of course, the students loved it.
David brought much to the classroom, but still he was nervous about his own first course. I offered him some practical advice and lots of encouragement, but he really invented himself as a professor. After a period in a cocoon, out popped this amazing, brightly colored new species. His first syllabus became an instant classic.
To begin with, we will look at the current media ecosystem: how content is conceived, made, made better, distributed, and paid for. We will discuss finding a story, research and reporting, content management systems, voice, multimedia packaging, along with distribution and marketing of work. If that sounds ambitious, keep in mind that in addition to picking this professor and grad assistant, we picked you. We already know you are smart, and we just want you to demonstrate that on the (web) page.
I grade based on where you start and where you end. Don’t work on me for a better grade — work on your work and making the work of those around you better. Show industriousness and seriousness and produce surpassing work if you want an exceptional grade.
This is an intense, once-a-week immersion on the waterfront of modern media-making. If you don’t show up for class, you will flounder. If you show up late or unprepared, you will stick out in unpleasant ways. If you aren’t putting effort into your work, I will suggest that you might be more comfortable elsewhere.
If you text or email during class, I will ignore you as you ignore me. It won’t go well.
I expect you to behave as an adult and will treat you like one. I don’t want to parent you — I want to teach you. . .
Students spend hours scrutinizing their professors, and they are pretty shrewd judges. David’s students came away knowing that they were lucky. They got the privilege of spending a whole semester with a brilliant man who really cared about them.
One of them, Claire Giangrave, wrote this in his memory:
He walked into the class shyly, his head bowed as it always was. He had prepared what he was going to say, as he would for every class, his fingers scrolling his notes on his red I Pad. I had waited to meet him for years and could not believe that he was teaching me. At first he wasn’t a great teacher, dispersive and chaotic. But he got better, he taught himself to be better, and when needed he asked his students for advice.
He wanted us to learn and to be good reporters. When the scandal regarding Bill Cosby and the alleged rapes emerged, David wrote a piece denouncing himself as one of the many enablers in the media that had kept it a secret for so long. He showed us how to be brave, how to speak our minds and keep our integrity as journalists.
Two more of Carr’s students, Megan Turchi and Justine Hofherr, also wrote about him this week. :
Carr took the time to meticulously edit our work, whether he did it from a plane, train, or his bed in New Jersey, which he described as surrounded by stacks of old New Yorkers and books authored by friends he meant to get around to reading. He just loved TV so much, he said. Carr always seemed honest to a fault.
It’s scary to be a young journalist. Many people tell you it’s a terrible field to get into. Carr always touted its importance and gave us hope, holding us to high standards and championing hard work. Carr’s professionalism in the field, eagerness to learn, and love for the Times were all reasons for us to do better.
David impressed his colleagues as well. I knew from the search process that there was a certain amount of skepticism on campus. In fact, David was a worker. He made it to classes, and he even made it to faculty meetings — a duty that a lot of veteran professors routinely blow off.
For anyone who knew David, none of this would come as any surprise. All his life, he outperformed. He understood in a deep way the essence of the internet: you get by giving.
Last time I heard from him was last weekend. He wanted to chat because he had pneumonia, and he was worried about having to miss class. He felt terrible about that, and he wanted to explore options: could he get a sub? Could he make it up later? What do professors do?
I tried to reassure him, and then he shot me an email the next day: he was feeling better, so never mind. He was going to soldier on.
From his last email:
on mend. coming monday am, weather permitting.