Below is an annotated version of my syllabus for the class “Literary Journalism in America.” I’ve taught this class eight times: five as part of the SAGES program at Case Western University, where I was a teaching fellow from 2010-2012; twice in the Department of American Studies and the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame, where I was a visiting assistant professor from 2012-2014; and now in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine, where I’m an assistant professor.
Despite the different departmental imperatives—composition, cultural studies, journalism—this, really, is a history course. (I also teach a practice course called “Writing Literary Journalism” with a vastly different syllabus.) It is a survey of mostly canonical works from the 20th century. As such, it represents and reproduces a problem—namely that too many of the authors listed here are white men. I take that seriously and am transparent about it with my class, especially when it comes time to write their final research paper. At that time, I encourage them to seek out authors not represented on this syllabus. Students respond to that request and have produced thoughtful, nuanced, canon-expanding papers on Nellie Bly, Ida B. Wells, Marvel Cooke, James Baldwin, Touré, Leslie Jamison, Carrie Ching, and more.
In many ways, the course is easy to teach because the stories are so compelling that everyone always completes the assigned readings and we have amazing conversations in class. I still get regular messages from former students as they discover new writers or works that remind them of something we read in class. In fact, this style of writing is so engaging, that I ran a twice-a-month extracurricular reading group at both CWRU and Notre Dame. A half-dozen to a dozen students would regularly show up in the late afternoon or evening, and we’d sit around for a few hours and discuss a text. That speaks to the power of this type of storytelling.
What follows is color-coded: The regular syllabus is in black. My annotations appear in blue.
Literary Journalism in America
“American novelists really do believe that there is some story out there that will explain America. Maybe nonfiction writers have inherited that quest.” —Jane Kramer
“Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.” —John Dewey
Literary journalism is a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all of the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. In short, it is journalism as literature. This course will introduce students to the major writers, publications, controversies and questions that have emerged during American literary journalism’s 150-year history. We will start with the 19th century newspaper sketch and move through its social justice impulses at the turn of the century. We will trace literary journalism’s institutionalization at The New Yorker in the 1930s and ’40s, and follow its proliferation at Esquire, New York, and Rolling Stone during the New Journalism era of the 1960s and’70s. Finally, we’ll end with a look at contemporary writers and examine the effect the digital revolution is having on the genre. Throughout this journey, we will explore distinctions between physical truth and emotional truth, imagination and invention, form and content. We will note how historical and political contexts influence and appear in the works, and ask how these stories work as narratives, as cultural critiques, and as entertainment. We will examine the correlation between publication venue and readership, and note the ways literary journalism motivates citizens to act. Evaluation will be based on class participation, several short papers, and a final research paper project.
- Norman Sims, True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism
- John Hersey, Hiroshima
- Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
- Course Packet, Blackboard (Please print stories out)
Reading List & Writing Schedule
The first day of class is always the hardest and the most important. It’s a chance to set the tone for the entire semester, and yet we’re all strangers staring at each other. I joke with students that it’s like showing up for a party at 7 p.m. before anyone has had anything to drink. So instead of making awkward small talk about the syllabus, I jump right into the genre. I have students read three different passages aloud and then we use them to start to define “literary journalism,” its constitutive elements, and sketch out the main currents of discussion for our semester.
First we read an excerpt from Joan Didion’s Salvador. It’s the scene where she juxtaposes the consumer wonderland within the Metrocenter mall against the stark violence in the streets outside, causing Didion to lose faith in her ability to accurately capture the absurd reality she witnesses. I ask the students to consider how Didion’s story differs from the type of war reporting they’re used to reading, hearing, or seeing. We talk about subjectivity, authority, and the job of the journalist (and what happens when the event being reported causes this type of existential dread).
Notable Passage: “As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real I noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy’s back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.”
Next we read a brief passage from the beginning of David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” which chronicles his trip aboard a Caribbean cruise. We read his litany of humorous observations, and then I ask why the story matters. This question gives way to a conversation about how literary journalism can offer cultural criticism, rather than just documenting an event.
Notable Passage: “I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeet shooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.”
We finish the first class with an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I do not tell the students that this is a work of fiction. Instead, we read from the section called “How to Tell a True War Story.” The passage evokes all sorts of epistemological questions about truth, accuracy, and subjectivity. What’s the difference between imagination and invention? Is there a difference between physical truth and emotional truth? Often the collective answer to this question is “no.” But then I tell them that the passage is fiction (after having pledged at the beginning of class that everything we read during the semester will be true, accurate, and factual). Upon hearing this realization, they feel conflicted and confused. It reinforces the fact that there are social contracts between writer and reader, and that we bring certain expectations to works of nonfiction, and when those boundaries are transgressed, it’s problematic.
Notable Passage: “That’s a true story that never happened.”
That ends the first day. It’s exhilarating and exhausting. I want to convey how enormous and awesome the possibilities for the semester are. I want them to buy in and be engaged and excited right from the start. I want them to be curious and critical. And for the most part, this first day positions us to achieve those goals.
Introducing & Defining Literary Journalism
David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (Gourmet, 2004)
To build off the momentum of the first day, I start the official reading schedule with Wallace. His voice immediately captures their attention, and I ask them to consider what this story is really about beyond the ostensible Maine Lobster Festival. This story helps them see how literary journalism differs from conventional journalism in that it does not have to be event- or person-centered. Wallace talks about animal cruelty, tourism, and what it means to be a gourmet. (Occasionally, I’ll suggest at the end of class that this story, like all of Wallace’s nonfiction, is really about consciousness.)We talk about the role of footnotes and how it disrupts the main narrative, and the effect that this nonlinear story structure has on the reader. And finally, we grapple with voice—Wallace’s distinctive mix of high and low—and how that creates an approachable entry point into a story that then delivers heady analysis.
Notable passage: “As usual, though, there’s much more to know than most of us care about — it’s all a matter of what your interests are.”
