ENG 260: Writing Essays

Spring 2016
Professor Amy Butcher
Elliot Hall #005 from 10:30-11:50am TR

“In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.” —David Foster Wallace

Course Description:
From its inception, the word “essay” implied a sense of experimentation, and in this course, that’s exactly what we’ll do: attempt, to the best of our abilities, to weave the abstract qualities of beauty and truth in an effort to construct artful narratives of our lives. Let it be understood that this course takes as its premise the idea that nonfiction writing and essays inherently move beyond personal experience to include and engage larger issues of identity, society, and culture; essays enlarge, inhabit, and assume positions that must necessarily resonate with readers unfamiliar to the writer and his or her world. Throughout the course of the semester, students will read and study a wide variety of essayists and essayistic forms—including personal essays, narrative essays, braided essays, lyric essays, experimental essays, and graphic and video essays, to name a few—and together, we’ll discuss the craft and formalistic guidelines inherent to each while simultaneously drafting our own through exercises that target point-of-view, form, voice, and structure. Students should expect to produce ample writing throughout the semester and to share this work with others regularly in a formal workshop environment. The course will culminate in a final portfolio comprised of original drafts and revised work as well as a thoughtful reflection.

Course Texts:
On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Paperback), William Zinsser, ISBN 978-0060891541
Selected course readings, available on our Blackboard site (all readings must be printed and brought to class)
Notebook (to be brought to class daily for analytical and creative writing)

Course Printing Policy:
As this is a joint creative writing workshop and seminar, students should understand their enrollment assumes a commitment to ample printing and all associated expenses; students are expected to print not only the course readings—available on our course Blackboard page—but one copy of their workshop submission for every class participant (including yourself and including me), as well. In addition, students must print out two copies of every workshop critique letter—one copy to bring to class to facilitate with discussion and later distribute to the writer, and one copy for me. The costs incurred in this course are equivalent to other classes and are in lieu of a lengthier text list (our only assigned text concerns issues of craft), but it will likely require purchasing additional printing credits from the library desk. While perhaps a bit inconvenient, this assemblage of sorted readings ensures we are studying only the most recent, energized, and demonstrably effective examples of the genre. All student work must always be typed, double-spaced, in size 12-font, and have only 1-inch margins; headers should be single-spaced and contain only your name, my name, the course name, and the date. Your work should always have a title, even if it is a working title, and it should be centered two breaks after the header. This is required and standard university formatting.

Class Participation and Behavior:
This class depends and in fact thrives upon the individualized interpretation and thoughtful engagement of each and every student, and as such, class participation comprises a large percentage of the final grade. Many students make the unfortunate mistake of thinking that it is enough to complete the reading and attend class; on the contrary, I consider class participation to be the act of demonstrating yourself to be an actively engaged and enthused part of our classroom conversation and, moreover, our writing workshop. There is, in other words, no place in my classroom for intellectual apathy, and it is not enough to show up and warm a seat. I expect all students to come to class with the day’s readings printed and in hand, the reading completed in its entirety and with your full attention, and the marginalia marked to evidence passages you found relevant, thought provoking, significant, curious, or especially well-written. I expect you, too, to look up all words or references you’re unfamiliar with and to engage with the work on the level you’d hope your colleagues would engage with yours. For the purpose of our workshop, especially, please note that I expect students to self-regulate; those who attempt to regularly monopolize conversation or make tangential or anecdotal comments will be equally penalized. Ultimately, one of the most integral skills we’ll aim to develop over the duration of the semester is how to respond intelligently, thoughtfully, and nonthreateningly to other people’s ideas and analyses, which is to say that while you’re welcome to disagree with your peers or with me, of course, please remember that all comments should be considerate, thoughtful, respectful, and grounded in close analysis of the text. In my experience, the best participants in a writing workshop such as this one not only listen to what their classmates have to say, but work to engage, build upon and complicate those sentiments rather than simply waiting for their turn to speak or reiterating what has already been presented. In addition, because it is my firm belief that an engaged and respectful student gives their full attention to the materials and the discussion at hand, I do not allow computers in my classroom without a note from the learning specialist, your phone should not be on your desk, your laptop should not be open, and under no circumstances should you be texting or falling asleep in class. Repeated failure to do so will result in an F for class participation.

Absence and late work policy:
Because this class depends upon the thoughtful engagement of each and every student, you are allotted two course absences, and I do not differentiate between excused and unexcused. Any additional absence beyond these two will automatically result in the deduction of one subset from your final participation grade; that is, a B will automatically become a B- with the addition of a third absence. Any student who misses 6 classes or more will earn an F for this course. There are no exceptions. I consider it your responsibility to keep track of your absences, however I am happy to clarify should you seek assurance. If you are absent, please note that I still expect you to turn in any work prior to the start of class; if you miss class on the day you are expected to lead discussion, you cannot substitute for another day or make up those points. Late work is strongly discouraged, and for every day an essay or assignment is late, its grade will drop by one letter; this means an essay turned in on Thursday that was due on Tuesday can earn only a B at best. If you are absent on the day your essay is scheduled for workshop, you will not receive an alternate workshop date. Finally, please remember that because lateness is, in essence, a disregard for our weekly appointment and a disruption to discussion, regular tardiness will not be tolerated and any student who is late beyond ten minutes will be marked absent for that day.

