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English 120b: Reading and Writing the Modern Essay
This course will train you to read as a writer and to use the strategies of professional writers in your own work. We will practice “close reading for craft,” attending to persona, point of view, and voice; questing and questioning; coherence, connection, and concision; defamiliarization; and public significance in the essays we read. Our collective analysis of exemplary writing is the heart of the course. Together we will notice aspects of the essays that we might miss on our own, and we’ll each bring our own unique readerly sensibilities to the task of figuring out what works and how and why it works. Good writing is born out of attentive reading and lively conversation, so come to every class prepared to share your critical perspective.
We will use two textbooks available at the Yale Bookstore:
The Norton Reader. 14th edition (Full Edition) eds. Melissa A Goldthwaite, Joseph Bizup, John Brereton, Anne Fernald and Linda Peterson.
Zinsser, William, On Writing Well (any edition).
Other readings will be available online or as handouts. Sometimes access to particular online publications (e.g. the New Yorker or New York Review of Books) requires you to be on the Yale Secure network or using a VPN.
Interpreting Personal Experience
Write an essay (4-6 pages) that describes and interprets a personal experience from your own life, and tease out its public relevance. In common with most of the essays assigned for the first week, you should focus on presenting a single story or event as vividly and memorably as possible, although you may want to include details pertinent to its background and context.
Although your essay is about the personal and specific, it should seek to affect the way that many people think or act. When writing, keep in mind the techniques and conventions that we have discussed in class, and don’t forget that you’re writing for a wide audience — not a narrow group of, for example, your friends or your classmates.
Finally, please remember that, like all assignments in this class, what you write is nonfiction; the stories you tell must be verifiable and true.
Wednesday (1/18) Introductions
Friday (1/20) George Orwell, "Shooting an Elephant" (NR)
Mairs, "On Being a Cripple" (NR)
Langston Hughes, "Salvation" (NR)
Zinsser, "Nonfiction as Literature" and "Writing About Yourself:
Monday (1/23) Brent Staples, "Black Men and Public Space" (NR)
David Sedaris, "Loggerheads" (NR)
Tracy Clark-Flory, "In Defense of Casual Sex" (NR)
Zinsser, "The Transaction," "Unity," and "The Lead and the
Wednesday (1/25) Frederick Douglass, "Learning to Read" NR
Sherman Alexie, "Superman and Me" (online)
Joan Didion, "On Keeping a Notebook" (NR)
Benjamis Franklin "Learning to Write" (NR)
Zinsser, "Simplicity," "Clutter," and "Style"
Assignment: First draft of your personal essay due by Friday, January 27, at 11:59pm (non- workshoppers), and in class on Monday, January 30, for workshoppers (please remember to bring printed copies for everyone to class on Monday!)
Monday (1/30) Walker, "Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self"
Zora Neale Huston "How It Feels to Be Colored Me"
Gwendolyn Ann Smith "We're All Someone's Freak"
Zinsser, "The Audience" and "Bits & Pieces"
Wednesday (2/1) WORKSHOP #1
Assignment: Final draft of your personal essay due by Friday, February 3, at 11:59pm (non-workshoppers); Sunday, February 5, at 11:59pm (workshoppers).
Mapping a Place
Write an essay (4-6 pages) for a wide audience that describes a specific place and explores its significance. In common with most of the essays assigned in this unit, your writing should focus on a single place. It may, of course, enrich the portrayal through the injection of dialog, history, research, or whatever will help you give your reader the flavor of the locale you present. What “place” means here is up to you: it can be a city center or a stretch of woods. But it can also be a shopping mall at midnight or mid-day, a scene at Cafe 9 or Sterling Library, a bustling restaurant or a derelict building. It could be somewhere in your past.
Most important, make the place interesting. Your writing must seek to hold the interest of an audience that lives far from New Haven, that has no idea who you are and that does not, until it begins reading, care about you. You must assume you are writing for an audience of people who, upon picking up paper with words on it, tend to snooze. You must defeat that tendency. In class, we will discuss techniques for creating interest. Since creating interest is your goal, beware writing on such probably dull places as a dormitory room; choose your locale wisely.
