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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Double duty: From The New Yorker to WBEZ, Medill professors balance teaching and reporting

Illustration by Betsy Lecy
Medill Profs. Arionne Nettles, Peter Slevin and Karen Springen are three of many that have reported and written while teaching at Northwestern.

Medill Prof. Peter Slevin’s most recent story for The New Yorker was almost a year in the making. His idea for a profile on Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, titled “The Billionaire Hotel Heir — and Progressive Hero?” came to Slevin during Pritzker’s reelection campaign last year.

“I was able to spend some time with him during the campaign but then let it percolate for a while while his second term got underway, and then I spent more time talking with him and watching him in action on the substance of his policies,” Slevin said.

Part of Slevin’s work on the Pritzker profile, published in October, was completed during the academic year while he teaches classes like “Dilemmas of American Power” and “Politics, Media and the Republic.”

Slevin is one of many Medill professors who report and write outside of the classroom. While teaching, Medill faculty publish books, edit academic journals and appear on TV shows — like ESPN’s “Around the Horn,” where Medill Prof. J.A. Adande is a panelist.

This year is Slevin’s 14th teaching at Medill, and he began writing politics stories for The New Yorker in 2019. For him, balancing reporting and teaching is a matter of finding enough time so that he doesn’t cut corners in either endeavor.

“(Continuing to write) has been so valuable to my teaching because it keeps my hand in reporting,” Slevin said. “The challenges of reporting and writing and structuring a story and building sources remain fresh because I’m always on any given story.”

Another Medill professor who continues to report on the side is Prof. Arionne Nettles, an audio journalist who regularly produces episodes for WBEZ’s “Curious City” podcast while teaching classes like “Audio Storytelling” and “Intro to Podcasting.”

Nettles said reporting while teaching is a balancing act and requires time management skills.

“I try to prioritize big reporting projects,” Nettles said. “So if, let’s say, I have a big story that requires a lot of work, I’ll try not to take on as many smaller reporting stories … That’s how I try my best to balance it out so that the big stuff can keep my focus.”

Nettles’ recent work for WBEZ includes “Love, peace and Soul Train,” a story about iconic TV show “Soul Train” and its Chicago origins, and another about Florence Price, the first Black woman composer to have a piece performed by a major American orchestra.

During her five years at Medill, Nettles has also written for publications like The New York Times, The Emancipator, Chicago Reader and more.

“I might intentionally take on stories because I’ll say, ‘Hey, I haven’t done this type of story in a while. Let me make sure that I stay fresh,’” Nettles said. “I want to stay current on my skill set.”

Students said they benefit from the up-to-date perspectives that professors who report bring to the classroom. 

Medill freshman Lavanya Subramanian, one of Nettles’ students, said she appreciates how Nettles is able to remain engaged in class while actively reporting.

“(Nettles) brings really insightful thoughts and ideas from work into class,” Subramanian said. “(For example), when we were talking about objectivity and things like that that are big issues in journalism, she has really unique takes because I think she’s still so involved in reporting and journalism on the side.”

Sometimes, the classroom is also a place where professors can build current and future partnerships with their students. When Medill Prof. Karen Springen was writing “Undefeated,” a long form feature for Stanford University’s alumni magazine, she recommended one of her students, Colin Boyle (Medill ’20), to take photos for the story. 

“That was the perfect kind of story for when you’re teaching (at Medill) because it wasn’t something that I had to turn around in one day,” Springen said. “I had months that I worked on it … It was also a fun one because I could give a boost to a wonderful student.”

Slevin sometimes hires students as research assistants. Beyond that, though, he said he is always learning from his students. 

“​​(While reporting), I am having to solve some of the same problems that students are,” Slevin said. “I learn from the students and how they solve their problems. So really there’s a give and take that’s both fun and useful.”

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