Workshop Feedback Letters:
In preparation for our workshop, all students are expected to spend ample time each week reading and considering their peers’ workshop submissions, but an equal amount of time should be dedicated to line-editing and writing comments, questions, and ideas in the marginalia of these submissions. Additionally, each student will write a detailed critique letter (one full page single-spaced) for every writer that: a) outlines what you understood the essay to be about, b) identifies a handful of elements you particularly liked (whether sentences, scenes, characters, etc.), and c) offers several suggestions—both large and small—for passages or structural elements that seemed unclear, raised questions, or are otherwise places you feel would benefit from a reworking or further shaping. These critique letters are a major part of your final grade in this class, and thus to ensure everyone is giving this particular element the attention it deserves, you must print out and bring two copies of each letter to every class.

Reading Quizzes:
These will be unannounced and frequent and are designed to ensure that you’re keeping up with the reading and giving it your undivided attention. Please note that a low grade in this section can seriously damage your final grade; furthermore, if you are absent on a day in which a reading quiz is assigned, you will receive a 0%.

Final Portfolios:
All work in this class culminates in a final portfolio of work due during our regularly scheduled final exam slot. This portfolio must contain all writing exercises as well as original and revised workshop essays and a thorough reflection. Specific guidelines will be distributed and discussed later in the semester.

Each assignment will have its own specific criteria and will be discussed as the deadline approaches. However, as a general rule, A-level students craft well-written, thoughtful essays that incorporate original ideas and demonstrate a firm understanding of key concepts, contribute amply to classroom and workshop discussion, demonstrate critical thought, engage in thoughtful revisions, and demonstrate a level of effort that exceeds the minimum requirements. B-level students exhibit a firm understanding of most of the key concepts and skills discussed in class, create strong and creative essays, and contribute amply to classroom discussion. C-level students adequately meet the minimum requirements without exceeding them, exhibit understanding of some of the key concepts, though not all, and/or rarely participate in classroom discussion or workshop. D-level students do not exhibit a grasp on key concepts, do not meet minimum requirements, and/or are often absent or tardy. F-level work is inadequate, incomplete, or plagiarized. Because it is difficult to evaluate a student based on writing skills alone, my evaluation is largely dependent on your overall class participation, engagement with the material, and your own work and progress as a writer throughout the duration of the semester.

Blackboard Grades:
Please note that Blackboard displays grades for assignments turned in on Blackboard only; large components of this class, including class participation, workshop letters, and final portfolio grades are not entered here and therefore not included in any visible totals. It is therefore not an adequate reflection of your course grade. Please refer to the formula below and, if in doubt, please don’t hesitate to contact me about individual grades. The final grade is determined by the following:

Class Participation 25%
Workshop Letters 20%
Essay #1 Draft 15%
Essay #2 Draft 15%
Reading Quizzes 10%
Final Portfolio 25%

Concerns On Course Content:
Because an essay is, at its core, an examination of a way of living uniquely not our own, please be aware that our readings will, at times, concern sensitive topics and situations that may prove uncomfortable for some. If you have specific concerns, please don’t hesitate to come speak with me early in the semester.

Please remember that I am a professional reader of words and will therefore immediately notice any changes in sentence structure, vocabulary, or content or language that simply does not sound like your own. If you are caught plagiarizing, you will fail the assignment and likely the course. Furthermore, as an instructor of this university, I am required to report all cases of plagiarism to the Dean of Academic Affairs; penalties include academic probation, suspension, and expulsion. Please don’t do it, don’t think about doing it, and don’t even think about thinking about doing it.

Students With Special Needs:
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protections for persons with disabilities. Among other things, the legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you have, or think you may have, a disability (e.g., mental health, attention, learning, chronic health, sensory, or physical), please contact Disability Services in Corns 315 or call (740) 368-3925 to arrange a confidential discussion regarding equitable access and reasonable accommodations. If you are registered with Disability Services and have a current letter requesting reasonable accommodations, please contact me as early in the semester as possible to discuss how your accommodations will be applied in our course. For more information, consult the Disabilities Services website, http://ldac.owu.edu/index.html.

