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MU professors celebrate new lives and shared past

By Emily Crane
On February 7, 2014

  • James Tobin. Contributed by Tobin and Campbell | The Miami Student

In room 47 on the ninth floor of the University of Michigan Von Voigtlander Women's Hospital, Richard Campbell, chair of the media, journalism and film department, cradled his newborn grandson in his arms: Reese Anthony Campbell, born Jan. 29, seven pounds, one ounce. As he looked down at him, Campbell couldn't help beaming.

"You just feel elation," Campbell said. "You can't believe this little person is in your life. It's kind of magical."

Five days later, as Campbell addressed the students of his Journalism 101 class, his co-teacher and long-time friend James Tobin found himself on the same floor of the same hospital, just down the hall in room 36, staring into the tiny blue eyes of Benjamin James Keller.

And so it was that the two Miami journalism faculty welcomed into the world their first grandchildren within days of each other at the same hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich. Although both agreed the circumstances are odd, in some ways, they're fitting. The two just seem to find their lives intertwined.

Campbell and Tobin met picking up their daughters, now 29 and 30, from pre-school in Ann Arbor. Campbell was teaching at the University of Michigan and Tobin was working as a reporter for the Detroit News.

Between sleepovers and soccer games, their daughters ensured that they continued to see much of each other over the years.

In the early 90s, they joined a writers' group together to work on books they were both writing. In Campbell's case, it was a textbook on media and its use in society, now one of the leading media studies textbooks in the nation, currently in its ninth edition. For Tobin, it was a narrative book on World War II war correspondent Ernie Pyle, a book that went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Nearly 10 years into their friendship, Campbell took a job teaching at Middle Tennessee State University, but remained tethered to Ann Arbor. For the first year in fact, he commuted between Murfreesboro, Tenn. and his home in Michigan, flying back and forth between the two every week. Often, it was Tobin who took him to the airport as he drove to work in Detroit.

Though Campbell and his family eventually moved to Tennessee, the two continued to cross paths. And Campbell began persistently prodding Tobin to consider leaving his career in the newsroom to join him in the classroom.

"I knew he was a really gifted writer, but that he could also teach writing because he had patience," Campbell said.

He eventually wooed Tobin into joining him in Tennessee to teach a few short writers' workshops. They successfully piqued his interest.

"I enjoyed the mini courses at Middle Tennessee State," Tobin said. "They made me think about wanting to teach writing."

When Campbell arrived at Miami University in 2004, he renewed his recruitment efforts in earnest, thinking perhaps he was just close enough to Michigan this time to entice Tobin to commute four hours, if not move.

He was.

Tobin came to Miami in 2006 on a one-year Wiepking Distinguished Visiting Professorship, teaching upper-level narrative non-fiction writing courses in the journalism program. When Miami invited him to return the following year as a tenure-track professor, he accepted. Campbell's persistence had finally paid off.

"I think he like Miami, he liked his experience and he like the students," Campbell said. "And he got to teach what he was good at, the things he enjoyed. Getting him to teach 101 was a bit of a sell but he gets to teach narrative non-fiction too."

From Tobin's perspective, 101 was less of a sell and more of a trick.

"He kind of tricked me into it," Tobin said. "When he was recruiting me, I told him I could teach narrative non-fiction and magazine writing, and he said 'Yeah, yeah.' But then I applied for a full-time position and he told me, 'You're going to have teach 101.'"

But eight years later, he harbors little resentment. The two have even gone on to teach a section of the course together, and are currently in their fourth semester doing so.

"It's been purely a pleasure [to teach 101 together]," Tobin said. "We think a lot alike when it comes to journalism, we have a lot of the same values. There's no question of disagreement about what should be taught. But we complement each other well. He's a scholar, he looks at the big picture. I'm a writer and an editor. He helps me look at journalism's role in society in ways I've never thought about."

Campbell certainly feels his hunch about Tobin's ability to teach has proven correct.

"He's one of those rare people, like a lot of the journalism faculty at Miami, who are gifted writers but also gifted teachers," Campbell said.

When they find themselves in the same classroom, their years of history tend to come out in witty banter and playful teasing that leave their students puzzling over their seemingly odd relationship-a relationship that just became slightly more odd with the timing and locations of their grandsons' births.

"The first few days of class might not go quite according to the syllabus," Campbell told his 101 students on their first day, barely containing a grin. "You see, Dr. Tobin and I are both about to become grandfathers. At the same hospital."

The two exchanged a knowing look as a ripple of giggles and murmurs moved throughout the lecture hall.

These days, their friendly banter in the classroom centers around which of their grandsons can elicit the most enthusiasm from their students.

"His grandson got a bigger 'aww' than my grandson. I resent that," Campbell told the class after Tobin showed a picture of Benjamin on an overhead projector.


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