Michael Paterniti, “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy” (Esquire, 2000)
On September 2, 1998, Swiss Air Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia. All 229 people on board perished in the crash. Michael Paterniti puts readers inside the airplane as it’s going down. We see passengers order drinks and write postcards. We see the pilots frantically go through their emergency checklist as the engines fail. How does he do it? We talk about how Paterniti used immersion reporting to gather specific details to recreate the moments inside the plane. I rarely like to do this type of whodunit with the genre, but early in the semester it can really be effective because students can see that something so artful can also be 100 percent rooted in fact. We also talk about the effect of Paterniti’s use of figurative language throughout the piece, and how the story’s symbolism helps universalize it. Every semester I’ve taught this class, this story ranks as the students’ favorite.
Notable passage: “Yes, what had happened here? And why did the clothes on the line look as if they were filled by bodies, though there were no bodies in sight anymore?”
Norman Sims, True Stories, Ch. 1: A True Story
Sims is generally regarded as the founder of modern literary journalism studies. This book offers a comprehensive narrative history of the genre, dating back to the mid-19th century. It blends historical research with anecdotes from working writers. (His first two books are anthologies that have genre-defining introductions and interviews with writers like John McPhee, Susan Orlean, and Tracy Kidder.) It’s a terrific introduction to the writers, publications, themes, and lingering issues attendant with the genre.
Notable Passage: “Among the shared characteristics of literary journalism are immersion reporting, voice, a focus on ordinary people—if for no other reason than celebrities rarely provide the necessary access—and accuracy. Literary journalists recognize the need for consciousness on the page through which the objects in view are filtered.”
Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter” (The New Yorker, 1996)
In a story about coming to terms with death, Beard’s elderly collie is dying. Her marriage has dissolved. And a graduate student is about to kill several of her colleagues in a research lab at the University of Iowa during an afternoon when she’s absent from work. I’ve only taught this story once, and students didn’t love it. They found Beard’s persona off-putting, which I would argue is entirely the point. It’s useful in class to talk about how narrative personas position readers to interact with the characters and events. I also like to point out Beard’s use of contractions throughout the piece. By saying “he’s” and “she’s” Beard is able to blur tenses so the reader doesn’t know if the events being described are happening in the present or past. Is this an explication or a eulogy?
Notable Passage: “Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.”
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, “Trina & Trina” (Village Voice, 1993)
This story introduces journalistic ethics into our conversation. What is LeBlanc’s obligation to Trina, a teenager addicted to crack and working as a prostitute? LeBlanc toggles the line between wanting to help Trina get better, and recording Trina’s story. Does she use Trina to get the story?
Notable Passage: “I exceed my role as reporter, convinced I am going the limit as a reporter, and I take her, fully, in.”
Tom Junod, “The Falling Man” (Esquire, 2001)
Tim Townsend, “The First Hours” (Rolling Stone, 2001)
I only teach these two pieces during the fall semester. They certainly deserve to be taught every semester, but something about the immediacy of teaching them on September 11 makes them resonate more. They’re great to juxtapose because Junod takes an oblique approach to understanding America’s reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 through the lens of one photograph—the nominal “falling man”—who is unknown and unseen in most media in the days and weeks after the attacks. Who is he and why don’t we want to see him? The story is another example of using a topic to make a larger critique about culture.
Notable Passage: “In the most photographed and videotaped day in the history of the world, the images of people jumping were the only images that became, by consensus, taboo — the only images from which Americans were proud to avert their eyes.”
Townsend’s story is, in some ways, more immediate. He was working as a young reporter at The Wall Street Journal on the day of the attacks. And like his fellow reporters, he grabbed his notebook and headed to the scene after the first plane hit. The story that ensues is both an eyewitness account of the first hours of that awful day and a meditation on heroism. Townsend’s story is a brutal firsthand account of being there as it happened, buffeted with a grim honesty that not everyone that day—Townsend included—acted like a hero. In class, I share the backstory of his piece’s publication: During the chaos of production that evening—at a temporary newsroom in New Jersey, his story was overlooked and left out of the next day’s coverage (which would end up winning the paper a Pulitzer Prize). Initially upset, Townsend contacted Will Dana at Rolling Stone who advised him to change the story into first person, and the magazine ran it pretty much as is in their 09.11.01 special issue.
Notable Passage: “The South Tower of the Trade Center seemed to suck the plane into itself. For an instant it looked like there would be no trauma to the building – it was as if the plane just slipped through a mail slot in the side of the tower, or simply vanished.”
Early Literary Journalism, 1890s – 1920s
Stephen Crane, “When Man Falls, A Crowd Gathers” (New York Press, 1894)
Crane’s story is less than 1,000 words. It’s a sketch of an immigrant having a seizure in the middle of a busy New York City street. Crane observes this and writes about it in third-person omniscience. Crane fills his story with chaos. Not only does the crowd gather, but the elevated train rumbles by, passing over the scene and a sign advertising a discount dinner for 10 cents. Both details are symbolic: Seizure and possible death notwithstanding, the city stops for no one. I use this story not only to introduce students to the sketch—the predominant form of literary journalism in the 19th century—but also to continue exploring and identifying literary elements and their effects. The story is full of metaphors and symbolism, which contribute to its larger allegorical point (note the lack of an indefinite article in the title’s first clause): Mankind has fallen—both literally and figuratively—and the most we can do is gather and gawk. The story also contains a wonderful, biting indictment of conventional journalism as well, as the passage below demonstrates.
Notable Passage: “Meanwhile others with magnificent passions for abstract statistical information were questioning the boy. ‘What’s his name?’ ‘Where does he live?’”
