Literary journalism remains a powerful tool for teaching students, even in fast-paced, mobile world

When I started journalism school  in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the early 2000s, it was pretty much impossible not to catch the bug for narrative journalism. Every class was infused with a celebration of the great storytelling by journalists at what was then The St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). Writers like Tom French, Kelley Benham, Rick Bragg, Lane DeGregory, Anne Hull and Jeff Klinkenberg were our local role models – their stories our stylebook and inspiration. 

Those years formed my intellectual palate with a craving for the flavors of narrative, literary journalism. Now, as a journalism professor myself, I have the privilege to share the delights of this genre with my students, and I have centered much of my scholarship on it. In November, Mitzi Lewis, at Midwestern State University in Texas, and I published a book chapter in the Routledge Companion to American Literary Journalism on the potential for literary journalism to serve the goals of a liberal education. The chapter was the result of a multiyear research project, completed with input from other scholars from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies.

(Photo by Mauricio Sepulveda via Flickr)

Through surveys and interviews with college-level instructors across the globe, we found that literary journalism has proven a powerful tool to help students to learn about and engage deeply with the world around them. By combining the aesthetics of literature with the factual record of journalism, the genre serves as the “subtle, delicate, vivid, and responsive art of communication” that Dewey says is necessary to help us “break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness.” 

    In recent years, emphasis on the value of liberal education has reemerged in academia. (Liberal education is a broader learning approach different from liberal arts, which is a set of specific disciplines.) This has occurred partially in response to employers’ demands for college graduates who have broad knowledge about the world, as well as the critical thinking and communication skills that a liberal education provides. Oddly, this professional demand and the academy’s corresponding response have gained new traction even as social attitudes often still favor pre-professional training in higher education. 

In 2005, the Association of American Colleges and Universities launched its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, designed to promote the importance of a liberal education in the 21st century. Developed through a multiyear dialogue among hundreds of colleges and universities, LEAP centers on four essential learning outcomes for all students of higher education: 1) knowledge of human cultures and the natural world, 2) intellectual and practical skills, 3) personal and social responsibility, and 4) integrative and applied learning. Across the country, LEAP has driven changes in curricula and assessment that are reasserting the importance of a diverse educational experience for all college graduates. 

Literary journalism, our research suggests, fits nicely with these goals and may even invite majors back to journalism and English programs that have seen dwindling enrollments over the last decade. If we look first at LEAP’s charge to educate students with knowledge of human cultures and the natural world, there can be no doubt that literary journalism is primely poised for this task. In our survey, we asked instructors to identify some of the texts they use in teaching literary journalism. Their responses shed light on the wide range of social, environmental, cultural and otherwise diverse topics that are addressed in these classrooms. 

From the biological, economic, and ethical considerations of John Valliant’s The Golden Spruce to the counterculture chronicles of writers like Tom Wolfe, David Lewis Stein and Joan Didion literary journalism dives deep into human cultures and the natural world. From the nuances of cultural and political history in Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine to Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring, literary journalism invites us to consider the lived experiences of others and the implications of our actions for our environment. 

In an interview with John Hartsock, a professor in the Communication and Media Studies Department at SUNY Cortland, he emphasized that he aims to give students a globalized perspective in his classes by incorporating texts from non-American writers. Examples have included the autobiography I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali, as well as Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys. “I’ve decided to put the focus on something that gives them content,” Hartsock said, “that gives them a true liberal arts education, that helps to get them more broadly educated so that they can understand other cultures better, including their own.”

Looking at the second essential learning outcome of LEAP, literary journalism again presents as instrumental in teaching both intellectual and practical skills to students. Instructors surveyed identified as teaching in academic departments with 47 different names, including programs in journalism, English, media studies, American studies, cultural studies, politics and languages. Other research has shown that literary journalism has even been effectively employed in nursing programs. In all of these cases, our research suggests, the genre offers students opportunities both for rich intellectual analysis and practical communication skills. 

In journalism courses where students learn how to gather information to produce original works of literary journalism, they develop professional skills that may not only serve them in a journalism career, but transfer to other professions as varied as marketing or law enforcement. Courses that pursue a more academic treatment of literary journalism texts offer opportunities to develop higher-level research skills necessary for learning in a more scholarly context. But in every case, literary journalism cultivates a mind of inquiry, investigation and critical thought that aligns with the aims of a liberal education. 

As students learn about other cultures and the natural world, developing both practical and intellectual skills, they also come to internalize a sense of personal and social responsibility through the immersive, narrative qualities of literary journalism. Many instructors surveyed and interviewed in our research noted that students actually enjoy reading these works, and that the nature of these texts as nonfiction forces them to confront the reality that the injustices and social challenges are not merely compelling plot lines. 

In one survey response, an instructor who taught literary journalism as an applied course pointed to the value of allowing students to select their own topics as a means of stoking their sense of personal and social responsibility. One student in the course wrote a story about an after-school visual learning course in a South Central Los Angeles housing project. Other students have covered organizations like a nonprofit working in gang intervention for kids and their families, while other have addressed topics like the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and “how education, local business and faith were part of the comeback in that country.” 

Finally, LEAP charges educators to promote a liberal education by helping students make meaningful connections between their classroom learning and life beyond the campus. It aims to help students adapt and apply what they learn through their college experience to the world more broadly. Student journalism of all kinds requires reporters to go into the field for interviews, observations, and background research. However, the immersive reporting required in the practice of literary journalism magnifies these out-of-class experiences to produce robust opportunities for integrative and applied learning. 

Berkley Hudson, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, said in an interview that he takes students on field trips to practice immersive reporting. For one off-campus exercise, he has students focus on one of their five senses as they walk around—and then into—a state park cave. Afterward, students put their experiences into writing. This kind of experiential education offers a concrete opportunity for students to try out the skills they’ve learned in class and to think about how they will apply them in their own work. 

In courses that take a more academic approach to studying literary journalism, instructors noted that their courses often draw students from a wide range of disciplines. History students see a natural intersection between their major and literary journalism, which chronicles many of the most significant moments in modern civilization. Students of sociology or anthropology are often attracted to the accessible ethnography that literary journalism requires. These diverse perspectives invite students, together, to connect the dots of their educational experiences in interesting ways. And again, the factual foundation of literary journalism helps them see the real-world relevance of concepts they’ve encountered in class. 

The late Robert Dardenne, who I am privileged to say was my adviser, mentor and friend when I was a young journalism student, had a palpable love for literary journalism. He shared it with me and so many others over the years. Now I get to share it with my own students. Through the process, the world has opened up to me through the texts and discussions that have surrounded them. Literary journalism has taught me about the overthrow of Haile Selassie, the complicated ethics of zoos, the people who live in the slums of Mumbai, and the view from Hiroshima on the day the bomb dropped. I believe I’ve become a better writer – and a better person – through it as well.  I hope that my students catch a glimpse of some of this, too. The material is certainly there. 

Jeff Neely is a freelance writer and journalism professor at The University of Tampa. 

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