One of my outstanding Harvard Extension School students sent me the video that’s linked above. It’s a tale of skulduggery — how a powerful company can pressure, bully and threaten a news organization when the company’s neck is on the line. Monsanto Chemical Company vs. Fox News.
Lots of undergraduates want to study public relations. Armed with my unlikely set of credentials and skills — a Ph.D. in English lit with dissertation on American poetry, followed by freelance writing, magazine editing and then speech writing for corporations the size of Monsanto — I launched a career teaching PR. I’ve been at it for nearly 25 years.
I come from a business family, not an academic one. My father, a Russian immigrant from the Polish pale, was one of the legion of children who spent their childhood on the Lower East Side in the first decades of the twentieth century. He was a tough guy. Got his nose broken in a fight. Moved pianos. Hung with a rough crowd. Even after he grew to maturity, and became a success in the rough and tumble wholesale fur business in NYC’s shmata district, this toughness remained. His suits were silk, his nails lacquered, his wheels an Olds and later a Caddy. But that toughness was learned in the streets and tenements and probably embedded in his DNA. He faced down his share of rough characters, and hung with a couple of mink stole, Caddy-driving gangsters –relationships which eventually soured. The mobsters pulled an armed robbery caper in Bobby Brown Furs on 28th Street, which as a 12-year old kid I was quite excited to read about in the New York Daily Mirror. But that’s another story for another time.
Dad was what’s commonly called a self-made man, if that’s what we do — make ourselves. Whether we do or not, he was one of the few who gave that name to their generation — the ones who made it out of the streets and uptown. Literally. To where I was raised, on West 15th, East 89th, Central Park West and the Upper East Side. Up and up. His success indemnified me against having to survive as he had, in the streets. But to me growing up, Dad’s success was just the background to my own story. I had no idea of my good fortune. Just the opposite. I was full of self-pity and resentment. But that, too, is another story for another time. In a way, of course, it’s a rather common and tedious story.
What’s more interesting to me is what I see looking back on my childhood from the perspective of a 64-year old. There is really nothing that self-made about me, other than my educational and scholarly interests. What I teach isn’t English, much less poetry. It’s business — business communication. It’s rhetoric. Persuasion. Writing. That’s because in my youthful alienation, I found in the voices of great writers — Doestoevsky, Turgenev, Dickens, Thackeray, Twain, Salinger, Henry Miller, Keats, and curiously enough, in Freud –the clarity and courage that felt like truth. I never imagined I was one of them, or would ever be. But reading them was like listening to musical instruments. It was enough to listen and try out a few notes on my own.
My career as a teacher is a fortunate accident, something I fell into because I wanted to be in the company of authors and, to some extent, of readers and writers. I was and still am a plugger, grateful that I landed in a profession with the liberality to tolerate someone with my combination of focus and eccentricity, and my belief that much inchoate feeling can be translated into articulate communication — writing, speech, conversation.
Unlike English lit, public relations is not revered, nor does it need to be. What public relations may be about isn’t so much persuasion (the fancier term is ‘rhetoric’), but survival. When I’ve suffered a grievous loss — the sudden death of a wife, the loss of a career (so I thought) — in my anguish and my need to survive I’ve turned to writing and speaking and conversation. At least, those are the healthy turns. So in a way, when I teach whatever it is that I teach, I’m really teaching all I know about how to use language to survive. I’m told I can do that pretty well — well enough to have made a career of it. Well enough to have made a living doing it. Well enough to have survived my own callowness and cruelty and ignorance, and to have to learned a little about listening and compassion.
I’m a teacher because I was lucky enough to have so many good teachers. These things I’ve said before. But they’re worth repeating, in a diary, a blog, on a streetcorner. To everybody or anybody or nobody in particular. Just to keep talking, keep writing, keep surviving — and pass along what’s been learned from all that work.