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Professor forms reading group

Marisa Iati | Monday, January 28, 2013

Students and faculty members eager to learn about a rapidly growing style of reporting will find an outlet in the literary journalism reading group, which meets for the first time today.

Josh Roiland,  visiting assistant professor of American Studies, said he formed the club to facilitate discussion about this type of journalism, which takes the form of a short story or novel.

The reading group aims to meet every two weeks and will eventually switch to convening early Friday afternoons, Roiland said. It will have no attendance requirement.

Roiland said he developed the idea for the group while he was teaching a course called “Literary Journalism in America” at Case Western Reserve University.

“Students really responded well to the readings to the point that several told me they were continuing to read certain authors like David Foster Wallace over the summer and have conversations with each other on Facebook about these readings,” Roiland said. “So I thought I would give that interest some organization and started the group.”

The club began with 10 people and grew to more than 40 students, faculty and staff members by the end of the year, Roiland said.

“It was pretty remarkable, and I attribute it all to the compelling nature of these stories,” he said. “It’s just such a different experience to be reading something that feels like a short story or novel, but know that it’s been thoroughly reported and is 100 percent accurate.”

The literary journalism reading group at Notre Dame will seek to provide a similar structure for the growing interest in this new form of reporting, Roiland said. The club currently consists of 24 students and faculty members.

Sophomore John Pratt said he signed up for the reading group after developing a fascination with literary journalism in Roiland’s class last fall.

“It has a stronger story-like feel, while still remaining true to journalistic standards of accuracy,” Pratt said. “One of the aspects of literary journalism that excites me most is the fact that the personality of the author can come through very strongly as a result of the symbolism, character development and story-like features that are prominent.”

Group members will read many contemporary pieces of writing, Roiland said. The club will look at work by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Susan Orlean and Joan Didion, among others.

Roiland said he is open to suggestions about works to read and topics to discuss.

“We’ll talk about whatever anyone wants to talk about, whether it’s formal themes, structures, and techniques in the writing, to questions about the reporting, to just whether or not we like it,” he said. “It’s completely open and laid back. The goal is to make people feel comfortable talking about whatever they find interesting, confusing or infuriating.”

Pieces of literary journalism are compelling examples of storytelling, Roiland said. They have an untraditional structure and do not follow the classic reporting style of giving the important facts first.

“These stories show that you can be a journalist and a writer, that you can be creative and accurate,” Roiland said. “And for students who do not want to be journalists but do enjoy studying the news media, this is an emerging field of study in English and communications departments, and it could spark an interest for further study after Notre Dame.”

Senior Ben Zelmer said taking Roiland’s Literary Journalism in America class last fall gave him an appreciation for the literary genre of journalism.

“Literary journalism is a unique form of writing that offers fascinating perspectives on issues and topics that are often not available through traditional journalism,” Zelmer said. “I’m looking forward to reading more fascinating pieces in the reading group and hearing thoughts and impressions from students and faculty in a group setting.”

Roiland said he helped six former students at Case Western create a panel about undergraduate experiences with literary journalism for the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies. The panel participated in a conference in Toronto and was given the designation of “President’s Panel” by Professor Alice Donat Trindade from Universidade Técnica de Lisboa in Lisbon, Portugal.

“The panel was the highlight of the conference, and really, the highlight of my teaching career,” he said. “Those students got to meet all of the literary journalism scholars they had been reading in class and citing in their papers. … And, ultimately, I’d like to replicate experiences like that here at Notre Dame.”