Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

"Writers are witnesses"- E. L. Doctorow

This course provides the opportunity for students-as readers, viewers, writers and speakers-to engage with social and ethical issues they care deeply about. Over the course of the semester, through discussing the writing of classic and contemporary authors, we will explore different perspectives on a range of social issues such as free speech, poverty and homelessness, mental illness, capital punishment and racial and gender inequality. In addition, we will analyze selected documentary and feature films and photographs that represent or dramatize social problems or issues. In assigned essays, students will have the opportunity to write about social and ethical issues of their own choice. This course aims to help students to grow significantly in their ability to understand and grapple with arguments, to integrate secondary print and visual sources and to craft well-reasoned and elegant essays. Students will also keep a reading journal and give oral presentations. In class we will discuss assigned texts, explore strategies for successful academic writing, freewrite and respond to one another's essays.

Course Requirements


Buy at Amazon Moser, Joyce, and Ann Watters, eds. Creating America: Reading and Writing Arguments. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004. ISBN: 9780131443860.

Buy at Amazon Lunsford, Andrea A. Easy Writer: A Pocket Guide. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2002, 2005. ISBN: 9780312433093.


This course aims to help students grow significantly as lively, engaged academic writers and public intellectuals - in their ability to grapple with arguments, to integrate experience and research, to experiment with different voices and styles and to craft creative, well-reasoned and vibrant essays. Our approach to writing in the course is to strive for "public scholarship", i.e., writing that engages with the complexity of ethical and social issues by addressing a general readership through dynamic and accessible prose. Throughout the semester, I will encourage student writers to:

  • address an intelligent, public audience in a graceful style, providing key information necessary to understand an argument;
  • develop ideas in an interesting, original and coherent manner;
  • support arguments with appropriate evidence and use sources correctly;
  • employ clear, concise language that uses the conventions of English grammar, punctuation, word usage and source citation;
  • structure arguments carefully with clear introductions, transitions, middles and conclusions;
  • title assignments in a thoughtful and entertaining fashion.

Students will submit three major assignments in two stages: first version and revision. A first version is a fully written piece that could be submitted for grading to fulfill assignment requirements, not an outline or partial essay.

Major Writing Assignments

  • The first assignment (5 pg. approx.), a personal narrative, asks students to reflect on experiences influencing or expressing their values. Students can write on (a) "coming to consciousness," an individual experience(s) leading to a more profound awareness of a contemporary social or ethical issue or a more general commitment to social justice or (b) "ethics in action," an experience or moral decision affirming a personal commitment to particular values. The challenge of Essay 1 is to work with the complex elements of life narrative as evidence to support an argument in an essay for a public readership. If a student has done community service, this essay provides an opportunity to reflect on motives for volunteering in a particular setting (e.g., homeless shelter, school tutoring program) or with a specific community (e.g. elders, preschoolers, Special Olympics).
  • The second assignment (10-12 pg. approx.), a comparative analysis research essay, asks that students educate readers by comparing different perspectives on a particular social or ethical problem, drawing upon outside sources such as scholarly literature and news media. This assignment challenges students to present different perspectives fairly while remaining neutral. For this assignment, students are also asked to conduct an interview and include at least five documentary photographs to accompany the essay.
  • The third assignment (8 pg. approx.) offers students the choice of an advocacy essay or grant proposal. An advocacy essay should persuasively articulate a position on an issue, using secondary sources and addressing counterargument(s). A grant proposal should present a persuasive case for funding a public service program addressing a current social issue at MIT, in the greater Boston area, or the student's home community. The grant proposal must advance a clear and compelling argument, supported by secondary sources, about the importance of the specific issue or seriousness of the particular problem and the potential value and feasibility of the service program (including a detailed budget). The revision of Assignment 3 is due at the end of the semester.

Revision Process

"Revision is not the end of the writing process but the beginning"- Donald Murray

The process of revision—rethinking and reconceptualizing a first version—is essential to the course. Revision means "re-seeing," a significant rewriting of a piece, the stage before line editing and error correction. In revision, a student may decide to:

  • change his or her voice as a writer;
  • rewrite an introduction and/or conclusion;
  • modify or completely change perspective or point of view;
  • integrate additional information from primary and/or secondary sources;
  • address a counterargument (s);
  • reorganize the structure of the piece.

