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ENGL 599 | Spring 2017 | 1

ENGLISH 599
Special Topic
Spring 2017
Dr. Sheila Liming
sheila.liming@und.edu
701-777-2782
Office: Merrifield 1B

Course Description

Office hours:
MWF 10 am – 12 pm,
and by appointment

This course is part seminar and part writing workshop. One the one hand, it is designed
to introduce students to humanistic traditions of public scholarship and public debate; on the
other, it is also designed to grant students opportunities for crafting informed, creative
contributions to contemporary versions of those debates.
We will begin by surveying the ways in which literary scholars – meaning both critics
and creative writers – have historically sought to engage with public audiences. This means that
we will be reading widely across a tradition that begins with figures like George Orwell, Lionel
Trilling, Susan Sontag, and other representatives of the post-war rise of the “public intellectual.”
Our main objective, though, will be to see how these figures square with more contemporary
examples of public intellectualism. For this reason, we will also be examining a number of
contemporary authors and texts, including the lectures of Edward Said, the journalism of Sven
Birkerts and Teju Cole, the autobiographical criticism of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World
and Me (2015), and Claudia Rankine’s recent efforts to fuse poetry and critique in Citizen
(2014).
Writing, though, will remain a focus of this course, and at least half of our time will be
devoted to composing, editing, and revising. We’ll cover the basics associated with writing for
public audiences, including how to contact editors and prepare pitches, and we will practice
writing in a variety of modes and genres, producing works of creative nonfiction, personal
essays, editorials, reviews, and articles. At heart, all of this activity will hinge on an effort to
make scholarship matter to public audiences, and to challenge the New York Times reporter
Nicholas Kristof’s recent claim that “to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.”

Course Objectives

To provide students with an introduction to the modern history of public literary debate by
surveying touchstone works of popular criticism and intellectual thought.

To familiarize students with the process of reading and writing closely in the immediate context
of such touchstone literary works.

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To professionalize and train students for additional, graduate-level work within the literary arts
curriculum by encouraging them hone and shape contributions to ongoing debates about
literature.
To impart processes of close reading, close writing, and attentive research as preparation for
advanced coursework in literary study, or advanced professional work in the related fields of
writing, editing, and publishing.

To encourage multimodal thinking in both the consumption and construction of written texts, and
to hone students’ skills in both writing and creating textual artifacts.

To establish standards for academic discourse and participation through in-class discussion, peer
evaluation, and collaborative assignments.

To model the processes of public writing (including developing an idea, submitting a pitch,
communicating with an editor, drafting an essay, revising that essay, and seeing a piece through
all the way to publication).

To encourage students to participate in scholarly debates and to take active roles in shaping the
future of those debates through critical thinking and responsive writing.

Required Texts
[to be purchased]
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau, 2015.
Greif, Mark. Against Everything. Pantheon, 2016.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Graywolf, 2014.
Said, Edward. Representations of the Intellectual. Vintage, 1996.
[available on Blackboard]
Birkerts, Sven. “The Lint of the Material.” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 20 October 2013,
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-lint-of-the-material/. Accessed 29 December 2016.
Cole, Teju. “Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s ‘Stranger in the Village.’” The New
Yorker, 14 August 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/black-body-rereading-james-baldwins-stranger-village. Accessed 29 December 2016.
Coviello, Peter. “Our Noise.” Avidly, 18 April 2016, http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org
/2016/04/18/our-noise/. Accessed 29 December 2016.
Eliot, T.S. “The Function of Criticism.” Selected Essays, Faber and Faber, 1961, pp. 23-34.
Goldstein, Evan R. “The New Intellectuals.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 November
2016, www.chronicle.com/article/The-New-Intellectuals/238354. Accessed 14 November
2016.

