How to Write a Great Essay: a writing Bootcamp for Undergraduates English 195b professor Terry Castle

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J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb,

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace

Virginia Tufte, Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

Two important advisories:

  1. Just to be clear: all students taking the class realize that they will be obliged to share their writing assignments (blog posts, essay drafts) with other students in the class, as well as the instructor. However, your writing will not be shared without your permission with anyone other than classmates and me. We will have a course blog, but it will be private. As for in-class work: everyone will be in the same boat; so any hesitation one might have, I hope, about sharing will rapidly fall away.

My own unsolicited (!) guess: If you would like to have honest criticism and help with fixing problems in your writing, I think you will rapidly find that the feedback will be more helpful than any you may have received previously. Should be fun, and not scary! That’s my goal at least.

  1. We will be reading two great masterpieces of modern literature---Nabokov’s

Lolita and Coetzee’s Disgrace. They both deal with controversial themes—notably rape, cross-generational sexual relationships, and in Lolita, a relationship that some people would describe as pedophile in nature. If you feel that you won’t be able to engage with these books intellectually or emotionally because of the sensitive themes, I recommend that you speak to me first about it; then, if your doubts persist, I suggest—upfront—that you not enroll in the class.

  1. Attendance, Reading, and Class Participation:

Students will complete all readings for the course according to the schedule below. 100% attendance is required; casual absences are not acceptable. (Students absent for any reason are expected to notify the instructor in advance.) More than one absence will affect your grade adversely! All students should be prepared to participate fully in every class discussion. Classroom participation will account for 20% of your final grade. (***Note: no incompletes will be given in this course except in authentic cases of illness or emergency***)

As a courtesy to me and to your fellow students: may I also ask 1) that you not arrive late; and 2) that you turn off all laptops and cellphones, etc. at the beginning of class?

  1. Written Assignments:

a. Students will write two critical essays, one 6-7 pp., the other 9-10 pp. Each essay will go through a formal revision process. Students will submit a first draft for each essay; a revised and polished version will be due the following week. (Only revised versions will be graded.) The two papers taken together will constitute 50% of the student’s final grade. Students will be evaluated specifically on how thoughtfully and thoroughly the process of revision and rethinking has been carried out.

[N.B. My policy on late papers: for every day your draft or revised essay is late, the final grade will be reduced by a half-step (i.e., B to B-). Policy kicks in immediately, so papers will be due IN CLASS. If essays come in later that same day, the grade will automatically be reduced a half-step.]
b) In addition, we will have a Course Blog, to which each student will be asked to contribute 5 short 'glosses' or blog entries--i.e., one well- honed paragraph of writing on the reading assigned for the day The format for each entry will be this: the student will select and reproduce a paragraph or short section from the assigned reading that he or she finds particularly striking or puzzling or potentially illuminating. He or she will then ‘gloss’ it: that is, describe as succinctly and compellingly as possible what it's doing in the fictional context, why we should find it interesting or important, what kinds of critical questions and challenges it poses, and indeed, how one might generate from it some more extended critical statement or essay topic. Issues highlighted can be thematic, stylistic, linguistic, formal, reception-oriented, or indeed anything else one might find intriguing. All blog entries will be shared with one’s classmates, and students will be asked to keep up with and comment on one another’s entries. In class we will use these glosses as our discussion ‘prompts.’ Not only will they help us identify key themes and topics in the works under discussion, we’ll consider each gloss itself as a piece of concise critical rhetoric to be analyzed. How well has the author conveyed the passages’s significance? What’s the author’s point and how successfully does he or she get it across?
The 5 course blog entries will make up the remaining 30% of one’s final grade.

Reading Schedule: [exact page numbers to follow]

Week 1

Tues Sept 22

Introduction--Style and the Essay

Thurs Sept 24

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.

First blog note due today!

Week 2

Tues Sept 29

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.

Thurs Oct 1

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.

2nd blog note due

Week 3

Tues Oct 6

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.