Make your portrayal unified, directed toward a single impression that will stay with your reader. That requirement, essential to the personal essay, remains. Here, however, you need not conclude by telling the reader what to think. You may lead by choice of detail, creation of mood, and so on.
Monday (2/6) Jhumpa Lahiri, "Rhode Island" NR
Ian Frazier, "Take the F" NR
Adam Gopnik, "The People on the Bus" The New Yorker
Annie Dillard, "Sight into Insight" NR
Zinsser, "Writing About Places: The Travel Article"
Wednesday (2/8) Joan Didion, "On Going Home" NR
Chang-Rae Lee, "Coming Home Again" NR
E.B. White, "Once More to the Lake" NR
Assignment: First draft of your place essay due by Friday, February 10, at 11:59pm (non-workshopers), in class on Monday, February 13, for workshoppers (please remember to bring printed copies for everyone to class on Monday!).
Monday (2/13) Edward Abbey "The Great American Desert" NR
John McPhee, "The Woods from Hog Wallow" (ER)
Wednesday (2/15) WORKSHOP #2
Assignment: Final Draft of your place essay due by Friday, February 17, at 11:59 (non-workshoppers), Sunday, February 19, and 11:59pm (workshoppers).
Painting a Portrait
Write an essay (4-6 pages) for a wide audience that creates a portrayal of a person. Your portrayal should put the person in a context, as do the essays we will read for this unit. Your portrayal should probably include some direct quotation. To make this possible, and to increase your chance of producing a vivid portrayal, for this assignment you must conduct at least one interview. The interview need not seem formal, but you must take notes of some sort, and I may ask to see them. You may wish to conduct more than one interview, because your portrayal and understanding of the person you write about can often be enriched by the views of others. (Also, you must not include extended quotation of anyone whom you have not interviewed and taken notes on. This ban on extended quotation recognizes that you are writing nonfiction and presumes that no one has an ear and memory adequate to recall long passages of speech without making notes or tapes of it. Ask me if you have questions.)
Since this task requires gaining understanding of someone outside yourself, you may not portray yourself. Also, you may not portray a family member or another Yale student without advance approval from me, to be secured no later than the first class in this unit. (If you want approval, come to that class with a note of no more than three sentences, explaining what makes your proposed subject interesting to a wide audience; allow a few minutes after class to discuss your note or, if that's impossible, write on the note your phone number and a time you can be called.)
Goals: 1) Most important, make the person interesting, and to a reader who knows and cares nothing about you. 2) Make your portrayal unified, directed toward a single impression that will stay with your reader.
Technique: As always, this is nonfiction. All details must be verifiable and true.
Monday (2/20) Scott Russell Sanders, "Under the Influence" NR
Annie Dillard from, "An American Childhood" NR
David James Duncan, "The Mickey Mantle Koan" NR
Zinsser, "Writing About People: The Interview"
Wednesday (2/22) Virginia Woolf, "Ellen Terry" NR
Cynthia Zarin, "The Storyteller," New Yorker
David Foster Wallace, "Federer as Religious Experience" New York Times
Monday (2/27) Emily Nussbaum, "It's Different for Girls" NY Magazine
Susan Orlean, "The American Man, Age Ten"
Ann Patchett, "The Face of Pain" New York Magazine
Wednesday (3/1) Tom Wolfe, "Yeager" (NR)
Normal Mailer, "The Psychology of Astronauts"
Zinsser, "The Sound of Your Voice"
Assignment: First draft of your portrait essay due by Friday, March 3, at 11:59pm (non-workshopers), in class on Monday, March 6, for workshoppers (please remember to bring printed copies for everyone to class on Monday!).
Monday (3/6) Alison Bechdel from "Fun Home" NR
Malcolm Gladwell, "The Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg"
Zinsser, "Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence"
Wednesday (3/8) WORKSHOP #3
Assignment: Final Draft of your portrait essay due by Friday, March 10, at 11:59 (non-workshoppers), Sunday, February 12, at 11:59pm (workshoppers).
