Try an “I”: Essayistic Narration for Journalists

I recently taught a short intensive course in creative writing—“Nonfiction Bootcamp.” My students traveled from Carleton University’s School of Journalism (Ottawa, Ontario) to spend five weeks in a Yukon-based experiential learning program, Stories North. The program addresses one of the most pressing issues in the Americas: that of Indigenous sovereignty. Stories North asks: how can we collectively explain, hold ourselves to account, and shift away from the inequities and injustices and ignorance around Indigenous peoples?

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While I taught Bootcamp in a classroom, much of the Stories North curriculum occurred out on land and in the remote community of Old Crow, where we spent ten days. Here, an Old Crow community member checks fish he’s been drying over the woodstove.

The teaching situation: in dialogue with history

Stories North responds to Canada’s national reckoning with its Indigenous boarding schools—a fundamentally genocidal history rooted in aggressive assimilationist policies. It’s important to note that government-initiated, church-run, often neglectful and violent residential schools existed in the US as well. The US, however, has yet to initiate a response of national scope. Canada, on the other hand, created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Beginning in 2009, Canada’s TRC led the country’s national reckoning with its legacy of sustained, state-sponsored attack on Indigenous communities. The TRC gathered testimony from 7,000 survivors and, in the spring of 2015, issued a formal call to action delineating ninety-four recommendations.

Stories North responds to the TRC’s “call to action No. 86”—a call for the transformation of journalism education.

“Our goals,” states the program website, “are to shift narratives, [and] help cultivate the

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This map shows the traditional territories of the fourteen First Nations currently creating sovereign governments in Yukon.

next generation of media storytellers so that they approach their work with more context, empathy, and understanding. Stories North seeks to open pathways of understanding and accountability as we grapple with the meanings of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.”

My job at Stories North was to bring literary methods and mindsets into a journalism program. The vision: design a creative nonfiction curriculum that would expand journalists’ capacity to report on the complexities of today’s Indigenous issues.

Literature and journalism: cousins? or aliens?

In the realm of nonfiction, the fields of journalism and literature overlap. Sometimes this gets messy. In fact, I took an English graduate seminar in “Literary Reportage” (rather than “Literary Journalism”) not because there is any distinction between the terms, but because my alma mater’s school of journalism objected to an outside department claiming their word, journalism.

But my attitude as a teacher of writing is: let’s use fuzzy genre boundaries to our advantage. Difficult dialogues call for cooperation, collaboration, and cross-pollination. So I saw Nonfiction Bootcamp as an opportunity to blend and borrow.

The essayistic “I”

Most practically, it seems to me that narration is the area in which literary journalism finds its “literary” sea-legs, gaining traction as a mode of creative writing. And so that is what I chose as Bootcamp’s primary focus: I designed a course that explored (1) ways to construct a first-person singular pronoun, and (2) avenues by which to assess its value.

In the spirit of the essay, students learned methods of creating an idiosyncratic and self-questioning narrator. They critically considered when and why a text might want to construct and convey both a personal lens, and/or self-doubt. Overall, they spent a week creating mini-essays that avoided the omniscient and traditionally-journalistic assertion here’s what’s going on, learning to adjust their textual voices and to convey a stance aligned with the tradition of the essay—one that says, I am on a search. Here are its fruits; here are its mysteries. Still, I search.

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On the mountain behind Old Crow: wildfire smoke, blooming fireweed, and prime blueberry picking.

Course Goals | students should leave bootcamp with grounding in these questions

  • What’s possible in shortform cnf / what’s possible to do with forms of the essay?(gain familiarity with a range of published examples; experiment with structure)
  • How do writers construct and convey a narrator/persona/voice—an “I”—on the page? (identify and practice techniques; grow a writerly bag of narration tools)
  • Where and how does my “I” belong? What is gained and what is lost by writing “I” into a text? (critical assessment: Politics? Ethics? Social responsibility? Human respect?)

The Radical Revision assignment

Here is a summary of what students learned during days one and two.

In Aldous Huxley’s language, an essay travels “between three poles.” They are

  • “the personal” (he means lived life and sensory experience),
  • the “concrete particular” (he means something outside the self, something in-the-world)
  • and the “abstract universal” (he means thinking; i.e., reflection).

