For a space that appears so cluttered, Professor Irving Rein’s office is immaculately organized. There is not a computer screen in sight, and countless beige folders stuffed with documents line the walls and cover the bookcases. Scattered around the room are framed pictures of astronauts, baseball executives, friends and former students. Books, some authored or co-authored by the man behind the desk, are stacked in neat piles or tucked carefully into a bookcase.
Rein sits in the center of this ordered chaos, in the corner office on the second floor of the Communication building, one of the many nondescript, house-like administration buildings that line Chicago Ave. Now, in his 49th year at Northwestern, Rein continues to teach his signature course in the School of Communication – “Persuasive Images: Rhetoric of Contemporary Culture” – which will celebrate its 50th year as a class in winter quarter 2019. Rein’s career at the University began in 1969 after he left his post as director of public speaking at Harvard University. Asked to take over a semantics class, Rein shifted the class focus to popular culture. That same year, Northwestern students organized a week-long strike protesting the American government and Vietnam War.
“The class was born in a time of protest, and students were ready to learn about the popular culture they were being influenced by,” Rein says.
Being attentive and engaged remains important for Rein’s 80 to 90 students. He keeps them on their toes by moving around the room throughout the lecture, calling on students at will. “He’s really not one to tiptoe around the students,” says Naomi Wu, a Communication sophomore who took Rein’s class her freshman year before serving as his undergraduate TA this year. Former undergraduate TA and recent graduate Isabel Steiner agrees. “It’s one of the few classes left where he knows your name and knows if you’re there,” she says, “And you better not have your phone out.”
Rein teaches each class with a video package, put together by his two graduate student TAs, that keys in on a specific sector of popular culture. He frequently pauses the videos to converse with students and allow them to take notes. The overarching project for the class is a team effort of five or six to create a 10-minute video along with a 10-page paper analyzing their chosen aspect of popular culture.
Northwestern Communication Professor Jeremy Birnholtz took Rein’s class on a whim in the winter of 1993 as an undergraduate in RTVF. He recalls Rein’s engaging, direct teaching style and his own final project, in which he compared chain bookstores and their effect on Evanston book sellers. Though they didn’t stay in touch, Birnholtz says Rein still recognized him as a former student upon Birnholtz’s return to Northwestern as a professor six years ago. When asked about why the class continues to draw students after almost five decades, Birnholtz says, “[Rein] designed a framework that he can slot whatever is going on in the world into. He does an incredible job staying on top of what’s going on in the world, and it’s hard to imagine any other class that gets as much attention as his for so long.”
Former Rein TA and Communication sophomore Grant Elliott notes Rein’s constant ability to wow his students with his evolving knowledge of contemporary culture. “Rein’s getting up there in age, so you wouldn’t expect him to be as up-to-date as he is,” she says. “He knows the material is always relevant.”
Rein makes a particular point of this constant relevance. “I feel my students can use this material no matter what they end up doing,” Rein says. “I want them to have that third eye that remains objective.”
His passion for teaching and energetic, blunt, witty style remain unchanged. “Classes were always boring to me,” Rein says. “I always thought if I were to teach, I would teach this way.” He acknowledges that Persuasive Images took on a life of its own long ago, forcing him to look at the world through the lens of the class. A shopping trip now involves conscious analysis of the sales tactics and rhetoric at work in the store or mall. Rein believes the class continues to thrive after 49 years because it reflects changes in culture.
“I always feel there ought to be an arc to what I teach. You don’t just start in 2018,” Rein says. “Students have a good handle on certain things, but not the holistic picture; that’s where I come in.”
Even at age 80, Rein remains sharp. He exercises regularly, and his next book on the new trends and strategies associated with crisis management will be his 14th book. He remains coy about his plans for year 50 of Persuasive Images, vaguely hinting at potential surprises. The content will vary slightly based on current events, and a new crop of students and assistants will appear in the fall ready to tackle the latest round of significant cultural developments. However, Rein gives no retirement dates or projections, saying his pupils get the final word.
“If I’m not connecting with the students, I have to get out,” Rein says. “There aren’t many people like me around anymore.”