ENG 482: Advanced Nonfiction Writing

Professor Amy Butcher, Fall 2015
English 482, Sturges #106, 6:30-9pm W
Office Hours: M 10:30am-12pm, T 2:30-4pm, and by appointment

“Why bother conducting an experiment at all if you know what results it will yield? Maybe every essay automatically is in some way experimental–not an outline traveling toward a foregone conclusion but an unmapped quest that has sprung from the word question. I don’t know where the journey ends; otherwise, why call this action journey?” —John D’Agata, The Next American Essay 

“To think with any seriousness is to doubt. Thought is indistinguishable from doubt. To be alive is to be uncertain. I'll take doubt. The essayist argues with himself, and the essayist argues with the reader. The essay enacts doubt; it embodies it as a genre. The very purpose of the genre is to provide a vehicle for essaying.” —David Foster Wallace, The Atlantic Monthly 

Course Description:
As the capstone in nonfiction writing, this advanced-level course emphasizes a more sophisticated, rigorous approach to writing and revising creative nonfiction—herein known as the essay—which is in itself something of an indefinable genre, an inherently hybrid form whose lofty goal is to weave truth (nonfiction) and beauty (creativity). This course will function as an innately critical writing workshop, designed for students who are serious about their writing and serious, too, in their pursuit of refining and polishing both their skills and their work. As this course is particularly designed for juniors and seniors with prior experience writing and reading nonfiction, I expect all participants to dedicate ample time reading, writing, and thoroughly revising—‘reseeing’ the work, as it were. This is not, in short, a ‘blow-off’ course, though you can expect ample freedom in both the content you create and the schedule you keep for yourself. With the exception of our first assignment, you will, in fact, establish largely your own parameters in terms of content and length of the work you produce. The nature of our small class means you’ll be producing work and revising regularly, but the content and length of this work is wholly up to you. Although I’m happy to recommend supplemental reading, provide you with writing exercises and prompts, and even suggest innovative forms that might question your idea of nonfiction and further engage your creative and essayistic mind, I expect each of you to come to this class with ideas, interests, and goals you hope to explore on the page.

Course Texts:
One essay collection of your choosing (to be selected during the second week of class)

Course Printing Policy:
As this is a creative writing workshop, all students are expected to print out one copy of their workshop submission for every class participant. In addition, students must print out two copies of every workshop critique letter—one copy to bring to class to facilitate with discussion (and to then distribute to the writer), and one copy for me. Please ensure all work is printed in a standard size 11- or 12-font, double-spaced, and contains uniform one-inch margins. The header, which should be single-spaced, should contain only your name, my name, the course, 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.

Class Participation:
There is no place in my classroom for intellectual apathy. It is not enough, in other words, to simply show up and warm a seat. This class depends and in fact thrives upon the individualized interpretation and thoughtful, persistent engagement of each and every student, and as such, I expect you to come to class with all workshop readings in hand, the readings completed in their entirety and with your full attention, and the pages marked to evidence passages you found relevant, thought provoking, significant, curious, or, especially well-written. Additionally, you should be spending a great deal of time each week writing comments, questions, and ideas in the marginalia in addition to completing line edits. Many students make the unfortunate mistake of thinking that it is enough to simply 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 thus those who do not comment regularly will be severely penalized in this class. Please note, too, that I also expect students to self-regulate; those who attempt to monopolize conversation or provide destructive—rather than constructive—feedback will be equally penalized. One of the most integral skills we’ll aim to develop over the duration of the semester is how to respond intelligently, thoughtfully, and nonthreatening 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 workshop like 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. I am asking you, in short, to be bold and to share your thoughts genuinely and generously. Because it’s 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—except during your own particular workshop—without a note from the learning specialist. Finally, while I hope it goes without saying, an engaged and respectful student gives their full attention to their materials and the discussion at hand; 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.

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 (¾ to a 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.

Essay Collection Response:
In addition to the student work we’ll read and discuss together, each of you will become experts in the essays of one particular writer, whose collection you’ll choose during the second week of the semester. This reading will culminate in a formal written response and a brief discussion of the text in class, both of which will be used—in addition to your class participation and critique grades—to calculate your midterm grade. If you miss class on the day your presentation is due, you will not receive an alternative date.

Visiting Writers’ Series:
As students of this course, and as writers in the broader sense, you are required to attend at least 2 events by our visiting writers and write and upload a 500-word reflection on our Blackboard course site for each. The reading schedule for the fall semester is as follows:

Denise Duhamel: Writers’ salon on Thursday, September 24th @ 12pm in the Bayley Room

Linda Gregerson (Reading): Monday, October 19th @ 4:10pm in the Bayley Room

Linda Gregerson (Lecture): Tuesday, October 20th @ 12pm in the Bayley Room

Leslie Jamison (Reading/Lecture): Thursday, October 22nd @ 12pm in the Benes Room of HWCC

Leslie Jamison (Writers’ Salon): Writers’ Salon on Friday, October 23rd @ 4:10pm, location TBA

Absence and Lateness Policy:
Because this course meets once weekly, you are allotted one course absence. I do not differentiate between excused and unexcused—in other words, there is no need to notify me ahead of time and you should also plan for the unexpected. Any additional absence beyond one 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 second absence, and a C+ by the third. Any student who misses 3 or more classes will earn an F for this course. There are no exceptions. 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 five minutes will earn a half-absence and any student late beyond ten minutes will be marked absent for the day.

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, attentional, 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.

Grading and Evaluation:
Certainly everyone wants an A, but the truth is, if you abandon the quest for a particular grade and instead devote yourself to curiosity, learning, and your individualized growth as a writer, you’ll get far more out of this class. We meet once weekly for a reason: concentrated, critical conversation every Wednesday evening and ample time to explore, think and experiment the other six days out of the week. At this point in your college career, you must begin to prepare for life as a writer beyond a classroom, without guidelines, rubrics and assignments; it is my goal to guide you. As such, this course requires that you find ways of thinking and working independently while simultaneously learning to evaluate the quality of your own and your peers’ thinking and writing. Your university career, your work, your education, your achievement all, in fact, depend upon it. Still, in this class, as in life, you have deadlines and expectations; regularly late or inadequate critique letters will be penalized by way of a lowered participation grade. Essay collection paper grades will be reduced by one subset for every day that it is late (that is, a B-level paper will drop to a C+ by Thursday, and so on), and essays that evidence a lack of care (in formatting, spelling, grammar, etc.) will be penalized and I will require a visit to the Writing Center. If you are absent on the day your essay is scheduled for workshop, you will not receive a workshop; no make-up days will be scheduled on your account. The final grade is determined by the following:

Class Participation 30%
Workshop Submission Critiques 20%
Essay Collection Paper & Presentation 20%
Visiting Writers Series Response #1 5%
Visiting Writers Series Response #2 5%
Final Portfolio 20%