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Greenstone, Dan. “My Little Free Library War.” Salon.com, 26 December 2016, www.salon.com
/2016/12/27/my-little-free-library-war-how-our-suburban-front-yard-lending-box-mademe-hate-books-and-fear-my-neighbors/. Accessed 29 December 2016.
Greif, Mark. “What’s Wrong with Public Intellectuals?” The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle
of Higher Education, 13 February 2015, www.chronicle.com/article/Whats-Wrong-WithPublic/189921. Accessed 1 December 2016.
Liming, Sheila. “My Neighbor Octavia.” Public Books, 15 December 2016,
www.publicbooks.org/fiction/my-neighbor-octavia. Accessed 29 December 2016.
Mencken, H.L. “Footnote on Criticism.” Prejudices: First, Second, and Third Series. Library of
America, 2010, pp. 345-357.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” The Orwell Project,
www.orwell.ru/library. Accessed 1 December 2016.
Williams, Jeffrey J. Selections from How to be an Intellectual. Fordham, 2015.
Wurgaft, Benjamin Aldes. “Thinking, Public and Private: Intellectuals in the Time of the
Public.” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 15 July 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.
org/article/thinking-public-private-intellectuals-time-public/. Accessed 15 July 2016.
---. “Writing in Cafés.” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 9 September 2015,
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/writing-in-cafes-a-personal-history/. Accessed 29
December 2016.
Assignments and Grading
Public Reading Log
[5 pts. each]
Most weeks, students will be required to independently locate and read one essay or piece of
criticism that has appeared within the last 7 days in a public venue. These essays need not be
about literature, but they must be editorial in nature (i.e., not a news item or a simple journalistic
report), and they must express an opinion and assume an argumentative stance.
Examples of (and links to) appropriate venues, websites, and publications are listed on our
course Blackboard page. Students will be responsible for:

posting a link to the essay that they have read / chosen to our course Wiki
- log on to our course Blackboard page
- select the “Course WIKI” menu item from the lefthand menu
- select “Public Reading Log” Wiki
- open the page that corresponds to the correct dates for the reading log
- select “Edit” to type / add information to the Wiki page

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Example:

providing a brief, 3-4 sentence (or approx. 150 word) summary and
argumentative response
saving and completing their post by 5 pm each Tuesday (prior to our regularly
scheduled Wednesday class time)
“Give Us Today,” by Dave Haeselin
Los Angeles Review of Books, 29 December 2016
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/give-us-today
This article, which combines the genres of book review and personal essay, evaluates the
recent popularity of artisanal bread baking from the perspective of an English literary
academic who is also a home bread-baker. Haeselin reviews three recent books on bread –
two of which are cookbooks (Bien Cuit by Zachary Golper and the renowned Tartine Bread
by Chad Robertson), with the third being a historical / academic treatise (Bread by Scott
Cutler Shershow). But what’s interesting is the way Haeselin links the artisanal bread fad to
mounting anxieties regarding the meaning of work in the post-industrial economy, arguing
that Robertson’s famous Tartine book in fact sells a “way of life” that is billed as authentic
and hands-on in the face of the inauthentic-seeming, hands-off forms of knowledge work
that most of us do today. I appreciate the way the article seamlessly blends the genres of
review and personal response, while hitting on some very important arguments regarding
meaningful labor.

Assignment I: Book Review (1,000 words)

[50 pts.]

Assignment II: Critical Essay Pitch (250-300 words)

[25 pts.]

Assignment III: Critical Essay (1,800 - 2,000 words)

[50 pts.]

Assignment IV: Nonfiction Prose Poem (<300 words)

[30 pts.]

Assignment V: Personal Essay Pitch (250-300 words)

[25 pts.]

Assignment VI: Personal Essay (2,000 – 2,500 words)

[50 pts.]

Course Participation
Mid-semester [50 pts.]
Final [50 pts.]
Please note that all major assignments (I-VI) must be submitted in order for a student to receive
a passing grade in this course.

