The Academy of Distinguished Teachers is an exclusive club that compromises about 5 percent of the tenured faculty at The University of Texas at Austin and is tasked with providing leadership to improve the quality and depth of the undergraduate experience by reporting findings to the president and provost’s office.
Among the six inductees for 2017 is School of Journalism Professor Tracy Dahlby, an award-winning journalist who has reported internationally as a contributor to National Geographic magazine and a staff correspondent for Newsweek and The Washington Post.
“In my more than 30 years as a professional journalist and journalism educator, I have not encountered a better teacher or a more principled guardian of our best values and traditions than Tracy Dahlby,” said R.B. Brenner, chair of the School of Journalism. “He holds every student to the highest academic expectations, while still making learning fun. He is meticulously prepared for class sessions, while also being open to spontaneity. And he instills in every student the importance of a journalist’s devotion to verification of fact and an approach to news reporting that guards against preconception and is rooted in fairness.”
Dahlby joined the faculty in 2006, served as director of the School of Journalism from 2008 to 2010 and founded Reporting Texas in 2009 to run as a news features website for content-sharing arrangements with professional news outlets in Texas. Since 2011, the class has served as a capstone-style course in addition to other classes Dahlby has taught including, “Explanatory Journalism: Storytelling in a Digital Age,” “Reporting the World: A Critical Examination of the U.S. News Media,” “Storytelling in Digital Times,” and “Reporting China: A Foreign Correspondent’s Workshop.” In 2012, he was recognized by The University of Texas System with its Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award.
"An important part of teaching boils down to building confidence in students that they can do things they never thought they could do—whether it’s writing a good lede for a news story or thinking in a critical, systematic way about the people and events of the world," said Dahlby.
“An important part of teaching boils down to building confidence in students that they can do things they never thought they could do—whether it’s writing a good lede for a news story or thinking in a critical, systematic way about the people and events of the world,” said Dahlby. “I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Seattle where, for whatever reasons, there were a lot of things it was assumed were beyond reach. So, maybe it’s not surprising that I find it rewarding to help students traverse those kinds of speed bumps and get a better, larger sense of what the world holds for them.”
Dahlby began his career in journalism as a reporter for the AP-Dow Jones Economic Report in Tokyo before becoming correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review in 1976. His most recent book is “Into the Field,” a memoir published in 2014 that recounts his time reporting in a broad swath of Asia, sharing adventures involving sea captains, tribal chieftains and insect attacks. He also authored “Allah’s Torch: A Report from Behind the Scenes in Asia’s War on Terror” in 2005 and helped publish books on the atomic bombing of Japan and a doctor’s medical journey from Panama to Park Avenue. He’s worked in documentary films for television including The History Channel’s “The Fifties,” the PBS series “The Pacific Century,” and ESPN’s “SportsCentury,” for which he won a national Sports Emmy Award.
Dahlby said the challenges of teaching good reporting in an era of digital disruption and immediate gratification are overcome when students understand an issue through proper context and inquiry.
“I like to introduce students to what I think of as intellectual spelunking. We start by looking at the surface coverage of an issue—whether it’s ISIS, the rise of China or a local news story—to see what deeper questions it raises but doesn’t really answer,” said Dahlby. “We read more deeply and in stages into the issue—detailed reporting, analysis, history. We talk to actual sources, including experts who can provide context and perspective. Pretty soon, the story under our microscope looks a lot different, and more complex, than when we first stepped into it through the initial news headlines. That approach can be great fun, like unwinding a good mystery story, and in general the students seem to like it, too.”
Established in February 1995, the Academy of Distinguished Teachers was created as one of the first associations of its kind in the nation and is considered an extremely prestigious distinction among academics. Honorees are awarded the title Distinguished Teaching Professor and serve for the duration of their tenure at UT Austin.