Richard Harding Davis, “The Death of Rodriguez” (New York World, 1897)
We read this story the same day as Crane’s. It is also ripe with symbolism and allegory. (I share with my students
this useful site of literary elements, which they consult again and again over the course of the semester.) Davis, a dashing war correspondent, watches as the Spanish march a Cuban freedom fighter during the Spanish-American War, a half-mile up a hill where he is to be executed at dawn. Rodriguez, who wears a scapular, is not only a Christ-figure, but he is also a patriot. Davis makes an indirect comparison to Nathan Hale, in an attempt to elevate the peasant from his fate as being “remembered only as one of thirty Cubans, one of whom was shot at Santa Clara on each succeeding day at sunrise.”
Notable Passage: “Rodriguez, while probably as willing to give six lives for his country as was the American rebel, being only a peasant, did not think to say so, and he will not, in consequence, live in bronze during the lives of many men.”
Jack London, from The People of the Abyss (1903)
In this early example of “passing” as an experiential process in reporting, London goes undercover as a pauper and lives in the East End of London in order to gain access into the lives of its downtrodden residents. The story raises the important question: “Can he ever truly assimilate?” It is an early example of a type of so-called ethnographic reporting utilized by later writers like George Orwell, John Howard Griffen, Ted Conover, and Barbara Ehrenreich.
Notable Passage: “For the first time I met the English lower classes face to face, and knew them for what they were.”
John Reed, from Insurgent Mexico (1914)
Early examples of literary journalism always rate the lowest in my end-of-the-year rankings. This story generally scores near the bottom, which is more of a reflection of my inability to teach it well than it is of the story itself. It’s an early example of participatory journalism. Reed takes up arms during the Mexican Revolution and writes about his harrowing experiences; a precursor for later war reportage that we will read.
Notable Passage: “I ran on—ran and ran and ran, until I could run no more. Then I walked a few steps and ran again. I was sobbing instead of breathing. Awful cramps gripped my legs.”
Ben Hecht, “The Pig” (1921)
A tricky little sketch that is sometimes difficult for students to understand unless they pick up on the irony. A Russian immigrant goes to a town ball where he gets drunk, buys a raffle ticket, and wins a pig. He brings the pig home to his wife, who is displeased with the prize. The man keeps the pig in the bathtub, which he has filled with mud. The couple have no children. The pig is the man’s surrogate. But it’s also a pig, in a city apartment, in a tub filled with mud. One day, the wife kills the pig, and upon so doing, the husband beats her up. They end up in Domestic Relations Court, where the whole story is recounted. It’s a serious crime, a serious story, but Hecht is sarcastic all the way through as a way to highlight how unserious the court and society at large were regarding domestic violence, especially among immigrants. A century later, students would recognize the dark humor in the mock-seriousness of Stephen Colbert, but irony is harder to pin down on the page.
Irony is hard to teach, too, or, at least it is for me. How do we recognize when an author is modulating her tone to convey the opposite of what she means? It’s part of a larger literary element—voice—that is at once easy to recognize and difficult to explain.Voiceis such a large part of what makes literary journalism distinct that we spend a lot of time talking about it in class. One attendant exercise I do every time I teach this story is to play two songs for the class: The Magnetic Fields, “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” and Jonathan Richman’s “Back in Your Life.” Both songs are ostensibly about dealing with a break-up. One, I argue, is ironic and the other is sincere. I ask students to make their case after listening to the songs while reading the lyrics. How do they account for the incongruity between form (how the song sounds) and the content (the words being sung)? How do they recognize when the songwriter / journalist is being authentic or putting us on for effect? I never quite clue the class in as to how I interpret the songs (spoiler: The Magnetic Fields is the ironic one), but just raising the issue helps them pay more attention to voice throughout the rest of the semester. “The Pig” is a good example of the hybrid nature of this syllabus. It’s not necessarily canonical, although a wonderful little tale, but it is a useful story to teach in that it helps students identify and understand a literary element that they’ll encounter again and again. Much of the syllabus is structured like this, establishing element upon element.
Notable Passage: “Well, what’s up? Why should the Popapovitches take up valuable time? Think of the taxpayers supporting this court and two Popapovitches marching up to have an argument on the taxpayers’ money. Well, that’s civilization.
Thomas B. Connery, “A Third Way to Tell the Story: American Literary Journalism at the Turn of the Century”
This is neat history lesson about how magazine editors at the turn of the century were grappling with “a third way to tell the story”—works that were neither fiction nor straight news. Connery’s article illustrates the point that what we do in class is not new, but part of a long historical tradition.
Notable Passage: “[A] literary journalistic account did not just record and report, it interpreted as well. It did so by subjectively placing details and impressions no longer considered appropriate for the standard newspaper article into a storytelling form that was also being cast aside by the institutionalized press.”
Norman Sims, True Stories, Ch. 2: Sketches and Innovation
Second Wave of American
Literary Journalism, 1930s & 1940s
Norman Sims, True Stories, Ch. 3: A Generation Goes Travelling
James Agee, “Havana Cruise” (Fortune, 1937)
In conjunction with the Sims chapter, I assign several stories about writers going abroad to find their stories, including this one by James Agee. I’d like to do an excerpt from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but that book is hard to assign out of context. Agee, generally, is difficult to pin down. But this piece pairs nicely with the Wallace story that we excerpted on day one. It’s a bitter, at times misogynistic, take on a middle-class cruise filled with unhappy couples and desperate singles. The cultural commentary reads, today, as obvious and easy: materialism and sexual gratification do not lead to happiness. But I keep it on the syllabus so that we can talk, once again, about voice. Agee’s is beautiful: elliptical, snide, and ultimately, sad.
Notable Passage: “A wife and a husband sat in a dark corner talking intensely: two phrases kept re-emerging with almost liturgical monotony: keep your voice down, and god damn you. And god damn you too you god damned.”
