Before class, read Ben Mauk’s “States of Decay” on the Harper’s website. If you have any trouble accessing it there, you can read the text at the Pulitzer Center website. Take notes on the content and writing style of the article.
As a class, discuss:
- What is this story about? Where did Ben Mauk go and why did he go there?
- What events led to the uranium mining boom in the U.S. during the mid-20th century?
- What events led to the collapse of the uranium mining industry in the U.S.?
- How did the mines impact the surrounding communities and people in the mid and late 20th century? In the present day?
- What is the environmental impact of uranium mining?
- What is the public health impact?
- Mauk’s essay includes many elements of a travelogue. He chose to write in the first person and include details about the places he visited, the people he met, and his personal thoughts.
- How does Mauk use his travels to frame his narrative?
- How does he convey setting, character, and sensory details?
- What literary elements does he use to set the place, mood, or scene?
- How does Mauk express his personal feeling and emotions about his experiences?
- How is this story similar to or different from other journalism you have read?
- How is it similar to or different from other nonfiction or fiction writing you have read?
- Why do you think he chose to write the story this way?
- Based on what you read and discussed, what do you like and dislike about this style of writing?
1. Pick an issue that you want to report on in your town or somewhere nearby. You need to be able to get to this area by foot, bicycle, public transit, or car if you have access to one.
2. Research the issue and plan your reporting trip.
- Read existing reporting and other sources on the topic including academic, governmental, or intergovernmental organization sources.
- Determine how you will travel to and around the area.
- Create a list of people you would ideally want to talk to and places you plan to visit. As you make your list, think about who you can talk to and where you can go to report on multiple perspectives like Mauk did in his story. Your plans can change once you are in the field, but you need to have plans in place before you travel.
- Create a list of questions you want to ask people. You do not have to ask every person every question or stick to just those questions, but you need to have an idea of what you want to ask.
- Depending on your issue and area of travel, you might need to arrange to visit a place or speak with a person ahead of time. For example, if you want to learn more about water quality in an area, you would arrange ahead of time to tour a water treatment plant or interview the city official in charge of water quality.
- Remember to think about your personal safety as you make your plans and take appropriate precautions.
3. Execute your research trip.
- Take notes on your travels, surroundings, and experiences so that you can provide sensory details and personal perspectives in your reporting.
- When entering a private establishment or property, make sure you introduce yourself to people and explain what you are doing.
- Do the same thing when you approach someone to request an interview or you start talking with them.
4. Write a narrative nonfiction essay on your reporting. Make sure that all your information is factually accurate and that you properly quote people in your piece. Also make sure to provide travelogue elements like Mauk did in his story.
5. As a class, discuss your reporting and writing experiences.
- Did you have any problems navigating the area?
- Was it hard to approach people for interviews?
- How did people react when you informed them of who you were and what you were doing?
- Did you have any trouble incorporating your personal perspective in your writing? Why or why not?
- Did you have any trouble incorporating background information, facts, and data into your writing? Why or why not?
- Contact your school publication or a local newspaper, magazine, or website. Pitch your project and see if you can get it published.
- The Pulitzer Center wants to read your essays too. Please email your essay to education[AT]pulitzercenter.org as a pdf or doc file and use the subject line Travelogue Essay Inspired by Ben Mauk's "States of Decay".
The activity can be done over the course of a semester or in a week or two. The more time students have to conduct reporting, the more opportunities they have to spend time in the field.
The activity could be a group project in which the group picks a topic and plans the reporting trip together. Each student would choose a separate part of the story to report on and write a segment of a larger group essay.
Another option for the activity is to incorporate peer review into the assignment. Have students read and critique each other’s work in class or as homework.