Miann Wilson was a student in my Fall 2014 First-Year Seminar course.

Miann Wilson was a student in my Fall 2014 First-Year Seminar course.

In addition to my ongoing writing assignments, I am an adjunct professor in the Journalism and First-Year Seminar departments at Columbia College Chicago. I have taught half a dozen or so different courses over the past two decades. Each one took a couple of semesters before I felt at ease with the material and its presentation. Here I share some of the lessons I’ve learned that may smooth your own teaching semester. And, please share your advice as well!

* First-day introductions. Yes, it’s hokey, but do it anyway. I used to skip this exercise in the mistaken belief that they all knew each other, but they don’t. Commuter students in particular have a difficult time making campus connections.

If you simply tell students to introduce themselves, they will rotely give their names, hometowns and majors. Period. Ask them to share the best day of their lives or to reveal something surprising about themselves. I often ask my First-Year Seminar students whether rabbits should be allowed to vote.

(The question is not totally bizarre: Later in the semester, we discuss the rights and responsibilities of humans versus non-humans, and, ultimately, in the Mary Shelley novel “Frankenstein,” who is guilty of the crimes–the creature or his creator?)

* Repeat, repeat, repeat. When I was a younger teacher, I thought saying something once was sufficient. It isn’t. I repeat assignments, summarize lectures, review student work in the classroom for good and bad examples (anonymously, of course). I comb celebrity and trending news to reiterate a point or concept. Sometimes I feel as though I am driving myself to catatonia, but I also get better papers and fewer missed deadlines.

* Plan for syllabus mishaps. No matter how hard you prepare or how much confirmation you do, on some days plans go awry. Maybe your speaker cancels at the last minute. Maybe the DVD you intended to show won’t play. Always have an extra lesson plan or activity ready (handouts photocopied, presentation loaded onto a flash drive, a local field trip figured out, etc.) just in case. You will thank me for this one.

* Relax. It’s scary to face new students at the beginning of the semester. Remember, they are afraid of you as well. They also trust you. You are their expert. It’s okay if you show them nine ways to properly use a comma but forget the tenth one. They’ll figure it out, or they won’t need it to live satisfactory lives. And after a few class sessions, you’ll be able to tell apart Kristin, Christy and Chrissi.

* You are not entertaining. Year ago, before I came to Columbia, I had a story assignment to interview graduate students about their teaching experiences. One of them said: “From the deadpan faces in my classroom, I learned that I am not nearly as funny as I think I am.” You aren’t, either. But the students can be funnier than you ever imagined. Enjoy the laughs.







July 19, 2013—Fashion consultant Jackie Walker and fashion writer Pamela Dittmer McKuen are on a mission to help young girls ditch their fashion doubts, love what they wear and accept who they are. In their new book, EXPRESSIONISTA: HOW TO EXPRESS YOUR TRUE SELF THROUGH (AND DESPITE) FASHION (Beyond Words/Aladdin; September 3, 2013; $16.99), Walker and McKuen incorporate self-help techniques into the ever-present dilemma of fashion, giving girls the inspiration to embrace their style and express their authenticity.

Through fun quizzes, insider tips and relatable case studies, the authors help girls, ages 8-12, how to:

  • Dress for her body type
  • Develop confidence in her fashion choices
  • Track fashion trends
  • Shop on a budget
  • Organize her fashionable closet

 EXPRESSIONISTA teaches readers to approach fashion without fear, with the support from tween-favorite superstars:

“It’s all about finding your own beauty, not wishing you looked like someone else.”—Zooey Deschanel

“Today is another day for your inner goddess to step out and shine.”—Jennifer Lopez


About the Authors

Jackie Walker is a longtime fashion consultant and coauthor of I Don’t Have a Thing To Wear, which helps women develop a healthy relationship with their clothes. Coined the “Dr. of Closetology”, she has spoken to groups such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom.

Pamela Dittmer McKuen is a full-time feature writer specializing in homes, design, fashion, travel and architecture. She writes for myriad publications including the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Life, a magazine that appears in regional editions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.