Langston Hughes, “Madrid’s Flowers Hoist Blooms to Meet Raining Fascist Bombs” (Baltimore Afro-American, 1937)
In the spring of 1937, Langston Hughes wrote 13 stories for the Baltimore Afro-American, all datelined in Spain. The prominent black newspaper sent him to cover the Spanish Civil War, which initially strikes students as incongruous. What did African Americans care about a civil war on the other side of the Atlantic? As it turns out, plenty. Black intellectuals of the 1930s saw the rise of fascism abroad as a parallel to the racism and oppression they suffered in the United States. Hundreds of African Americans traveled to Spain to fight on behalf of the Republican Loyalists in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades. These soldiers were Hughes’ subjects. In the historical spirit of black newspapers, Hughes’ profiles promoted racial uplift via heroic portraits of African Americans abroad. His stories also (over)-emphasized the degree of racial harmony he encountered in Barcelona and Madrid. In class, we discuss his historical purpose, his rhetorical techniques, and the subjectivity of his hopeful reports for back home.
Notable Passage: “And I thought that perhaps those flowers might well symbolize the whole struggle in Spain—those flowers blooming so bravely there in the face of fascist fire.”
Martha Gellhorn, “The Third Winter” (1938)
Another story whose dateline is from the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War, Gellhorn’s story pairs well with Hughes because they share equal sympathy for the Republicans. The feature we discuss most in this piece is its organizational structure. Gellhorn’s focus zooms in and out between a tight-angle profile of the Hernandez family and all the ills they suffer because of the war, and then a wide-angle shot of those troubles writ-large across Barcelona. She fractures her narrative with parentheses to set off the large-scale damage from the day-to-day struggles of the Hernandez family. The effect is at once disorienting and emphatic: Here is a close up of one family; now understand that thousands of families are suffering the same way.
Notable Passage: “In Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather.”
Joseph Mitchell, “Old Mr. Flood” (The New Yorker, 1944)
There are several ways I approach this text in class. First is voice. How to characterize Mitchell’s voice, especially when so much of the text is Old Mr. Flood speaking? The next avenue is theme: aging, purity, happiness, etc. How does Mitchell present these topics? Finally, we go back and look at the author’s note (which some students skip), which explains that Hugh G. Flood is a composite character made up of “several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market.” How does this knowledge affect the way we think of the piece–especially after we’ve learned from Tom Kunkel’s excellent biography that there are even more stories in which Mitchell used composites or fabricated material? We talk about journalistic conventions, and how in the 1930s and ’40s, there wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule at many American magazines that delineated fact from fiction. We note that several of Mitchell’s contemporaries like John Hersey and A.J. Liebling also famously used composites, but that this practice became increasingly verboten due to outcries during the New Journalism era[/annotate].[/annotation-group]
Notable Passage: “Even so, he goes to church only on Easter. On that day he has several drinks of Scotch for breakfast and then gets in a cab and goes to a Baptist church in Chelsea. For at least a week thereafter he is gloomy and silent. ‘I’m a God-fearing man,’ he says, ‘and I believe in Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and coming again, but one sermon a year is all I can stand.’”
Jimmy Cannon, “Lethal Lightning” (New York Post, 1946)
This is a brief boxing story that shows off the power of metaphor. The first two paragraphs of Cannon’s column need to be read aloud. He describes Joe Louis’s annihilation of Billy Conn by comparing it to the hazy dream-like state he fell into while under morphine during a surgery. How to make a sports story unique? How to convey the drowsiness of lying on your back, staring at the overhead ring-lights after taking a punch from the Brown Bomber? In class, we talk about how figurative language can make something foreign feel familiar.
Notable passage: “Once, dreaming with morphine after an operation, I believed the night climbed through the window and into my room like a second-story worker. I thought all the night had forsaken the world, and shaped like a fat man, walked through my face and up into my mind. The night had the dirty color of sickness and had no face at all as it strolled in my brain.”
John Hersey, Hiroshima (The New Yorker, 1946)
We spend two weeks on Hiroshima,the longest time on any text during the semester. At this point, we’ve analyzed stories using literary analysis, historical context, professional conventions, and personal biographies. With Hersey’s text, we bring them all together into one prolonged discussion and paper. My overall approach with this text is to answer the question: Does Hersey betray a political point of view in his article? However, I don’t tell the students that at first. In fact, I give them zero prompting as they read the original story. I just ask them to take note of things that stand out, and to let themselves be absorbed by the text. And they are.
The discussion on that first day often focuses on all the horrific details Hersey compiles. The skin that “slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces.” The melted eyeballs. Shadows burned into concrete. But then I ask them to go beyond the grotesque. What makes this piece so powerful? Is it just the gory details? Of course not. So then we start to talk about the precision of the language: “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945…” We talk about Hersey’s writing style and its effect: plain and scientific, which conveys trust and authority. I ask if there are any moments when Hersey leaves the plain style and writes figuratively instead? What should we make of that deviation? We look at the six characters and note their Western characteristics (two Christians, two medical doctors). We take stock of all that is not discussed in the story: the larger context of World War II, the ethics of dropping an atomic bomb, Pearl Harbor, Nagasaki (briefly), etc. My goal isn’t to get the students to read the text in a particular way, but rather to be more critical about how the text is constructed. One of the most oft-uttered phrases on that first day is that the details of the story “speak for themselves,” which I, in fact, love to hear because in the days ahead we read criticism that makes it clear that nothing speaks for itself.
For our second discussion, I ask the students to read “The Aftermath”—Hersey’s follow-up, reported and written 40 years after the original. Is his voice the same? Is there more subjectivity? The arc of this conversation is that, yes, there is more criticism—if only implicitly—of the U.S.’s decision to drop the bomb. Often students point to the italicized timeline that Hersey intersperses through “The Aftermath” where he chronicles each subsequent atomic testing throughout the world in the years after World War II. And then, of course, they also start to spot more instances of metaphor and commentary.
Notable Passage: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”
Hugh Kenner, “The Politics of Plain Style”
After two discussions that focused solely on the primary text, we move to criticism. Kenner’s piece does not directly address Hersey, but he does offer an indictment against the plain style, which he calls “the most disorienting form of discourse yet invented by man.” Plain style, Kenner argues, is dangerous because it doesn’t seem constructed like a text full of figurative language. It’s seemingly affectless, which makes it credible, believable, trustworthy. But is that authority justified? Hersey writes in an unadorned, plain style. Just the facts. Clinical. Precise. So starts the discussion: How do we now read Hersey after reading Kenner?
