• Mike Conway

In Memory of Dr. James W. Tankard, Jr.

Mike Conway with Dr. James W. Tankard, May 2004

I recently found out that my book Contested Ground: “The Tunnel" and the Struggle Over Television News in Cold War America, has been chosen as one of three finalists for the Tankard Book Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). It is a big honor since AEJMC is the largest national organization of university teachers and researchers in journalism and communication.

This award though, has an even deeper meaning to me because it is named after one of my mentors in graduate school, the late Dr. James W. Tankard, Jr., of the University of Texas at Austin. He had a spirit and curiosity combined with high expectations that has had a lasting effect on those of us who studied under him.

Dr. James W. Tankard retirement celebration, May 2004, UT-Austin

I first have to admit that even though the University of Texas at Austin had a stellar group of journalism and communication scholars when I arrived, that wasn’t the reason I went there. Not really.

When I made the drastic decision to put aside my 20-year broadcast news career and go back to school for my graduate degrees, I was advised to make sure I chose a journalism program with a strong research emphasis. I had little knowledge about academic research but when I asked, most were programs I knew: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and others.

Another name caught my ear for an entirely different reason. University of Texas at Austin. It’s long been a great journalism school, but since most of my career was in the north, I hadn’t worked with many UT grads in my television career.

I was hooked on Austin for another reason: music. Since my undergraduate days at Indiana, I had been drawn to the music of Austin, mostly through the bands that would venture north and play in the Midwest. I made a couple of pilgrimages over the years to soak in the music, barbecue and Tex-Mex and tried unsuccessfully to get a job at an Austin TV station.

(When I wasn't studying in grad school, you could often find me here, at the Continental Club on South Congress.)

When it came time to make a decision on graduate school, I had generous offers from a few schools, but barely more than an acceptance letter from UT-Austin. It didn’t matter. I would find a way to pay for it. It didn’t hurt that fellow local TV news veteran and barbecue aficionado, Dr. Don Heider, stayed in touch during the application process and helped me make the decision to move to Austin.

Even though I may have chosen Austin for the music and food, I had stumbled into a graduate school experience filled with amazing scholars and teachers in so many areas of communication and historical research. Maxwell McCombs, Don Heider, Paula Poindexter, Don Carleton, Kris Wilson, Marilyn Schultz, Patrick Cox, Janet Staiger, Steve Reese, Bart Sparrow, Horace Newcomb, Wayne Danielson, and many others. Most of these people deserve their own tribute, for their role in turning this old cynical news guy into an academic researcher.

Dr. James Tankard, UT-Austin, May 2004

During my time at UT-Austin, Dr. James Tankard was a major name in our field and was close to the end of his career. We all used the Communication Theories textbook that he wrote with another UT-Austin professor, Werner Severin. Dr. Tankard had also been editor of the prestigious Journalism & Communication Monographs journal. Even with all his success and accolades, he was still curious and working on new projects, including how this fairly new thing, the World Wide Web, was shaking up communication.

Dr. Tankard was also still submitting papers to conferences and journals. He was still getting his work rejected and openly talked about it with his graduate students. He helped us understand the peer review process and the dogged resilience and thick skin you needed to succeed. He always told us that if you believed in a manuscript that had been rejected from a conference or a journal, it was up to you to keep tweaking it and looking for the journal where it belonged.

I have to admit that Dr. James Tankard intimidated me a bit. He was friendly, like most of the other professors I worked with in Austin. But when it came to research, he was deadly serious and expected you to also take it seriously. Learn the material. Fight through your obstacles. He expected you to be working toward your degree and doing quality research.

Graduate student retirement party for Dr. James Tankard, UT-Austin, May 2004

I asked Dr. Tankard to be on my qualifying exams (and hopefully dissertation) committee. I remember being nervous setting up an appointment with him and going into his office. I had been around long enough at that point to know that serving on these committees was extra work for professors, and the big names of the school were asked more often.

The next step with qualifying exams is that you work with each professor on your committee to begin studying for these important tests. If I remember correctly, at least two of my four exam questions were closed-book, four-hour tests. Serious business. With the other three professors, we came up with a list of books or articles that I should definitely know and commit to memory.

When I approached Dr. Tankard about a book list for my theory question, he seemed confused. “All of them.” I gave him a puzzled look. “All of them,” he repeated. I was thinking…all of the books? All of the theories? I tried another approach. “How about your theory textbook?” He gave me a small smile and said, “that’d be a nice start.” That’s the most he ever told me about how to study for his comprehensive exam question.

