Ruth Walden, who teaches media law at UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school, is wrapping up the spring semester, and with it, a 31-year career in academia, most of them in North Carolina. At a going-away luncheon this week, Ruth estimated that she has taught 120 courses, or about 4,800 students, while at UNC.
I was one of those students, though I never took a course with her. For me, Ruth was mentor in two important phases of my life, and I’m grateful for her guidance.
When I was a master’s student in the journalism school in the 1990s, Ruth was my adviser, and she gave excellent advice on coursework and preparation for my thesis. Because of my interest in the First Amendment and media law, she agreed to lead my thesis committee.
Ruth was the ideal adviser for this project, titled “Newspaper Distribution and the First Amendment.” The research centered on legal battles over the placement and appearance of newspaper newsracks, among other issues surrounding newspaper circulation.
From start to finish, I relied on her help to research the topic, organize my findings and present them in a clear, cogent manner. Ruth pored over drafts of each chapter, writing extensive notes and asking probing questions. She was a tough editor.
It was difficult but rewarding work. Ruth’s advice, questions and suggestions made my thesis a significant piece of research that I was able to use to write papers that were accepted at academic conferences. Her rigorous approach also prepared me for the thesis defense, which many graduate students find to be daunting. Thanks to Ruth’s preparation and thorough vetting of my research, the defense was more of a conversation about the topic more than a defense of my thesis. The result was a true exploration of ideas, and it was a wonderful experience.
I joined the faculty of the journalism school in fall 2005, and Ruth became my faculty mentor. Again, she provided invaluable counsel on issues of teaching, research and service.
A few times each semester, Ruth took me to lunch at a Mexican restaurant on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill so we could discuss my progress in each area. She kindly picked up the tab each time.
The tenure process can have a “doom and gloom” aura, but Ruth made the path to tenure navigable, even enjoyable. She did so by explaining the expectations of the journalism school and the university, and how I could meet them.
Her guidance in this area gave me confidence to not only meet those expectations, but to beat them. I worked hard in each facet of my job, and in each area, Ruth gave me a gentle and steady push in the right direction. In 2010, I was granted tenure and promotion, and to celebrate, Ruth and I returned to the Mexican restaurant. This time, I paid the bill.
Ruth Walden is retiring this year, effective July 1. Although she will no longer be on the faculty, her influence and guidance will continue on via the faculty and students she has mentored here. Now I find myself in the role of mentor, both to graduate students and junior faculty. I’m pleased to pass along the type of assistance that Ruth has given me all these years.
So thank you, Ruth, for being a great mentor, colleague and friend. I will miss your words of wisdom — and your laugh — around Carroll Hall.