Notable Passage: “The plain style feigns a candid observer. Such is its great advantage for persuading. From behind its mask of calm candor, the writer with political intentions can appeal, in seeming disinterest, to people whose pride is their no-nonsense connoisseurship of fact.”
Phyllis Frus, from The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative
We read this excerpt in concert with Kenner. Frus is much more strident. She calls out Hersey and essentially says he’s being dishonest. She argues that he needs to be more transparent with his relationship with his sources and his own emotional reaction to the event. Some students hate this piece with a heretofore unseen anger, and they push back hard against its premise—that Hersey should have written the piece differently. They are often so moved and attached to Hiroshima that they get very defensive about people who criticize it. As a teacher, witnessing this type of passion and investment is wonderful. Students get pissed and in turn channel that anger back into the texts to prove their point. The Frus text is a bit theoretical, but we walk through it and pull out quotes, which leads to a good overall conversation.
Notable Passage: “Hersey is hampered by the same positivist attitude that permeates the fiction of objectivity: a belief in ‘seeing is believing,’ or that truth is available to the observer’s eye; the assurance that authorial impersonality prevents an unsuitable identification with one’s subject; the conviction that a detached viewpoint offers readers and viewers an unbiased vantage point and is therefore potentially universal.”
Ben Yagoda, from About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made
Now we move on to history. The 10-page excerpt from Yagoda’s book offers backstory and context to our Hiroshima discussion. Students learn that Hersey was born in China to Christian missionary parents, and lived there until he was 10-years-old. They learn that Hersey actually interviewed 30 different survivors. They learned that it was managing editor William Shawn’s idea to do the piece because he abhorred violence and hoped to see an end to atomic warfare. They read the preface the New Yorker editors appended to the beginning of the magazine story. They learn that Hersey modeled the structure of the story on Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. They learn how Harold Ross and William Shawn induced Hersey into a marathon 10-day rewrite just before publication to peg everything precisely to the moment of detonation. I don’t tell the students how they should interpret these facts, but they have to reconcile them with their own personal opinion of the main text.
Kathy Roberts Forde, “Profit and Public Interest: The Publishing History of John Hersey’s Hiroshima”
Finally, we end our Hiroshima discussion with this masterwork of scholarship that chronicles and explains the civic-minded publication history of Hersey’s iconic magazine piece. Forde shows how a confluence of social, economic, and technological factors came together to ensure that Hersey’s story reached the largest number of people possible.
Norman Sims, True Stories, Ch. 5: The Bomb
The New Journalism, 1960s & 1970s
Lillian Ross, “The Yellow Bus” (The New Yorker, 1960)
When does the New Journalism begin? Which writers get the dubious distinction of belonging to that era, and which do not? These are some of the questions that frame our discussion of the Ross and Mailer texts, which I teach on the same day. Do these stories share any characteristics? Do they have any historical antecedents? In her story, Ross rides along in a school bus with a graduating high school class from Bean Blossom Township, Indiana as they take their senior trip to New York City. It has a texture similar to Agee’s outsiderism in “Havana Cruise” minus the booze, sex, and existential dread. Which is not to say that the kids love New York: “‘I hate New York, actually,’ Connie Williams said.” Slowly they change their minds, and Ross deftly shows different scenes unfolding at the same time. Some she witnessed firsthand, others she reported on and recreated. The difference is almost imperceptible. We also talk about Ross’s writing style, connecting it back to Hersey, and suggesting that students keep an eye out for how different publications foster different house styles.
Notable Passage: “‘My ma and pa told me to come home when it was time to come home, and not to mess around,’ Albert said. ‘I’m ready to chuck it and go home right now.’’”
Norman Mailer, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” (Esquire, 1960)
I love pairing this story with Ross’s. Whereas she stays in the background, Mailer bursts to the fore, his persona all over this piece, which is ostensibly about the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that nominated John F. Kennedy for president. But in reality, it’s about Mailer’s perception that post-war America was becoming increasingly divided between a culture that prized itself on “the spirit of the supermarket, that homogenous extension of stainless surfaces and psychoanalyzed people, packaged commodities and ranch home” and a darker, more soulful underground culture that valued rough edges and original thought. Students either love or hate this story. There is little middle ground. Mailer’s bombast is something relatively new in the course, and his writing is elliptical and indulgent. But he also makes some keen insights about an emerging divide in the country, and the story is a great primer for some of the even wilder personalities they encounter in this era.
Notable Passage: “For once let us try to think about a political convention without losing ourselves in housing projects of fact and issue….So to try to talk about what happened is easier now than in the days of the convention, one does not have to put everything in – an act of writing which calls for a bulldozer rather than a pen – one can try and make one’s little point and dress it up with a ribbon or two of metaphor.”
Truman Capote, from In Cold Blood (The New Yorker, 1965)
Students almost universally love this reading. We study the excerpt where Perry and Dick close in on the Clutter residence, and then the ensuing scene after they murder the family of four. The adjective that gets used most to describe this passage is “cinematic.” We focus on how Capote uses short scenes to advance the narrative and heighten the tension. We pay attention to the way he uses time markers like “before,” “then,” “as,” “when,” to both flash forward and back. We also talk about Capote’s problematic method of reporting (not taking any written notes) and the subsequent controversies over his fabrications and inventions. They are important and necessary components to talk about, but for the purposes of our class, it’s even more useful to deconstruct how and why this text is as powerful as it is.
Notable Passage: “[S]he set out the clothes she intended to wear to church the next morning: nylons, black pumps, a red velveteen dress—her prettiest, which she herself had made. It was the dress in which she was to be buried.”
Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (Esquire, 1966)
Gay Talese, “The Silent Season of a Hero” (Esquire, 1966)
I offer students the option to read either “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” or “The Silent Season of a Hero,” Talese’s profile of Joe DiMaggio. Both stories are canonical and beloved, but I have the damnedest time teaching either of them. Talese is one of my personal favorites, but I just have never found a good entry point. We talk about his writing style, about how he organizes the stories; we find themes and discuss characterizations. But the conversation never quite hums the way it does for other stories. I have no idea why. Despite my deficiencies, students love both pieces. They consistently rate in the top five favorite stories every semester.
Notable Passage: “Now the poolroom was suddenly silent. Leo Durocher who had been poised behind his cue stick and was bent low just froze in that position for a second. Nobody moved. Then Sinatra moved away from the stool and walked with that slow, arrogant swagger of his toward Ellison, the hard tap of Sinatra’s shoes the only sound in the room. Then, looking down at Ellison with a slightly raised eyebrow and a tricky little smile, Sinatra asked: ‘You expecting a storm?’”
Notable Passage: “The man had met DiMaggio in New York. This week he had come to San Francisco and had telephoned several times, but none of the calls had been returned because DiMaggio suspected that the man, who had said he was doing research on some vague sociological project, really wanted to delve into DiMaggio’s private life.”
Michael Herr, from Dispatches (Esquire, 1968)
Students sometimes struggle with this text. We only read the first 25 pages or so, but it’s somewhat abstract, full of ’60s lingo and combat jargon. I use the text to talk about the difference between realism and abstract writing, and we discuss why writers may choose to deploy different styles for different subjects. I usually show two paintings in class to demonstrate this point. Usually I’ll put up something by George Caleb Bingham an American genre painter during the mid-19th century and juxtapose it with something by Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionist from the first half of the20th. I’ll ask the students to imagine for a second that both paintings are of the same object. And then I follow that up by asking why would one artist choose to represent something one way and why another artist would choose to represent the same subject a different way. And this question reverberates with our semester-long discussion about the relationship between style and content. Does one drive the other? How would Hiroshima read if it were written in Herr’s voice, and vice versa? Does Herr’s psychedelic paranoia reify a certain popular conception of what the Vietnam War was like?
Notable Passage: “How do you feel when a nineteen-year-old kid tells you from the bottom of his heart that he’s gotten too old for this kind of shit?”
Tom Wolfe, “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!”
With apologies to Tom Junod, who I know considers Wolfe the greatest literary journalist of them all, I can’t stand him or his work. I take that back, I like “Radical Chic” and “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” but otherwise it all just feels so fatuous and overwrought and annoying. Students read this story with its 40-odd “Hernias” at the beginning and ask, “WTF?!” and I say “Yep.” And then we move on to Didion.
Notable Passage: “Hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia; hernia, HERNia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia, HERNia, HERNia; hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, eight is the point, the point is eight; hernia, hernia, HERNia; hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, all right, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hard eight, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia, hernia, hernia, hernia, HERNia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia. . . .”
Joan Didion, “On Morality” (The American Scholar, 1965)
Along with the Hersey and Sims texts, Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the only other book that students purchase. We spend an entire week with Didion. Throughout the semester, I structure the writing assignments so that students have a chance to do analysis from a number of different angles. We first start with the literary elements of early literary journalism. Then we do close textual, historical, and political analysis of Hiroshima. With Didion, we get into studying a writer’s philosophy and politics. The students read enough of her work to be able to formulate and articulate an argument about the way in which she viewed and wrote about the world in the late 1960s. “On Morality” is an essential point of departure. What does Didion believe is moral? Where does her worldview come from? Is it tenable or anachronistic? How does she map her views onto the society at large? Is it a privileged point of view? This essay is brief, abstract, and reference-laden, but it is essential for understanding how and why Didion believed what she believed during that tumultuous decade.
Notable Passage: “Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.”
Joan Didion, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” (The Saturday Evening Post, 1966)
On its surface, this story is a soap opera. Lucille Miller relocates from the windswept province of Manitoba to the Golden Land of California where she acquires all the trappings of middle-class success and happiness. But of course, she is miserable. So she has an affair. Then she kills her husband and tries to cover it up. She’s arrested. She goes to trial. Her lover leaves her. She’s found guilty, and the Golden Dream dissolves. For Didion, Miller’s story is representative of all the failed promises of the West and its alluring myths. Rich in symbolism and insightful in its commentary, this story is another example of how the literary journalist can magnify one event to reach larger conclusions about the culture.
Notable Passage: “‘How can I tell them there’s nothing left?’”
Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
Personally, I think this story is overrated. The opening paragraphs are pure music, but after that, the collage of scenes never fully coalesces for me. I tire of Didion’s condescension and belief that the scene in Haight-Ashbury is absent of serious politics. However, the story does connect back to “On Morality” well, especially when Didion proclaims, “For better or worse we are what we learned as children.” Her reporting from San Francisco seems to confirm what happens when children grow up and “cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values.” In class we also connect this story to the obvious referent at the beginning of the book, W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming” and we emphasize the key line in that poem—at least for the purposes of Didion’s philosophical outlook: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Again, my goal with Didion is to get the students to see a collection of pieces from one writer and start to make connections across stories.
Notable Passage: “It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up.”
Joan Didion, “Los Angeles Notebook” (The Saturday Evening Post, 1967)
This is a pastiche of six different scenes, all short and set in Southern California. Didion does not link them; she only sets them in juxtaposition. The hysterical Santa Ana winds. Paranoid late-night talk radio. A bikini-clad, desultory trip to Ralph’s supermarket. A Hollywood party feting a closeted gay actor. A piano bar in Encino. Atavistic violence. Loneliness and delusion. Judgment. Shallowness and secrecy. Ennui. Set against each other, these scenes shimmer, illuminating the peculiar and performative pieces of her hometown.
