Earlier this week, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote a post titled “Journalism Is Not Narcissism.”
Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, has a piece in the New York Times in which she explains that her “signature assignment” for her students is to write an essay confessing their “most humiliating secret”—when asked why, she replies “Because they want to publish essays and sell memoirs.”
Wait. What? Susan, can you clarify?
When Kenan, the Bosnian physical therapist treating my back injury, saw me grading student papers between leg lifts, he asked, “What I did on my summer vacation?”
I told him that, actually, the first piece I assign my feature journalism classes is something a little more revealing: write three pages confessing your most humiliating secret.
That… doesn’t sound like feature writing. That… sounds like personal essay writing. Which is great! Took a class on it during my senior year at Emerson. But, when I think of journalism, I think of someone who goes into a war zone or gets tips from high-level sources in parking garages or sits though interminable community meetings—at the very least at least steps outside his or her own immediate sphere to discover another’s story and relay it. There’s something dangerous and noble about the work a journalist does. While writing about your own disasters can be both dangerous and noble, it’s… not journalism, per se.
When I tell people I went to Emerson and the jobs I’ve had since, they assume I majored in journalism. Nope. It sounds like what this lady is teaching isn’t journalism either. If her students want to publish essays and sell memoirs, she should direct them to the nearest creative writing department. Stat.