Commentary: The Mis(sed)-education of an Automotive Writer

Looking back, my education was OK.

I did not get the greatest education overall. It was adequate, if not sufficient. Even with my postgraduate degree – I am not in the field in which said degree is supposed to put me in. Do you see me at some arts organization doing something worthwhile? Nope.

My undergraduate degree should tell me to write history textbooks to gain tenure at some college somewhere. I did teach as a substitute – more like a glorified babysitter than a teacher. Come to think of it, I did finish my undergrad in one of the most competitive markets for baccalaureates in the USA. In the Bay Area, if you want a job in San Francisco, your degree better have come from the University of California at Berkeley or Stanford University – not California State University Hayward East Bay.

Which brings up a very interesting thought – I learned more about what I do outside of the classroom than in one.

It is not because I missed the opportunity to do so. Automotive writing was not even in the cards during my undergrad studies in the 1980s and 1990s. It was developing towards my time in graduate school, but I did not see it emerge as it has since my capstone final.

To truly understand how to do this job – to convey information to various audiences about the automotive industry and its products – you truly have to know a lot that goes into the business.

For the most part, learning these key elements of the industry and the automobile were not readily available to me, as I was ensconced in the degree tract I was in. How could a History major take a course in mechanical engineering?

That is a good question. The larger question should be: "What did I miss in high school and college that I learned in writing in this subject matter?"

Perhaps these subjects should have been studied before even thinking I could write like LJK Setright or any of my peers.

MECHANICAL ENGINEERING: To understand the inner working of an automobile, there needs to be a basic understanding of engineering principles. Sure, I knew how the internal combustion engine worked, but did they offer classes in theory of the concept? Perhaps in college…but I was somewhere else in my studies. However, there was Auto Shop – the hands-on option in really understanding how the automobile worked. It was offered at Reseda High, but someone forgot to take that class. It might explain the personal lack of practicality or the fear that if I did something incorrect in the modern automobile based on 1980s principles, we all would be worse for it.

AERODYNAMICS/CAD DESIGN: In Junior High, I took a drafting course. This was before the advent of computer-assisted design. The idea that a simple design drawing would be generated electronically was something unattainable to me even in the years through high school. If we had CAD classes, we would also understand the concepts of aerodynamic design. In my Junior High and High School, I drew cars a lot. In a way, I understood how aerodynamics would change the way automobiles would look. Yet, my success in advanced math courses and related subject matter was adequate. It took a lot of reading and photographs to fully comprehend how an automobile can achieve optimum efficiency through proper airflow management. Nowadays, we take all of this for granted. In the early days of my undergraduate education, the excitement of aerodynamic design fueled my interest in the automobile further. I am glad it prompted me to understand it better at that time.

COMPUTER SCIENCE: No, sorry, never took any of those courses. It would have been helpful to understand the modern automobile since many of its components began as a computer code. Think about when these classes were few and far between – and esoteric with using C, Cobalt and early DOS – would turn out to create engine management systems, traction control, user interfaces on today’s infotainment suites, satellite technology for telematics and mobile applications. Sure, the stigma of being a "geek" or "nerd" would have been a bit much to navigate even at Hayward. But, guess who makes the big bucks these days? The same "geeks" and "nerds" the "frats" and "jocks" made fun of in the 1970s and 1980s.

I am only scratching the surface here. There were probably other courses I should have taken ahead of being an automotive scribe. However, there were some I actually took that help make this job even better.

For example, I took a series of business courses at Los Angeles Pierce College and Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. Not just your basic Business 101, I took one in marketing and in sales. These business courses helped in understanding the driver behind the decisions made in the boardroom, the accounting office and in every executive suite at headquarters.

At Pierce, I took a journalism class. Well, you would have to get into this game. It did frame my earlier work, but a course at Hamline University sort of shook up my journalism style and approach. After reading many essayists – along with other storytellers amongst automotive writers – it finally gave me permission to craft a style. It took a while, but I believe the coursework over the past few decades might be paying off.

Though all of these courses were taught on basic levels, there is still a lot more information and learnings that have been added on top of those courses. After all, one never stops attaining knowledge after the transcript was certified.

At the onset of a new semester, perhaps some words of wisdom would help one to become proficient at your job or creative outlet. No matter what you do, never stop learning. Be curious about things you want more information. Question those who have opinions on things – anything, that is. Keep reading – whether it is online or in some meaty book about something you might be interested in.

Lastly, become more proficient as a writer. That is another Commentary altogether.

What the reader wants is an educated writer to convey the experience and interpret the past, present and future. "Educated" does not necessarily mean being in a classroom and argue for or against a theory. You can educate yourself through experience, self-guided research and exchanging information. Sounds like a member of the media corps to me…for the most part.

Photo by Randy Stern

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