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I worked for BBC radio in England as a reporter for several years where every story was assigned a producer who framed the story and wrote the script. This producer, it was assumed without embarrassment, had a point of view, or an emerging point of view, as the story was reported. There were no restraints on anyone.

Re-entry into the American commercial media marketplace was a culture shock. Do we, in fact, have a free press when the advertisers signal their preferences to the editorial department for placement within a story—electronic or print? Once there was a firewall between the business/advertising departments and editorial; no longer.

I think of this conundrum at the beginning of every term especially if I have a Chinese student in my class, which is often these days. As I teach literary nonfiction, not fiction, I make a little speech about the writer/reporter’s mandate to develop a full-throated voice, to find the story and report it as thoroughly as possible, and to remain a transparent, credible narrator. I ask the Chinese students directly if they will be able to do this. They always say yes and then run into problems.

Such was the case with my thoughtful Chinese student last term. She wrote a story about an earthquake she experienced, but couldn’t tackle the government cover-up of the casualties. She side-stepped most of the story by keeping it very personal without straying too far from the dorm room where she had been living when the quake hit.

And so the discussion of her piece was interesting and a lesson for the American-born students, as well. How transparent are we? How credible? How do the constraints of the commercial marketplace determine what we write here in America? What gets published in the mainstream press and what doesn’t? We can’t be self-righteous about our so-called freedoms, we all decided, because we are not entirely claiming them. And we certainly have understanding for the Chinese students studying here and what they have to face—with a heightened awareness—when they return home.

But then the class was over and it was time for official evaluations which, sadly, are anonymous. I can’t remember when these evaluations started exactly, or why, but they are certainly being scrutinized now because they allow disappointed, truant, or cruel students to slam the professor without consequence. It’s as egregious as denouncements in a police state, though I am sure that was not the initial intention. Still, evaluations have been abused. Shockingly, a prominent Columbia University professor friend was denounced anonymously after 9/11 and followed by the FBI for two years, as was her son. She is originally an Israeli Arab but has been an American citizen for decades.

A couple of the evaluations I received from students at the end of the term felt like denouncements. I had used the class as a platform for my issues, one said, meaning what? My political point of view? I had been too harsh on the students causing one or two to drop out, said another.

Because only six of the fourteen students filled in the form, and only two were disgruntled, I should have ignored what they had to say. What use were such comments to me? None at all. But I was upset by them because the students hadn’t come forward during the course of the term to talk to me. They were not transparent, they were furtive. So I had to remind myself that, mostly, it had been a good term, the end of term self- assessment letters were wonderful. Everyone who had worked hard developed at least two stories, a writer’s group had formed, strong, well researched stories written. And each one had potential and a credible, transparent POV, including the revised manuscript from my Chinese student who returns to China this month. I plan to keep in touch with her via email and hope that our correspondence will not be censored.
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