UT-Austin graduate students presented Dr. James Tankard with an iPod for his retirement, May 2004

Dr. Tankard was hit with cancer when I was in graduate school. He handled it with the quiet dignity you had come to expect from him. One of the surprises to me during his battle with cancer is that he still insisted on using the stairs and not the elevator to get to his office several floors up in the Communication building at UT. Before he was sick, I was used to running into him in the stairwell, but there he was during his fight with cancer, moving slowly but steadily up the stairs, day after day.

Another experience from his time teaching while fighting cancer I won’t forget was how much the graduate students admired him and wanted to be in his class. The cancer treatments had zapped his energy and his voice. Often he had trouble talking louder than a whisper. Still, his classes were popular. Students would keep very quiet and strain to make sure they could hear his diminished voice. Coming from the television news industry that tended to toss out people after a certain age, it gave me hope that I was moving into a career in which the students did not see his age or infirmity as a reason to find another class. In fact, I think we all were worried he would have to retire soon, so we wanted to make sure to learn as much from him as we could.

When people ask me what made Dr. Tankard special, I often tell them that the two classes I took from him were Experimental Design and Literary Journalism. In the world of communication research, those two classes are worlds apart. Experimental design is rooted firmly in the social science approach while literary journalism was still somewhat on the fringes of communication scholarship and definitely on the humanities side of communication scholarship. In a field where scholars often drew a heavy line in the sand between “quantitative” and “qualitative” research, Dr. Tankard saw the value in all research, as long as the work had merit. That is a lesson I’ve tried to keep with me during my academic career.

I also learned another side of Dr. Tankard later in graduate school. I came across him and one of our master’s students in an animated conversation. The student was a musician and played in various bands in Austin. He told me later that Dr. Tankard loved music and wrote songs as a hobby. He had even had a couple of his songs cut as demos by musicians in Nashville.

Finally, Dr. Tankard’s illness forced him to retire from UT. During his last semester, the graduate students put together an informal retirement session for him, complete with speeches and cake. Because of his love of music, we pitched in on an Apple iPod for his gift.

Dr James W. Tankard with just a few of his graduate students, May 2004

With his retirement, he wasn’t able to continue on my dissertation committee. But we stayed in touch during the rest of my time in Austin and after I graduated and moved to Indiana University as an assistant professor.

Through email, he gave me some feedback on a manuscript I planned to submit to a conference. At the end of my first year at Indiana, Dr. Tankard checked in to see how I was doing. When I asked him how he was spending his free time after retirement, his response gives a peek into the window of his curiosity and love of writing and research.

“I have done some songwriting, but also essay writing, memoir writing, and computer programming. I recently worked on the problem of writing a BASIC program to calculate the value of pi. It was a challenge, but I have written several programs that work. I wrote one that computes pi accurately to ten decimal places. It could do more, but the BASIC processor program I am using can't produce output of more than 10 decimal places.

These are the kinds of things you get to do when you retire. Basically, it's called goofing off.”

I also knew that his health was getting worse. That summer, 2005, the AEJMC conference was scheduled for San Antonio. I made plans to stop in Austin to see Dr. Tankard before heading to the conference. Because of our shared love of music, I decided to bring him a CD of one of my favorite Indiana bands, The Vulgar Boatmen. I wanted him to know that we produced good music in Indiana as well.

As we got closer to the August conference, I hadn’t heard from Dr. Tankard. He wasn’t responding to my emails. Finally, his wife Lanie let me know that he had been moved to hospice care. She said I was welcome to come and see him there.

That was a tough visit. Dr. Tankard was conscious, but couldn’t really talk. I could tell by his eye movements that he was aware I was there, but it was a one-sided conversation. Even in such a sad situation, I was grateful for the opportunity to tell him in person all he had done for me.

When I got to San Antonio, I had the unfortunate task of telling many of my former graduate student cohort about Dr. Tankard’s condition. It was a tough week at the conference knowing he was close to the end up in Austin. Lanie sent me an email relating that she had played the Vulgar Boatmen CD for him and he seemed to enjoy it.

Dr. James Tankard passed away while we were all still in San Antonio at the AEJMC conference in 2005, the organization that later named its annual book award after him.

Fifteen years later, I still keep a laminated bookmark honoring Dr. Tankard on the desk where I do my research. I want him there to help celebrate my successes, but more importantly, to keep me pushing when I start to hesitate at the size of the obstacles in front of me.