Sunday, September 28, 2014

As the University Passed Through Me

My first encounter with our head of department, then Dr S.A. - he became a professor much later - was in the introduction to mass communication class. A man of just about average height, he walked into the classroom on the first day dressed in a black suit, revealing an underlying white shirt over which he knotted a sky-blue tie. He walked to the lectern, placed his right elbow on it and watched the class waiting for the racket to die down. His prominent, dark forehead reflected light, his lower lip drooped, revealing disordered incisors. He had no notes on him.
     When he was sure he had our attention he said, "Good morning class!"
     "Good morning Sir!" We roared at him.
     "Well, class, my name is Dr S.A. Some of you probably know me already. I also happen to be your head of department and I'm taking you in the introduction to mass communication class, a six credit course. It's a favourite course of mine because it's an opportunity to welcome you to the university, especially those of you from village schools who never imagined they would make it to this place..."
     This caused some laughter and several students were pointing at one another as suiting the description.
     "I want to tell them that I was once like them, and that we're here to make you better, more civilized and hopefully wiser.''
     The laughter continued.
''What I always tell my students is this: Do not pass through the university without letting the university pass through you. Looking at you now, I can see a class almost evenly split between men and women. In my days there were very few women, like one or two in a whole class. And for people like me there was no chance, I was neither rich nor handsome.''
     This bit got bellies rolling with laughter. And he just stood there with a barely visible grin, twitching his right leg intermittently to some rhythm, really looking ugly while he waited for us to recover.
     "So what I'll say to the men is that you don't know how lucky you're. Some of you don't believe it yet. But I'll advise you do take the ladies out, take them out to drinks. Take them to the C.E.C. Don't be afraid. There's no formula for winning a woman. Some you win by being wise, some by being foolish. So take your chances.''
     It was useful advice that stayed with me for a long time in my life.
     ''Now, for the course I'm going to teach you, if you give me back what I gave to you, you'll get a C. That's the bare pass. To get anything more than that, you have to give me more than I gave to you, you'll have to surprise me. Then you're likely to get an A. So what I'll give you are study guidelines; I want you to go into the library, bookshops, find relevant books, read them and come and surprise me.''
     Dr S.A. went on generally in that vein, making him an instant favourite of mine, whose lectures weren't to be missed for the fun they promised. His style remained the same chitty-chatty approach, where he would enter the class without any notes and would engage us in arguments and discussions on given topics in mass communication and then some up with lesson outcomes at the end.
     "For those who want something to write down," he would say. Then he would dictate some key points for the class to write down, always from the top of his head, without notes.
     In our first year we only did two departmental courses, introduction to mass communication and another one called elements of journalistic style. Dr S.A. took us in both courses, and was the only departmental teacher we had that year. In introduction he made a general description about the various aspects of the field, from newspapers, through radio/tv/film as well as advertising and public relations.
     Then he talked about the various theories of the press, from the authoritarian to the libertarian to the Soviet-socialist models. An often cited authority was Marshall McLuhan and his oft-quoted phrase, "the medium is the message." Dr S.A. also talked about American theorists such ss Wilbur Schramn and their modernizstion theory, which suited the idea of the civilizing mission in Africa, to which he and most of his contemporaries appeared to subscribe to. We were expected to improve as we imbibed the norms of the civilizing agent or stagnate, regress to the extent we failed to copy.
     People like Dr S.A. were the been-tos who had been annointed by the masters to help educate us.
     "Those who practise journalism for newspapers, tv, radio - tend to be very famous. But those who practise advertising and public relations are the richest," he once told us. We laughed at the time, and how true it turned out to be?
     Then he would talk about the famous American investigative reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. Often he would talk of the great anchors of American television such as Walter Cronkite, Oriana Fallachi and Barbara Waters! They were all head-swooning names that left us repeating them in awe and wonder.
     That was generally the vein of the class.  And it was a large class that included English, Fine Art and other social science and humanities majors who took it as an elective. Dr S.A. had a habit of paying more attention to the pretty girls in the class, especially Chinne, a Philosophy major; Chinwe, an English major; and Barong, Awele and Angela in our class.
     With Chinne he often woukd discuss newspaper or tv stations in Michigan (Dr S.A. had attended Michigan State University and Chinne was born in Detroit). With Chinwe he discussed the Irish Times. newspaper. And if the rest of the class showed any discomfiture to these often prolonged. exchanges, Dr S.A. accused them of being envious of people who were more exposed and had traveled to civilized places.
     As he said this someone hissed in displeasure.
     "Who was that that hissed?" he queried in anger.
     No one owned up.
     "If I catch you hissing in my class you'll get a CD."
     "Don't mind the ewu (goat)," a young man named Obaze said.
     Dr S.A. turned sharply towards him. "If you ever say 'ewu' in my class again, you'll get a CD. Do you understand that?"
     "Yes Sir!"
     Thus were the ground rules of conduct established by Dr S.A.
     If his introduction to mass comm classes were informal, even more so were those of elements of journalistic style. We were the first set to take the course, which was Dr S.A.'s pet idea, and the curriculum was still evolving. So he impovised. The basic text he recommended for the course was Elements of Style by W.H. Strunk and E.B. White, popularly known as Strunk and White, a small book that was to be my companion for many years.
     Essentially, he focused on those very simple mistakes that make crucial differences and the importance of clarity. These included the spellings of names, places, the contextual meanings of words, the importance of attribution and so on.
     "For instance, that town in northern Nigeria you all mispronounce Kotangora is not Kotangora, it is Kontagora," he would say, setting off giggles. "Or you may say you're going to Makurdi, the people who own the place don't call it Ma-kurdi, it's Makurudi.
     "There was a Nigerian going to the United States of America and his American friend here asked him to take a message to his sister in New York. He said, 'Ok, I'll knock her up.' In America to knock her up means to make her pregnant!"
     The class burst out laughing.
     "Well, as reporters you have to always ensure you're reporting what you see and not what you think. One effective way you do this is by attribution. You have to make clear your source of information. For instance, there's that Christmas carol that says a long time ago in Bethlehem, as the Holy Bible says. The singer makes it clear he's not the one saying, that the source is the Bible.
 That's clear attribution, so you can't hold him responsible for that piece of news as his source is clear."
     By now the class would be quite animated. He hardly joined in the laughter. Each time he started he would become conscious of exposing his bad dentition and would shut it down.
     He also made fun of our English pronunciations.
     "I hear you people always saying 'monki, monki.' It's mon-keey, not monki. It's cor-ffee, not coffi, coffi."
     My fondness for him took a dent not long afterwards when I went to his office along with Timi and two other male classmates to have him sign off on our course registration forms. Normally, we would leave the forms with his secretary and come back to collect them. But I think on this occasion the secretary reasoned that since. Dr S.A. was already with some of our classmates in his office, we might as well join them. So he asked us to go in.
     As Timi stepped in followed by me, we found him seating and surrounded by three girls in our class, eating groundnuts and bananas. He flared up when he saw us.
     "How dare you walk into my office like that?" he glowered at us. Before we could say secretary he shouted, "Common will you get out of my office this very second!"
     We turned and fled in a twinckle, our hearts pounding. The secretary apologized to us later, saying he assumef since he was with our classmates, who had also asked to sign the same documents, he thought it was ok to let us in.
     We had no doubt in our mind the reason why the he-goat harbours so much hatred for fellow males.