There was always one guarantee in Jack Stripling’s life: He would be a writer. But if you’d asked the current senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education 23 years ago if he’d write stories about university presidential perils in Maryland and Michigan, or the Colorado State chemistry professor whose forged job offer lost him everything, he probably would’ve told you no.
“I had illusions of grandeur about being a fiction writer,” he says. As an undergraduate at Florida State University, Stripling studied English with an emphasis in creative writing before pursuing a Master of Literature at Auburn University in 1999.
How did you transition from aspiring fiction writer to the senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education?
“Well, the one thing the world is pretty good at telling you is if you’re not going to make it as a fiction writer. And I got that information really quickly, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. But I knew wanted to find a way to write for a living. I figured if I can’t write fiction, I can at least write something. Then I started to realize that I really loved and respected reporting as much as I loved writing, which was probably the biggest surprise in my career. In the beginning, it was the writing that drew me in, but more and more, the reporting is a big part of my passion. No matter how good you’re writing is, if the reporting isn’t there, it doesn’t matter.”
How did Auburn help shape you into the writer you are today?
“The first course I took was Mark Silverstein’s post-modern drama class, and I can easily say that changed my life. It was just a
fascinating window into a world I didn’t know much about. Dr. Silverstein was a fantastic instructor. He was harder than hell, very difficult and demanding, but I think he got the best out of me, and I will never forget that.”
Is there a relationship between reading post-modern drama and writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education?
“Looking back on it, a lot of the class had to do with questioning assumptions, questioning authority; a lot of what we read, you know plays like Harold Pinter’s ‘The Hothouse,’ those works really look very skeptically at authority and assumptions, and that’s really what I do as a journalist.”
After graduating from Auburn, Stripling taught English at Sante Fe Community College in Gainesville while working as a stringer for The Gainesville Sun’s feature section. His first story gave advice about what to do with your computer if you’ve got a new one. He wrote another of a woman fighting cancer. But Stripling says his return to Auburn to write for The Auburn-Opelika News in 2003 ultimately honed his journalism skills. According to Stripling, the period of his return was a difficult one for Auburn due to the president’s resignation, sports scandals and concern of micromanagement from the board of trustees. But a difficult period for the university and administrative crises offered an instructive period for the young Stripling.
“Dr. Richardson didn’t like my coverage of the university, and his
decision to freeze me out followed a story I’d written about business ties between Auburn trustees because of significant concerns that the business relationships among some Auburn board members compromised their independence. I’m pleased to say that Dr. Richardson eventually came around, and I’d like to think we forged a mutual respect. He had a hard job, and I did too. During our last meeting, I gave him a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It seemed like something he’d like.”
How do you see your fiction background having an influence your current writing?
“I’m joking about the fact that I didn’t have what it takes to make it to that, but at the same time, writing fiction taught me a great deal about structuring a story, and that has given me a leg up in this business. Thinking about creating tensions within a story, ways to pace the story, understanding that the reader is not going to stick around for very long so you have to capture their attention – those are all things that have come out of my fiction experience that are immediately applicable here, so I don’t in any way view it as having been a waste of time.”
What’s your favorite part about working at The Chronicle of Higher Education?
“The easy answer really is that everybody here is smarter than me, maybe with like one exception. It’s true though, we really are surrounded by some of the brightest people I’ve ever worked with. You can always turn to somebody who knows more than you, that’s an amazing feeling.”
“The other aspect is I have a real wide girth of what I can do here. Higher education may seem like a small space, but almost everything in the world intersects with it. On any given day, I have the freedom to do almost anything, and that’s a privilege that most places in this industry can’t offer.”
Would you ever consider picking up the pen and trying fiction again?
“It’s still something that I dabble in and dream about, and I still absorb a lot of fiction, I still read a lot of it, but I think I’m over thinking of it as a career.”
Though it might not be a career, fiction still impacts a large portion of Stripling’s life. His fiction pursuit led him to Auburn where he met his future wife. His son’s middle name is Carver, the last name of his favorite writer in graduate school, Raymond Carver, and the subject of his seminar paper in Miriam Clark’s 20th century short story class. And Stripling says he’s still obsessed with Carver’s stories, always trying to figure them out as he will always continue to write.