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Course Policies and Procedures
Attendance
Since this is a discussion-based course, attendance is mandatory. Students in upper-level and
graduate courses should view course attendance as part of the job of being a student;
missing class should only happen under rare and exceptional circumstances, much like missing a
day of work.
You are generally allowed two absences without penalty— following your third absence, your
grade in the class will begin to drop by a half-a-letter grade per absence (5% of your total grade).
Plan ahead if you think you might miss class for religious holidays or for other scheduled events.
I do not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences. You are allowed two absences
– be they excused or unexcused – before your grade begins to decrease, unless other special
arrangements have been made with me ahead of time.
If you have extenuating circumstances significantly affecting your attendance throughout the
semester (such as an illness or a family emergency), please get in touch with me so we can
discuss your specific situation. If you miss more than the allotted days due to such extenuating
circumstances, we will discuss whether it’s prudent for you to continue in the course.
Late Arrival
Arrive on time. You will not receive an A in this class if you do not arrive on time. Lateness not
only disrupts the class but also demonstrates disrespect for your peers and for your instructor. If
you are more than 15 minutes late to class, you will be marked absent for that day.
Class Participation
This course depends upon the participation of its members. Participation, which includes both
classroom involvement and physically being in class, makes up roughly 20% of your total grade.
While your class participation grade falls to my discretion, there are several steps you can take to
ensure you achieve a satisfactory grade:

Come to class prepared, with a hard (physical) copy of the required reading.
Since laptop use is prohibited in class, it is essential that you print bring a hard
copy of the required reading to class every day. When .pdf readings are provided
on Blackboard, it is your responsibility to print those readings out and bring them
with you to class. Failure to do so will result in the loss participation points;
additionally, failure to do so may affect any in-class writing assignments, quizzes,
or exercises that require the text in question.

Be prepared to participate; plan to participate. You should anticipate contributing
to course discussions on a regular basis. This means that you must both be
prepared (having done the required assignment or reading) and must formulate
and offer contributions to the discussion on a regular basis (at least once a
week).

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Be courteous toward your peers. When you raise disagreement in class – either
with the instructor or with your peers – try to do so respectfully. Articulate your
reasons and grounds for disagreement and direct them towards an idea, rather
than a person. Failure to show adequate respect towards your peers or towards
your instructor may result in your being asked to leave the classroom. Such a
request will, in turn, affect my assessment of your class participation, and
possibly your attendance record as well.

Keep in mind that participation will be assessed twice throughout the semester –
at the mid-semester point, and once again at the end.

Scholastic Honesty, Plagiarism, and Cheating
At the University of North Dakota, we believe in the excellence of our students and in the
integrity of our academic programs. We also believe that your good ideas become better when
you test them against the ideas of others. So for this course, feel free to discuss your ideas about
the major writing assignments with other students. Collaborating on question/answer homework
assignments or open-book quizzes, however, is not acceptable; these types of assignments are
designed for me, your instructor, to monitor how you are handling specific parts of the course
material. Blatantly taking someone else’s words, ideas or concepts, and using them without
citing your source is plagiarism. So is using another student’s essay, or part of his or her essay,
as your own. In the world of writing (academic writing especially), this is a serious crime, and is
treated as such. Anyone who uses non-documented material from another source, including
online sources, will receive a failing grade for the entire course and will be referred to university
administrators for possible further disciplinary action.
These policies are concurrent with the University of North Dakota’s policies regarding scholastic
honesty. For more information about these policies, please refer to the “Scholastic Honesty”
section of the Undergraduate Academic Information materials available online at und.edu.
All final versions of essay assignments will be submitted to Blackboard, which runs digital
comparisons of submitted assignments in order to identify possible cases of plagiarism. For this
reason, you must submit final versions of papers to Blackboard. You may additionally submit
versions of your assignment through other electronic means (via email, for instance), but if you
fail to submit your paper to Blackboard, it will be treated as late, and lateness penalties will
apply.
In this course, we will talk about the differences between plagiarism and the misuse of sources. If
you have any questions regarding the appropriate use of source material (readings, critical
opinions, or supplemental research), please feel free to ask me. In my experience, those students
who plagiarize are also those who feel overwhelmed by the assignment and thus compelled to
use someone else’s work as their own. If you get so frustrated with an assignment that you feel
like your only option is to plagiarize, come see me. My role as a teacher is to help students, not
to punish them— please use me as a resource to help you write, brainstorm, or work out
assignments and essays.