Write an essay (4-6 pages) for a wide audience that investigates some aspect or object of contemporary culture: an electronic cigarette, Rihanna’s twitter feed, an advert for a reality TV show about dating naked (you get the idea). "Culture" is broadly defined, as the essays you will read for this unit suggest. Each of these essays achieves at least two purposes, and so must yours. You should: 1) present a cultural artifact in a way that is clear and interesting to a reader who may know virtually nothing about it. In class we will discuss the importance of "creating" that artifact for the reader – an act of creation that must precede your analysis. And 2) draw a fresh and interesting conclusion from your presentation.
As in all analytical writing you do, choose your subject with care. It must not be amorphous, for then you will be unable to define it precisely. It must not be vast (the effect of mass media, for example, on the mind of the masses), for then you will only scratch its surface. It must not be trivial, for then who cares? It must not leave you with nothing fresh and interesting to say. (If it does, discard it.)
In choosing the artifact you will examine, I would advise you to seek something that doesn't move around or, worse, disappear quickly. Particularly good, then, are subjects that have been captured in print. Particularly bad are those in action or on film. Almost equally bad are those on radio or on television, unless you have an audio recorder or video recorder. If your artifact won't stay long enough for you to ponder it, you may be unable to gather something fresh to say about it.
Monday (3/27) Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making us Stupid" (NR)
Nicholas Baker, "The Charms of Wikipedia" (NR)
William Zinsser, "College Pressures" (NR)
Wednesday (3/29) Mark Greif, "What Was the Hipster?" New York
Annie Leonard, "The Story of Bottled Water" (NR)
Malcolm Gladwell, "Java Man" (NR)
Monday (4/3) Jessica Mitford, "Beyond the Formaldehyde Curtain"
Franklin Foer, "How Soccer Explains the American
Maaza Mengiste, "Vanishing Virgil" (ER)
Zinsser, "A Writer's Decisions"
Wednesday (4/5) Nicholas D. Kristof, "Saudis in Bikinis" (NR)
Emily Nussbaum, "Difficult Women" New Yorker
Betty Rollin, "Motherhood: Who Needs It?" (NR)
Assignment: First draft of your culture essay due by Friday, April 7, at 11:59pm (non-workshopers), in class on Monday, April 10, for workshoppers (please remember to bring printed copies for everyone to class on Monday!).
Monday (4/10) Allegra Goodman, "Pemberley Previsited" (NR)
Anthony Lane, "The Maria Problem" New Yorker
Susan Sontag, "A Century of Cinema" (NR)
Wednesday (4/12) WORKSHOP #4
Assignment: Final Draft of your culture essay due by Friday, April 14, at 11:59 (non-workshoppers), Sunday, April 16, at 11:59pm (workshoppers).
Satire (Topical Humor)
In 4 to (at the very most) 6 pages, write a humorous essay that makes a point – explicitly or implicitly, sharply or softly.
Those readings should suggest possible sorts of topics to you, as should your assignment for cultural criticism – since most all these readings offer satiric comments on modern culture. In preparation, you might try to find materials that you want to satirize.
As you select your materials, ponder what point you wish to make about them. One risk in this assignment may come from a first impression that it asks only that the writer find something silly (a horoscope, for example) and then use parody to make it seem silly. But making the silly appear silly, like making the round appear round (see argument assignment, above) is trivial. The point of fine satire will probe beyond the obvious.
Goals: Most important, make the essay interesting and funny. Get a variety of people to read it since, as always in this course, you are writing for a wide audience. If your readers don't laugh aloud (or, if you're writing irony, at least respond audibly), you should probably revise.
Monday (4/17) Dorothy Parker, "The Waltz" New Yorker
Tina Fey, "The Juggler" New Yorker
Mindy Kaling, "Flick Chicks" New Yorker
Lindy West, "Why I Can't Wait to Be a Fat Bride" (ER)
Zinsser, "Humor" and "Write as Well As You Can"
Wednesday (4/19) Judy Syfers, I Want a Wife"
Ian Frazier, "Dating Your Mom"
Jonathan Swift, "A Modest Proposal" (NR)
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), "Advice to Youth"
Assignment: First draft of your humor essay due by Thursday, April 20, at 11:59pm (non-workshoppers), on Saturday April 22, at 11:59pm for workshoppers (everyone: please remember to bring printed copies to class on Monday!).
