Talking for a Living
America Rodriguez '78
I talk for a living. For 10 years after graduation, I worked as a broadcast journalist, first as a reporter for the National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate in Philadelphia, WHYY-FM, and then as a Los Angeles based correspondent for the network. I loved my NPR job, but I wanted to change the rhythms of my life. I began to think about going back to school.
Exploring my options, I set up an "informational interview" with the chair of the Department of Communication at the University of California San Diego. In his office, hanging on the wall from a garnet-colored cord, was a familiar calendar. Beaming, I introduced myself, adding "Class of '78." Michael Schudson smiled back and replied, "Class of '69." Of course, this was just a coincidence. On that day 20 years ago, I was uncertain, wondering whether leaving journalism and becoming a professor was the right choice for me. The Swarthmore link between Michael and me clinched the decision. I was home. Michael went on to chair my dissertation committee, and today he is one of my most valued friends and colleagues.
The commonality of the Swarthmore experience-the resiliency of that bond-is not merely a sentimental one. It is also about the assumptions we make about each other. (The social scientist in me is whispering, "Careful now. . . .") We Swarthmoreans love reading, writing, asking questions, sharing the answers, and then asking more questions. That can be said about most people who have had good liberal arts educations. What makes Swarthmore distinctive-what the meaning of Swarthmore is for me-is the heightened awareness of broad social and historical forces, the self-consciousness that the College encourages in its students.
At Swarthmore's core is a paradox. From the meticulously tended Rose Garden to the [former] maid service in its dormitories, Swarthmore is more than comfortable; materially, it is elite. Yet at the same time, there is an awareness of the social injustices of our world-and of our responsibility to use our privileges to right these imbalances. Swarthmore's Quaker heritage, although never emphasized, was always-is always-a central theme of my Swarthmore experience.
I was a double major in English and Spanish literature. Sipping sherry in Professor Derek Traversi's living room while discussing Shakespeare's sonnets, and Rioja in Phil Metzidakis' dining room while discussing Don Quixote, are clear memories and inspirations for me today. If there was one class that represents my teaching ideals, it would be John Hassett's Latin American literature class, where we argued passionately about the role of the United States in the Allende coup in Chile. Given that I teach at the University of Texas at Austin (52,000 students), I feel fortunate when I am able to re-create a bit of Swarthmore in my home during a graduate seminar.
Back to talking for a living: In classes, seminars, and meals in Sharples, I learned to talk on my feet. This ability has been reinforced countless times over the years, but its germ was Swarthmore. It came in handy when, in the same day, I had to report on stories ranging from community activists in Watts to Edwin Meese, President Reagan's attorney general. That calm, deliberate confidence is also helpful now when I address 500 sleepy adolescents from behind a lectern.
When I was a full-time journalist, I traced my ability to write under pressure to the second semester of my sophomore year, when I wrote four research papers in less than a week. I have happy memories of that week-and not only because I lived to tell the tale. Several of us, most of whom were members of the steering committee of the Alice Paul Women's Center, moved into a large sitting room in the center with our sleeping bags, typewriters (which some of you remember), cans of tuna, and boxes of macaroni and cheese. Although I don't think we ever said so out loud, we felt that the spirit of Alice Paul (Class of 1905) was with us. In 1923, she was the author of the original Equal Rights Amendment.
Alice Paul's Swarthmore descendants-men and women-continue to build a bridge between a liberal arts philosophy and workaday routines in classrooms, offices, and politics. In other words, we, in all our multidimensional diversity, are the meaning of Swarthmore.
America Rodriguez teaches in the Departments of Radio-TV-Film and Journalism at the University of Texas.