How to Express Your True Self Through (and Despite) Fashion

By Jackie Walker and Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Beyond Words/Aladdin

September 3, 2013


HC ISBN: 978-1-58270-429-6

PB ISBN: 978-1-58270-248-9

Expressionista authors Jackie Walker and Pamela Dittmer McKuen at a Mother-Daughter Breakfast and Book-Signing, Little Traveler in Geneva, Illinois

Expressionista authors Jackie Walker and Pamela Dittmer McKuen at a Mother-Daughter Breakfast and Book-Signing, Little Traveler in Geneva, Illinois




Academy Announces 2014 Media Orthopaedic Reporting Excellence (MORE) Award Winners.

Expressionista, the Book

January 1, 2014



Good-by Fashionista, Hello Expressionista:

My partner Jackie Walker and I are on a mission to help young girls ditch their fashion doubts, love what they wear and accept who they are.

Our new book, “Expressionista: How to Express Your True Self Through (and Despite) Fashion” (Simon & Schuster), incorporates self-help techniques into the ever-present dilemma of fashion, giving girls the inspiration to embrace their style and express their authenticity.

Scattered throughout the 200 pages are fun quizzes, insider tips, case histories and journaling prompts. Girls ages 8-12 learn to how to identify their unique Fashion Personas, build confidence in their fashion choices, shop on a budget, organize their closets and ward off fashion bullies.

Why this book and this audience? A decade ago Jackie, a motivation speaker on the subject of esteem dressing, wrote a similar book for adult women, “I Don’t Have a Thing to Wear: The Psychology of Your Closet (Simon & Schuster). As she toured the country promoting that book, she saw many moms were buying a second copy because their daughters kept the first one for themselves!

She also learned that women’s fashion insecurities almost always stem from childhood! We all have stories of classmates or family members who criticized something about our appearance, and those criticisms sting for a lifetime. 

Jackie and I met up, and we decided to tailor the message of personal expression through clothing to young girls, before those barbs and criticisms and doubts can take hold. Hence, the “Expressionista” book.

Fashionistas dress to impress other people and make themselves noticed in a crowd. Expressionistas know their true inner selves, and they use clothing to tell the world who they are. Our goal is for every girl and woman to become an Expressionista.

How to order: Your local bookstore or any online purveyor. Here is a link to the Expressionista page on Amazon.com.



My husband, Arnie, meets students at the Yueyang School on the Yangtze River

 It was the last day of the semester and my students, 15 college journalism majors, were spirited as they printed their final papers. They can’t afford ink cartridges at home, they’ve told me, so the clatter and hum of the classroom printer accompanied their banter. Did they have to be so happy? I was glum.

This was an outstanding group, which I can’t say every semester. Usually I get a mix of talents, with perhaps a star or two. The latter are fun because their skills are honed and their passions run deep, but they can be a pain when they know they are stellar and have no qualms about letting me know when I am boring them. In this class, they were all good in some way, and I will miss them dearly.

            The Mother Pen in me hopes to sign off with a significant journalistic insight they will forever hold dear. The only ones I can think of are: “Internet” is capitalized and Facebook is not a primary source unless they are writing about Facebook and, in that case, just stop it because I’ve read enough about Facebook. And that the two most ubiquitous words in their vocabularies, “team” and “band,” take singular verbs and pronouns. I doubt they’ll be quoting me on those gems.

            What they retain from the 50 or so hours we spend together, I’ll never know, but they teach me plenty. It was students who first introduced me to weblogs, Aveeno skin care products and the Black Crowes (a band, not a team).

            This semester they showed me how dated I am. Sure, I’m three decades older, but we chroniclers of culture are ageless, aren’t we? One day, to make the point that humor is subjective, I polled: Who is funnier—David Letterman or Jay Leno? Neither, they said. They prefer Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Or anyone who writes for the Onion.

            I thought it not prudent to mention I’ve been a Dave fan since he had a morning show in the 1970s.