NOTE: pattern change!
Monday (4/24) WORKSHOP #5
Wednesday (4/26) Class reading; end-of-term writing
Assignment: Final Draft of your humor essay due by Monday, May 1, at 11:59 (non-workshoppers), and Wednesday, May 3, at 11:59pm (workshoppers).
Policies and Procedures
You will always be responsible for bringing a print copy of the readings to class, even on the days we are discussing an online reading. Always annotate and/or take notes on the readings.
Use your detailed notes to help you write your brief reading responses, which you’ll be posting at least one hour before each class starting Week 3. There will be a Canvas forum for each reading, and you’ll choose one reading to respond to. Your response can be just a few sentences, or it can be a paragraph or more.
Use your responses as a place to experiment and play with close reading for craft. You can:
Start with your own emotional reaction to the text, and then figure out how the author uses language to create this response.
Explain one of the technical “takeaways” from the text: which tool or technique does the author use well, why is it effective, and how might we use it in our own work?
Explain how the essay uses or adapts one of the tools from Writing Tools.
Explain the costs and benefits of a particular writing choice the author made.
Write a paragraph using one of the techniques the author used. Consider using pastiche or parody to highlight key aspects of the author’s style.
Make a revision suggestion for the essay: explain an aspect you would change, and why.
Rewrite a sentence or paragraph, altering diction, tense, or person, etc., and comment on the effects of these changes.
We’ll discuss other approaches to reading responses during the semester, and I will make suggestions. You are free to invent your own and mix things up each week. If you invent your own approach, please formulate a corresponding prompt (as if it were offered in addition to the above list of prompts). Post your prompt with your reading response.
Writing the Modern Essay in English 120
Essays for English 120 should be addressed to a public audience. Your essays may be personal, but they must matter to people beyond yourself. By the end of the semester, you will submit one of your essays for publication or post it on a blog.
You will be turning in a draft or revision almost every Friday afternoon/evening. Plan your semester accordingly, and allow the rhythm of writing to structure your week. This will likely be a challenge at first, but by the end of the semester you will really feel like a writer. Deadlines are a writer’s lifeline—without them nothing would ever get written.
All in all, you will write ten full-length versions of essays this semester: five drafts and five revisions. You are welcome and indeed encouraged to write “rough drafts” (or pre-drafts) for your own benefit, but the drafts that you turn in to me should be as good as you can make them. Your drafts should all be polished, your revisions burnished to a high sheen.
I will give you draft feedback within three days, so you will have four days to revise your essay. You will receive detailed written feedback from me on all your papers.
Everything you write must be true. Every source you use must be cited. When in doubt about truth or citation, err on the safe side. As you gather information, keep track of its sources (as professional writers of nonfiction must). When you submit drafts and revisions, use endnotes to identify where factual information came from: interviews, books, articles, conversations, photographs, and perhaps more.
For a discussion of the use of sources, please see: Yale College Writing Center, "Using Sources" (visited 8/16/2014), with fine detail at and . That site gives much fine conceptual guidance as well as practical information, including (8/16/2014): "The general form of a citation from an Internet source is: Author’s name. Title of Document. Title of Website. Sponsor of Website. Date of Document. Date of Access. URL." Here's a typical endnote format that I've adapted from a useful handbook, Online! A Reference Guide to Using Internet Sources, by Andrew Harnack and Eugene Kleppinger (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997), p. 94: "1. Malcolm Gladwell, "Listening to Khakis," New Yorker, 7/28/97, (visited 8/16/2014)."
Revising the Modern Essay in English 120
In addition to the imagined audience that you will write into being with each essay, you will sometimes have a real and in-the-flesh audience: your classmates. And, in a spirit of mutual endeavor, you will be a responsive and supportive audience for them as well. You will workshop your colleagues’ drafts in class, give them spoken and written feedback, and learn to be a good editor of others’ work as well as of your own.
