How I taught my students to think about the journalism they read

Bill ReynoldsThere’s no way students will read 5000-word articles every week, colleagues told Ryerson j-prof Bill Reynolds. But they did, and Reynolds learned that despite the various narcotics of the web, he could still get students to read long pieces and step back and wonder at the world.

I walked into my brand-new, never-before-taught, second-year class. I told my thirty students that a couple of colleagues told me I was completely nuts. There is no way they’ll read one 5000-word magazine article per week, let alone two. My students—I didn’t know any of them at this point—protested, “Yes we can!”

I said, “Well that’s good to hear, but just in case I think I ought to give you guys a little quiz every week. If you’ve read the material you should score an A, or least a B+ anyway; if not, well, there’s always a one-in-four chance you could get it right.”

Teaching students to think

MagazinesAnd so it began, my little experiment in teaching literary journalism by stealth to undergrads.You see, we’d rearranged the curriculum at Ryerson’s School of Journalism a few years ago—yet again—probably because we’re trying to cope with same thing everyone else is trying to cope with (you know, that Internet thing). And so our new curriculum has been wending its way slowly through the snake. This particular year, Year Two, 2008-2009, we’d introduced three new option courses. Very modest, this range of choices—the real explosion of choice for students happens in Years Three and Four—but still, these were new courses.

And they’re emphatically not craft-based courses. In other words, we are not teaching students how to do journalism here; rather, we are teaching them how to think.

Or so I think. The new course I’ve taken-on/been-saddled-with/eventually-been-kind-of-thrilled-with, is called Journalism and Ideas. I don’t know what that means to you, but to me it means a perfect opportunity to exploit my background in philosophy to teach a group of undergrads to think about what all of these ideas that we routinely throw around, publish, broadcast and generally thrust into the media-sphere could possibly mean.

But how?

So I wondered, hmm, how can I teach this sort of thing anyway? University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor Norm Sims, a leading scholar in the field of literary journalism, gave me a great topic idea. “Bill,” he mentioned to me at a conference, “what about the A bomb? If you read the reports the day after, there is a great sense of unease between the lines of the hard reporting.”

Yes, that could work. Let’s try news pieces kept in The New York Times archives for August 7, 8 and 9, 1945—I found fourteen useful ones—plus let’s take John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” published August 31, 1946 in The New Yorker, in fact not merely an article published but rather a massive piece of work consuming the entire editorial feature well for that week.

So yes, let’s look at the concept of the bomb. What did it mean to these journalists—reporters, columnists, editorialists—and how did it look on the ground to a long-form reporter, the guy we would now call a literary journalist?

Okay, that looks like one week is taken care of. So what do I do with the other eleven? Well, it turns out that this was not so hard. I’ve always been fascinated with Marcel Duchamp and his many influential works, so I took a signpost event in his career, the Armory Show, or first International Exhibition of Modern Art, New York, 1913, where there was great controversy surrounding his painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, and followed his conception of the avant-garde through nearly a century. In fact, we ended the discussion with Damien Hirst teaming up with Sotheby’s and selling his sharks in formaldehyde for $12 million the very week I was teaching this unit. Along the way we encounter Duchamp in 1938 and 1963, the silver and gold anniversaries of his breakthrough in America, plus his death in 1968, plus Tom Wolfe’s exposing art as commerce in “The Painted Word” in Harper’s magazine in 1976, plus Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes’s mockery of Duchamp and the avant-garde in his monumental study, The Shock of the New, in 1991.

Another week we looked at the concept of Ebola Virus and watched it grow from its humble beginning in 1976 as the fifth squib item in one of those throwaway international news digest columns, to more serious news features written by journalist with medical training, to a major New Yorker feature, to a major Hollywood movie with major Hollywood movie stars (Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman) about Level 4 biohazards. Richard Preston’s “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” published in 1992, became my literary journalism depth charge of the week. Preston wrote an awfully long piece, at least ten thousand words, but nobody complained about length.

Shooting ideas out into the world

The first thing I asked my students to consider is this: could journalism itself be a machine that shoots ideas out into the world? Specifically, if we borrow from Richard Dawkins’s 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, and Susan Blackmore’s 1999 follow-up, The Meme Machine, and if we say that perhaps journalism and journalistic ideas could be thought of in terms of genes and memes in the way they move through the world, could we not say that journalism is a pretty good ideas replicator?

The one thing we know genes want to do is replicate. Some are more successful than others. Memes, or cultural patterns and ideas, are analogues. Every idea has one goal in mind: to replicate itself. Some ideas are more successful than others, and we might wonder why this is so. And, in terms of journalism, perhaps some methods of delivering these ideas might be more successful than others, which is where literary journalism comes in.

