tampabay.com

Part comedian, but all teacher

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published June 12, 2007


Mike Foley is no sweater vest-wearing professor McDull.

He wears an earring and spikes his hair. His typical uniform this summer semester: T-shirt, cargo shorts or jeans, worn-in running shoes. Plus Ray-Ban glasses that scream "hipster."

The 1970 University of Florida graduate sports a Gator tattoo on his shoulder and dances in front of his class to keep students' attention. He describes his teaching philosophy as "part teacher, part comedian, part philosopher and part journalist."

Foley's introductory reporting class is considered one of UF's toughest, yet he is so beloved by students and respected by his peers that he recently was named one of two 2006-07 UF Teachers of the Year.

That's quite an honor considering Foley, 60, arrived at UF as an adjunct professor just six years ago, shortly after he left the St. Petersburg Times, where he worked for 30 years in positions including executive editor and managing editor.

We spoke this week to Foley, now a master lecturer in the journalism department:

Times: So are you the "cool" professor?

Well, I try. But you know, the average grade in my class is a C. If I was teaching them to swim, I would throw them off the dock and scream, "Swim, swim!" They learn by making mistakes.

So the first papers are bad?

The first papers are usually pretty bad. And they're stunned. But as you know, it's a grueling business.

What's difficult about the job?

There's not much about the job I don't like. It is much harder work than I thought it would be. The paper grading, dealing with the fragility of students. You know how it is: You write something, and that's your soul.

When you taught your first class, were you nervous?

Scared to death. I always admired teachers who could hold our attention for 45 minutes, and when I get nervous I'll just talk and talk. So I try to stop and ask, "Any questions?" When there's no questions, I know I need to dance. Students mention it in the evaluations: "Nice dance. Get some more moves."

So you're teacher of the year universitywide, and you didn't even join academia until a few years ago. Not too shabby.

I was surprised when they rolled out my name. But you know, I'm good at this. I know the business, I know what a good story is, and I was lucky enough to work at one of the best papers for a long time.

Yeah, but some professors who "know their stuff" are about as exciting as a tree stump. What's your secret?

Here's what I get on my evaluations: "Enthusiastic about the subject." I think if I can show them how passionate I am about the subject, the students appreciate that. I get terrific evaluations.

Does the earring help?

You know, that's my little "Rage Against the Machine." I got it soon after I left the newspaper. I suppose it's passe now. But every once in a while I get it on my evaluation, a student mentions the earring. Why not? It's fun.

What do you think of UF now vs. when you were a student?

The students seem smarter, but I don't know how passionate they are. You know, I was here during the war. I always tell my students I have the same birthday as two other famous Americans - Sylvester Stallone and President Bush. That really puts it in perspective.