A distilled wording (borrowed from Julija Šukys post on “the holy trinity of the essay”) looks like this:

  • Experience
  • Research
  • Reflection
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An outing: Old Crow community members skiffed us up the Porcupine River to a fish camp out on the land.

At the end of day two, I asked students to go home and write a piece that travels—as essays do—between these three components. The prompt: write a 500-word mini-essay that includes

  • Part of the poignant memory students probed in class with their in-class Kitchen Table Exercises (which I adopted from Lynda Barry to get students engaging personal experience, memory, and self)
  • A Yukon anecdote/factoid-discovery/image (research from the outside world)
  • Thinking (reflection—one sweet insight)

On day four, we discussed Philip Lopate’s introduction to the anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, gathering his concepts about narration (i.e., “the conversational elements,” “the role of contrariety,” “the problem of egotism,” “cheek and irony,” etc.). With Lopate in mind, we workshopped the previous day’s mini-essays.

In the end, I asked: “if you were to use what you learned from Lopate, how would you rewrite the mini-essays we’ve just workshopped?”

Once I was satisfied that each student could envision a clear set of narration-based revision goals, I made the assignment official: they had to go home and rewrite their mini essays from the ground up. Same personal experience, same research component, and same reflective insight—in an essayistic voice.

Reflections

This Radical Revision assignment marked the class’s most visible collective step forward. I think the reason for this was that the assignment isolated one thing: voice—persona—lens—i.e., the upright pronoun, the idiosyncratic, individual “I”—at a delicate moment.

The students had struggled to combine all three required elements in the first drafts of their mini-essays. A load of theory from Lopate hit the spot: because they had struggled to link the three puzzle pieces that make an essay an essay, they were now invested in methods by which to more successfully connect those puzzle pieces. In other words, their radical revisions forced them to reconfigure the relationship between self, world, and insight. It was in this exercise that the students transitioned from thinking of creative writing as a just-for-fun break from the rules of their reporting, and experienced it as hard work with serious textual payoff.

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Yukon College has a campus building in Old Crow. Here is the college’s mental health whiteboard; a living document of exchange and healing that emphasized to all of us the importance of treading with great care in gathering and telling Old Crow’s community stories.

In the context of difficult dialogues, we all need to wrestle with where we’re coming from, what we’re bringing to the table, and what exceeds us. That is, a good contribution  tunes into its own blind spots. And narration is a good tool by which to construct this degree of sensitivity in text. Furthermore, when crafted with sophistication, narration is also a good way to situate a text’s sensitivity squarely alongside its commitment to rigorous investigation and analysis. In sum, I champion narration studies because I see the methodically probing and self-questioning “I” as one of the more nuanced methods writers can marshal as they step up to tell their communities’ most urgent stories.

The Agentive Classroom

PALS is excited to welcome a guest post by Kristin Lacey. Lacey is a PhD student at Boston University working on nineteenth-century American literature. In her post, Lacey explores how she and her students form their classroom community and how they build agency into the semester’s activities.

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With each semester I’ve taught, I’ve asked more of my students. By “more,” I don’t mean more reading and writing—I mean more investment in building a meaningful classroom community together. Asking students to regularly provide feedback on the class’s progression and their experience teaches students—particularly those who are reticent to ask for help or speak up in class—that they have agency in shaping their educational experience. None of the exercises I do with my students are groundbreaking alone, but taken together, they form the backbone of a classroom that honors students’ work and learning. Below I outline several activities I do in the beginning of the semester and one activity we do throughout that help give my students agency in the classroom. 

Paradoxically, giving students a stake in the classroom begins with an exercise that students 1) have no say in and 2) meet with almost universal outcry. This terrifying proposition? Learning (actually learning) their classmates’ names. I learned this strategy from Johanna Winant on Twitter in 2017 and have been using it since to great effect. In the first class during syllabus review, I tell students that they will take tests on their classmates’ names at the start of the second, third, and fourth class sessions; this might vary depending on class size—in my class of nine, a third test was unnecessary. I also say that they must get at least 70% on the last test. I don’t give them the other end of this toothless ultimatum and have never had to—your mileage may vary. I have never had a student miss more than two names by the last test. The actual test looks like this: I ask students to take out a pen and half-sheet of paper. I then stand behind a student (in a non-threatening manner) and their classmates write down the student’s name; we then go around the room until everyone’s name has been written (or wildly guessed). I correct the tests after class (or during, if they’re doing a free write or pair share), write the correct response for near-misses, and hand them back. 