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General Guidelines for Submitting Assignments
All papers submitted in this class – including short, type-written homework responses
(“Reading Responses”) – must comply with Modern Language Association (MLA) guidelines
and citation rules. This means that you must provide MLA compliant documentation for the use
of additional sources, including:

a Works Cited page, providing correct bibliographic information for each source
cited, quoted, or consulted in your paper

correct in-text citations for each source cited, quoted, or consulted in your paper

If you are unsure of MLA guidelines, I suggest you either consult or purchase a current
MLA Style Guide, or consult the following online source:
The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University
website à http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/

In addition to proper citation,

All papers, including short response assignments, must be typed, double-spaced, with 1”
margins.

All papers completed as homework – including “Reading Responses” – must be
digitally submitted via Blackboard, unless otherwise specified.

Include page numbers on all assignments longer than one page.

Carefully edit and proofread all texts to eliminate problems in grammar, spelling, and
punctuation.

Digital copies of all final papers must be cleanly edited and readable. This means that
you must remove all digital comments/suggestions, including highlighted or underlined
text, and including all comment balloons.

Spell-check your documents.

Documents that do not meet these and other assignment-specific requirements will not be
graded.
Deadlines
All written assignments must be submitted on the due date, and missing the class when the
assignment is due doesn’t mean your assignment isn’t late. Turning in an assignment on time is
part of doing the assignment, and late work will be penalized, regardless of how well it’s
executed.
Lateness penalties are as follows:

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Papers and assignments. For every day – that is, every day of the week, and not every
class period – that a paper or homework assignment is due, your final draft will lose two
points.

Midterm and final papers/projects. For every day that a midterm or final paper/project is
late, you will lose five points.

Daily assignments. All late assignments may receive a maximum of half-credit (50%),
regardless of how late they are.

Cell Phones, Laptops, etc.
Students are expected to participate and be engaged in class discussion. Therefore, students are
required to silence or turn off cell phones before coming to class (there is, quite obviously, to be
no text messaging during class). All laptops must remain closed unless you have made prior
arrangements with me and have demonstrated that using a laptop is necessary for your learning.
Campus Resources
Disabilities
If you have a learning disability that could impair your progress in this course, please contact
Disability Services. Students are encouraged to register through Disability Services in order to
receive recommendations for learning accommodations.
Disability Services
http://und.edu/disability-services/
McCannel Hall Room 190
We can arrange to accommodate your learning style based on DS recommendations. Please
notify me at the start of the semester if you have specific needs, or if Disability Services has
provided you with a Verification of Needs for Disability Accommodations.
Writing Help
All students are encouraged to take advantage of UND’s Writing Center to receive help in
preparing writing assignments.
To make an appointment or speak with a tutor, visit their website, or the visit the Writing Center
itself.
UND Writing Center
http://und.edu/academics/writing-center/
Merrifield Hall Room 12

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Communications
You can reach me via email, office phone, or a note in my mailbox in Merrifield Hall. The best
way to reach me, of course, is through email – I check it frequently and, while I cannot guarantee
an immediate reply, it is certainly the fastest way to get in touch.
If you have questions about the policies of this class, review the syllabus first, and then make
an appointment to speak with me.

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Course Schedule
January 11

DUE: Williams, “Long Island Intellectual”
and Goldstein, “The New Intellectuals” [BB]
Discuss the terms “intellectual” / “public intellectual” and
the changing role of intellectuals in contemporary culture;
survey course syllabus, assignments, and objectives.

January 17

DUE: Public Reading Log, 1/11 – 1/17

January 18

DUE: Said, Representations of the Intellectual

January 24

DUE: Public Reading Log, 1/18 – 1/24

January 25

DUE: Coates, Between the World and Me
Discuss reviews of Coates’ book in class.

January 31

DUE: Public Reading Log, 1/25 – 1/31

February 1

DUE: Greif, Against Everything
Preface + Sections I, III, V
Discuss reviews of Greif’s book in class; assign book
review groups.

February 8

DUE: Assignment I – Book Review
See Assignment Sheet for details; in addition to submitting
to Blackboard, bring 6 copies of your book review with you
to class (to facilitate group workshops).

February 14

DUE: Public Reading Log, 2/8 – 2/14

February 15

DUE: Assignment II – Critical Essay Pitch
See Assignment Sheet for details; print out and bring 12
copies of your pitch to class (to facilitate class workshop).