Everyone will have an essay workshopped once. Sign-ups for workshop dates will be finalized during the second week of class. In the week of your workshop, you should post your draft to the Workshop Forum on Monday at 4 when you email it to me. Regardless of whether you are being workshopped that week or not, you will prepare for workshop on Wednesdays by reading all the essays being workshopped, and posting a brief response to each essay in which you:
praise an admirable aspect of the essay, and cite a specific example to illustrate your praise;
explain one aspect of the essay that requires revision, and give a specific example of how this revision might work.
You should be able to accomplish all this in a paragraph or so, though you are welcome to write more. Post your responses before the workshop. The responses are not individually graded, but they are required, and they count as part of your participation.
About Your Attendance and Participation
Your attendance and participation in class discussions are important. Keeping up with the reading is a prerequisite for good participation. Your written and spoken responses to your classmates’ drafts are also an important part of your participation, as are your reading responses.
You may miss one class during the semester for any reason. (The one exception: you must attend all workshops.) Just email me before class to let me know you will be using your excused absence; you don’t need to tell me why.
You may also miss any class if you are observing a religious holiday, or in documented cases of illness or emergency (i.e. with a Dean’s Excuse). Again, email me in advance to let me know you are unable to attend. You will be responsible for completing the reading and any written assignments for days you are absent. An unexcused absence will lower your participation grade.
Format: Always title your essays. Format your essays in a 12-point seriffed font (e.g., Times New Roman), double-spaced, with one-inch margins. In the upper-right corner of the first page, put your name, the date, the unit number, and my name (Prof. Ulrich). This may go without saying, but in case not: standard spacing and the margins allow readers to have room in which to make marginal comments; a seriffed font is almost always easier to read. If everyone sticks to the same basic formatting, it becomes almost invisible and thereby helps the reader to pay attention to the writing, which is what matters here.
All essays are due electronically via Canvas as a Word document. Title all your documents [Lastname][#ofessay][D or R, for draft or revision].docx. For example, my document title for the draft of the first essay would be Ulrich1D.docx. For the final draft of the third essay, it would be Ulrich3R.docx.
If you discuss your essay with a residential college Writing Tutor or a Writing Partner at the Writing Center, you will receive a 24-hour extension on your next deadline. You must meet with the tutor before the deadline—the extension does not work retroactively. Simply email me to let me know the name of tutor you saw, the time that you saw them, and (in a sentence or two) what you talked about. You may use this extension option as often as you like for both drafts and revisions; the exception is that you can’t get an extension on a draft that is being workshopped, since your peers will need plenty of time to respond to it.
Late drafts and revisions might not receive feedback depending on how late it is/whether I can get to it. Late revisions will be penalized one third of a letter grade per day.
Each of your five essays is worth 15% of your final grade. While drafts are not graded, I do consider the work that did or did not go into revisions when grading your essay. Late papers will be marked down one third of a letter grade for each day that they are late. That said, every student gets one three-day extension, no questions asked. Be responsible with how you use this extension – you get only one per semester! For obvious reasons, you cannot take this extension when your essay is due to be workshopped.
Class participation is worth 25% of your grade. Participation means coming to class every time, showing up on time, and being prepared and ready to engage with your peers in an attentive and respectful manner. Remember that attendance is vital; discussion and workshops are both crucial aspects of this course that cannot be made up. Unexcused absences will adversely affect your grade, so please make sure to get a Dean’s excuse whenever disaster strikes and you are unable to attend.
A Note on Grades: A’s on essays are very hard to get. They are reserved for papers that I the instructor would consider nominating for departmental writing prizes. A-’s are also quite hard to get. A B+ is an excellent grade in 120, as indeed it is in life. Grading is not an ideal system, but it gives you a sense of how your writing compares to other 120 writing. 120 instructors strive to ensure that grading standards are consistent across sections. Overall, about half of all 120 students get final grades in the A range, and about half get final grades in the B range. My job is to hold the bar high. English 120 is only the beginning of your writing life.
The more you can immerse yourself in the writing process, revel in the generous and constructive editorial advice you'll get from me and your classmates, and cultivate a healthy detachment about grades, the more you will get out of the class.