Saturday, December 20, 2008

World Religions' at Harvard Extension College, its benefits and challenges

By Eric Hjerstedt Sharp

Last year, my eyes caught an announcement of the Religion Newswriters Association on the newsroom bulletin board at the Daily Globe. Ironwood, Mich., advertising a scholarship through the RNA. It didn’t take me long after reading the requirements and aims to determine I would be applying for the scholarship.

As a reporter, staff writer and editor at various newspapers throughout the Midwestern and Western United State at different times from the 1970s through the present, I had come in contact with various assignments and beats that involved religion in various degrees. From writing obituaries, religious holiday stories and interviewing ministers and priests; I often had the chance to write about the plethora of religious experience in this country.

Even more relevant, was the broad array of stories that involved poverty, politics and other general assignments that had indirect religious overtones. Human interest stories often have religious factors to them.

Religion is a subject that interests me because it underlies human interactions and often mediates social realities. Unfortunately, it also too often perpetuates the status qua as well; such as a justification of slavery or the Trail of Tears the Cherokees endured in the 1830s.

After a look at the RNA Web site, the first challenge at hand was choosing the institution of higher learning I would attend. Already having a bachelor’s of arts from the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colo., I determined that I would attend some school that offered graduate level courses. Although not necessary for the general assignment reporter, a master’s degree was something I always wanted but had pretty much ruled out unless I could somehow attend classes after retirement. At 57 years old, I had pretty much been resolved that a graduate degree was not in the cards for this writer. After all, if there is any profession where academics is not stressed it is journalism. At just about every newspaper or publication I had worked at, there was always someone who didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree, and I can’t recall any paper I had worked on where there was someone with a master’s or doctorate.

I determined after talking with staff at RNA that it would be possible to finish many of the requirements of a master’s degree by taking religion classes at virtually any university or college. And even if I didn’t take more than one course, I could determine if a master’s was something I wanted to pursue. Having been away from academics for more than a quarter century, I had little idea if I could withstand the rigors of a graduate level course, much less a graduate program. But I wanted to give it a try.

Since the enrollment in any class was in no way mandatory I decided to challenge myself and I narrowed my search down to two schools: Oxford University and Harvard Extension College, both that were offered an excellent online program. My reasoning was thus: both colleges had long held my respect and awe.

My approach to writing, even journalism, has always been academic. As Philip Graham said, “Journalism is the rough draft to history,” and I have always felt a responsibility to future academics to write not only accurately, but about relevant topics that will have meaning in the not-so-distant and even distant future.

Oxford has always held my highest esteem. The Oxford English Dictionary is my dictionary of choice if I am writing academically or about words. But it was the quality of it wordists that determined Harvard to be my choice.

At Harvard Extension College, I took the same class that was held at Harvard University, and even attended it in real time with my Cambridge, Mass.-classmates.
My avocation since graduating from UNC has been poetry. And as a poet-journalist-event organizer, I have always adhered to Ezra Pound’s proclamation that “Poetry is news that stays news.” Although such notable contemporary poets such as Donald Hall, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Robert Bly and dozens of other went to Harvard, it was my fondness and respect from childhood of the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson that finally attracted me to enroll at the Harvard Extension College.
After all, I could go anywhere and why not challenge myself. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

To say graduate work at Harvard (along with my editorial duties at Daily Globe) for me was grueling would be an understatement … a vast understatement. Fortunately, I have a hard-nosed, gruff, task managing editor at the Globe who I have learned more from in two years than my previous editors throughout my career.
At most of the weeklies I worked at, I was either an associate editor or news editor, so I had it pretty easy … which was not as good for preparation for a hard-hitting newspaper as the Globe. As a junior and senior in high school, I regularly read two newspapers: The Daily Globe and The New York Times at the library at A.D. Johnston High School in Bessemer, six miles east of Ironwood Michigan.
The Globe has always been known for its investigative reporting. The Gogebic Range where it is located is a depressed area once one of the world’s leading iron mining regions. It was connected by dozens of railroad tracks to the iron ore docks in nearby Ashland, Wis., where they are now preparing to tear down the last of the gigantic ore docks that would take the iron out of the range through the Soo Locks on the eastern edge of Lake Superior. From there, it would go either south to the steel mills of Gary south of Chicago or east to Cleveland and Pittsburg or further east out the Saint Lawrence Seaway to China … which is where most of the taconite pellets head these days.
The benefits of my course in World Religions were many. The course covered the world’s religions and spirituality belief systems in 10 short weeks. Since taking the course, I had the opportunity of writing about someone finding a Torah in a warehouse that used to be used in a synagogue in the Ironwood-Hurley area. Being brought up protestant in Wisconsin, my knowledge of Jewish law was very limited. The story would have been too daunting, or I would have failed to see the significance of finding the scroll without the background I gained with my professor and the online class at Harvard.
Religion is an important element in the lives of people of the Gogebic Range. Far from being homogenous, the predominant nationalities are Italians (Roman Catholic) and Finnish (Lutheran). But within 100 miles, there are more than six Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian Reservations. In addition, there are literally dozens of other nationalities and belief systems; including earth-centered religions, Universalist Unitarians, United Methodist and the other Protestant sects, Mormonism and many of the other denominations and sects. In not so close proximity, but of importance economically and politically; Detroit, of course, one the largest Muslim contingency in the United States exits.
So, yes, the course had an enormous impact on me and was a life-changing event for me. Without reviewing the vast information and knowledge gathered in the short time I was enrolled, I can say it was the most challenging, interesting and compelling course I have ever taken.
The online infrastructure at Harvard is superb. The teleconference each week to the classroom within Harvard Square was outstanding, and with the sound and PowerPoint capabilities of the program, in many ways it was better than being there. Unfortunately, my work schedule prevented me from using -- as much as I would have liked to -- the writer’s workshop and other Harvard amenities I had available at my finger tips.
In addition, financial and health hardships halfway through the course, almost caused me to drop out. I went from a high B during mid terms to a C after finals; but I did pass with a C. Even with the workload at the Globe and the monetary pressures I encountered; I am still am very honored to have participated in the Eli Lilly Scholarship through Religion Newswriters Association. Although my early enthusiasm for possibly entering the graduate program at Harvard has waned, having experienced the absolute brutal academic regimen that it is; I would gladly continue my studies through Religion Newswriters Association.
I would do it a lot differently, though; which is the subject of another essay.

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