Most students find that successful revision takes as long as or longer than writing the first version. After conceptual revision, line editing and proofreading are the next steps.

In addition, each student will complete regular typed reader-writer notebook exercises in response to readings; these exercises will be collected when due. Reading assignments and preliminary writing exercises will help prepare students for the major writing assignments.

Each student will also give one longer oral presentation (approx. 10 min.) on an aspect of essay 2 or 3 as well as at least one shorter oral presentation (approx. 5 min.) on grammar topics to be assigned. After the oral presentations, I will provide feedback with suggestions for improvement.

By the end of the term, students will have written at least 25 pages of revised prose for major assignments, in addition to the reader-writer notebook and shorter assignments.

Class Participation and Attendance/Writing Workshops

To foster a sense of intellectual community, this course is structured as a seminar, in which we discuss the work of professional, as well as student, authors. It is crucial that students come to class on time, with required texts and well prepared to offer thoughtful responses to the readings and classmates' writing. To be effective participants, students need to complete reading and writing tasks by assigned dates. A vital, ongoing intellectual conversation is at the heart of the course.

The writing workshop, in which students respond to their peers' writing, is a very important part of the class. Each major writing assignment will have an in-class workshop after students submit first versions; we will also workshop some shorter pre-essay exercises. My expectation is that students will respond to classmates' work seriously and critically, approaching each piece with sensitivity, insight, and imagination. For each workshop, students will read several pieces, discuss them in class and respond through letters to each writer. The ethical norm of the course is that all student writing (including peer comments) is confidential; students should store classmates' work in a secure place and not discuss peers' writing outside the class. This ethic, regularly practiced in professional writing workshops, enables us to develop the trust and security we need as a small writing community.

Since our class functions as a writing community and the first "public" for students' essays, it is essential that students attend class faithfully. More than two absences may affect the final grade. Under Writing Program guidelines, a student cannot pass the course with over five absences. Lateness is discourteous to the instructor and students. Three latenesses count as an absence. If a student must be absent from class or cannot submit an assignment on time because of a personal or medical emergency, he or she should email me (or have a dean contact me) as soon as possible. If an absence occurs, a student should contact a classmate about class material and obtain handouts that were distributed.

First Versions and Revisions; Comments and Grades

Students will submit each major writing assignment initially, as a first version, and later, in revised form. It is very important that students turn in work on the due date. Late submission of work, without an extension, may result in a lowered final grade.

In reviewing first versions, I make extensive written comments and suggest options in revision. First versions are not graded; only revisions are graded. Pre-assignment exercises will be acknowledged with a check and brief comments.

The primary determinant of the final grade will be the quality of major assignments, as well as the thoughtfulness of the notebook assignments. However, in determining final grades, I also consider oral presentations, attendance, preparation for class, in-class writing and students' contributions as peer reviewers. Attendance, preparation and participation count for about 20% of the final grade. Absence and lateness can negatively impact the participation grade.


My role is as a writing coach, to explore options with students, as they decide how to craft their work. Conferences also offer rich opportunities to extend conversations of the course about readings and strategies for successful (and enjoyable!) writing. Students should come well prepared to conferences to discuss options for a particular piece.

Writing and Communication Resources

Writing Center and Writing Across the Curriculum websites also include links to helpful resources: Writing Resources on the World Wide Web. The Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies also has information on topics of interest to students: classes, advising, requirements for majors, minors and concentrators, and public events.

Academic Integrity: Avoiding Plagiarism

Using someone else’s language and/or ideas without proper attribution is academically dishonest. As members of this class and the larger scholarly community, you are expected to abide by the norms of academic honesty. While a good deal of collaboration between students is encouraged in and out of class, failing to acknowledge sources or willfully misrepresenting the work of others as your own will not be tolerated. Everything you submit must be your own work, written specifically for this class. Plagiarism can result in withdrawal from the course with a grade of F, suspension or expulsion from the Institute.

Academic Integrity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A Handbook for Students at (PDF - 1.6MB) explains these issues in detail; you are responsible for understanding its contents. In class, we will also work on citing sources and discuss ways to acknowledge them properly. When in doubt, consult with me.

Writing Portfolio

Students should keep major assignments, first versions and revisions, and my comments, in a portfolio. At the end of the term, with the third assignment revision, each student will submit a final portfolio. Please note: the writing portfolio should be kept separately from other class material. Pockets with folders or ring binders work well as portfolios.

