The Collegian
Friday, April 19, 2024

Editorial Board: On Mike Spear's retirement from UR journalism after 34 years

<p>Mike Spear is a beloved journalism professor at UR. After 34 years, today was his last day as a full-time professor.&nbsp;</p>

Mike Spear is a beloved journalism professor at UR. After 34 years, today was his last day as a full-time professor. 

After 34 years teaching at the University of Richmond, Professor Mike Spear is retiring. The oldest professor at UR, he gave us our first Fs ever in his Copy Editing course — a prerequisite for being a Collegian editor — and he is without a doubt The Collegian’s biggest supporter and critic. What follows is an appreciation for the man who is, in our opinion, one of the greatest professors this university will ever know.

Spear is responsible for my appreciation of journalism and language in general. He made copyediting less of a chore and more of a way to push ourselves to solve each sentence’s flaws, like a puzzle.

In his literary journalism seminar, we read some of the best articles ever written, and tried to dissect their greatness. Sometimes a sentence’s perfection couldn’t even be explained. I strive to write sentences like these, while Spear’s southern drawl echoes in the back of my head: “Now, isn’t that a nice sentence?”

The first time I met Professor Spear, I was a young, aspiring journalism major struggling through Practicum as a sophomore. I met with Spear to interview him for an article, and was immediately amazed with how genuine and caring he was toward students. After the interview, not knowing me at all, he promptly changed the topic of conversation to learn more about who I was as a person. 

He started asking me questions: why do you want to be a journalism major? What are you really interested in? What do you want out of life? All very profound stuff. He then followed up by giving me advice that most journalism professors probably wouldn't do, telling me: DON’T be a journalism major! He urged me to take the classes I was most interested in, not just the ones I was expected to take. He told me it’s important to learn as much as you can, in a variety of different areas.

Despite his urging to drop the journalism major and follow my heart, I knew I had to have him as a professor and be a journalism major.

I am bitter. I am bitter because a man I greatly admire, Mike Spear, is retiring from the University of Richmond and I will no longer have the privilege of learning from him.

I’ve only known Professor Spear for just over a year, but in that short time, he has become one of the most influential people of my academic career. I enjoyed taking News Writing with him. But I loved learning how to copyedit from him even more. I now consider copyediting the direction I want to take my journalism career. Spear’s contagious passion for language helped crystallize that decision for me.

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Last spring, I was talking to Spear in his office about the news of his retirement. He told me that he’s thought about retiring for a while, but would think to himself each year, “When they stop sending me good kids to teach, then I’ll retire.” And somehow, the years kept passing and Spear kept getting good kids, he said.

Perhaps it was because the kids were smart. But I think it's also the pure joy Spear finds in teaching. He wants every one of us to understand why “people” is a better word than “individuals,” because if we know that, we will be better writers, in whatever field we pursue. It’s evident how much he cares about students when he asks in that commanding voice, “Are you sleeping? You need to be sleeping more.”

It’s not just teaching that he loves either; it’s teaching a craft that he loves. You can see the glint in his eye as he drills his Copyediting classes on sequence of tenses and which street names are abbreviated in an address (not to mention the difference between an abbreviation and an acronym, and which one gets periods).

These are the things that make a great teacher. And a great teacher Spear is.

I will greatly miss seeing him just around the corner in the Journalism department, as I know many, many of his colleagues and students will as well. I both reluctantly and enthusiastically congratulate Spear on his well-deserved retirement.

“I can’t stay too long at the rodeo.”

As Spear uttered those words, explaining why he would retire in December, I teared up. I have never known a more enthusiastic, kind, well-meaning professor. He constantly checked in on my well-being, asking if I was sleeping and exercising enough (I always said yes even if the answer was no because I wanted him to be just as happy as he made me).

When I received a F grade from him in Copy Editing — my first and last F ever — he made a point of checking in with me, because he had a hunch I was overwhelmed with work, not really failing at the material. He was right, and proceeded to counsel me for an hour.

A good teacher is one who knows the material and helps students master it. An excellent one also cares about the character and wellbeing of their students. Spear is an excellent one.

He is a kind, compassionate man who listens and really hears you when you speak. He runs up stairs and he grins when he walks in the classroom. His dedication and kindness are contagious. I will miss him dearly.

I didn't think I could ever hold a professor who once gave me an F in such high esteem, but I do. This university, and the journalism department, will be afflicted with a severe handicap by the loss of Professor Mike Spear. After taking a class with him, I now appreciate our “beautiful, bastard language” more than ever before — and I say that as an English major. He’s an expert on the precise, perfect blend of exact journalistic prose and daedal verse, and prior to my acquaintance with him, I never knew how seamless the blending of the two could be. He has encouraged me to read Vonnegut, Thompson and Arnold, and I am a better person for it. But the proverbial shadow of those authors' influence on me as a person and a writer pale in comparison to that of Mike Spear, who will be sorely missed.

Never in my 21 years have I been so wrong about a teacher than I was about Professor Spear.

On my first day in Spear’s copy editing class, I distinctly remember thinking it would be the worst class I had ever and would ever take in my life. I remember viewing Spear as a snooty, legalistic, old (but surprisingly energetic) man who had devoted his life, for reasons unfathomable to me, to the study and preservation of English grammar. Strict adherence to rules goes against my very nature, so before this class, every part of my being revolted against the idea of grammar as important. I viewed it as trivial and distracting from the real work of writing and telling stories.

But somewhere along the way, this class changed from one that I was forced to endure as part of the department requirement, to one that I had the privilege of taking, thanks to Professor Spear. He fostered a spirit of camaraderie among that class, as we bonded over getting Fs for the first time and strived toward improvement. But I soon realized that Spear cared far more for us as people than he did about us achieving some standard of grammatical perfection. He is passionate and fiery, as any good professor should be, but he balances that with sincere devotion and care for his students. To know him is to love him. I grew to not only respect and admire him, but even to catch a little bit of his copy editing bug, as I became an editor for the Collegian that semester.

Although I still disagree with Professor Spear (as I did openly in class one day) on the prescriptivism vs descriptivism debate and I have trouble understanding the importance of spelling adviser with an “e” rather than an “o,” he forever changed how I think about English grammar and journalism. Professor Spear will be missed, but his legacy will live on in each of us for the rest of our personal and professional lives.

I first met Professor Spear in April of my senior year of high school, when I took a mock class with him on admitted students day. His strong Southern accent and warm smile made me immediately feel at home, even though I was in a completely unfamiliar place. He teased me about being from Davidson, North Carolina, something he did once more when we officially met this past April, when I practically begged him to let me into his Copyediting course. Ever since, Spear has quickly become one of my favorite people on this campus. He makes me feel both intelligent and capable in his classroom and each time I drop by his office to have a “short chat” -- which often turns into a half-hour conversation about topics ranging from the disappointing state of our country to UR’s campus culture. Thank you, Spear, for instilling in me your inspiring attention to detail within the English language, and also the world around me. You’ve been teaching at this school for the past 34 years, and you told me the other day that you wished you could have 34 more. Me too. You will be greatly missed.

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