Redeeming Journalism Study for the Teaching of Literature

By Shilton, Wendy P. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Redeeming Journalism Study for the Teaching of Literature


Shilton, Wendy P., Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


A complement to literary studies to test theory through practice

Teachers of literature usually have no place to put journalism but down. I recall only once, as a student majoring in English, being assigned a "variant" of journalism--excerpts from Samuel Johnson's The Rambler--and these were heavily rationalized. After all, didn't Johnson's formidable reputation as a lexicographer, poet, critic, and moralist redeem his "lapses" as a journalist? Wasn't The Rambler actually a dignified "essay-periodical"?

Students of literature are told to avoid "journalese," a vague term suggesting a range of stylistic no-no's including stock expressions, pop argot, sensationalizing adjectives, and convenient neologisms. We also are told (sotto voce) that though many of the writers we study (Samuel Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway) had practiced journalism at some time during their careers, they did so (voce crescendo) by dint of necessity. People must eat to live, the argument went, even artists; and so, we must make allowances for the "real" or "serious" writers who occasionally have to compromise their short-term integrity by cranking out journalism in the pursuit of loftier long-term aesthetic goals.

The great divide separating literature from journalism remains, despite several basic commonalities. Both subjects are concerned with reading and writing practices. Both deal with how language and other sign systems structure the ways in which we make sense of our world. Both are professions subject to institutional and commercial pressures. Yet, despite attempts by contemporary cultural theorists to deconstruct every elitist opposition in perceivable range, journalism still functions as literature's "other." Students writing for literature courses still must avoid journalese. Journalism texts infrequently enter the literary curriculum. The rare journalist invited as guest lecturer in a literature class will be treated as either the serious writer's alter-ego or an author-manque.

Imagine if you will, then, my reeducation last winter when I acted as copy-editor for the most recent editions of Melvin Mencher's books. Not only did these two standard-setting textbooks disabuse me of many preconceptions I had held about journalism, they also helped me to see the utility of journalism for the teaching of literature.

But, what is literature? In the first class of any literature course I teach, I ask students to try to answer this question and explain why they have elected to major in literary studies. Most respond uneasily, murmuring something about liking to read and not knowing what else to take. This groping suggests: a) they assume, like most people, that they know what literature is and why it is important until faced with the question; b) no programmatic guidance has ever been offered for consciously questioning the object or the objective of their studies; and c) they will pay the cost of tuition somnambulistically, purchasing an education whose relevance to their lifetime goals and general well-being is culturally endorsed but puzzlingly obscure.

"Literature," of course, is a slippery term, bounded only by the theoretical ingenuity of the literary critics who define it. As the astonishing, sometimes inspiring array of current theoretical approaches shows, critics have never capitalized more opportunistically on its fluidity. Useful though some of this fluidity may be, the result is that literary studies as an academic discipline has lost the discipline to make its boundaries professionally and publicly accountable. Most English departments have curriculum planning committees for individual courses, but how many have the conviction necessary to recommit annually to programmatic decisions or to projects that revisit and revise the goals of their departments where necessary? Who bothers to take the risk any more of saying what literature is (and is not), what it does (and does not), why we pay and get paid to study it, why universities should step up their efforts to support it, and why we should be accountable to our decisions concerning these questions? …

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