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Digging for a Story

Woodward and Bernstein.jpgIf The D is not to go the way of the snow sculpture, the paper will have to up its game. The folks there just don’t dig into what is going on at the College; and heaven knows, at least if this space is the judge, there is a lot to write about. Part of the problem is the editors’ attitude — why offend the administrators who will write your law school recommendations? — and part is just plain skills — how many gritty, incisive investigative journalists does the paper have on its staff?

Fortunately a solution to the latter problem has presented itself. This spring English Professor Jeff Sharlet will be offering a course, English 84, Intermediate Creative Nonfiction, that focuses on the history and techniques of investigative journalism.

Sharlet is more than accomplished. We have noted in past posts his April cover story in the New York Times Magazine (Donald Trump, American Preacher), his NYT obituary for Pete Seeger (He wanted everyone to sing along); and his Rolling Stone profile of Cornel West (The Supreme Love and Revolutionary Funk of Dr. Cornel West). Of greater consequence are his impactful investigative pieces: Straight Man’s Burden in Harper’s, which was instrumental in blocking Uganda’s so-called “Kill-the-Gays” bill, and The Invisible Man, from GQ, which is the only leak to date concerning police body cams.

In addition to several fine books (we wrote about Sweet Heaven When I Die), Sharlet’s work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Mother Jones, Lapham’s Quarterly, and other national publications — leading to honors that include the National Magazine Award for Reporting, the Molly Ivins National Journalism Prize, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission Outspoken Award. Needless to say, his finest accomplishment was to merit an entry in Dartblog’s Official Guide to the Stars.

Here is the thumbnail course description from the syllabus of this spring’s iteration of English 84:

The Art of Investigative Journalism” is a creative writing workshop in the mutant genre known variously as creative nonfiction, literary journalism, the lyric essay, documentary prose, and simply “longform”—stories rooted in fact, told with techniques borrowed from fiction, poetry, and visual mediums. In this course, we’ll consider the genre’s investigative tradition as it intersects with the questions of storytelling that distinguish creative nonfiction from conventional journalism. How do we tell stories that may be concealed, overlooked, or misrepresented? Why do we do so? What is the role of empathy in investigative journalism? What are the relationships between fact, “information,” and story? We’ll also consider practical questions of research, sources, ethics, and the aesthetic challenges of fact checking as we seek inspiration for our own creative works of investigative journalism, drawn not from national or international events but from the everyday of our lives. Our emphasis is on narrative, not breaking news, so in our reading we’ll interpret “investigative journalism” generously, looking well beyond the term’s traditional canon. Possible texts may include The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin; Praying for Sheetrock, by Melissa Faye Green; Evicted, by Matthew Desmond; and recent writing by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Shane Bauer, Kathryn Joyce, Michelle Garcia, Jeanne Marie Laskas, Sarah Stillman, and others.

The course is by application only; space will be offered on a rolling basis. To apply, e-mail Jeffrey.Sharlet@Dartmouth.edu before the first day of the spring term. Include your major, a description of previous writing experience in the creative writing program and elsewhere, and a writing sample.

Any serious student journalist should take this course. Mother Dartmouth needs you to do so.

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