2019 – Fall: Writing about “the Other”

Course Number: JOUR-GA 1023.002

Day & Time: Tuesday, 5:00-pm-8:00pm

Location: 7th Floor Library

Instructor: Susie Linfield

Syllabus: Download

Much of today’s writing in journalism and fiction assumes that being an “insider”–however defined–is a virtue and will lead to that mysterious quality called “authenticity.” There is some truth in this–those within a group (whether racial, national, gender, etc.) can sometimes access truths that others cannot. But “outsiders” can also be perceptive, and see things that the in-group can’t (de Tocqueville’s observations on America are invaluable). And in fact, much if not most of the best journalistic writing has been done by “outsiders.”

The emphasis on insiders and outsiders can result in an obsession with identity–and a reductive definition of it. In fact, we all have multiple identities, based on, but not limited to, race, class, profession, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, and region. In assuming that one identity defines, or validates, a writer–and that another somehow disqualifies her–we risk obscuring the full range and complexity of our own, and others’, lived realities. We also risk forgetting the fact that a main function of journalism (and of art) is to bring both reader and writer outside of ourselves–to expand our own understandings and those of our readers. To paraphrase George Orwell, journalism should be a window pane, not a mirror.

This course will focus on works that were written from an “outside” perspective (broadly defined). We will read a wide variety of works spanning more than 100 years. We will study the ways in which writers have entered into the lives of others and tried to comprehend them. We will look, of course, at the crucial value of empathy in reporting, but also at less palatable and more problematic emotions/problems. How, for instance, does a writer approach a person, or group of people, whose political views or cultural values repel her? What does a journalist do if she witnesses criminal behavior, or if she knows that her subject is lying? How does a journalist deal with emotions such as disappointment and anger? And how does one engage disparities in power–whether from above or below?

Note: Cross-listed with NYU Draper