My short term goal in applying for both the Knight Fellowship at Stanford and the Michener Foundation Fellowship, which was integral to my being able to accept the Knight Fellowship, was and is a posting as Southam correspondent to Moscow. I’d much prefer that – and the reporting I’ll do in the following three-plus years – to stand as the principal product of the fellowships.
But I’d like to keep talking about the consequences of my fellowships for a minute, since they seem to me to be the best testimonial of the use to which I have put the time and money. When I talked to publisher Clark Davey about my written application for a Knight Fellowship, I remember him pointing out it was about time I made up my mind whether I wanted to be a reporter or a manager. It took a while; in fact, I didn’t really didn’t decide until Jim Travers, The Citizen editor, and I started to discuss re-entry half-way through the year. But at that point, I realized that I was a lot more interested in things like nationalism and Europe than in getting my way in arguments about page design.
As a result, I’m now the fellow people at the Citizen come to ask about Bosnia, Russia, and the Middle East (well, not counting Travers), rather than one of several people trying to be an expert on how to fun the paper, and waiting for more senior people to get out of the way.
When I returned from California I became the paper’s foreign affairs specialist on the editorial board. In November, I was appointed World Editor, in which role I have been given a great deal of influence over coverage and play of foreign affairs. In addition to my regular work, I have contributed a number of op-ed pieces and book reviews I wouldn’t have attempted five years ago. Also during this time, I have kept up my Russian, had trips to Israel and Washington, and served a six -week spell in Europe filling in for Southam London correspondent Juliet O’Neill.
Finally, in addition to becoming a more valuable (or at least less common) commodity at the paper, I have read, thought and learned more about world affairs in the last three years than in the previous 20, and in the process had more fun and gotten a lot more satisfaction out of coming to work.
So then, back to Stanford. The Knight program gave access to the full range of university undergraduate and graduate courses, with no requirement that course work or examinations be completed, although in graduate seminars, of course, we were not welcome if we hadn’t done the reading or had nothing to contribute. This arrangement allowed us to take more courses than would otherwise be possible, and in fact, I’m still working my way through some of the books I bought related to undergraduate lecture courses.
I did take the tests and exams in Russian to make sure I was getting it right, however. And among other things, I took full part in a class project on negotiating an end to the Balkan war. (Interestingly, the team taking the role of Washington, advocated the use of force, including U.S. ground troops, to bring the parties to heel, and the rest of us thought this was a terrible idea and did everything we could to prevent such a drastic solution. I’ve learned a bit since then.)
In my application to the Michener board, i said i was focusing on nationalism, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. I won’t repeat the full list of courses i had taken, or planned to, but i d like to highlight a few that were most closely connected to my work plan, and that have had the most direct impact on what i am doing now.
20th Century Eastern European history. i have become especially interested in Ukraine and Poland, and what those countries teach about the causes and consequences of ethnic nationalism. The former east bloc is like a huge onion of overlapping national instincts, with people like the Ukrainians shaped by the patronizing, exploitive behaviour of their masters (first the Poles, then the Russians) and in turn behaving with similar self-defeating arrogance toward their own minorities. Often the instinct is to place matters of national pride and independence above the things–like economic reform–that make them sustainable.
The reading in this course also opened my eyes to the huge social and cultural differences between the West and a region which in some ways still lives in the last century: with great gulfs between town and country, and between the intelligentsia and working stiffs. One of the things I’m most interested in writing about is the current clash between the Western tendency to rank people according to wealth and economic power, and the eastern tendency to rank people according to education, culture and political power.
Soviet economics. I’ve also become interested in the depth of difference between the Soviet and Western economic systems, and the reasons the current transition is so difficult. Built into the Soviet system (and consequently, gradually into the people) were forces that discouraged managers from being too successful, and that were far too forgiving when industries did not meet their targets. The system created an economy in which the real currency was contacts and favours owed, rather than paper money.
The history of Islam. This course sparked a new interest and insight into the Middle East which continues to fill my bookshelves to this day. I have become particularly fascinated by the Middle Eastern version of the nationalist puzzle, in which Israelis fail to recognize in the Palestinians the forces that drove them toward building their own state.
The Transformation of Europe, I989-90, taught by a former Bush administration national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice (and the one that involved the Yugoslav role playing). This is one of several courses i d like to do over again with the background I have now. I chiefly remember it for its insights into the U.S. mindset on the cold war and recent foreign affairs: Rice was absolutely convinced that U.S. policy caused the fall of the Soviet Union, for example, and she had a revealingly jaundiced view of the role played by the allies during the period.
The Collapse of the Soviet Union – Causes and Consequences. This seminar I remember most for: a) teaching me how little I really knew about a subject I thought was my specialty; b) illustrating the near impossibility of overhauling both the political and economic cultures of the East Bloc at the same time, and c) the embarrassed admission by so many experts, including our professor, that virtually no one anticipated the sudden communist collapse.
A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned the lack of pressure to complete course work or produce papers in the Knight Fellowship program. In a way, this is its defining characteristic. The program does not want Fellows to focus as narrowly or single-mindedly as they do in their regular jobs. On the contrary, when you arrive, the organizers make clear that part of the idea is to stop doing that for a year, to tackle subjects, ideas or activities that have nothing to do with your normal life, and in general to just slow down.
The only requirements are to attend weekly Knight seminars, and to stop normal work activities. One fellow, an editorial cartoonist in Miami, considered his major accomplishment for the year preparing for a flute recital; on a less extreme note, several classmates put a lot of effort into fiction writing.
Personally, I think this lack of pressure was probably the best thing about the program, and I know all of my classmates agree. We spent the year exploring what we wanted to explore; in fact, I probably stuck closer to my original goals than most of the others. Everyone went back to work refreshed and with new ideas of what they wanted to do with the rest of their careers, and many have already made significant changes.
Three other non-class parts of the program should be mentioned: two positive and one slightly negative.
The contacts and friends (from Washington to Warsaw) I made are priceless, on both a personal and professional level. And I now understand our southern neighbour, and her politics, much better than I did.
The weekly seminar program run by the Knight Fellowship staff was, however, a bit disappointing. Too many of the speakers were Stanford academics doing an annual turn, and they made a poor comparison to the Nieman equivalent, according to one of the spouses who was a Nieman fellow in Greg Weston’s year. I should add, however, that this shortcoming was discussed at the end of our year, and I understand improvements have been made.
One final point: the Knight Fellowship program was wonderful for those of us with families. The communal, graduate-student accommodation was perfect, and more importantly, the nature of the program allowed us to make time with our families a higher priority. Several spouses said they’d seen more of their wives/husbands than they had for years, and several had very firm intentions about keeping that up in future.
My Knight and Michener Fellowships gave me the crucial kickstart to a career change that has been the best thing to happen to me since my children were born. I’ll admit that i occasionally miss editing and management – the career path seemed clearer – and the last few years might have been easier if I had stuck to the skills and track record l’d built up in previous years. It look a while to get my writing up to speed; and it has taken a while to get the reporting job I want.
But even if I never get the Moscow posting, I will be happy with the new path I am on, and the different contribution I am making. I won’t really feel satisfied until I have a body of work on nationalism and Eastern Europe, based on some first-hand experience in the region, to repay the support the Citizen and the Michener Foundation have given me.
April 11, 1996