Publishing Your Work

Students are strongly encouraged to craft their essays with the goal of publication; we will discuss strategies for planning for publication. Some MIT publications include:

Angles- Online journal of exemplary student writing introductory courses at Angles 2010.

The Tech – MIT's student newspaper at The Tech.

MURJ - MIT's undergraduate research journal in the natural and social sciences at MURJ.

Komaza - student-edited journal on international development issues at Komaza.



Intro to the Class as a Writing Community; Why Write About Social and Ethical Issues?

In-Class Writing

Two assignments due 2 days after Ses #1

Description: Exercise 1 - see Essay 1 Sequence Assignment and Writer's Letter.


Reasons To Believe: Appealing to Common Values in Classic American Political Speeches

Peer Review: Exercise 1

Assignment due

Description: Choose 2 speeches: Kennedy, King, Obama. Select 5 quotations from each speech and explain each choice in a sentence.


The Emergence of Social and Ethical Values

In-Class Writing: Colleges and Community Service

Assignment due

Description: Edelman: select 5 quotations and explain each choice in a sentence.

Essay 1, Version 1 with cover letter due 2 days after Ses #3.

4 Writing Workshop

Essay 1 due

Description: Letters to workshop students.


Writers Address Social Issues: Debates around Civil Liberties and Freedom of Speech

In-Class Writing: Case of Franklin Bragg

Distribution: Essay 2 Sequence Assignment

Assignment on Dershowitz due
6 Representing Social Issues in Historical Context: Poverty and Wealth in the Industrial Era

Assignment due

Description: What connections do you see between Carnegie, Gates and Yunus?

7 Documenting Social Issues: Poverty and Homelessness in the Industrial Era

Assignment due

Descriptions: Compare a Hine photograph with a Riis photograph. What are the similarities and differences?

Underline 5 quotations from Sontag for discussion.

Essay 2 proposal due 2 days after Ses #7

8 Homelessness: Comparative Contemporary Perspectives

Assignment due

Description: Compare the perspectives of Marin and Kozol on homelessness. Select three quotations from each for discussion. Bring in three photographs depicting the problem of homelessness from different perspectives.


Library Session

Bring Essay 2 proposals for presentation and peer review (5 copies)

Revised Essay 2 Proposal due 2 days after Ses #9
10 Writers Engage With Social Issues: Gender and Power Classic American Texts

Assignment due

Descriptions: What is the effect on the reader of modeling "The Declaration of Sentiments" on "The Declaration of Independence"?

Select five quotes from Douglass for discussion.

Assignment due 2 days after Ses #10

Description: Select and comment on five quotes from Anthony.

Assignment due 4 days after Ses #10

Description: Revision, Essay 1 (Revision, new cover letter and marked-up first version.

11 Contemporary Gender and Work Issues

Assignment due

Description: Respond to quotes from "Love and "Gold"

Research/Writing due 2 days after Ses #11

First Version, Essay 2 due 3 days after Ses #11

12 Writing Workshop Essay 2 (Letters) due
13 Writers Explore Contemporary Issues: Mental Health  
14 Discuss: Film, Girl, Interrupted

Assignment due

Description: Girl, Interrupted—comment on book chapter and film

15 Writers Debate Social Issues: Mental Health; Crime and Punishment Assignment on Thompson due
16 Advocacy Essays: Argument and Evidence Assignment on Dead Man Walking due
17 Advocacy Essays; Grant Proposal Process: Identifying Research and Program Needs; Steps of Grant Proposal Writing

Pre-Proposal for a possible advocacy essay (one paragraph) due

Pre-Proposal- an idea for a public service project due

18 Successful Grant Proposal Writing; Structure and Organization; Creating Realistic Budgets Designing Self- Evaluation Procedures

Proposal 3 (2 paragraphs) due

Essay 2 Revision (includes marked-up version 1 + comments) due

19 Holistic Visions: Fiction as a Laboratory for Utopian Ideas and Dystopian Critiques; Grant Proposal Writing

Assignment due

Description: Write your own vision of utopia and dystopia (see handout) - 2 pages

20 Writing Workshop

First Version 3 due

Workshop letters due


Utopia / Dystopia

Course Overview

Course Evaluations

22 Last Class Final Portfolio (with Revision 3 plus Final Reflection Letter) due 1 day after Ses #22