Syllabus

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

"Writers are witnesses" - E. L. Doctorow

"Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious" - Anne Lamott

The best writing happens when we, as writers, care deeply about our topics. That sense of profound caring-of passion-often emerges in relation to social and ethical issues-such as poverty, homelessness, racial or gender injustice, terrorism, or environmental crisis-- that deeply concern us as individuals, family members and citizens of our local, national and global communities. We, as community members, often seek to make sense of these issues in all their complexity, to imagine possible solutions and to act, individually or collectively, to create social change. Writing offers us a critical avenue of engagement with contemporary social issues so that we can understand these problems more profoundly, communicate that understanding to a wider public and advocate for a variety of solutions on the psychological, social and economic level. Focusing on contemporary social issues, this course seeks to provide you with a supportive context to grow significantly as a writer by discovering and engaging with issues that you care deeply about.

When you write about social issues, you can see yourself as part of a long tradition of authors-such as Frederick Douglass, Lewis Hine, Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Betty Friedan and Alice Walker-who have seen writing as a critical form of activism because they believe that the "power of the pen" can inspire social change. Throughout the semester we will read selections from such writers as Marion Wright Edelman, Charles Dickens, Susan Faludi, Betty Friedan, Sut Jhally, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Kozol, Abraham Lincoln, Susan Sontag and Alice Walker. We will also focus on the ways in which the visual arts of photography and film represent social and ethical issues to a public audience. To explore the power of documentary photography, we will examine some classic photographs by Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis and Dorothea Lange. In addition, we will screen some contemporary documentary and feature films that focus on social and ethical issues (Killing Us Softly 3, Dead Man Walking and Girl, Interrupted.) As we discuss the readings, photographs and films, we will often return to the questions of how an artist's era, personal history, perspective and rhetorical purpose may have influenced his or her choice of topic or subject and voice or style in communicating with an audience. Throughout the semester, we will often raise the question of how individuals from different gender, racial, generational, religious and economic groups may experience and understand the same social issues.

This course offers a service-learning option so that you can address social issues such as homelessness, poverty or educational inequality within the community; students often find that they do their best writing when actively engaged with real-world problems. The service-learning option reflects MIT's mission that the Institute "seeks to develop in each member of that community not only the ability to work wisely, creatively and effectively for the betterment of humankind, but also the passion for doing so." While service-learning is not mandatory to fulfill course requirements, it is highly encouraged.

Required Reading

Amazon logo Watters, Ann, and Marjorie Ford, eds. Writing for Change: A Community Reader. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1994. ISBN: 9780070686151.

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

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

You should also have on hand a college dictionary and thesaurus such as Amazon logo The Oxford English Dictionary. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780198608646. For general writing reference, consult Easy Writer as well as Leslie Perelman, James Paradis, Edward Barrett. The Mayfield Handbook of Scientific and Technical Writing.

Assignments: Three Major Writing Assignments, Revision Process, Reader-Writer Notebook, Oral Presentation, Final Portfolio

This course aims to help you to grow significantly as a lively and engaged academic writer -- in your ability to understand and grapple with arguments, to integrate both life experience and outside research, to experiment with different voices and styles and to craft creative, well-reasoned and vibrant essays. Our approach within the course is to strive for a sense of "public scholarship" in our writing. "Public scholarship" can be defined as writing that engages with the complexity of ethical and social issues by addressing a more general readership of citizens through dynamic and accessible prose.

Over the course of the semester, you will write three different major writing assignments in first version and revised form. Throughout the semester, I will encourage you to:

  • address an intelligent, public audience in a graceful style, providing key information necessary to understand your argument;
  • develop your ideas in an interesting, original and coherent manner;
  • support your arguments with evidence and use sources thoughtfully and appropriately;
  • express yourself in clear, concise language that uses the conventions of grammar, punctuation, word usage and source citation;
  • structure your arguments carefully with clear introductions, transitions, middle and conclusion;
  • title your work in a thoughtful and entertaining fashion.

Each major assignment will be initially submitted in a first version and later in revised form. By first version, I mean a readable, completely written piece that could be submitted to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. A first version is not an outline, half-written essay or set of notes.

Revision Process

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

The process of revision-rethinking and reconceptualizing the 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. Through the revision process, you may decide to:

  • change your voice as a writer;
  • rewrite your introduction and/or conclusion;
  • modify or completely change your perspective or point of view;
  • integrate additional information, primary or secondary sources;
  • acknowledge a counterargument;
  • reconceptualize the structure of the piece.

You may find that the revision process takes as long as or longer than writing the first version. After conceptual revision, line-editing and proofreading are the last steps in the writing process.

