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On Being a Son of a Times Journalist

Globe of the world with the text of news articles printed behind it
January 11, 2017

The journey that I embarked on to become a tutor for the College Writing Programs is a long one. As I am a history major, I would like to put my story into greater perspective, starting before my academic career at Cal and Montclair High School. I would like to begin the narrative with my father, Dean Murphy.

My father is a newspaperman through and through. He started off as a child delivering papers for the Bethlehem Globe-Times, and as a teenager he wrote for them. After his teen years,  he worked as a foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times in one of the most exciting parts of his career.    

In the 1990s my dad was assigned to cover Eastern Europe, specifically the former Eastern Bloc. One of his big stories was the collapse of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Bosnian War.  While he was on this assignment, my family was living in Warsaw, Poland, and my mother became pregnant with me. However, right before my due date the hospital suddenly, inexplicably closed for painting. This closure prompted my mother to fly back to her childhood home in Wisconsin where I was born. Two weeks later I took my first flight on a plane back to Europe.

My father’s next assignment was to cover Africa. He said that this job was the best he ever had because it was so interesting journalistically. Two of the biggest stories he covered there were about the civil war in Sierra Leone and about the transition years after the end of apartheid in South Africa. However, Africa was not the safest place to raise a young family. Our house in South Africa was a fortress. It had armed guards at the end of the street; guard dogs roamed the property; a brick wall topped with electric barbed wire surrounded it; the windows were barred, and the front door was protected by an iron gate. Even with all of these defenses, we were petrified. My dad would be gone for months at a time moving between different countries to get close to the action. When he would return he would go my brother’s and my room and kiss us goodnight while were in bed asleep. My brother, who was old enough to understand what a dangerous place we lived in, shook when my dad entered our room, scared that someone was breaking in.  

Because of these security concerns, my parents knew that they were going to move back stateside. They had a young family to raise. The decision was reinforced after two of my dad’s fellow journalists were killed in Sierra Leone. So my family moved back to the United States, and my dad started working for The New York Times.  

What this very abridged overview of my father’s career emphasizes is my own experience of being exposed to the world at a young age. Though I was not on the front lines with my dad, he brought his experiences home with him. He forced us to engage with the world around us. Every Sunday night we had family current events night. My brothers and I had to read a certain number of articles and discuss them. Being pushed over the years to learn about and be immersed in different cultures are some of the greatest things that have happened to me. I was young while this was all happening, but the events of the world (and my sense of my place in it) had a profound impact on my development and mentality. I also want to say that my dad was not part of the military. He was a journalist. Which meant we were not welcomed in the international community as we would have were we a military family or part of the government in other ways. Journalists were not popular.

A logical question would be: what does my father’s story have to do with becoming a writing tutor? The answer is simple. My dad always spoke of being a journalist as a public service, and tutoring writing can be seen in a similar way. My father did not become a journalist to earn money, but to help by conveying information about civic affairs to ordinary people and keep those in power accountable. This act of public service runs deep in my family. My mother’s second career was to be a teacher. After only a few years of teaching she won an award from the LAB School in Washington DC for her work with special education children. On top of that both of my grandfathers served in the military, a job that is the definition of self-sacrifice and serving others.  

It is this idea of public service that led me to become a writing tutor. Being a member of the Cal Crew Team, I have a connection to overseas teammates whose primary language is not English. In one case English was actually my teammate’s ninth language! Writing at a top university can be very challenging and scary. I found myself naturally drawn to these teammates and helping them. Watching my teammates grow as writers and see their success was very fulfilling. I wanted more of that feeling.  

After unofficially tutoring for a year I decided that my efforts would be better guided, and reach more people, by becoming involved formally. So I went to the College Writing Programs, and to the teacher who helped me become the writer I am today. In my first two years of college, I enrolled in College Writing R1A and R4B. These classes gave me the tools I needed to be an effective writer. I learned that the formal elements of writing (paragraph coherence, for example) are just as important as the substantive: turning arguments into weapons. Weapons that would win the intellectual war that I was battling in my papers, weapons that would change readers’ opinions and propel me forward in the academic arena.  

That is what makes the R&C courses so important, but also so challenging. These classes are an equalizer. They teach students with little or no writing background how to write. The wide abilities of students makes the courses hard to teach and tutor. Everyone has to pass the R&C requirement in order to graduate Cal. The best writers cannot write about what they do not know, and the struggling writers cannot write about something they know everything about. It is the job of the R&C classes to give students the tools they need in order to tackle the challenges of writing in college. If the material taught in the R&C classes is delivered successfully, it can change how a student views writing completely.  

That is what happened to me. In high school even though I was the son of a journalist, I did not value writing. It was hard, and I did not see the point. When I had my dad look at my essays, he would edit them heavily. Instead of accepting his constructive criticism and using it to strengthen my writing, I turned away from writing. I did not want to fail my father and jeopardize my family’s prestige. In the end I stopped giving him my essays. At first he persisted in asking to see my writing, but after my mother fell ill, editing my writing was not a priority. He needed to take care of three boys and my mother and work at a demanding job.  

Writing in college is a completely different experience. The expectations are much higher than in high school. Writing is not simply an academic obligation but a tool that transforms students by giving them authority and the power of persuasion.

In an upper division history class I took on World War II (History 100U) we were given free reign to develop our own work. I wrote on Nazi Germany’s Tiger Tank. I focused on the history of the Tiger Tank in order to look at increasingly more important concerns within Germany’s tank division structure: I linked its obsession with craft production to issues of wartime economy and politics. I took a very different approach from my peers who wrote on women in the workforce, compared Hitler to Trump, or confronted moral choices in using the atomic bomb. This ability to write on whatever a student wants and to create a focus and defend an intellectual position is very fulfilling. This is a feeling that I never had in high school, and a feeling I was only able to gain after getting the skills needed to produce solid writing.  

The capstone of my college writing experience is going to be my senior thesis (History 101). The senior thesis is not just an extended research paper because as the author I must contribute to the scholarship. I think this embodies the difference between college and high school writing. I am seriously engaging with other scholars and have the legs to stand on and fight in the academic arena. For my thesis I am using the Battle of Adrianople to analyze Roman military preparedness in the 4th Century.  

Though I have only just started work on this project, I can already tell it is going to be the greatest challenge I have faced. In order to meet this challenge, I will have to draw on all the lessons I learned in college: not only on the formal instruction in College Writing and history classes; but also the experience of tutoring which reinforced that instruction, and finally on the perseverance and discipline learned from rowing.  

I began this story by focusing on my father’s work as a journalist because it was what led me to become a tutor. I wanted to emphasize how the moral foundation of public service is important. But I can also see that the rewards of service are in an enriched relation to my own learning: a process that started in my college courses and in sharing that learning with others. And in the reforged link to my father: following the example of his service, mastering his craft.


Justin R. Murphy (History)