JACC No. 9: Getting a thesis topic

April 19, 2017

A series of my most memorable moments with the Journalism Association of Community Colleges.

It was the late 1970s. I was teaching part-time at Merced College. I was plodding slowly through my master’s program at Fresno State University. I needed a thesis topic and needed to get started on it if I was ever going to graduate. Most of my coursework was completed, I just needed to complete the master’s thesis: probably the toughest thing I ever did in my life.

I could see in retrospect that I was still a little immature to be working on a master’s degree.

By then I was attending JACC workshops and conferences at the bidding of my Merced predecessor Dr. Steve Ames, who had moved on to Pepperdine University.

JACC conferences were a great place to meet with other journalism faculty and learn about teaching. So many of our programs across the state are one-person programs and few on campus have any idea –or care about– the demands of advising student publications. The only problem is that they happened only once a semester. We had telephone and the post office, but nowhere near the instant communication we have today: Conferences are where most communication took place.

One day I was having a conversation with Pierce College admired veteran Tom Kramer, along with a few other advisers from around the state. I had mentioned I was trying to find a thesis topic. He turned to me and said, “Why don’t you write a history of JACC.” The organization had begun in the mid-1950s and was approaching its 25th anniversary. Enough turnover was taking place in instructor ranks that history was in danger of being forgotten. Bingo, I had my topic.

I scoured boxes and boxes of newsletters and meeting minutes over the next year and drafted my history. Then I went on the road up and down the state and interviewed some of the founders or long-timers in the organization, or their widows, to fill in the gaps. I still use some of what learned about interviewing during that time as examples when I teach students today about interviewing skills.

Some of the early two-year college journalism advisers had latched on to the four-year California Intercollegiate Press Association –a mostly student-run university organization that provided conferences with workshops and contests for students. They ran a parallel organization with CIPA until 1962. California community colleges expanded rapidly around the state in the mid-1960s and with that growth came a swell of community college students at CIPA conferences.

Soon the conferences were too big and unwieldy. The Journalism Association of Junior Colleges, as it was known back then, was asked to leave. CIPA later collapsed and the California College Media Association replaced it, modeling its organizational structure largely from the successful JACC.

(Personally, I think the request to move on was partially because CIPA conferences were often planned on the fly, and thus chaotic, but an even bigger issue was the California Education Code, which still lumps the community colleges with the K-12 schools rather than with the four-year universities. The difference? Adults at universities could drink alcohol at conferences –some universities even have the own taverns on campus—and adults at two-year colleges cannot. It was becoming an issue.)

Back to the thesis: One interview eluded me. I very much wanted to interview the organization’s first faculty president: Irv Harlacher from Monterey Peninsula College (a college without a journalism program today). He had left Monterey and I tracked him through several jobs, but lost him when he had moved to a job in New Jersey.

I was almost done with my thesis when Dr. Jean Stephens of Sacramento City College –one of the biggies in the organization by then—called me and told me he was back in California as president of College of Marin, just about 50-60 miles from West Valley College, where I had just begun teaching full time. I got the interview, but by then he had little to add to my history … until I was putting the finishing touches on the thesis when I discovered an unanswered question. I called him up again and he was able to give the last piece to that puzzle.

The ordeal of getting my thesis approved by the Fresno State graduate office is another interesting, but long story. Suffice to say that it was approved on a Friday in mid-August 1981 on the last day West Valley gave me to finish if I was going to keep my job there for the 1981-82 school year. This was before fax machines, so I had to hop in the car and make a frantic four-trip from Fresno to the San Jose area to turn in my signed paperwork to the West Valley Personnel Office 15 minutes before it closed; 15 minutes before I had no job the following Monday.

JACC named me its official historian.

Any wonder yet what role JACC has played in my life?

Previously: No. 10: The swimming race and the photo darkroom

Next: Stories: Yosemite, The shooter, Handcuffs, West Valley rules

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