By Kathleen Shannon
Nadia White is the director of the master’s program at the j-school: Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism. She joined the faculty in 2006 after making her way from the East Coast through the Midwest and into the Mountain West as a newspaper journalist. In addition to shepherding students through the graduate program, she also teaches classes on science reporting and global current events reporting.
Nadia recently answered some questions from graduate student Kathleen Shannon about how she spent her time on sabbatical (including a particularly wild bike ride) and what she’s digging into now that she’s back on campus.
The transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Read to the end to find out how Nadia most likes to play in the Montana snow.
Q: Let’s play my favorite interview game for professors returning from sabbatical. What was one happy thing about being on sabbatical and one crappy thing?
A: I didn’t even know you’re allowed to have a crappy about sabbatical.
Q: There’s no crappy?
A: Well, there’s a very multi-dimensional question there. Gosh, sabbatical was a great time to refresh and invest in my own creative process. So I got to do some journalism. I got to do some art. I got to read. And I got to teach a class that helped me really expand my knowledge locally, which was part of my goal: to know Montana better. So I’m happy about all of those things. The crappy part about sabbatical during a pandemic if you don’t have kids at home, which I don’t, is it’s just super lonely. I had a partner who’s working very hard on Zoom at home for a lot of hours a day. And we were pretty isolated and hell-bent on not getting sick. And we didn’t get sick. I was healthy but lonely. So my dog and I were very fit. And we got out a lot.
Q: Tell me a little bit more about teaching a class. Was it through the University of Montana?
A: It was from the Wild Rockies Field Institute. And it was a bicycle tour course on climate change and energy. One of the objectives of my sabbatical was to really get to know Montana better. A huge part of my career was working in Wyoming and I know Wyoming quite well. I am not as familiar with Montana. So this course allowed us to ride our bikes from Billings to Whitefish, about 700 miles, working our way along looking at energy production and climate change issues. We had students from MSU, from the University of Wisconsin from a couple private schools in Minnesota. It was a great bunch of nine students and was very self-supported. I learned so much about teaching in the field. I had a very excellent, experienced field-teaching partner, Dave Morris. We took a deep dive into climate change issues facing Montana and the challenges to engaging solutions in Montana and met people who were doing those things. We looked at energy production from a coal perspective, wind, solar and a pumped hydro storage perspective. And we got off our bikes. I went and met with those people and looked at those things. We talked to ranchers about regenerative agriculture. We talked a lot about meatpacking consolidation because that is what ranchers want to talk about. It was fabulous and an honor and just a great pace to meet people and learn about their lives.
Q: I wish all my classes could be like that.
A: It was a high point. Now, there were those days [when] we hit all the heat domes, when Seattle was like 112 degrees. Yeah, we were riding our bikes across the Musselshell River Valley in really impressive headwinds. You really learned to appreciate roadside bars [and] leafed-out trees.
It was fantastic. I love the prairie. I even love the wind. I lived in Casper for a long time and I’m okay with wind. It does great things for the air. It is a beautiful transition to find yourself moving across the prairie into Badger-Two Medicine, up and over Glacier and down into the Mountain West of the state. The transitions are beautiful. The sunrises and sunsets are beautiful. It was a great way to accomplish part of my mission of learning more about the state.
Q: Definitely. Did you learn any surprising Montana facts? Or something you still think about?
A: Montana facts? Well, no, I don’t know about Montana facts. On day four, I got hit very directly by a dust devil. We had separated a little bit. There’s a little group of three or four of us out front, maybe 20 yards ahead of a little pack behind us and the back bunch said, “Oh, that’s coming right at them. What’s going to happen?”
And they said “I don’t know, I guess we’ll see.”
And it just, it hit us and [my] bike just got blown out from under me. And there I was in the borrow pit. There you have it. I [saw] it coming, [but] there was just nothing to be done about it. We talked about it later. What should you do if you’re about to be hit by a dust devil? Maybe I could have stopped and put my feet on the ground.
Q: That’s really more of a surprise encounter with Montana. I like that. You mentioned spending a lot of time in Wyoming. Can you give me an elevator pitch version of where you’ve been in the world of journalism?
A: You bet. I am a print journalist by trade. I worked in newsrooms in Maine, Minnesota and Wyoming. I was [at the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming] for over a decade working as an environmental reporter, a Washington, D.C. bureau chief living in D.C. and covering federal issues important to the cowboy state. Then I was the state editor for many years directing coverage of our Washington, D.C. bureau, and the bureaus that we have around Wyoming. And I loved that job. That was the newsroom that raised me.
Q: Cool. What are you teaching this semester now that you’re back at UM?
A: Well, while I was on sabbatical, we got some great professional science journalists to fill in for Story Lab [a class for grad students who work with a research lab on campus to practice science reporting]. And they agreed to do it again. I think I’ll go back to teaching Story Lab next year. So I am teaching Basic Reporting and Global Current Events, which is an honors class that is ridiculously labor-intensive, but it is a labor of love. And I work hard, the students work hard. Both of those classes are really fun, undergraduate classes. But I kind of miss teaching graduate students.
Q: We miss you, too. What excites you about being back after two semesters away?
A: I am so glad to be back. I’m the only person ever to be this excited to be back at work. It was a lonely pandemic sabbatical. I take a lot of responsibility for that. But, nonetheless, I apparently need structure.
I am refreshed. I am excited about teaching journalism [and] about thinking forward about the journalism school. Our graduate program is really catching a lot of applicants’ attention and [we’re] hearing from a lot of international students. I’m anxious to see how we work that out.
We got a very generous gift that came in while I was on sabbatical. That will allow us to offer some bigger scholarships, hopefully to some international students, but also to expand and keep working on our Crown Reporting Fellowships. So I’m super excited to reinvest my energies in in our existing programs and to see what we need to build going forward. It’s a changing world. We need to change, too.
Q: My last question: what is your favorite winter recreational sport to do in Montana?
A: Oh, I have to say cross country skiing. I really love Nordic skiing. I don’t backcountry ski as much as I used to. But I have my secret stashes where my dog and I find our way up into the high country without triggering avalanches. So that’s very much my favorite thing.
During sabbatical I got back into ceramics, which I’ve done off and on and has brought sanity to my life at various stages, especially when I lived in D.C. But then I had not worked in a ceramics studio since I started teaching full time. I never could figure out how to combine those two things. So my great goal is to try to continue to work in ceramics while I’m teaching. Let’s see if I can do it.