Thurs Oct 8

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.

Week 4

Tues Oct 13

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.

Thurs Oct 15

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.


Week 5

Tues Oct 20

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.

3rd blog note due

Thurs Oct 22

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.


Week 6

Tues Oct 27

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.


Thurs Oct 29

Nabokov, Lolita, pp.

Week 7

Tues Nov 3

Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.

4th blog note due

Thurs Nov 5

Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.

Week 8

Tues Nov 10

Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.

5th blog note due

Thurs Nov 12

Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.

Week 9

Tues Nov 17

Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.

1ST DRAFT OF 2nd ESSAY DUE (9-10 pp.)

Thurs Nov 19

Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.

Week 10

Tues Nov 24

Thanksgiving break

Thurs Nov 26

Thanksgiving break

Week 11

Tues Dec 1

Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.


Thurs Dec 3


Learning Outcomes:

This course may be used to fulfill one of the two following Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing

undergraduate requirements (though not both):
1) "Aesthetic and Interpretive Inquiry" requirement. With dedication and effort, students should

expect to improve and extend their skills in several broad areas. In particular, Writing Bootcamp students should be better able to

  1. appreciate the nature of human responses to meaningful cultural objects, and distinguish among the different methods to interpret those responses;

2 acquire and assess techniques of interpretation (including close reading techniques), criticism, and

analysis of cultural texts, artifacts, and practices;
3. demonstrate facility with the analysis of arguments for and against different theories and interpretations;
4. recognize the frameworks for thought and action implicit in human practices, and analyze the different assumptions underpinning those frameworks;
5. understand diverse artistic, literary, and theoretical traditions, their characteristic forms of production, and/or their development across historical time;
6. understand how expressive works articulate responses to fundamental human problems and convey important values.

2) The second is the "Creative Expression" requirement. (I make no distinction, obviously,

between the creativity, vision, problem-solving, and verbal elegance needed to write a great

essay and what one finds in any other form of 'creative expression.') A good essay is indeed

a work of art. Herewith the official 'learning outcomes' associated with this requirement.

Students will

o explore their own potential to produce original creative projects;

o engage in artistic collaboration and the creative reinterpretation of art made by others;
o take creative risks beyond their comfort zones;
o experience what it is to make the unimagined possible and real;
o appreciate how experimentation, failure, and revision can play a valuable role

in the creation of successful and innovative works;

o consider multiple and possibly divergent solutions to a problem;
o explore the role of artistic expression in addressing issues that face society.
Finally, though our work toward better skills will remain paramount, the course should also be FUN: a writing experiment in which you learn by doing; and without, as much as possible, the typical reading overload, crippling time constraints, and sour-making grade anxieties that so often plague students on the quarter system.

The fine print:
Relevant University Coursework Policies:
Students with Documented Disabilities

Students who may need an academic accommodation based on the impact of a disability must initiate the request with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE).  Professional staff will evaluate the request with required documentation, recommend reasonable accommodations, and prepare an Accommodation Letter for faculty dated in the current quarter in which the request is being made. Students should contact the OAE as soon as possible since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations.  The OAE is located at 563 Salvatierra Walk (phone: 723-1066, URL:


Honor Code

The Honor Code is the University's statement on academic integrity written by students in 1921. It articulates University expectations of students and faculty in establishing and maintaining the highest standards in academic work:

The Honor Code is an undertaking of the students, individually and collectively:
1.      that they will not give or receive aid in examinations; that they will not give or receive unpermitted aid in class work, in the preparation of reports, or in any other work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading;
2.      that they will do their share and take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.
3. The faculty on its part manifests its confidence in the honor of its students by refraining from proctoring examinations and from taking unusual and unreasonable precautions to prevent the forms of dishonesty mentioned above. The faculty will also avoid, as far as practicable, academic procedures that create temptations to violate the Honor Code.
4.      While the faculty alone has the right and obligation to set academic requirements, the students and faculty will work together to establish optimal conditions for honorable academic work.
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