Pathways, by Rhett Umphress
My former graduate assistant Rhett Umphress is currently nestled somewhere in North Carolina, working as a copy editing intern after two years in the Ball State University’s graduate program. He came to us with zero journalism training; he majored in music and education before this.
In the course of his two years with us, he’s garnered much coveted positions (including an internship gig with ESPN) and helped run nearly all of my big projects. While he’s still working on his thesis, he’s going do quite well for himself in the long run.
Rhett’s story, “Pathways,” explores the road that led him to the journalism program. It’s a winding road that forced him to learn to stand up for what he wanted, a task we still discuss on a regular basis. He’s a sensitive young man, one who both wants to please people around him and be the best person for the job.
These two worlds tug at him. In his essay, he begins to unravel what that dichotomy looks like.
Here’s what our dichotomy looked like.
The first I didn’t meet Rhett was the first day of the 2009-2010 school year, the Friday before classes begin when all the professors and graduate assistants gather for a day-long affair of meetings and catch up.
Rhett, my graduate assistant, wasn’t there for some reason. (I think he may have planned a vacation; frankly, I was so annoyed that I’ve blocked that time from my memory.) It wasn’t a great start to our working relationship.
That mis-step was compounded by our first interaction when he said that he wasn’t all that enamored with emerging technology, a critical mistake considering my background. (We have both tried to reconstruct that particular conversation to no avail.)
After my brief meeting with Rhett, two events transpired: I walked to the Chair’s office to inquire how I would go about replacing my graduate assistant, and I decided that since Rhett didn’t much care for emerging technology that he’d spend the first month making copies and filing.
“We may not be the best team out there, but we’ll be the best conditioned.”
My basketball coached used to say that to us just before we’d set about running until we nearly passed out. This is the mantra of every hard-assed coach. Right now, many of you reading this are nodding, recalling the hard-assed coach who said it to you.
That’s how I felt about Rhett and his copying. He may not learn anything else from me, but I was going to teach him a valuable lesson about working relationships. I wasn’t sure how long I would push him; I figured the right time to end the exile would come. If he stuck around, I figured he’d be okay.
That time came when I was tapped to head a massive social media project for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Rhett writes of this experience in his essay so I won’t ruin it; however, it was clear when I stepped foot on the site the first day that I was going to unleash my G.A. on this high-profile project to see if he’d sink to the bottom or swim along the surface.
(Spoiler: since he remained by G.A., you can assume it ended okay for him.)
By the end of my first semester with Rhett, I’d decided against replacing him. I’m a big believer in earned respect, and he’d more than showed me he was capable. We settled into a relative era of peace. He sat in on my social media class, helping when needed and learning some of the basics of that wacky technology. He took my digital storytelling class, and helped create the best transmedia piece I’ve yet seen from students. He ran a focus group for a textbook I’m writing with Prof. Jennifer George-Palilonis.
He found his groove in the journalism department, gravitating towards copy editing, a field I have zero experience working. Most of my interactions with copy editors throughout the years have been…unpleasant. I was, in my early years, a difficult writer to work with.
Rhett has time and again proved invaluable to me, though. Plus, he ran the copy desk at the student newspaper and managed to pile up accolades along the way.
What he hadn’t done, though, is learn how to write.
Like Kelly Shea, Rhett’s served a dual purpose on this project. He’s a writer, but he’s also the book’s copy editor. He’s sifted through everyone’s work, making corrections, clarifications, and suggestions. It’s been a relentless task, for certain.
Plus, he’s had to learn the basic writing structure we’ve deployed on this project. Like Tiffany Holbert, who had no formal “Brad King Baptism By Fire” training, Rhett oftentimes sat paralyzed by my edits. I could feel his trepidation and anger about the process spilling out on the page (and on Twitter).
Like so much of what Rhett has done in his two years with us at Ball State, he’s had to play catch up because of his background. He’s done that by diving into the deep end, and working out the details as he’s learned to tread water.
That’s frustrated him; it’s also been his greatest strength and the source of his growth.
He’s bold and fearless in a way that he’s too young yet to realize is bold and fearless. He still think that comes from lightning bolts smashing down from the sky.
Someday soon he’ll realize the quiet, day-to-day leap he makes into the deep end of the pool is what people see when they look at him. When that happens, magical days will be ahead of him.
The best part of Rhett’s story is reading what I’ve just described play out on the page. You can see Rhett – the human – spilling out in the stops and starts in the narrative.
I’ll end my introduction to Rhett’s piece with this nugget: my favorite writer, David Foster Wallace, was imperfect in his writing. If you read him enough, you find parts of his narrative that end or veer into lost places. Instead of eliminating those, Wallace oftentimes played with those treads, allowing them to dangle.
If was his imperfection that made his writing so human, and so perfect.
Rhett’s writing hints at the quality. You can read him battling with the floodgate of emotions smashing up against the internal dam he’s constructed. You can see the fits and starts. It’s visceral. As he continues down this writing path, the dam will crumble, blow away in a riptide.
I know this to be true because I can see it already in Rhett’s words.