Notable Passage: “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
Joan Didion, “On the Morning After the Sixties” (The Saturday Evening Post, 1970)
This story caps our weeklong Didion blitz. It’s collected in The White Album, not Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and only spans a few pages. The essay is oblique and doesn’t reference the nominal decade until the final sentence. Instead, Didion talks about attending Berkeley in the 1950s and the historical juxtaposition between that experience and the hangover-inducing ’60s. She does not romanticize the Silent Generation; rather, she notes that it was personal, and that the personal was the best one could hope for. Her very different collegiate experience has left her mistrustful of the collective action rife at Berkeley in the 1960s—which wasn’t personal. The story is subtle and her message is bleak. The essay drives home the individualistic, conservative tone of her early work.
Notable Passage: “If I could believe that going to that barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.”
Terry Southern, “Twirling at Ole Miss” (Esquire, 1965)
In another topic-as-pretense-for-larger-cultural-conversation piece. Southern heads to Oxford to write about the Dixie National Baton Twirling Institute, but he’s really there to write about white racism. His narrative persona is a feint—a northern rube taken in by history and heritage of the South. Southern adopts some of the racist and sexist attitudes he encounters, but it’s in the same ironic tradition as Hecht’s “The Pig” (and today, I hear that same voice in the work of Charlie Pierce). Southern is not didactic, at least in terms of direct statements. But it’s clear from the quotes he cobbles that it would be a while before a change was going to come. Depending on the classroom/departmental setting and on the students’ (and teacher’s) familiarity and comfort level with talking about race in America, this piece can be tricky to teach
Notable Passage: “After lunch I packed, bid adieu to the Dixie National and boarded the bus for Memphis. As we crossed the Oxford square and passed the courthouse, I saw the fountain was still shaded, although it was now a couple of hours later than the time before. Perhaps it is always shaded—cool and inviting, it could make a person thirsty just to see it.”
Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” (Scanlan’s 1970)
This is such a fun piece to teach. Not because of the booze and the mace and the general wildassing that Thompson and Steadman partake in throughout the narrative. But rather, because students often focus on the debauchery and miss the political commentary. I’ve written previously about how serious this story is, and that’s the angle I take when I teach this piece. We talk about Thompson’s persona and how utterly crazy he is in this story. We look at Steadman’s art to see why so many people found his sketches so off-putting. We watch the clip of Thompson drinking Chivas and shooting machine guns on Conan. We establish the bona fides of gonzo. But then we walk the story back to the second scene, just after Thompson leaves the airport bar. He stops at a newspaper stand and chronicles all the headlines, and then moves on. It’s clear that the ensuing depravity will be done in the shadow of American decline, which helps us parse out the story’s conclusion, something that almost always confuses people. The switch to the third person and the debasement of Steadman helps objectify what Thompson—like Derby attendees and Americans in general—is like.
Notable Passage: “At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: ‘Nixon Sends GI’s into Cambodia to Hit Reds’… ‘B-52’s Raid, then 20,000 GI’s Advance 20 Miles’…’4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest.’ At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The photographer had snapped her ‘stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.’ The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of ‘student unrest.’ There was no mention of any trouble brewing at a university in Ohio called Kent State.”
David Eason, “The New Journalism and the Image World”
Eason’s critical essay is a bit of revelation to students, as it should be. It’s fantastic. He creates a taxonomy that divides the New Journalism into two groups: Realists and Modernists. And then he slots all the writers we’ve read into one of the two camps. The point isn’t to merely divvy up the writers into opposing sides. Rather, it’s to create a structure that better explains the phenomenon of New Journalism.
Realists believed that the world was going to hell and they acknowledged all the ways that society was crumbling, but they maintained faith in the efficacy of traditional methods of representing that particular reality. Writers in this camp included Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, and Lillian Ross. Modernists, on the other hand, believed that all means of representation beyond self-reflection were futile. Analyzing their writing demonstrates the unifying belief that all one could possibly do is absorb the situation and then refract it as it passes through you. These writers include Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, and Michael Herr.
Norman Sims, True Stories, Ch. 6: Tourist in a Strange Land
The New, New Journalism? 1980s to Present
Susan Orlean, “The American Man at Age Ten” (Esquire, 1992)
Tom Junod, “Can You Say, Hero?” (Esquire, 1998)
As we move from the New Journalism to contemporary literary journalism in America, I ask students to consider what changes, if any, they recognize in either the reporting or writing of the stories. I pair these two stories together because the subject matter is similar. Both Orlean and Junod are talking about children in some ways. Students, who by this point in the semester are starting to feel stressed by the impending cyclone of final tests, papers, and projects, generally enjoy these two lighthearted, but not lightweight, pieces.
We continue to talk critically about what makes these stories work. Students note how Orlean allows Colin to dictate the story by not correcting some of his mistakes. We focus on Orlean’s tone, and discuss how she balances the playfulness of the 10-year-old versus the seriousness of some of the topics that he brings up. We talk about historical context, and what an American man at age 10 would look like in South Central Los Angeles or Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1992, instead of a tony New Jersey suburb. We talk about the problematic indefinite article in the title. We talk about Colin’s focus on consumerism and how he talks almost in ad-speak at times. And we note that Orlean waits until two thirds of the way through the article before introducing an expert to talk about child psychology.
Notable Passage: “He plans to go to college, to a place he says is called Oklahoma City State College University. OCSCU satisfies his desire to live out West, to attend a small college, and to study law enforcement, which OCSCU apparently offers as a major.”
The Junod story confuses the students a bit because I don’t believe they know MisterRogers as a cultural icon the way students 20 years ago did. A recurrent issue every time I teach this story, and something I’ve always wanted to talk with Tom about, is that the students almost always find Mister Rogers creepy. They don’t trust him, and they’re not sure Junod does either. I always feel disheartened by that unfortunate perception, though, to be fair, Rogers does do a few oddball things in the story. I think their suspicion comes fromgrowing up in an era of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals and the horrors of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University. They are mistrustful of someone as unapologetically devoted to children as Mister Rogers was. However, when I show them the video of his speech for a 1997 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Daytime Emmys, they often have the same reaction as Junod describes in his story.
