How to Write a Great Essay: A Writing Bootcamp for Undergraduates
English 195B Professor Terry Castle Fall Quarter 2015 Bldg. 240-Rm 201
Tu Th 1:30-3:20 email@example.com Office hours: to be announced and by apptmt.
The course will be a practical workshop for undergraduates on how to im-
prove essay-writing skills. Just like any other complex and demanding human activity
--scuba diving, working out a mathematical proof, learning to pole vault, cooking the perfect soufflé, arguing a court case--the ability to write clear and compelling prose requires practice, alertness, psychological intensity, and a certain amount of imagin-ative and emotional daring. A good writing teacher is in turn like a good coach: not
just someone who inspires you to 'do your best' in the abstract, but someone who
can actually help you with the nitty-gritty, the practical details. In this course we will
focus on the finer points of vocabulary, grammar, mechanics, logic, timing, intellectual precision; how to connect with (and delight) an audience; how to magnify a theme;
how to deflect counter-arguments; how to develop your own sophisticated authorial 'style'; how to write sentences (and papers!) your reader will care about and admire and maybe even remember.
The course has been designed with humanities students and especially
English majors in mind, but any student who hopes to improve his or her writing should be able to benefit from the practical instruction on offer. The course enrollment will be limited to 12 students and the class run as a workshop.
The reading component will be comparatively light. Over the course of the quarter we will read two books--J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita--modern fictional master-pieces both, and students will be writing blog notes and short papers for each book. (We will no doubt also read a few short critical essays and reviews as examples of style.)
But the primary focus will not be on literary-critical analysis per se, but on
how one goes about developing a coherent, impressive response to a work of beauty and imagination. The two central problems we will address: how you figure out what to say, then how best to say it. You will be reading and revising your own work and that of your classmates 'up close' and repeatedly; indeed, we will undertake first drafts and second drafts and possibly even third drafts for some assignments. Each class session will be devoted to critique and comment--kind, insightful, but also direct--along with a certain amount of light-hearted (!) SWAT-team group 'copyediting.' During this last activity, class members will practice identifying technical problems in the essays in front of them and suggest immediate emergency remedies.
Though I can't obviate it completely, I hope to minimize the 'grade anxiety' that so often afflicts students in writing classes. When it comes
to practicing and refining a skill--and again athletic skills make for a good analogy--grades are often utterly beside the point. I want students to take risks and be open
to new challenges. Thus I will not be grading our weekly assignments. Nor, when
it comes time indeed to give final grades, at the end of the quarter, will I be using some mysterious stand-ard or class 'curve'--i.e.,'this is an A paper, that is a B paper'--to make my judgments. Students will be evaluated on two things: intensity of effort and overall improvement, i.e., the distance I consider you to have traveled in your
own writing over the course of the quarter. You will not be competing with your classmates, in other words--only your once and future self.