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'Class of 2004' - A Commentary

By Spencer Michlin, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – This month I complete my fourth year as an adjunct professor at SMU. Most of my current students were freshmen when I began and they're now ready to graduate, so this seems like a symmetrical moment to hang it up, at least temporarily. Like most teachers, I probably learned more than I taught. Adjunct professors, in case you're unfamiliar with the term, are usually professionals in a field who are invited to share what they know with the students. While I often joked that I spent more than I was paid making copies of reading assignments at Kinko's, the non-monetary rewards enriched me more than I can adequately tell you here without blubbering.

So what did the teacher learn? For openers, a lot about SMU. Having grown up in Dallas, I still clung to the outdated notion that the students there were mostly dumb, privileged, blonde, unengaged partying fools. Well, the blonde part turned out to be pretty accurate, but semester after semester I met, almost without exception, extremely bright young men and women of varied ethnic and economic backgrounds who worked very hard and were certainly more serious students than I ever was. I loved almost every one, and like a grouchy old dog with a baby, showed far more patience with them than I would've guessed possible.

My course was advertising copywriting, which is mostly how I've made a living since the late 60's. I had a variety of misgivings about the wisdom of majoring in advertising, believing that undergraduates would be better off studying broader liberal arts topics, but I took the job for one semester as a favor to a friend and then these great kids showed up, inspiring me to do my best and to stay on. In the process, I was able to observe the wisdom, love and dedication of the other teachers at SMU's Temerlin Advertising Institute headed by Dr. Patricia Alvey.

And here's what I leaned about my students. For all of the sophistication of their lives, all the access to technologies, the worldliness and exposure to the good and the bad of our times, they are somehow more innocent and vulnerable than my own generation or even that of my children, the youngest of whom is now 26. I can't tell you why this is other than to guess that, in the face of the horrors of our world, naivete can seem a safe harbor. There's something else that seems to be missing in most of them: a passion for finding something that they want to do for a living and a resolve to knock down every barrier until they have a job in that field. Not only is a certain amount of aggressiveness needed to get anyone's attention in this carnivorous track meet of a business, it's a requirement for the work itself.

All of this is partly what makes me love them so much, but also what makes me fearful for their chances of survival in the current job market and its treacherous surrounding waters. So if you have occasion to interview anyone from any class of 2004, try to be gentle. Meanwhile, have I changed my mind about the wisdom of an undergraduate major in advertising? Not entirely. Ahh, but on the other hand, would I hire any of them? If a couple of things work out, I plan to. Would I go back in a couple of years? Only if they'll have me.

Spencer Michlin is a writer from Dallas.