Yale Daily News

Yale’s core journalism course has its first new instructor in nearly a decade. 

Bob Woodward ’65 is not teaching the English seminar “Journalism” this spring. Woodward began teaching the seminar — the foundational requirement for students in the Yale Journalism Initiative — in 2014, and he has taught it nearly every spring since. The last time Woodward taught the class, in the spring of 2021, students left several class sessions unsatisfied with discussions about reporting on race and sexual harassment. Woodward’s habit of cold-calling on students could make for uncomfortable conversations, several said, even as many praised class assignments and Woodward’s mentorship.

Woodward’s departure makes way for Susan Dominus ’92 LAW ’99, who has been a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine since 2011. Beyond a routine faculty turnover, the change signifies a generational shift in the teaching of journalism at Yale. 

“Steve Brill and myself, who taught this class — he still teaches it — are older white males, and I think to bring in a younger woman is actually not only smart, but necessary,” Woodward told the News. “I’m glad that they did it and I wish her luck.” 

The Yale Journalism Initiative focuses on providing students interested in journalism with career opportunities and resources. Stephen Brill ’72 LAW ’75, who endowed the program in 2006 with his wife Cynthia Margolin Brill ’72, will continue to teach the English seminar offered in the fall semester. ProPublica’s Mark Schoofs ’85 and the Times’ Jill Abramson have also taught iterations of the seminar.

Although the Yale Journalism Initiative is largely aimed towards prospective journalists, the journalism class, according to Dominus’ syllabus, is intended to develop the “universally practical” skills of gathering and evaluating information which can then be synthesized into fair and compelling writing.

“I am always really interested in the ethics of journalism,” Dominus told the News. “That’s something that most reporters I know grapple with. In every single story they do, new issues come up, new challenges arise. … It’s something that I could hear people’s thoughts about endlessly and I have learned from students in other classes before about thoughtful approaches.”

“The world is changing, and we’re all changing with it,” she added.

Woodward’s departure

Woodward, whose reporting with Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal that preceded President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and has written 21 books about American politics. Woodward began teaching at Yale in 2014 and has taught the “Journalism” course each spring since then except for the spring of 2020, when he was focused on reporting on the upcoming presidential election. The course was not offered during this semester.

When Woodward returned to Yale in 2021, he said that the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to remote learning made the semester difficult. 

“Last year was a difficult year doing it by Zoom,” Woodward said. “That has an artificiality to it that a classroom does not.” 

Woodward explained that he ultimately chose not to teach the course in 2022 because he worried that COVID-19 restrictions would prevent him from traveling to New Haven and holding his seminar in person, replicating the challenges with Zoom he had experienced in 2021.

Woodward also spoke about professional projects he is working on. Director of Creative Writing Richard Deming and Brill also referenced Woodward’s book commitments. According to Deming, Woodward told the English department last spring that a new book dealing with former President Donald Trump would dominate his time and energy this year. Brill noted that Woodward  told him that his current project was more intense and consuming than others he has undertaken in the past. 

Woodward told the News that he has a current contract for a book about his career, and is also considering writing about the Biden administration and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Woodward did not rule out the possibility of returning to Yale for future semesters, noting that often when you commit to “doing x and y, you wind up doing a and b.” Woodward’s return would not displace Dominus from teaching again, Brill told the News, since the Yale Journalism Initiative endowment has remained strong since 2006 and could support more than two cohorts a year. Neither Brill nor Woodward have taken salaries during their time teaching the seminar. 

“If Bob wants to do it again next year, there’s plenty of room for more than two seminars, especially since the endowment never spent any money,” Brill told the News. 

Woodward, who currently resides in the District of Columbia, added that he had an offer from a dean at Georgetown to teach a journalism course there, which would spare him the weekly commute to and from New Haven. 

“It’s possible I may do that,” Woodward said. “Each time, you learn something from the students. Some of the students last year did some of the very best work I’ve seen.” 

“Pretty combative”: Tension in the classroom

Woodward’s departure comes after a tense final semester. 

Speaking to undergraduates who have taken Woodward’s seminar, the News found that the journalist’s teaching style often clashed with his students’ expectations. The virtual version of his course taught in spring 2021 received an abnormally low course rating, with several comments pointing to specific incidents that made some students uncomfortable.