I blew my students’ minds discussing this line of thinking in Week 2. I had them read brief excerpts from Dawkins and Blackmore, and told them I didn’t really know what was going on or what I was doing—I was simply trying out some ideas on them. We all became confused occasionally. What are we talking about here—the idea or the person who proposes the idea?

I kept coming back to the point that we really don’t matter. We’re just meat. We don’t last, but some ideas do. So from the meme’s eye point of view, following Blackmore, we’re irrelevant and the only thing that matters is the continuing life and progress of the idea. So we could examine ideas independently of the journalism and the person who performed the journalism—although, again, my stealth purposes here were to (a) get my second-year students to read long pieces that involved extended periods of concentration, and (b) to get them to think about the journalism they read.


I may have gone overboard with the next few weeks. I created a kind of American democracy trilogy. Week 1, “Who Is This America?” paired Alexis de Toqueville’s introduction to Democracy in America with Bernard-Henri Lévi’s first installment of “In the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” which he undertook for The Atlantic in 2005.

Week 2, “The Next Big Thing,” about Barack Obama, consisted of Andrew Sullivan’s essay and cover story from The Atlantic (December 2007), “Why Obama Matters,” paired with Ryan Lizza’s extended reporting job of Obama’s political rise in Chicago, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” from The New Yorker (July 21, 2008, the issue with Barack and Michelle Obama famously satirized as fist-bumping terrorists on the cover by illustrator Barry Blitt).

And finally Week 3, “War (HUH) Good God Y’all,” about empire, landed the day before the 2008 presidential election, consisted of Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism” (Harper’s, October 2007) combined with Evan Wright’s Pulitzer Prize–winning feature “The Killer Elite” (Rolling Stone, June 26, 2003), which was turned into a mini-series called Generation Kill by David “The Wire” Simon.

I don’t know whether or not you’re noticing the pattern here but I’m using an awful lot of literary journalism in this second-year undergrad course. I then pushed into more exotic territory—celebrity—as we contrasted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s confessional tale, “The Crack-Up” (Esquire, February, March and April, 1936), with Vanessa Grigoriadis’s long investigation into Britney Spears’s crack-up some seven decades later (Rolling Stone, February 21, 2008).

And I ended the course with three outliers and renegades of literary journalism. We looked at Tom Wolfe’s wild prose as he describes his version of Las Vegas (Esquire, 1964), Hunter S. Thompson’s imagining of his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, in “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” (Scanlan’s, June 1970), and Lester Bangs’s rock ’n’ roll testifying in CREEM magazine.

“I couldn’t put it down!”

One thing I’ve learned here is that, despite the various narcotics of the web and text messaging and BlackBerries and iPhones, you can still get students to read long pieces—especially if some of those pieces are undeniably compelling. You can get them to think. You can get them to understand that it’s important to step back and wonder at the world, to question what’s happening in the world, to slow down briefly and pause to consider what this mutant rat race is all about.

Most importantly, great pieces of literary journalism are helping my cause, not hindering it.

My favourite comment came in Week 3 when a young woman, who readily admitted she had trouble with long pieces that were too convoluted to follow—give her a nice, tight news story any day of the week, she told the class—admitted that she adored Richard Preston’s New Yorker piece about biohazards. “I couldn’t put it down!” she said.

Employing the techniques of the novel, except the story is not made up—that’s “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” and that’s literary journalism firing on all cylinders, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. In the final class last year, I asked my students what they thought of this unconventional course. Some complained about certain weeks. For instance, a vocal minority found the week that we looked at twentieth century avant-garde art quite difficult. They admitted they did not have much of a familiarity with modern art. Many had not studied basic concepts of modern art in high school. Others didn’t care for the science journalism of Preston. Still others thought the Tocqueville text on democracy was a tough read—though they did agree with me that what the Frenchman did on his extended tour of America was solidly journalistic. And F. Scott Fitzgerald, my-my, they did not care for his three-part Esquire column, commissioned by Arnold Gingrich, his editor and friend. Not the man’s best writing, to be sure.

Don’t change a thing

But two comments stuck out. The first was this: “Look, some readings I liked more than others but overall you made us read and become aware of a bunch of stuff we never knew about before.”

The second comment was: “Bill, you’re asking what you would change next year? Well, about those unconventional methods? Don’t change anything.”

So this year, I didn’t. We’ll see how it goes this time. So far, so good (I think).

Bill Reynolds is head of the magazine stream at Ryerson University in Toronto. An early version of this column was published in Literary Journalism, the newsletter of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies 3:2 (Spring 2009): 18.

(Image by sarah sosiak. Used under Creative Commons license.)