Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Sept. 10 — essay ideas

At the beginning of each class, ideally to limber up our brains, I randomly ask the roundtable of students to verbally “tweet out” a thought about something they’ve seen or done or had a mental blip about since we last met. (I totally, totally stole this idea from American University writing prof/lecturer Glenn Moomau, whose nonfiction class I spoke to last spring.) What I’m trying to get them to do is blurt out something they’ve noticed. It can be pop culture or not. If you’re on Twitter a lot, you know how quickly your brain converted to the 140-character thought-scoop or laugh line. We give these away for free. That’s just how it is.

We had a productive discussion about the assigned readings: Monica Hesse on the Dorito man and the “@” symbol; Martha Sherrill on August; me on Jake Ryan. For you Beloit Mindsetters (a curse upon you), about half of the 17 students have never seen “Sixteen Candles.” (Most of them are seniors, born c. 1991; a few are older than that.)

Hi and everything.

For Carli Krueger, JOUR494’s resident ’80s freak (besides the professor), I presented the special gift of a printout of the sequel to the Jake Ryan story: The Lloyd Dobler story.

Anyhow, the point I’m trying to get through: Popular culture journalism may be regarded by more serious reporters as fluff and nonsense. Yet, done right, it can have a real resonance for readers — especially readers who enjoy writing that is smart and playful. (They exist!) As connected as we are, we still enjoy communing with one another over shared cultural touchstones. Thus, a teen-angst movie from 1984 can take on 1,000 times more emotional magnitude when allowed to properly age for 10 or 20 years. So can the Dorito chip. So can almost anything, if the writer works hard enough enough to pull it apart and finds the right sources to prove her point.

This led to a fun discussion: Who is the “Jake Ryan” for today’s young woman? Well, there is the whole Team Jacob/Team Edward thing. (Though this brought hoots of protest.) Harry Potter is almost too big — a category killer. (And for the guys? Their impossible crush? Scarlett Johannson, we were authoritatively informed. What about Megan Fox, a woman countered. And so on …)

We spent the rest of the class — and even a few minutes more — listening to everybody’s pitches for the reported essay (aka “The Thing Itself”). Some are well on their way with reporting and thinking about their subject. Eggos, Chaco’s, hair extensions, pre-distressed Fender guitars, Missoula and its many, many Subarus. Some are still trying to narrow down a broader topic — “status updates,” “smartphones” — into a sharper idea. That’s why the feedback from a roomful of other writers is so helpful. For those who had three or four ideas, we could shout out YESSSSSS to the best one. We also shared ideas for sources and the “don’t-forget-about” tangents that should be included in the essay. Deadline is Monday — 1,000-1,300 words. Remember to include your SEO keywords with the text. And don’t forget: THE DOCTOR IS IN. I’m here to help.

I feel like the class is gelling. I enjoy seeing them. I can’t wait to read their work.

For Wednesday, Sept. 12: We are moving on. The next few classes are about how to write CRITICISM/REVIEWS. To get that party started, we’re doing film first. Your assigned readings:

• Pauline Kael reviews “The Exorcist” (The New Yorker, Jan. 7, 1974)

• Anthony Lane reviews “Star Wars — Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (The New Yorker, May 24/31, 1999)

Wesley Morris, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, reviews “Drive” (The Boston Globe, Sept. 16, 2011) and “The Help” (The Boston Globe, Aug. 10, 2011)

• And something completely different: Lindy West on “Sex and the City 2” (The Stranger, May 25, 2010) and “The Eagle” (The Stranger, Feb. 9, 2011)


  1. Linda on September 11, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    “Remember to include your SEO keywords with the text.”


    • Hank Stuever on September 12, 2012 at 1:20 pm

      Just trying to get them ready for that.

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