Notable Passage: “…until finally I headed back down to the Jeep and turned back around to see Mister Rogers standing high on a green dell, smiling among the [grave]stones. ‘And now if you don’t mind,’ he said without a hint of shame or embarrassment, ‘I have to find a place to relieve myself,’ and then off he went, this ecstatic ascetic, to take a proud piss in his corner of heaven.”
David Foster Wallace, “Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All” (Harpers, 1996)
I have the hardest time teaching this story. Sometimes we talk about Wallace’s tone and whether or not he’s being cruel. Sometimes we unpack it for what Wallace is saying about gender or class or the Midwest. Students are generally amused by the piece, but it doesn’t have the same levels of depth as “Consider the Lobster,” and so lately I’ve replaced it with “Federer as Religious Experience”. I think I’ll probably replace Wallace in this slot with someone else going forward. Like the Talese stories, I have a hard time finding an entry point for a critical discussion about his sojourn to the Illinois State Fair, so we often just talk about how funny the story is, and then watch a clip of him reading an excerpt of the baton-twirling passage (what is it with journalists and baton-twirling competitions?) and appearing on Charlie Rose.
(Again, we’re at a point in the semester when students are fully immersed in their final paper projects for this class. I require three distinct drafts of this research paper, plus a 10-source annotated bibliography and a research presentation. It’s a hell of a lot of work, and so I try to mitigate it with some lighthearted readings along the way.)
Notable Passage: “He spits brownly. ‘Hail no. We all come for the shows.’ He means the Livestock Competitions. ‘See some folks, talk stock. Drink a beer. Work all year round raising ‘em for showbirds. It’s for pride. And to see folks. Shows’re over Tuesday, why, we go on home.’”
John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Upon this Rock” (GQ, 2004)
This story is fun, until it turns serious, and then students sometimes don’t quite know what to make of it. The opening scenes are laugh-out-loud funny. GQ asks Sullivan to report on a Christian music festival. First he tries to recruit tweens online to join him. Foiled, he then he winds up driving a 29-foot RV, barreling down an interstate toward Creation, a festival in central Pennsylvania. Sullivan’s voice and persona both draw the reader in and turn the reader off , which is the point; he’s copping a broish attitude of condescension for the festival’s attendees—a proxy for GQ’s general reading audience. But then a switch happens. Sullivan confesses to an evangelical phase during his teenage years, and when he meets a group of young toughs from West Virginia, there isn’t derision, but compassion. Sullivan pulls off a great U-turn in this story, and in class, we backtrack to find out how he sets the reader up for his change of direction.
Notable Passage: “I’d known this moment would come, of course, that the twentyninefooter would turn on me. We had both of us understood it from the start. But I must confess, I never imagined her hunger for death could prove so extreme. Laid out below and behind me was a literal field of Christians, toasting buns and playing guitars, fellowshipping.”
Jim Sheeler, “Final Salute” (Rocky Mountain News, 2006)
The first two times I tried to read this story I was in public, and I had to stop because I started to cry almost immediately. Students often have the same reaction to Sheeler’s Pulitzer Prize winning story. I’ve had students tell me they couldn’t finish it. Students have skipped class on discussion day. A student got choked up talking to Sheeler after he visited my class. The story is powerful, as are Todd Heisler’s award-winning photos. It’s a package piece. In terms of critical discussion, I like to focus on the opening two scenes, which unfold simultaneously. One takes place inside a limousine on an airport tarmac, the other inside an airplane. How did Sheeler report on both? We also talk about the piece’s politics, or lack thereof. Sheeler is absent as a character in the story, but are his views absent in the piece? After our discussion earlier in the semester on Hersey and Hiroshima, the students are set up for a lively debate on this topic. But mostly we talk about how goddamn devastating the story is.
Notable Passage: “Inside the plane, they couldn’t hear the screams.”
Norman Sims, True Stories, Ch. 7: New Generations
Robert Boynton, Introduction to The New, New Journalism
Was the New Journalism really new? Does this next generation of writers carry their torch or do they alight in a different direction? Is this style of writing a uniquely American phenomenon? These are crucial questions we take up as we wrap up the semester.
Josh Roiland, “Getting Away From It All: The Literary Journalism of David Foster Wallace and Nietzsche’s Concept of Oblivion” (Literary Journalism Studies, vol. 1, no. 2)
At the end of the semester, I share my own work for two reasons. One, the article works well as a model for students as they complete their own final papers. More importantly, however, I want students to understand and emulate the realities of the draft process. As I mentioned earlier, I require students to do three distinct drafts of their final paper. To demonstrate to them that the draft process is real and not an academic hoop to jump through for the purpose of our class, I bring in this article of mine on David Foster Wallace. I show them each of the 10 drafts I worked through, warts and all, during the course of that project. They see how the paper transformed from a collection of notes, musings, and nascent ideas into a conference presentation and then to a journal submission, a journal article, and finally a book chapter. I want them to see that writing changes over time, that writing is a process, and that revision is necessary and real. All semester I tell them: You are writers. And so I treat them accordingly, with unreasonably high expectations. I tell them that their final paper for our class should be the best thing they’ve ever written in their life—which really sits well with graduating seniors, especially those in the throes of a senior honors thesis, and provide endless comments on their drafts. I meet with each student individually at the beginning of the semester and then again after their second draft of their final paper. In almost every case, students have said that the dedicated draft process was the best part of the writing experience.
Josh Roiland is an assistant professor and CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism in the Department of American Studies and the Honors College at the University of Maine. He’s currently working on two book manuscripts: The Elements of Literary Journalism: The Political Promise of Narrative News and The Rest is Silence: The Unexplored Nonfiction of David Foster Wallace. Read his most recent article on Wallace and the Midwest.