Course ratings and evaluations are anonymous and are currently available to Yale students on Yale Course Search, the University’s online course registration system. The course was rated by 10 out of the course’s 12 students, and it received an average score of 3.0 out of 5.0. In the previous six iterations of the seminar Woodward has taught, none received an average rating of lower than 3.9.

Some course evaluations praised Woodward’s teaching, saying that it was “wonderful” to learn from him and that he “encourages discussion and debate on difficult topics.”

But in other evaluations, three students made references to specific class discussions about race and sexual assault. 

“During the semester, there were two key events that colored the rest of the semester,” one student wrote. “The first was a conversation about race that was poorly run that quickly turned away from race. This was an unsatisfying conversation, and I wish that we had had a guest speaker instead. The second was during the #MeToo reporting class, which will probably be detailed in other responses. The bottom line is that there should be more guest speakers for these weeks.” 

Woodward’s spring 2021 syllabus, which is publicly available to Yale students on Yale Course Search, details the “class themes” for each day of class, which met for nearly two hours weekly on Tuesdays. March 23 was themed around “reporting on race,” and March 30 was themed around “Origins and impact of #MeToo reporting,” according to the syllabus.

When asked about discussions during those two classes, Woodward told the News that even the students who were “not happy with some of [his] questioning” wrote to him with positive feedback after the class had ended. 

The News spoke to two students about the two class incidents. One of the students asked to remain anonymous out of professional concerns.

Lukas Flippo ’24, who took the class in the spring 2021 semester, described class discussions as “pretty combative,” and said that they heavily revolved around anecdotes about Woodward’s career. Woodward also had a habit of cold-calling students. 

Flippo described class conversations about race as “wishy-washy.” He told the News that while the seminar began with a discussion about reporting on a spree of racially-motivated spa shootings in Atlanta, the conversation was “derailed” and switched focus to social media usage and other topics less than halfway through the class. Both students told the News that the discussion did not engage with class readings. 

“I wish we would have had speakers who were more aligned with those topics when we did tackle them,” Flippo said. “It felt like we weren’t learning from someone who had real expertise on the topic.”

Woodward noted that Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the reporters who broke sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein in the New York Times, had spoken virtually to the class during a previous iteration of the course. 

Flippo said that Woodward’s handling of discussion on #MeToo reporting in the subsequent class session quickly made some students uncomfortable. 

“He pretty much asked the women in the class if they had had any experience with the #MeToo movement, and the way that it came across was that he was asking the women in the class to share their examples of being harassed,” Flippo said. “There was an immediate tension in the air.”

None of the women replied, Flippo said, and other students in the class began turning off their Zoom cameras, prompting teaching fellow Simone Seiver ’17 LAW ’21 to suggest taking a ten-minute break. Seiver did not comment for this story. 

When class resumed, several women had logged off, which one other student confirmed to the News. Discussion continued without any reference to the incident, which Flippo said acted as a “dampener” on the remainder of the semester. 

Outside of class, students discussed whether Woodward would apologize or reference the incident, Flippo said.When asked about this incident, Woodward said that the uncomfortable atmosphere of some of these conversations reflect a fundamental truth about the nature of journalism. 

“It is kind of the business of a journalist to ask uncomfortable questions,” Woodward said. “I have asked uncomfortable questions of many presidents. Nixon, I asked the questions. I never got an answer directly from him, but from four or five other presidents. I’ve asked the most uncomfortable questions sitting in their office. That comes with the territory of being a journalist.”

Woodward also noted that his syllabus specifically made accommodations for students who did not want to discuss certain topics. The first half of the class on #MeToo, for example, had optional attendance. 

The News attempted to contact all 12 students in the class, except for the current editor-in-chief of the News, Rose Horowitch ’23, who was not interviewed for this story or involved in the reporting process. Besides the two students who spoke to the News and Horowitch, the nine others declined to speak for attribution or could not be reached.

The News did not determine whether the events of Woodward’s final semester played any role in his departure.

A fresh voice

Dominus is significantly younger than both Woodward and Brill, and she has directly grappled with reporting on issues such as #MeToo. 

Two months after Kantor and Twohey first broke allegations of sexual assault against Weinstein in the Times, Dominus joined Kantor, Twohey and two other reporters for a follow-up story on “Weinstein’s Complicity Machine”

Flippo expressed appreciation for having a younger journalist faculty member. Though Woodward’s anecdotes were interesting, Flippo said, class discussions were theoretical and did not tend to offer insight on practical reporting skills. Woodward also summarily dismissed Twitter as a platform.  

