English R1A

Reading and Composition: The Essay and American Life

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
8 Fall 2016 de Stefano, Jason
TTh 8-9:30 211 Dwinelle

Book List

Als, Hilton: White Girls; Robinson, Marilynne: When I Was a Child I Read Books

Other Readings and Media

All other readings will be provided in a course reader.


Note the change in instructor, topic, book list, and course description for this section of English R1A (as of May 10).

The social theorist and cultural critic Theodor Adorno described the essay as a curious hybrid, at once more open-ended and more hermetically closed than we might expect. If that's the case, then the essay might be the quintessential American genre, for the nation's own political experiment has often involved confronting tensions between openness and closure: the ideal inclusiveness of a democratic society versus a coherently defined national identity; cosmopolitanism versus communitarianism; neighborliness versus self-reliance; freedom of information versus personal privacy; open borders versus closed. In our readings we will investigate how writers from the earliest days of the United States to today have used the essay as a means to think through these and other aspects of American life, broadly defined. We will also ask how the essay as a genre has been and can be called upon to situate the lives and identities of particular individuals with respect to American culture and society writ large.

Of course, R1A is also designed to engage students in their own extensive essay writing. In this course you will develop your writing practice and experiment with and hone your skills in critical thinking, rhetoric, and intellectual analysis by writing and reading essays. To that end, we will ask of our essays and of those of some of the form's most famous practitioners: what is an essay, or what can it be? how do essays "work"? and how do we understand the essay's place within a broader intellectual and literary culture, both in history and today? An essay is more than an exercise in composition. In its original sense, an essay is "a trial, testing, proof"—an "experiment" (OED, entry 1a.) Writing assignments in this course will allow students to experiment with different kinds of writing, from the more creative and personal to the analytic and scholarly. We will also put our work on trial, as it were, through continuous and thoughtful peer review. The goal is less to critique, however, than to create an open and engaged conversation about writing well and how to make our own writing better.

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