Each major piece will center on particular analytic tasks, and will build upon the skills of the previous writing assignments. For outside research, you will use secondary sources; you also have the option of service or community-based learning.

Each student will also keep a typed reader-writer notebook in which she or he will respond regularly to in-class exercises and assigned readings; notebook exercises will be collected when due. Over the course of the semester, reading assignments and preliminary writing exercises will help to prepare you for the major assignments that you will be writing. Students are asked to read a newspaper at least three times a week and are encouraged to keep a clipping file of articles, editorials, etc. on issues of interest.

Each student will also give at least one oral presentation (approx. 10-15 min.) in conjunction with either (or both) assignment 2 or 3. After your oral presentation, I will provide feedback on your performance and offer suggestions for improvement.

By the end of the semester, you will have written at least 25 pages of revised prose for your major assignments, in addition to your reader-writer notebook and other short in-class assignments.

Major Writing Assignments

  • The first essay (5 pg. approx.) is a personal narrative that focuses on "coming to consciousness", an analysis of an individual experience(s) that led to a more profound awareness of a contemporary social or ethical issue or a more general commitment to social justice. The challenge of this essay is to work with the complex elements of personal narrative as evidence to support your argument in an essay written for a public readership. If you are currently in service-learning or previously have done internships or community-based work, this essay provides an opportunity to reflect on the "backstory" of how you decided to work at a particular setting (e.g. homeless shelter, religious instruction, school tutoring program) or with a specific group of people (e.g. elders, preschoolers, lesbian and gay youth.). These kinds of personal essays often inspire readers to reflect on the sources of their own commitments and ethical values.
  • The second essay (12 pg. approx.), an investigative piece, asks you to compare different perspectives on a particular social or ethical problem, drawing upon such sources as academic literature, journalistic and popular media, documentary films, and social service or political advocacy organizations. This assignment challenges you as a writer to compare different perspectives and sources while discovering or maintaining your own views. For this assignment, you are asked to do a small "community research project": visit at least one community organization (e.g. social service agency or advocacy group) that addresses this particular social or ethical problem, collect relevant pamphlets or literature and interview a staff member in person about the work of the organization. This community research will enable you to improve your interviewing skills and to experience a greater sense of authority as a writer through creating and drawing upon a primary source-an interview. For readers, comparative essays like this can serve to deepen and complicate their understanding of social issues.
    In the process of preparing for essay 2, you may decide to commit to a service-learning contract with the organization you visit (see pp.5-6 for more information on service-learning.). In addition, you will give an oral presentation drawn from the material in this essay or assignment 3.
  • The third assignment (8 pg. approx.) is an advocacy piece in the form of a grant proposal. This assignment asks you to present a clear and persuasive argument (using outside sources) to a grant-making organization or foundation (internal, i.e., MIT or external) to create or enhance a policy or program addressing a current social issue at MIT, in the Cambridge/Boston area, or your home community. Your proposal must present a clear and compelling argument, supported by evidence, about the importance of the specific issue or seriousness of the particular problem and the potential value and feasibility of your approach (including a budget). If you have chosen the service learning option, this assignment provides an opportunity for you to write a grant proposal (a) for the program, institution, group or agency you are working for or (b) to address a local social problem (e.g. illiteracy in Cambridge). The revision of the third assignment will be due at the last class with the final portfolio of your work for the semester.

Note: Some students may choose to write about different aspects of the same social or ethical problem for their three major assignments, while others may decide to explore related or different issues.

Service-Learning Option

Service or community-based learning provides a rich opportunity for you to learn by addressing community issues at the same time that you reflect and write about your experiences. Drawing upon your skills, experiences and interests, you can explore new work roles through service learning and become more active and knowledgeable members of the MIT and larger Cambridge-Boston communities. Service-learning can help you as a MIT student to connect with the Institute's mission of "education and research with relevance to the practical world as a guiding principle."

Working in a community setting through service learning, you can apply the skills of reading, thinking, speaking, writing and editing that we work on in class. Alternately, you can utilize other interpersonal, technical, language and problem-solving skills to work within the community. Service learning can take a wide variety of forms depending on your interests and skills and the needs of the community. Some potential examples are:

  • tutoring children or adults at a local school, library or community center in reading, writing, math, science or computer literacy;
  • helping to design or maintain a website for a community organization;
  • volunteering at CCTV, Cambridge Community Television
  • helping with Museum of Science or MIT Museum projects;
  • coaching youth sports;
  • working with senior citizens in a community center or nursing home;
  • volunteering at a local preschool or afterschool program;
  • participating in the work of a local food bank;
  • working at a shelter for abused women and their children;
  • translating for patients or clients at a local hospital, service center or clinic.
  • staffing a suicide-prevention hotline.

