Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


Writing is a crucial means of thinking. As a student in this course, you will write and re-write papers to identify and build upon your existing strengths. Skills required for successful classwork (and writing) include reading critically, contributing to discussion, formulating and exploring interesting ideas, organizing information logically, focusing valid thesis statements, composing clear and coherent sentences and paragraphs, supporting claims with specific evidence, reaching reasonable conclusions, following conventions of grammar and usage, commenting usefully on others’ work, proofreading, and developing your identity and voice as a writer. (Whew!)

In this course, you will read a series of autobiographical texts and write in response to them. These texts are rich and complicated; real engagement requires reading them several times. The series of assignments foregrounds the way in which writing occurs in response to writings of others, continuing a dialogue. Your active participation in this dialogue seems to me the basic dynamic of education (from Latin, e-ducare, to lead out – think about what you want your education to lead out of you, and what you want it to lead to). Thinking and expressing ideas clearly is fundamental not only to undergraduate education but also to graduate and professional work, as well as social life.

The Course

I ask you to think of our course as having the “leading out” dynamic of education. You might think of it as a studio course, like one in visual or performing arts. You will practice the art of thinking and expression by working on specific projects. My role is to try to draw out your ideas by leading class and discussion, monitoring your progress, making comments to guide you in useful directions, holding scheduled and drop-in conferences, and looking at your gathered work at various points in the semester. Your role is to think, speak, and write as well as you can. Please ask questions.

The course is a time to practice writing. You can expect to write at least one draft or revision each week. I expect a revision to be exactly that: a re-vision, re-seeing of your ideas, the ideas in the reading, and the ways in which the two relate. A revision may take as much time and thought as a draft, and perhaps more. For this pace, you need to develop the habits and discipline of a writer. You need a regular time and place to write when you are free from distractions. You may want calming music or favorite props.

The discipline of writing requires focus. Certain states of mind are more conducive to good writing than others: “flow,” the calm after exercise or meditation, and certain times of the day and week, depending on your own rhythms. Writers need to work with concentration for long periods of time. Set your own goals and pace for this; I suggest at least 4-6 good hours a week for writing, in two uninterrupted sessions. This comes in addition to the pre-writing activities of reading, brain-storming, incubating, and whatever else works for you. Talking over ideas also helps; you may look for a buddy.

The essential process of writing is revision, not writing first thoughts in first drafts. Writers learn by returning to their work to see what it does and doesn’t do, thinking about what is best in it and in them, and imagining where the best thoughts might lead. This requires stepping outside writing, re-seeing it, and changing it. Through reading each others’ papers, reading your own critically, and paying attention to my and each others’ comments, you will learn to read and revise your work more successfully.

Schedule and Routines

I have divided the fourteen weeks of the semester into three units, each with a particular focus.

Read each assigned reading twice before we discuss it in class. The first reading should give you a general idea of what the essay is about and what the writer is doing. Then consult the questions and topics I provide before you really tackle the essay. Read closely the second time with a pen or pencil in hand to mark sections that seem crucial, difficult, or puzzling to you. (If you cannot commit even to pencil markings, use plenty of Post-Its or index cards as places to mark your reactions.) Recording your responses will help you when we discuss the essays and when you write about them.

Each week you will write one essay and/or revision, both as stages in a larger project. Please make three copies of everything you write, one for me and two for peers. Keep my marked copy of everything you write in a sturdy folder, as your portfolio. In order to evaluate your progress, I plan to review your portfolios three times-around the fifth, tenth, and last weeks of the term. Your final grade reflects your individual grades and progress, as well as your participation in class. Evidence of engagement with the course, the assignments, and the process of revision will count, as will your successful work on your writing.

I will read and comment upon your essays each week. Each assignment must be completed on time. Each week’s work leads to the next, so you cannot afford to fall behind. The drafts that you submit will receive a +, or - (or a 0, if not submitted on time). Revisions will receive grades. If you do not hand in a draft, you deprive yourself of feedback from the class and from me on your ideas; you may not “skip” the draft, handing in only one version; the process of writing includes revision. You will receive a mark, not a grade, on the first draft you hand in, and an “F” if the revision is not in on time. So write drafts.

Please read my comments from the beginning, along with what you have written. If you do not understand something, ask me. A revision that heads in a completely different direction from what I suggest, or that fails to incorporate my proofreading marks, suffers. My final comments remark on the major strengths and weaknesses of your paper. You should read the marginal comments to see how they contribute to the final one. If you disagree with my evaluation, please discuss it with me. Ditto, the grade.

Attendance and Participation

I will reproduce at least one paper by each of you (names removed) for a large group workshop, and we will spend lots of time discussing your essays. This develops critical reading and revising skills, and you must participate. Active discussion and in-class writing require your punctual presence in class, so come to class even if you are sleep-deprived or have not completed an assignment. Alert me to your state. I will not expect as much from you, but I expect you to attend unless you are certifiably sick. In that case, let me know before class. Arriving late will also hurt your grade. If you are absent, you are not practicing. Over five absences will result in an F for the course. You are responsible for whatever is due in the next class.

Writing Groups

You will divide into groups of about three. Few writers work alone; we rely on colleagues to listen to ideas, read drafts, and help with revision and editing. You will be responsible for commenting on one person’s work each week. We will devise a form for you to follow, and you will sign your name on it before handing the comments to me with the paper and then to the writer.


Two conferences are required for the class.


Plagiarism is the unattributed use of someone else’s ideas or words, whether paraphrased or duplicated exactly. It results in penalties from “F” grades to expulsion. Plagiarism robs you of finding out what you think; it also robs the author. Avoid it. For details, visit MIT Online Writing Center; MIT students may consult The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing online about citing sources.


Essays: 70%
Peer Responses and Class Participation: 20%
In-class Writing: 10%

(N.B.: class participation counts for 30% of your grade.)
I give a “C” for a paper that fulfills the assignment without frequent or major mechanical errors (those in grammar, spelling, or punctuation). “B” papers fulfill the assignment with clear logic, specific support, good organization, and few (if any) mechanical problems. “A” papers exhibit original thought, superior organization suited to the purpose of the writing and rare errors of grammar, spelling, or punctuation. More specifics will follow separately.

Important Note

Receiving a “B-” or better in 21W.730 means that you automatically pass Phase I of the Writing Requirement. If you receive a “C” the instructor will decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether or not you have passed Phase I. Receiving a “D” or an “F” means that you have not passed Phase I.

Course Info

Learning Resource Types

assignment_turned_in Written Assignments with Examples