John U. Bacon (BA History, 1986) is a writer, public speaker, and college instructor. He is also this year’s featured guest for Parents’ Weekend. Bacon will be visiting Honors on Friday, September 19, 2014 for a talk at 4:00pm, followed by a reception. RSVP here for the Honors Parents’ Weekend Events.
The bio on his website -- http://www.johnubacon.com/about/ -- highlights his career and accolades. For this Alumni Profile, though, we wanted to do something a little more journalistic, maybe a little more his style. Below you’ll find a Q&A session with the national best-selling author, mostly about his time in the Honors Program. Keep reading to get to him know a little better, before you come hear him speak at Parents’ Weekend!
What did you major in as an undergraduate and what has your path been since?
Like a lot of freshmen, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I’ve always loved architecture, but I quickly discovered admiring it and doing it were not the same things. Then I cycled through what I called the Major of the Month Club, until I settled on history, with another 30-some credits in English, most of it in creative writing with a great TA named David Rubin. This constituted a major I called “Double Pre-Unemployment.”
Naturally, my friends in business and engineering made their jokes – “What are you going to do with that?!?” But I can’t say I was too concerned -- even if I probably should have been.
The next year, I got a job through a service I learned about while writing my thesis, teaching history and coached hockey at Culver Academies in Indiana. I worked the next year for the company that got me that job, based in Princeton, NJ, before returning to Ann Arbor, ostensibly to apply to law school. But during my year back, I took more writing classes with Sharon Dilworth and Nick Delbanco, the director of the MFA program. I couldn’t shake the writing bug.
I got into law school at the last minute, but I had just sold my first story to a magazine that summer, so I decided to take a chance, and dropped out the first day. I gave myself three years to prove I’d made the right decision. Three years later, I had a column in the Ann Arbor News. In 1995, I moved on to writing feature stories for The Detroit News, then left in 1999 to free-lance for newspapers and magazines, and write books.
How did being in Honors help shape that path?
I didn’t join the Honors Program until my sophomore year, when I realized what a good idea it was -- and I loved it right off. I received more individual attention from counselors and professors, I often enjoyed smaller classes and more flexibility in scheduling, I loved the Great Books curriculum, and the honors thesis changed my life.
The Honors Program gave me the freedom, and the resources, to pursue my passions, and learn how to write and research at a higher level than I could have achieved without it.
What was your favorite part of being in Honors?
The Great Books curriculum, and my great TA, Jefford Vahlbusch, lit a fire in me, but the honors thesis was the key. And the key to that were my advisors: Terry McDonald, who ran the Honors Program in history that year, before going on to become the Dean of LS&A, and Maris Vinovskis, the history department chairman, and a national star in his field.
Their styles were a little different, but both were great mentors: passionate about their field and its methodology, demanding of their students but enthusiastic. As my direct advisor, Maris put in the hard hours, reading draft after draft of my thesis. This included one memorable chapter I had to write by hand on legal pages during an all-nighter, because my floppy disc died. (Ask your grandparents.) I simply cannot thank Maris enough for his incredible dedication.
Both Terry and Maris became lifelong mentors and friends, whom I consult to this day. In fact, it says enough that my latest book, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, is dedicated to my five writing and research mentors at Michigan, all mentioned here. They earned it – trust me. They taught me how to do what I do for a living – work I truly love.
I should add that many of Maris’s policies – including his famed No Late Papers rule – I have adopted for the classes I teach at Michigan. I tell my students what he did for me – including preparing me for the Real World, where deadlines actually matter – and then explain I will now do all that for them. I say this with a grin, because I don’t expect them to appreciate it at first. But I get a lot of notes from students years later saying those rules made a big difference. Well, they should thank Maris.
What was the topic of your Honors Thesis? What did you learn in that experience that has helped you in the professional world?
Ready for this? “The Process and Results of Ann Arbor Secondary School Curriculum Reform, 1957-Present.” Of course, “Present” then was 1986 – which it now occurs to me is only halfway to our current present.
I was very pleased when Maris suggested to the Bentley Historical Library that they keep it on file. And if you go there today, or look it up on line, you’ll see that’s my first entry, anywhere, for my research and writing. But don’t bother reading it. Just wait for the movie, which I hear will be in production soon.
Joking aside, I learned a lot of vital skills working 16 months on a 100-page thesis. I learned to be an amateur reporter, calling people up, arranging interviews, and basically conducting detective work, trying to solve these minor mysteries. I learned the more homework I did before I called someone, the more time they gave me – which works as well on Dr. Scott Westerman, former Dean of EMU’s School of Education and Superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, as it did later on Magic Johnson, whom I interviewed for a feature story years later.
Although the Honors history thesis doesn’t focus on writing style, I can tell you this: if you write 100 pages and revise it four or five times, you’ll become a much better writer! I learned how to write in a clear, direct style, in order to get out of the way of my research, instead of obscuring it.
I also made a few more lifelong friends and mentors in the process, including Dr. Westerman himself, Dave Stringer, chair of Huron’s excellent Humanities program, and Al Gallup, who helped lead Pioneer, Huron and Community. They’re still good friends today.
As you can see, researching and writing my honors thesis, working with great mentors, and meeting some interesting people changed my life – rather dramatically, in fact.
What's been the most challenging job/project you've taken on?
I can think of a few projects that tested me, starting with the honors thesis itself, but my latest two books stand out. For Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, I planned to be embedded with the football program for three months in 2008. But nothing went the way anyone planned, and three years later, I was still inside the program, trying to sort out what was happening. I basically wrote a complete book every season, then finally boiled all that into a fourth version, the final one.
For my latest book, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, we knew we were going to follow only one Big Ten season, 2012, but I followed seven programs, plus the league and the NCAA itself, over 12 months. Needless to say, that required some speedy research and writing – work I could never have completed if I hadn’t learned how at Michigan. As exhausting as both books were, I am very proud of the final results. And, I’m pleased to report, so are my mentors above.
No brainer: Bo’s Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership. For a guy like me, born and raised in Ann Arbor, sitting in Bo’s office for hundreds of hours, asking anything I wanted, was a bit of a dream come true. I was very lucky. Because he passed away before I finished, I also felt a deep responsibility to make sure his final words reflected who he was, and what he stood for. I doubt I’ll ever enjoy writing a book more than that one.
What advice do you have for current undergraduates?
Don’t worry too much about your major – no matter what your parents say! After your first job, unless you’re a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, they really don’t care that much. Their attitude is, “What have you done for me lately?”
Study something you love, and dive in. The knowledge you gain and the skills you develop, not to mention the passion that grows for your interests, will be all you need to do what you want to do next.
You visited Honors a few years ago for our Lunch with Honors Program. What has stuck with you about that visit? (Because we remember you fondly!)
It was a lot of fun to see the people who run the program, to meet the students who were currently in it (including a few from my class) and to give back to a program that did so much for me. I liked the fact that students from all disciplines were together in one room – something we didn’t have in my day – so people studying biology or poetry discovered they shared some common interests and traits. And that, ultimately, is the pursuit of something very difficult, a journey they won’t forget. Trust me on that, too.