“I think the way journalism is going, we could very much benefit from having a person in their early 40s or 50s,” Flippo said. “Every journalist I know is active on Twitter. The journalism we’re doing and responding to is all about how it’s received and read on the internet.”

Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03, who coordinates the Yale Journalism Initiative, told the News that “fresh voices on the English faculty are always important.” 

Deming described Dominus as “one of the finest journalists working today” and pointed to her past positions as a Poynter Fellow and a fellow at the Yale Law School. 

“We have no doubts that Susan will bring that compassionate rigor that is the hallmark of her writing into the classroom,” Deming said. “Journalism is a field in flux during these dynamic, fraught times, and writers such as Susan are at the front, helping it meet, head on, unblinkingly, unswervingly, the demands and needs of our contemporary moment.” 

Although Dominus’ syllabus, like Brill’s fall syllabus, does not have specific classes dedicated to reporting on race or #MeToo, several class sessions have assigned reading related to the subject.

The syllabus features Kantor and Twohey’s book “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement,” using the book as a case study for identifying important stories as well as strategies on breaking them. Despite Dominus’ firsthand knowledge from reporting on the #MeToo movement, she noted that she “still learned so much” in reading “She Said.”

In an interview with the News, Dominus said that pausing to examine more closely the ethical issues that arise in the throes of reporting is one of the primary rewards of studying and teaching journalism as a craft. 

“The truth is that one could hash out the kinds of thorny and challenging issues around journalism all day long, and love it,” Dominus said. “The problem is instead of doing that, you are actually doing the reporting … So what I always love about showing up in a class is having the moment to pause and think through process and choice and approach and methodology and ethics in a really thoughtful way.”

Dominus attended Yale College before joining the Times as a Metro columnist in 2007. In 2009 she was a member of a team of journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news for their coverage of the scandal that ultimately led New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to resign.

Oppenheimer also pointed to work that Dominus did before joining the Times — specifically when she served as an editor of Nerve.com — as demonstrative of her early involvement in the then-novel field of online magazine journalism. Nerve, Oppenheimer said, was a literary website about sex and sexuality during a time when there was limited reporting on sexuality compared to today. 

“She was writing terrific stuff at a very early point,” Oppenheimer said. “I remember hearing her talked about as a star writer and editor in the late 1990s, so it’s really been about a quarter century that I have seen her work from afar and I’ve always admired it and envied it.” 

In 2012, Dominus taught a class alongside Dody Tsiantar as an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Journalism — an experience which she loved, she told the News. 

“I think that journalism, in a way that’s maybe different from other classes, does really force you to wrestle in a deep way with the ethical issues of how you interact with human beings in the world,” Dominus said. “I think that’s really a value in a very practical way and just a deep sort of human way for anybody who’s about to head into a workforce.”

Dominus said that she had tentatively expressed interest in teaching a course at Yale to a few people before she was approached by Deming about teaching “Journalism.” After a certain point, Dominus explained, she began to feel ready to give back some of what she had learned in her career as a journalist. 

Dominus’ husband Alan Burdick, a lecturer of English at Yale and a staff writer for the New Yorker, told the News that he was “thrilled” for Dominus. He recalled how positively his students had responded when she visited his classes in the past. 

Burdick emphasized Dominus’ broad range of reporting experiences, all of which he said, were “people-oriented.” 

“She was on the team that won a Pulitzer at the Times a couple of years ago for Me Too coverage, so she has a very inside look at the challenges of dealing with a sharp edge like that, journalistically,” Burdick said. “She’s just a fantastic generalist, in the best sense. She brings a tremendous enthusiasm and, certainly, a certain amount of youthful experience to it.”

Dominus began teaching at the start of the spring 2022 semester, which began on Jan. 25. 

Lucy Hodgman is the editor-in-chief and president of the News. She previously covered student life and the Yale College Council. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in English.
Isaac Yu was the News' managing editor. He covered transportation and faculty as a reporter and laid out the front page of the weekly print edition. He co-founded the News' Audience desk, which oversees social media and the newsletter. He was a leader of the News' Asian American and low-income affinity groups. Hailing from Garland, Texas, Isaac is a Berkeley College junior majoring in American Studies.