February 21

DUE: Public Reading Log, 2/15 – 2/21

February 22

DUE: Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”; Eliot,
“The Function of Criticism”; and Mencken, “Footnotes on
Criticism” [BB]
Discuss Orwell, Eliot, and Mencken’s approaches to
criticism; check in and report progress on Assignment III –
Critical Essay

February 27

DUE: Assignment III – Critical Essay (by 5 pm)

March 1

DUE: Assignment III – Critical Essay draft
Download, print, and review your peers’ essays and then
bring the copies with you to class.

March 8

DUE: Assignment III – Critical Essay final

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Greif, “What’s Wrong with Public Intellectuals?” and
Wurgaft, “Thinking, Public and Private” [BB]
March 13 – 17

NO CLASS: Spring Break

March 21

DUE: Public Reading Log, 3/15 – 3/21

March 22

DUE: Rankine, Citizen
Abbreviated class period (UND Writer’s Conference)

March 28

DUE: Public Reading Log, 3/22 – 3/28

March 29

DUE: Assignment IV – Nonfiction Prose Poem
See assignment sheet for details; in addition to submitting
your prose poem to Blackboard, print out 12 additional
copies and bring them with you to class (to facilitate
workshop).
Continue to discuss Rankine / prose poetry in class.

April 5

DUE: Personal Essays, Pt. I
Birkerts, Coviello, Cole

April 11

DUE: Public Reading Log, 4/5 – 4/11

April 12

DUE: Personal Essay, Pt. II
Greenstone, Liming, Wurgaft

April 18

DUE: Public Reading Log, 4/12 – 4/18

April 19

DUE: Assignment V – Personal Essay Pitch
See Assignment Sheet for details; print out and bring 12
copies of your pitch to class (to facilitate class workshop).

April 24

DUE: Assignment VI – Personal Essay (by 5 pm)

April 26

DUE: Assignment VI – Personal Essay draft
Download, print, and review your peers’ essays and then
bring the copies with you to class.

May 3

DUE: Assignment VI – Personal Essay final
Present / discuss final revisions in class.
Complete course evaluations.

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Assignment I: Book Review

[50 pts.]

So far, throughout the first few weeks of this course, we’ve concentrated on reviewing some
recent examples of public scholarship and criticism. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and
Me and Mark Greif’s Against Everything furnish two examples of this type of criticism, wherein
we see “public” figures (that is, writers not associated with academic institutions but, rather,
associated with publishing venues) mounting critical investigations of pressing, contemporary
issues. Both Coates’ and Greif’s books have been reviewed widely within the popular press, and
now it’s your turn to contribute to the body of reviews surrounding these works.
Your assignment is to write a book review (1,000 words max.) that is geared towards a public
audience in response to either Coates’ Between the World and Me or Greif’s Against Everything.
In order to do this, you must begin by analyzing the popular book review as genre.

What are the conventions of this genre?

What are its chief characteristics?

What kind of tone might a book review of this kind necessitate or require?

What clichés or pitfalls should you consider avoiding?

How should you go about contextualizing the work that you are reviewing? Should you
refer to other works in this same genre? Do you see other reviewers doing this?

What makes a good book review?
We will review examples of reviews in class and then you will be assigned to work with one of
the required texts. Plan to share and workshop your book review in class.

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Assignment II: Critical Essay Pitch

[25 pts.]

An editorial “pitch” is both a proposal and a request for permission. Before writing an essay or
preparing an article in full, a writer usually begins by contacting an editor and “pitching” their
idea to them. If the pitch is successful, the editor then grants the writer permission to proceed
with the project and issues terms and deadlines.
The ability to write a compelling pitch is therefore essential to getting published, just as the
ability to write a compelling abstract is essential to being accepted to an academic conference. In
either case, the pitch / abstract is designed to convince the gatekeepers – be they editors or
conference organizers – that you know what you are talking about and will deliver a quality
product if given permission to do so.
For this assignment, you are tasked with preparing a “pitch” for a critical essay project. Your
pitch should be between 250-300 words, and it should adhere to the following format:
Paragraph 1

Opening line that clearly states the subject of the essay / article and
identifies the publication by name.

