Special Topics: The Essay


“Essay: theater of the brain”

–David Shields


Spring 2013

Professor Meehan

Office: 116 Goldstein | Hours: MWF 12.30-1.30 and by appt.



Course Description:

We study the essay, the oldest and arguably most significant form of nonfiction. As you will see, this is not necessarily the “essay” you were asked (or forced) to write in earlier schooling. Essayists, from Montaigne and Emerson to contemporary writers of what’s called creative nonfiction have viewed this literary form not as punishment so much as performance and experiment. “Essay is a verb, not just a noun,” the contemporary essayist John D’Gata notes, “essaying is a process.” We will explore that process as both readers and writers of essays across three parts of the course, moving us from classic to contemporary examples, and from critical perspectives on the essay to creative performance of our own essaying. Part One: The Philosophy of the Essay—origins and principles of the form. Part Two: The Rhetoric of the Essay—the essay in series and longer form, used to argue, expose, explore. Part Three: The Poetics of the Essay—innovations of the essay in recent forms of “creative nonfiction,”  including multimedia. The course will culminate with a substantial essay that you develop and prepare for actual publication.


Course Objectives:

In focusing both creatively and critically on the craft of nonfiction, specifically the essay form, this course has four primary learning objectives that correlate with learning goals of the English department and the goals for a Writing Intensive course.

  1. Literary History: Students understand the conventions of at least one literary genre (fiction, poetry, drama, nonfiction)
  2. Critical Reading: Students analyze texts critically using literary terminology
  3. Rhetorical Knowledge: Students make effective use of revision and editing strategies in producing writing.
  4. Writing Intensive goals: Students will…
    1. Understand writing as a process integral to their learning.
    2. Gain an awareness of audience and purpose in writing and see themselves as part of a community of scholars and writers.
    3. Recognize the conventions of writing in a particular discipline.
    4. Develop strength and confidence in their writing.


Course Texts:

Available at the College Bookstore.

Classic and Contemporary Essays: selections provided to students in pdf or online throughout semester

D’Gata, The Lifespan of a Fact

Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

Schlosser, Fast Food Nation

Shields, Reality Hunger

Sontag, On Photography


Course Expectations

Late Policy: Writing projects turned in late, without prior discussion with me, will lose credit (approximately half-grade per day). No project will be accepted more than one week late. As always, communication with me in advance regarding any difficulties you are encountering is the best way to go.


I expect active and engaged participation in discussions of our readings and in the various field study experiments we will do—including getting outside and observing, exploring, tracking the environment. I will sometimes present ideas and focal points for discussion—but don’t expect a lecture course. If you don’t participate, class time will be far too silent. Your participation will be assessed, along with attendance, as part of your overall grade. I will use as a basic rubric for that assessment:

90-100: very strong to excellent; thorough engagement in all aspects of course; exceeds expectations.

80-89: strong engagement in all aspects; meets expectations.

70-79: average to sufficient, room to improve engagement; below expectations.

60-69: weak to average; need to improve engagement in most areas; significantly below expectations

below 60: failing



Attendance Policy: Since participation counts in this course (and in learning), your attendance matters. Every student is granted up to two absences during the semester for whatever reason. Three or more absences (excused or unexcused) will begin to affect your final participation grade (approximately a half-grade per absence). Any student missing more than 9 classes during the semester should not expect to pass.  I am flexible and reasonable (was once a student, have kids, get sick, etc)—so communicate with me regarding your attendance. But be aware that I consider it very important for a course such as this.

Technology Policy: Good participation requires a learning environment where attention and invention are possible. I am interested in digital communication environments as well and will encourage you to explore them with me—even as we explore our interaction with the analog environment. Having a laptop or other technologies in class is a great idea if you can use it to attend to our focus, but not if you are distracted easily by “the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling” (to cite Sven Birkerts). Since such clicking distracts me, I will expect you to use technology thoughtfully. This means no communication during the class that is not pertinent to the class: no cell-phones (ringers off), no instant messaging, and no work from another class. Violators will be asked to share the communication with the rest of the class and may be removed from class.


I plan to give you a range of feedback and information about your progress and learning—in class, in conferences, on informal assignments and my evaluations of your formal writing projects. I will also ask for your feedback (don’t be alarmed) at various points in a class or a conference. I always want to know what questions you have, about the course as well as your learning, and will frequently ask you for your questions. A great way to demonstrate engagement and learning, especially with a difficult or challenging text or topic, is to ask a question about what one doesn’t understand. I value questions as a rich form of communication—in fact, many of our discussions will begin and end with exploring and updating the kinds of questions you have.

Another valuable resource for communication and experimentation: the Writing Center (106 Goldstein). We will at times make use of the WC’s talent and services as a class; I encourage you to do so individually as well, to discuss ideas, workshop a draft, follow up on a grammatical or rhetorical issue of interest to you and your progress as a writer, begin to map out ideas for your first book or screenplay. Enough to say, I wish I had a Writing Center when I was an undergraduate.

I encourage any student who has concerns or questions about learning differences, documented or not, to speak further with me as well as to consult Washington College’s Office of Academic Skills (second floor of the library). We can explore arrangements that will support your learning experience in the course.

Academic Integrity

Washington College has the following policy regarding academic integrity and plagiarism: Plagiarism is defined by the Honor Code as “willfully presenting the language, ideas, or thoughts of another person as one’s original work.”  Turning in someone else’s work as your own is obviously plagiarism.  Quoting or paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without properly citing your source is also plagiarism.  If you ever have any question at all about whether you are using a source correctly, ask me about it to make sure.  Submitting a paper for this class that contains all or part of a paper that you submitted in another class, without the permission of both professors involved, is also a violation of the honor code. A student found guilty of plagiarism may fail the assignment or the course, and may be referred to the Honor Board for further adjudication.  Whenever you hand in a paper for this course, you must include in your essay a statement that your work has been completed in compliance with the Honor Code. Washington College has contracted with, a web-based plagiarism prevention service. You may be submitting copies of your writing projects to

Integrity suggests wholeness; a synonym would be ecology. Your integrity affects the integrity of the whole learning environment here, in the class (where you are relying upon the response of your peers) and on campus. We will be talking further about the integrity of your writing and the ways that your writing can be inventive without being plagiarized. The point is that I take plagiarism seriously, but as such, also want you to learn and ask questions about it.


I will be assessing your progress and understanding in the course primarily through the blog assignments and writing projects. Each of those will have an evaluation rubric given with the assignment. Assessment is important in learning, as it is in writing; so in addition to my feedback, I will expect you to do some self-assessment and to bring that into your course work and discussions with me whenever we meet for a conference. To give you an approximation of the various kinds of assignments and their value in the overall course grade, consider:

Participation (including attendance): 10%

Reading (blog postings, presentations, journal): 35%

First Writing Project: 20%

Final Writing Project: 35%

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