Within this course, service-learning is strongly encouraged, but not required. Service-learning can provide a context of experience and ideas for writing in at least one and preferably two major assignments. Students often report that they do their best writing when they are engaged with community work. Course writing assignments offer students in service-learning rich opportunities to reflect upon their community work, to incorporate their first-hand knowledge, and (in some cases) to write for specific community purposes (e.g. fact sheets, newsletters, grant proposals, etc.) In 21W.730, service-learning counts as a form of outside research as an alternative or supplement to library research.

For the service-learning option in this course, approximately three hours a week for 8-10 weeks of the semester is recommended. (If the site is willing, the hours arrangement can be flexible at time of exams, papers, etc.) A Public Service Center representative will visit the class to discuss potential service learning opportunities during the second week of the course. However, you can also generate your own placement, or you may already be involved in a volunteer activity.

Course Requirements

Class Participation and Attendance/Writing Workshops

To foster a sense of intellectual community, this course is structured as a seminar. Throughout the term, we will be discussing the work of professional, as well as student, authors. It is crucial that you come to class on time, with required texts and well prepared to offer thoughtful responses to the assigned reading as well as to your peers' writing. To be effective as a seminar participant, you will need to complete reading and writing tasks by their assigned dates. A vital, ongoing intellectual conversation -about our writing and that of published authors-is the heart of the course.

The writing workshop-in which students respond to their peers' writing-is a very important part of the course. For each essay, we will have an in-class workshop after first versions of major assignments have been submitted. We will also workshop some shorter pre-essay writing assignments. My expectation is that you will respond to each others' work seriously and critically and approach each piece with sensitivity, insight and imagination. For each workshop, you will be asked to read several pieces, discuss them in groups with your classmates and respond to them in the form of letters to individual writers. The ethical norm of our class is that all student writing (including your comments) is considered confidential; you should store other students' work in a secure place and not discuss your peers' work outside the classroom. This ethic 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 your essays, it is essential that you attend class faithfully. If you have more than two absences, it may affect your final grade. Under Writing Program guidelines, you cannot pass the course if you have more then five absences. Three latenesses count as an absence. If you are absent from class or cannot submit an assignment on time because of a personal, family or medical emergency, please email or phone me (or have a dean contact me) as soon as possible. In the case of absence, it is your responsibility to contact another student to catch up on what you missed in class and obtain any handouts or assignments that were distributed.

First Versions and Revisions; Comments and Grades

Each major writing assignment will be submitted initially, as a first version, and later, in revised form. In reviewing your first versions of pieces, I will make extensive comments and suggest some options in revision. I will be available to meet with you to discuss your first versions and revised assignments. First versions of major assignments are commented on, but not graded. Only the revisions of each piece are graded. Pre-assignment exercises will be acknowledged with a check and brief comments.

It is important that you submit work on the due date. In the case of a personal or family emergency, please contact me (or have a dean contact me) as soon as possible. Late submission of work without an extension may result in a lowered final grade.

To pass 21W.730, all required work must be submitted. The primary determinant of your final grade will be the quality of your major assignments, as well as the thoughtfulness of your reader-writer notebook. However, I will also consider your oral presentations, attendance, preparation for class and your contribution as a peer reviewer for your classmates. Attendance, preparation and participation count for about 20% of your final grade.

Conferences

Throughout the semester, I am available to meet with you in conferences to discuss your work and to suggest strategies for improving your writing. My role is as a writing coach, to explore options with you, as you decide how to revise your work. Conferences also offer a rich opportunity to extend the conversations of the course about the readings and general strategies for successful (and enjoyable!) writing. You should come well prepared to conferences to discuss your options for a particular piece or type of writing. Some students find it most helpful to see me at the pre-writing stage of brainstorming and outlining, while others prefer to meet at the point between first version and revision, or at midterm time to discuss their progress and goals for the rest of the term.

Academic Honesty and Originality

As a MIT student, member of our class and the larger community of writers, you are expected to abide by the norms of academic honesty. Borrowing someone else's language and/or ideas without proper acknowledgement is academically dishonest and a form of plagiarism, which can have serious academic consequences at MIT.

In class, we'll discuss how to acknowledge sources and how to avoid plagiarism. For different styles of citing sources (MLA, APA), see Easy Writer, The Mayfield Handbook or the Writing Center Web site.

Writing Portfolio

Please keep all major assignments, first versions and revisions, and my comments together in a portfolio. With your last revised piece, you will submit your portfolio, together with an introduction reflecting on the themes in your writing, and a concluding letter describing the ways in which your writing has changed over the semester, and plans for the future. Please note: your writing portfolio should be kept separately from your other material for class. Pockets with folders or ring binders work well as portfolios.