Course Meeting Times
Class meetings: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session
There are no specific prerequisites for this course, but permission of the instructor is required for enrollment.
Brief Course Description (aka “Why did I ever sign up for this?”)
“I could taste in my mouth world, sheer world.”
—Vivian Gornick, “Letter From Greenwich Village”
The modern city—with its attractive industry, remarkable vitality, strange solitudes, and varied human contrasts—gathers peoples and forces with such dynamism that it can seem as incomprehensible as it is interesting. How, then, does one see the city in its varied complexity, and with a rich understanding of the lives, institutions, and sensibilities that animate it? How best to communicate the possibilities and frustrations of the city—especially on those perennial topics which are too often met with indifference or fatigue? Indeed, by telling its stories. This course will explore the city through writing—listening to the voices of poets, short story writers, novelists, journalists, critics, historians, ethnographers, urbanists, musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists—and, through extensive reading that will inform their work on a longform story, students will join the chorus of storytellers to richly represent the variegated city. Our focus will be on three nonfiction forms—essay, memoir, literary narrative—with special emphasis on the writer-editor relationship and on revision as a heuristic to better thinking.
Expectations and Responsibilities
A seminar is a conversation, and you benefit if you come prepared to talk, listen, and reflect. You will be at a disadvantage if you haven’t completed the assigned reading, listening, viewing, and writing, all of which prepares you to more richly participate and learn from your fellow conversationalists. Unprepared or underprepared, you also leave the rest of us at a disadvantage, since we won’t get to hear your insights and criticisms, all of which makes us better readers, listeners, and writers.
A conversation requires you to actively and generously participate in class. Not that you need a reminder, but here’s one: A generous participant doesn’t hog the limelight, listens to fellow participants, raises objections with civility, gives and takes criticisms with humility, and honors the intelligence and dignity of other people (cf. “mansplaining”; cf. “say all that needs to be said, not all that can be said”). And introverts are welcome: If you need time to turn things over in your head and, as a talker, average two sentences every three hours, that’s fine; as long as your ears and eyes are engaged, you’ll be considered an active participant. And if you have half-formed thoughts, strange theories, confused ideas, and anything else you think makes you less valuable as a conversation partner, banish your fears that you are alone—we all have them. Bring what you have and let us think alongside you.
Though the seminar is a conversation, your writing won’t be discussed via the usual “workshop” format. I’d like you to take risks, to write without looking over your shoulder, worried about your classmates’ perceptions of you. I’d like you to sharpen your self-editing skills—doing so mainly by sharpening your reading skills, able to better diagnose your own weaknesses—and so I will avoid situations where you might feel that your work is thrown to editors with sharpened knives who haven’t had enough time with your prose. I fear you might censor the parts of you that are messy, weird, playful, dark, complex, religious, anti-religious—that is, I fear you might write too safe. Each week, then, we will respond to the assigned readings and each other’s engaged responses. I’ll edit your pieces with an eye to helping you improve both your writing and editing abilities, hoping to make you a better reader of your work. I expect you to demand a lot from yourself, and be exacting of your classmates without being cruel.
The heaviest intellectual lifting you’ll do—well, so I hope!—is a series of essays, culminating in a final essay (due on Friday of the last week of class) whose natural length I expect to be around 2,000 words. You’ll have two essays (somewhere around 800 to 1000 words) before your final essay. And you’ll have short exercises—keeping a notebook; making a playlist; fact-checking a piece of writing—that will, in tandem with the two essays, be building blocks to the final essay.
Perfect is the enemy of done! Better to give me an incomplete essay than none at all. Life is complicated; bad things happen. I’ll accommodate you if you need to submit something late. (You don’t need to kill your grandmother—Poor grandma, slaughtered time and again by college students when their assignments are due—and a simple note saying you need more time is sufficient. I don’t have to know why you’re late; feel free to hold on to your privacy. Just let grandma live.) The less time I have to edit it, the greater the likelihood that I won’t give your work the full attention it deserves, so do remember that a late essay harms you in ways more important than a lowering of your grade. And if you get stuck, don’t stand alone and sink—let me know you’re flailing so I can help pull you out.
My focus will be on editing and discussing what each essay—that is, your thinking and writing—needs. (Feedback on your work will, in general, come two weeks after you submit your essays, sometimes sooner, but you should feel free to contact me if you want to discuss your essay or any aspect of the class.) At the end of the seminar I’ll treat your entire work as a portfolio, looking at how you’ve learned over our short time together.
If you’re in academic trouble, I’ll tell you as soon as I sense you are; I expect you to work hard to climb out of the ditch you’re in—or ditch the class if a low or failing grade is a harm you’re not willing to bear.
The best conversations are collaborative, involving a helpful give-and-take. I expect you to learn from each other, then, and be ready to teach each other (and me). Nonetheless, I expect the essays you submit to be entirely your work. Drawing on conversations you’ve had in and outside of class, yes, but every sentence should come from you. Beg and borrow ideas, being conscientious to make clear when you’ve done so, but don’t steal them. Don’t pass off someone else’s ideas or sentences as yours. You owe your sources more; you owe your classmates and instructor more; you certainly owe yourself much more. And if you disagree, there’s always MIT’s policy on academic integrity, which I will uphold in cases when my students choose not to. Quite often, cheating is the product of panic. Someone gets overwhelmed and tries to find a way out that feels like an easier way to close a gap: that anxious person believes there is more work than the brainpower or time to complete it. So: If you start to fret, contact me; let me know you need help. Don’t lose confidence in your ability to tell a good story. And don’t throw away your integrity.