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Sunday, January 24, 2021

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UH professor brings wealth of experience to the classroom


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Frederick Schiff is an associate professor of communication at UH. His many experiences as a reporter have helped him teach his students a variety of lessons. Photo courtesy of Frederick Schiff.

A life-time’s worth of experiences across the globe have given UH associate professor of communication Frederick Schiff a unique perspective and approach to his craft.

Schiff began pursuing a degree in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, but found himself attending several different universities across the nation including Reed College and the University of California. After teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, Schiff started working with the University of California system to visit Central and South America, where he eventually made his way to Argentina to study the insurgency while working as a day laborer.

“That was my intent, to go down and work among the people and to see what was happening in Córdoba, which had a history of political activism and was the center of resistance,” Schiff said. “But by the time I actually got in place, the military was in charge and people were dead, in jail or had escaped. So, I didn’t get the kind of information I was looking for.”

Still unhappy at the university, he began to search for something else. He sought to use his skills as an English writer and Spanish speaker to help flush out the concrete details to help him further understand the “abstract” theory that he had been studying.

“When I went down there, I didn’t recognize that this was a coup-d’état, as it turned out,” Schiff said. “I didn’t understand that in a visceral way; I didn’t get what was really happening, so I decided to become a reporter and went around from place to place looking for a bigger story.”

Schiff’s road to becoming a reporter took him through the “side window,” as he began to interview every English speaking reporter in Buenos Aires looking for a job. After countless interviews, he finally came to the Associated Press, which had an opening and he started covering the Dirty War, already underway at the time.

The Dirty War was a long and bloody fight for control of the country between the Argentine Military and several other political parties that lasted nearly a decade. During his time covering it, Schiff had many encounters most Americans, let alone journalists or academics, never experience.

“In South America, it was frequent that you got stopped by men with machine guns who were pointing them at you and wanting to search you,” Schiff said. “So, I just became quite familiar with how to deal with men with guns.”

Schiff’s experiences eventually led him to the Middle East, where he further encountered numerous dangers while working as a reporter.

“There were times, when the Israelis were beseeching the city, where over 100,000 rockets, bombs, mortars and tank shells were fired at the city and it was intense from five in the morning through the day,” Schiff said. “Sometime jets would come in at 100 feet above the buildings and break the sound barrier right over your head; these things happen and you just hope to dodge the bullets.”

Despite all of his dangerous dealings with militants, terrorists and hostile police, Schiff never thought of quitting, even after being held hostage himself. And though he doesn’t consider himself a particularly brave man, he understands the unique circumstances he worked in while overseas.

“I know that I’ve probably had more guns pointed at me than anyone else at this university,” Schiff said. “I don’t care if you were in the war, I had more guns pointed at me at close range through years of reporting and thousands of encounters.”  

After all he had been through, Schiff finally grew tired of his life as a reporter after 10 years and wanted to return to the world of academia.

Schiff ended up coming to UH, where he has taught many subjects ranging from political sociology and social change and development to investigative reporting and freelance writing, while also continuing his research and publishing his findings. 

Schiff’s experiences have also given him a unique approach when it comes to passing his knowledge on to the next generation of students.

“As a journalist, or whatever field you go into, you would get fired if you were writing ‘B’ articles, so I think he is trying to push students to get beyond that level of quality,” Interim Director and associate professor of communication Temple Northup said. “Students aren’t always happy about that approach, but it’s a great mentality to try to push students to their highest possible achievements.”

Even nearly three decades removed from his experiences and lessons learned while working and studying in the field, Schiff is still inspiring those students looking to be top-notch journalists as well.

“His approach is old-school, but effective,” senior journalism major Ruthy Muñoz said. “Although his first story almost scared me off, I like it because I aspire to have some of those experiences myself.”

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