            One young man forever expanded my notion of a successful student:

            Keith, who said I could use his name, is built like a Hummer. Perpetually unshaven, he wore perforations on his body and a navy bandana on his head. He was not a skilled linguist. He often interrupted me with input unrelated to the subject I was discussing, and he was difficult to understand. My guess is that the jewelry punctuating his tongue had something to do with that. He turned in half his assignments, usually incomplete, and failed the midterm. Sometimes he emailed me to confirm a deadline or offer an excuse. His standard salutation was “Greets.” The other students seemed to tolerate his presence.

            At times, Keith was wonderfully creative. He wrote a graphic profile, expletives included, of a tattoo artist, whom he likened to the proverbial small-town barber. He revised it several times, even worked it through with a tutor. It became a fine piece, although still a little rough on the mechanics the last time I saw it.

            Writers Roundtable is an exercise for which I ask students to select something they have written and read it aloud to the class. Keith gave a multimedia presentation that documented the culture of a small rural town threatened by urban sprawl. The project included original music, narration and photography: images of farmhouses, a bowling alley, a dead dog. His classmates gathered around his laptop to watch, their reaction a swell of respect. He must have felt it, too.

            But Keith’s grade hovered between pass and fail. We needed to talk. I got as far as asking how he was coming with the final project, which would be the determining factor. “I know, I have to ace it,” he said, dismissing me. He did, and wrapped up with a respectable C. Perhaps not a star, but definitely stardust, and he left some of it on me.

            Our last class was nearly over. The students were still seated, but their backpacks were zipped shut and their feet pointed toward the hallway. “Have a great summer,” I said, forgoing any thought of wondrous words before the back of my throat started to cave. Then they were gone. I stuffed my bag with their papers, turned out the lights and locked the door behind me.

            Riding down the elevator, a fragile voice interrupted my solitary thoughts.

            “Miss? Miss?”

            Hers was a small face. She looked familiar, but I didn’t recall the name. Oh, sure, she was in that intro course I taught a couple of years ago.

            “Miss, I signed up for your course next semester. I’m looking forward to it.”

            It was a reminder that come fall, there will be another class, more aspiring writers. I’ve got time to read the Onion and add some Jon Stewart references to my lecture notes. Perhaps Keith will send me greets and let me know how he’s doing.

            I turned to the young woman who shared my elevator. “I am, too,” I told her. “Yes, I am.”

Contact me: pmckuen@gmail.com


May 5, 2009


The end.


When I was a younger writer, I wrote in a constant state of worry. I worried that I wasn’t good enough to finish the assignment I was working on. I worried that the editor wouldn’t like it after it was done. (I knew I wouldn’t.) Then I worried that I wouldn’t get enough assignments to pay my bills. When I got more assignments, I worried that I wasn’t good enough…

In all my years of writing, I have never not turned in a story. That’s why I won’t panic that today is Tuesday and I don’t have a single idea for my column deadline on Friday. I won’t. Really.

Contact me: pmckuen@gmail.com

100 Queries

May 2, 2009


Self Portrait

I began my career with an IBM Selectric II typewriter, which I paid for with cash from my tips as a cocktail waitress, and a copy of the Chicago Yellow Pages. I was going to be a freelance writer, although I wasn’t sure at the time what that meant. I decided to make 100 telephone calls to anybody and everybody I thought might hire me. I called newspapers, magazines, corporations, and advertising and public relations agencies. By the time I was a third of the way through this exercise, I had enough assignments to live on.

That’s the way it was, until last summer. Publications that had run my byline for years were disappearing. Long-time editors were retiring, usually not by choice. They ones who remained were no longer passing out assignments like Halloween candy. I had to do something to keep my writing business going, and profitably so. Then I recalled the 100 telephone calls I was prepared to make during those early days. I would do it again, in an updated fashion. I call it 100 Queries. For me, a query might be a story pitch, a letter of introduction, a contest entry or a grant application–anything that could lead to paying work. I’m a third of the way through, and I’m getting new assignments and building new editorial relationships.

So, I will not whine about the awful condition of the journalism industry today and its supposed demise until I have made all 100 Queries.

Contact me: pmckuen@gmail.com