Course Schedule:
Week 1: Understanding ‘The Essay’ And The Complications of Truth

Tuesday, January 12th: Class introduction, syllabus distribution, introductory discussion on “creative nonfiction/essays,” read and discuss Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things” and Joe Brainard’s “I Remember”; in-class writing: “I Remember” or Sei Shonagon-inspird list essay

Thursday, January 14th: Read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (pg. 1-17) and Joan Didion’s “On Keeping A Notebook” (Blackboard), bring completed free-write (30+ items)

Week 2: The Complications of Truth

Tuesday, January 19th: Read John D’Agata’s “What Happens There” (Blackboard), excerpt from Lifespan of a Fact (Blackboard), and Amy Hempel’s “The Harvest” (Blackboard)

Thursday, January 21st: Read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (pg. 18-45) and Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender” (Blackboard); listen to Radiolab’s “The Fact Of The Matter” in class

Week 3: The Personal Essay

Tuesday, January 26th: Read Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” (Blackboard), Virginia Woolf’s “The Death Of A Moth” (Blackboard), George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” (Blackboard), and Brian Doyle’s “A Sin” (Blackboard); in-class writing: “A Small Moment Made Large”

Thursday, January 28th: Read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (pg. 48-65), Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” (Blackboard), and Eula Biss’ “Goodbye To All That” (Blackboard); in-class writing: “On Home & Leaving A Place You Loved”

Week 4: The Personal Essay

Tuesday, February 2nd: Read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (pg. 66-91), Lauren Slater’s “Three Spheres” (Blackboard), and Meghan Daum’s “Variations on Grief” (Blackboard)

Thursday, February 4th: Read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (pg. 132-146), Kelly Sundberg’s “It Will Look Like A Sunset” (Blackboard), and Lucas Mann’s “Percy” (Blackboard)

Week 5: The Narrative Essay

Tuesday, February 9th: Read Dylan Nice’s “Teeth” (Blackboard), Lori Jakiela’s “Incisions” (Blackboard), and Ryan Van Meter’s “First” (Blackboard); in-class writing: “Crafting A Single-Scene Narrative Essay”

Thursday, February 11th: Read Ryan Van Meter’s “The Men From Town” (Blackboard) and Jo Ann Beard’s “Werner” (Blackboard)

Week 6: The Narrative Essay

Tuesday, February 16th: Read Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State Of Matter” (Blackboard)

Thursday, February 18th: Essay #1 due. Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Feet In Smoke” (Blackboard) and Blair Braverman’s “Useless Bay” (Blackboard); in-class writing: “Writing Someone Else’s Story”

Week 7: Workshop

Tuesday, February 23rd: Essay workshop

Thursday, February 25th: Essay workshop

Week 8: Workshop

Tuesday, March 1st: Essay workshop

Thursday, March 3rd: Essay workshop

Week 9: It’s Spring, Friends

Tuesday, March 8th: No Class (Spring Break)

Thursday, March 10th: No Class (Spring Break)

Week 10: The Braided Essay

Tuesday, March 15th: Read Eula Biss’ “Time And Distance Overcome” (Blackboard), Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Woven” (Blackboard), and Isaac Anderson’s “The Lord God Bird” (Blackboard); in-class writing: “The Braided Essay”

Thursday, March 17th: No Class (Professor Butcher at Conference)

Week 11: The Experimental Essay

Tuesday, March 22nd: Read Ryan Van Meter’s “If You Knew Then What I Know Now” (Blackboard), Kyle Minor’s “The Question of Where We Begin” (Blackboard), Matteo Bittanti’s “Poverty Level” (Blackboard), and Brian Doyle’s “Leap” (Blackboard); in-class writing: “Playing With Point-of-View or Order”

Thursday, March 24th: Read Natalia Ginzburg’s “He & I” (Blackboard), Michael Martone’s “Some Space” (Blackboard), Dinty W. Moore’s “Son Of Mr. Green Jeans” (Blackboard), and excerpts from Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s (Blackboard); in-class writing: “Playing With Form”

Week 12: The Lyric Essay

Tuesday, March 29th: Read Lia Purpura’s “Autopsy Report” (Blackboard), Traci Brimhall’s “Post-Mortem” (Blackboard), and Lina Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’ “Pain Pays The Income Of Each Precious Thing” (Blackboard); in-class writing: “The Lyric Essay”

Thursday, March 31st: No Class (Professor Butcher at Conference)

Week 13: The Lyric Essay

Tuesday, April 5th: Read Jenny Boully’s “Between Cassiopeia and Perseus” (Blackboard) and “Mourning Suit” (Blackboard) and Diane Seuss’ “I Hoisted Them, Two Drug Dealers, I Guess That’s What They Were” (Blackboard); in-class writing: “20 Little Essay Projects”

Thursday, April 7th: Essay #2 due. Read Rachel Yoder’s “The Mindfuck” (Blackboard); in-class screening of Rachel Yoder’s “I’m White And I’m Mennonite”; in-class writing: “Writing On The Self”

Week 14: Workshop

Tuesday, April 12th: Essay workshop

Thursday, April 14th: Essay workshop

Week 15: Workshop

Tuesday, April 19th: Essay workshop

Thursday, April 21st: Essay workshop

Week 16: The Multimedia Essay

Tuesday, April 26th: In-class screening and discussion on Kristen Radtke’s “Origins” and “Ruins,” and Jonathan Bresland and Eula Biss’ “Ode To Everything”

Thursday, April 28th: Course Evaluations. In-class screening of “Life In A Day” in Beeghly Library Media Center

Week 17: Final Portfolios

Tuesday, May 3rd: Final portfolios due by 8:30am in bin outside my office