Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


This is a course focused on the literary genre of the essay, that wide-ranging, elastic, and currently very popular form that attracts not only nonfiction writers but also fiction writers, poets, scientists, physicians, and others to write in the form, and readers of every stripe to read it. Some say we are living in era in which the essay is enjoying a renaissance; certainly essays, both short and long, are at present easier to get published than are short stories or novels, and essays are featured regularly and prominently in the mainstream press (both magazines and newspapers) and on the New York Times bestseller books list. But the essay has a history, too, a long one, which goes back at least to the sixteenth-century French writer Montaigne, generally considered the progenitor of the form. It will be our task, and I hope our pleasure, to investigate the possibilities of the essay together this semester, both by reading and by writing. We’ll begin with a brief consideration of its history and then will proceed to see what some critics and practitioners of the essay have had to say about it in an effort to outline its parameters. And we will read a great many essays - classic ones by writers living and dead, as well as ones hot off the press. This reading will, I hope, inspire you in the task of writing essays of your own, which will be the central element of our work together. Writing, after all, emerges from writing - that is, we become able writers both by writing ourselves and by reading and reflecting on the writing others have done. Reading what other writers have written, along with the frequent practice of writing, is what inspires us to write and helps us have something to say.


I have ordered two anthologies of essays for the course:

Klaus, Carl, Chris Anderson, and Rebecca Blevins Faery. In Depth: Essayists for Our Time. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Heinle, 1993. ISBN: 9780155001725.

Menard, Louis, and Robert Atwan, eds. The Best American Essays 2004. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. ISBN: 9780618357093.

I will frequently supplement the selections in the anthologies and handouts of other essays, as opportunity or inspiration arises. You will also need a good handbook. I’ve ordered:

Lunsford, Andrea. Easy Writer. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Bedford Books, 2001. ISBN: 0312400551.

But if you have another favorite, you’re welcome to use it; just check with me first to be sure it’s a good choice. The Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing, written by MIT writing professors and available to you online via the Writing Center Web site, contains most of the information you will need for reference. And please do have ready access to a good dictionary.

One of the primary texts for our course will be the essays all of you write and what all of us have to say about them in workshops. Class workshops, in which we will respond to and learn from the writing done by everyone in the class, will occupy much of our class time. Your purpose in these workshops will be to support each other’s work in progress by offering careful, thoughtful, and serious responses as readers, pointing out what you see as the writer’s successes and offering constructive suggestions for improving the work. The essays you submit to the workshops will be understood to be work in progress; you will use the responses of readers (including me) to revise, refine, and polish your work before submitting a final version.

Course Requirements

Writing successfully depends to a great degree upon your ability to read with scrupulous care, attention, and insight. Careful reading of all assigned material, including workshop submissions by other students in the class, will be one of the foundations of your work for the course. Because the assigned essays are usually pretty short, I expect you to read them at least twice through. You will be expected to have completed all assigned reading on the day a text is discussed in class, and brief in-class writing to prepare for discussion will help you stay disciplined about getting the reading done. For workshops, you must prepare by reading the submission carefully and writing a response to the writer. We’ll discuss together how we’ll do this, in online forums or in hard copy. Other occasional brief and informal in-class writing will help you stay disciplined about getting the reading done on time. In addition, as part of the Communication Intensive designation for this class, you will have opportunities to develop your oral presentation skills: you will make one major oral presentation to the class; you will be expected to take an active part in class discussion; and you will be responsible for leading class discussion of assigned reading on at least one occasion.

To help you engage more deeply with the reading you do, you will keep a Reader’s Notebook- a place for you to write informally to explore the reading, raise questions, follow up on implications, record your responses. Most of the notebook writing will be done outside of class, but our occasional in-class writing will also be part of your notebook. I will expect about three-quarters to a page or so of typewritten response to each essay - informal, speculative, reflective of careful reading, and written in a spirit of questioning and exploration. For further explanation of my expectations of your notebook writing, see the Reader’s Notebook handout I will give you. I will collect notebooks at random, a few at a time, so please always bring your notebook to class with you. My hope is that the notebook writing will deepen and enrich both the reading and writing you’ll do in the weeks ahead.

The more public writing you will do - that is, the writing that is aimed at a public audience - will be essays that you will submit on a regular basis throughout the semester, five in all, of roughly 6-7 typewritten pages each (though one will be slightly longer). You will collect this writing, along with your Reader’s Notebook, in a portfolio of at least 25 pages of revised and polished writing submitted at the end of the semester. (The portfolio is in lieu of a final examination.) You will choose submission dates from a list I will give you. I will occasionally place some constraints or requirements on your writing; within the parameters of the assignment, though, you will be free to choose what you want to write about. I will, of course, be happy to help you find a subject if you need that help. All your essays in their first incarnation will be discussed in class workshops with other members of the class, and you will receive response from me as well. You are also welcome to meet with me in conference to discuss revision possibilities in addition to the individual conferences I will initiate from time to time. You must submit a revision of each essay to me by the end of the week following your work’s being discussed in workshop. I will give you additional response on your revision, which you may use to guide optional final revisions for your portfolio.

All the work you submit during the semester must be your original work, and none of it may have been submitted to meet the requirements in any other class. Plagiarism or re-submitting work will result in withdrawal and an F in the course.

Our schedule is tight, so all written work must be handed in on time. No exceptions, unless for real and serious emergencies, in which case you should get in touch with me at once. Extensions for emergencies will be granted only once per student per semester.

Your responsibility in the class is to be not only a writer, but also a reader and responder for other members of the class community. It is essential, then, that you attend class faithfully and come to each class fully prepared to participate in discussions of assigned reading and in writing workshops. Lateness for class, if extreme or chronic, will be counted as an absence. You must notify me as soon as possible when a real and serious emergency keeps you from attending class. More than three unexcused absences will result in your course grade being lowered; more than five absences will result in your receiving a failing grade. Missing class on a day when your work is up for workshop discussion will count as two absences. So don’t take casual cuts, and come to class faithfully and on time and prepared to participate fully in class activities.

I will evaluate your work by responding as carefully and thoughtfully as I can to all the writing you do for the class, but I will not grade individual pieces of writing. At the end of the semester, you will submit to me a portfolio containing all the writing you have done for the course, including at least 25 pages of revised and polished essays and your Reader’s Notebook, so that I can assign you a grade for the semester. In deciding on semester grades, I will consider, most importantly, the overall quality of the written work you submit in your portfolio, but also the degree and consistency of your effort throughout the semester, the success you demonstrate in revising your work, how actively you participated in class discussion and workshops, the quality of your oral presentation and classroom contributions, and how well you served as a reader and responder for other writers in the class. The primary determinant of your grade, of course, will be the quality of your writing. I promise to let you know at once if your performance falls to the level of C or below, and I will be happy to talk with you at any time about your work and your progress in the course.

All required work (assignments and assigned revisions, notebook and in-class writing, reading assignments) must be completed satisfactorily in order to receive a passing grade for the course.

A friend of mine once characterized her work as a scientist as “serious play.” The phrase has stuck with me. “Serious play,” I think, should be both challenging and inviting, and it should command our enthusiasm, attention, and commitment. The phrase characterizes the spirit in which I hope we will enter into our study and practice of the essay this semester. We will work very hard together, I promise, but I hope we will enjoy ourselves too - I’m a firm believer that people learn best when they do. I’m always open to questions and suggestions; I promise to listen attentively and to treat you and your work with seriousness and respect; and I look forward to our learning from and with each other and to a pleasant and productive semester.

Course Info

Learning Resource Types

assignment_turned_in Written Assignments with Examples