Students often meet this task with shock or ask “why” point-blank; I respond that it’s important to practice collegial scholarly conversations by knowing who we’re talking to and responding directly. Perhaps the best unintended outcome of the exercise is the immediate student camaraderie that results from facing this seemingly insurmountable task. One class immediately burst into a strategizing session: “Everybody, take a selfie and put it in a Google Doc so we can study!” Inevitably, I walk into the classroom on the second day and students panic as they remember their impending fate: “Wait, what’s your name?! What’s her name?” and sometimes will organize their own rapid-response icebreaker as a memory tool. Rather than nag students throughout the semester about addressing each other by name, I simply require it, and they always rise to the occasion.

In my second class session, I ease students into providing reflective feedback by doing a group brainstorm about what works well and what doesn’t in a group discussion. Students begin to understand that I will be asking them to reflect on their past experience in order to make our class a more effective learning environment. Selfishly, this is also a great way to get students to say, “I hate when one person dominates the conversation!” so that I don’t have to. I ask students to remember what they and their classmates find useful for discussions, and the list we produce together serves as an aspirational backdrop for the conversations we have thereafter. Later in the semester, we do another group brainstorm about what works well (and doesn’t) in peer review workshops. It is here that I hope someone will say, “It’s annoying when my peer reviewer doesn’t give me anything to work on and just says it’s great!” If not, I take my cue and share that nugget of wisdom: No paper is ever perfect or “done,” and you can always find something to improve. 

I use the second class, too, for an exercise borrowed from my beloved undergraduate mentor, Samina Najmi: I ask students to think about perceptions we have about students who stay quiet in class—not perceptions that they claim or believe, but that someone in the universe might have. Students are often reluctant to be the first to voice negative perceptions, but after reassurance, students say variations of the following: Quiet students can’t keep up, haven’t done the reading, or simply don’t care. I explain that the neutral or positive perceptions—quiet students are anxious, thinking, listening, forming their own responses—are much more likely to be true, and that I welcome whatever form of participation students can muster. I find that students don’t take this as an excuse to remain quiet, but instead as a promise that they won’t be judged for being quieter or for not having perfectly polished answers. This past semester, I had one student say that she’s always been terrified of speaking in class, but that after our class, she found it “wasn’t so scary.” This is a particularly important message to convey to marginalized students, including first-generation college students who might take longer to find their way in class discussions—for me, there isn’t a single definition of participation, let alone of valuable participation.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I check in with students anonymously throughout the semester through what I call “Post-It check-ins.” Once a month at the end of class, I ask students to anonymously write what works well for them about our class and/or what they’re struggling with; they then leave the Post-Its on the wall or board by the door on their way out. Afterward, I adjust in-class activities, discussion structures, or reading schedules to reflect their needs. This can be as easy as including a ten-minute refresher on writing a claim, preceded by the acknowledgement that some students had questions about it. Students are incredibly thoughtful, even in the space of a Post-It, about their experience and their genuine investment in improving their work. It’s important, though, to actually do something with the feedback you receive to maintain students’ trust as they share their important (and sometimes vulnerable) thoughts. Even if you’re unable to change lesson plans in the days following a Post-It check-in, a verbal acknowledgement that you’ve read and plan to address students’ worries goes a long way: “I know some of you are confused about passive voice—how to find it and how to change it—and we’re going to do an exercise next week that should help.” 

Trust students to be your collaborators in the classroom. It doesn’t mean you’re any less responsible for their learning, or that you need to call your students “co-teachers,” or that you don’t have authority: it simply means that giving students a stake in the classroom—how it’s organized, what you spend time on, and what skills they develop—makes it a more just, livable, and human place in which to learn. 



Kristin Lacey is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Boston University. She has taught courses on satire, nineteenth-century American literature, and literary representations of “madwomen.” Her dissertation studies the rise of individual ambition in the nineteenth-century United States, particularly how women navigated this cultural shift in fiction and primary materials like conduct manuals and women’s magazines.