Let me bring you up to speed and then slow it way down:
I’ve left D.C. behind for the next four months and driven 2,500 miles to beautiful Missoula, Mont., to be the 2012 T. Anthony Pollner Professor at the University of Montana’s excellent School of Journalism. The professorship is the gift of the Pollner family, in memory of their son and brother, who graduated from Montana in 1999 and was — like so many of us — a committed (and talented) journalism junkie. Since 2001, the School of Journalism has invited a professional working journalist/author to come live here each fall and teach a seminar course of his or her own design. The Pollner professor is also on hand to help advise (in a casual way) the staff of the student-run paper, the Kaimin, which publishes four days a week. I’ll also be giving a public lecture on Oct. 22.
Mostly, I suppose, I’m just here to help these students love journalism and writing a little bit more than they already do, offering whatever help to them I can. I know I’m going to learn a lot from them, too.
This also means I’ll be on leave from the Washington Post TV beat for a while — especially once we put the Sept. 16 Sunday Style section to bed, with this year’s fall TV season stuff, which I’m busily writing right now.
I’m here for a change of scenery and pace, too — I firmly believe that all newspaper people need a break now and then from whatever they’re doing. Sometimes that means writing a book. Sometimes a sabbatical. Sometimes nothing. Teaching is something I’ve always wanted to try. And getting to hang out at a student newspaper again is something I literally (yes, I mean literally) have had dreams about over the last 20 years.
Anyhow, more than a few of my friends and colleagues have asked me what I’m teaching and if I’d be willing to share a syllabus or course description. I think you’re onto a fine idea for resurrecting the Tonsil blog. I’ll start posting updates once a week (or so) about what the class has been reading, talking about, and writing. I can’t turn it into a correspondence course, obviously, but I’m happy to share a glimpse.
The course, Journalism 494, is called POPULAR CULTURE JOURNALISM.
We had our first class today — 17 students and me. It’s a hybrid of a feature writing class, a semiotics class and a creative non-fiction class. Here is the course description from my syllabus:
Except for those who choose to live deliberately off the grid (hermits, dharma bums, and assorted woo-woos), Americans are immersed 24/7 in popular culture. That includes highbrow, lowbrow and no-brow – ballet to crunk, Shakespeare to reality TV, YouTube humiliations to video game annihilations. Even our everyday objects come freighted with deeper pop-cultural meaning and value: iPhones, red Solo cups, plastic patio chairs, Yankee candles, Oakley sunglasses, the ingeniousness of a taco shell built from Doritos. Everyone instantly understands the resonance of a madman opening fire in a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Everyone, at one point or another, obsesses on some piece of popular culture. We’ve all dreamed of being a movie star and some of us secretly still do. This is a class about all that.
Good journalism is a significant part of the pop-culture dialogue. In this class, we will explore some of the classic forms of good feature/entertainment writing: the reported essay, the deep narrative profile, the scene story, the cultural riff, and strong criticism/reviews. In readings and writing assignments, our work and discussions will also focus on the role that pop-culture journalism will have in the constantly changing media landscape.
During the semester, the students will be filing the following assignments:
• A reported essay about an object, a personality type or some other icon and what it means. 1,000-1,300 words. (I’ve nicknamed this assignment “The Thing Itself.”) September.
• Criticisms (2 reviews of 1,000 words each; or 5 consecutive episode recaps of a TV series, approx. 400 words each) September-November.
• A personal essay on a pop-culture subject, 750-1,000 words. October.
• A scene story that takes the reader on a brief but revealing adventure into an event or moment or happening — a party, a protest, a moment, a mob. 1,000-1,300 words. November.
• A long narrative profile/story, 2,500-3,000 words. (This is their big project and final paper.) December.
There are two required books in this course: The Fiddler in the Subway: The Story of the World-Class Violinist Who Played for Handouts … And Other Virtuoso Performances by America’s Foremost Feature Writer, by the one and only Gene Weingarten.
The other book is George W.S. Trow’s famous (and infamous) essay Within the Context of No Context.
We’ll also be reading a number of articles, reviews and essays. I haven’t narrowed it down completely yet — honestly, I could drown the world in must-reads from my “keep”
files — but this group of writers may very well include Henry Allen, Marjorie Williams, Susan Orlean, Cintra Wilson, Vanessa Grigoriadis, Joan Didion, Michael Kruse, David Rakoff, Chuck Klosterman, Rebecca Brown, Tom Bissell, Tom Junod, Gay Talese, Pauline Kael, Ben Montgomery, Sarah Vowell, Dan Zak, Monica Hesse, Robin Givhan, Anthony Lane, Lindy West, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Sandra Tsing Loh … and a whole buncha’ other critics and feature writers.
And, crap, probably a little bit of Hank Stuever too. I’m not sure yet how I feel about that — teach my own stuff? — but, as a way to get us started on reported essays, and to get us acquainted with one another as writers, I assigned a Hank Stuever piece for our class on Wednesday: “Scooch Over,” an essay I wrote in for the Post in 2001 about plastic patio chairs.
And so we’re off.
Here’s a picture of our classroom in Don Anderson Hall, which is a truly perfect place to do this kind of thing.
Do your homework!