Until college, Frank Durham’s education had focused on playing the bassoon and other woodwind instruments. The New Orleans native attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts but opted instead for “the fame and fortune of being a liberal arts professor,” pursuing degrees at Tulane University, the University of Florida, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Now an associate professor of journalism and mass communication in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Durham teaches Persuasive Writing, Public Relations Campaigns Development, and Cultural and Historical Foundations of Communication, a popular class that fulfills a general education history requirement and is required of journalism majors.
When he leaves the classroom, Durham starts his “second shift” at home—as Dad to two school-aged children. He recently talked to Parent Times about teaching undergraduates and advice for parents.
You were recognized 10 or more times by students graduating last year for having made a positive difference in their lives. How would you describe your teaching style?
I’m keenly aware that what students need is an understanding of how they can succeed in class. That comes down to a syllabus and a really clear map. But I think also that they need to hear from the front of the room that I’m interested in their success, so I tell them—and I say the same things to a class of 300 that I say to 18. I tell them I’m prepared to hear questions and that I’d like them to tell me to when they’re not getting something. I give them many ways to talk to me—office hours, e-mail, notes left after class—and I think that positive projection in the classroom works well.
What drew you to journalism?
I tell my student advisees that the story of how people find their careers is often best told in reverse. I went to the University of Florida to do a master’s degree, a professional-track degree focusing on public relations, but I got so interested in mass communication theory that I switched to the thesis track. Although I worked in public relations for a few years, I went on to Wisconsin to pursue a doctorate.
So what led me here was a series of moves that made the next “right thing” possible. And that’s what I suggest to my students when they ask about career development: the eat-your-vegetables career plan. Just keep doing things that make other goods things possible. You don’t know when you go to graduate school or when you take a job, for example, what opportunities might happen because you are there. You’re not there yet, so what you try to do is place a series of thoughtful bets and adapt to the possibilities once you’re there.
You are part of the Student Success Team (SST). What does this group do?
The SST is geared toward putting a face on the place. The University of Iowa is a large campus and I think an effort like this gives the students the opportunity to see that faculty care about what’s going on and to hear from faculty about what’s important. My favorite SST event so far has been the convocation for first-year students. I thought the pomp and circumstance of having the faculty troop out of the Old Capitol in caps and gowns to welcome the freshmen and then to tell them where they were was really important. It’s like what I said about my class, if you tell people that you’re going to serve them, if you tell people that you’re going to listen to them, if you tell them to expect good things, if you tell them that they are expected to measure up because now they’re here, it tends to happen. The SST is based in part on letting students know that they’re at a very special place with very high standards and that we’re going to help them enjoy it and measure up.
You served as a faculty representative for seven years on the University Lecture Committee. What was it like working with students on that charter committee?
I told President Mason once that working with the Lecture Committee was like teaching an honors class with an enormous budget. The students were in charge—I was sort of a friendly advisor—and they were able to develop their own professional skill sets: contacting talent agents, identifying speakers, negotiating contracts, staging the events. Some of the events were fairly routine, but some of them were really unusual. The committee provides an enormous service to the neighboring counties and to the whole state by bringing to campus public figures in politics and the arts, and the students do it.
What advice would you give parents?
Like all faculty members, I hold office hours. Very few students come. But it’s during these office hours that I give out answers to points from lecture, prospective exam questions, and career advice. I agree to write letters of recommendation. I talk about law school, job applications, and internships. It’s in these one-on-one conversations, which can be very brief, that students can get access to resources and to information that isn’t covered in class.
So parents should remind their children to visit each of their professors at least once a semester to get to know them.
by Sara Epstein Moninger