Paragraph 2

Overview of the essay itself, including a discussion of methods, evidence,
resources, and major arguments.

Paragraph 3

Discussion of timeliness and “fit”; why write about this subject now? And
why in this particular venue? What other articles have appeared in this
publication that might compare to the one you are proposing? Why might
readers of this particular publication be interested in the proposed subject?

Paragraph 4

Credentials and experience. Why are you qualified to write about this
subject?

We will be workshopping pitches in class in preparation for the Critical Essay (Assignment III).
Completed pitches are due on Wednesday, February 15; please bring 12 copies of your pitch
with you to class on that day.

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Assignment III: Critical Essay

[50 pts.]

A critical essay, though it may contain elements of personal narrative or reflection, centers on a
critique of a particular issue (a political or social problem), a work of art (a book, a film, etc.), a
contemporary trend (a social or cultural tendency that appears to be “on the rise”), or a public
figure (a celebrity, an author, or a politician).
For this assignment, you are tasked with writing a critical essay (1800-2000 words) for a
publication that employs one of these modes of critique.
You might begin by considering some of the topics that we have seen critics cover in the reading
that we have done so far this semester:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me targets the issue of racism, but also
covers topics like social isolation, otherness, self-preservation, and alienation

Mark Greif’s essays in Against Everything center on subjects like exercise,
foodie-ism, pornography, and mass media

Said’s lectures in Representations of the Intellectual probe the question of why
society tends to distrust intellectuals and academics in general, applying this
line of questioning to a variety of case studies from history (like Virginia Woolf,
James Baldwin, Simome de Beauvoir, etc.)

Your essay will be based on the proposal that you outline in your “pitch” (Assignment II).
Please note that the rough draft version of your critical essay is due on Monday, February 27th
by 5 pm and must be uploaded to our course Wiki (on Blackboard) under the appropriate
assignment page.
You will be responsible for downloading, printing, and reviewing your peers’ essays before
coming to class on Wednesday, March 2. The final draft of your critical essay is due Wednesday,
March 8.

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Assignment IV: Nonfiction Prose Poem

[30 pts.]

In Citizen, Claudia Rankine employs a somewhat idiosyncratic mix of prose, poetry, and
elements of the personal essay. What unites the individual parts of Citizen, though, is a particular
mood or emotional theme. Rankine expresses feelings of rage throughout this work, isolating
particular moments that showcase and justify her experiences of personal rage.
This assignment asks you to experiment with the form of writing that Rankine develops in
Citizen. Prepare a nonfiction prose poem (<300 words) that, like Rankine’s work, uses prose
narration to highlight a particular emotion or feeling. Your prose poem should likewise describe
“true” personal experiences, news items, cultural trends, or events, making it also a work of
nonfiction.
Refer to Rankine’s Citizen for examples of this kind of nonfiction prose poetry.
Your completed prose poem is due Wednesday, March 29, and you should plan to bring 12
copies of it with you to class to facilitate sharing / workshopping.

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Assignment V: Personal Essay Pitch

[25 pts.]

You already wrote a pitch in connection with the Critical Essay assignment; now you’re going to
do the same thing in connection with Assignment VI – Personal Essay.
Personal and critical essays share a lot in common, with the difference being that a critical essay
highlights critique (an issue, problem, or trend) whereas a personal essay highlights personal
experience (though that experience may very well be in response to social issue, problem, or
trend). We’ve reviewed some examples of personal essays in our reading this semester and you
should keep those examples in mind while framing your “pitch.”
For this assignment, you are tasked with preparing a “pitch” for a personal essay project. Your
pitch should be between 250-300 words, and it should adhere to the following format:
Paragraph 1

Opening line that clearly states the subject of the essay / article and
identifies the publication by name.

Paragraph 2

Overview of the essay itself, including a discussion of methods, evidence,
experiences, narrative elements, and major arguments.

Paragraph 3

Discussion of timeliness and “fit”; why write about this subject now? And
why in this particular venue? What other articles have appeared in this
publication that might compare to the one you are proposing? Why might
readers of this particular publication be interested in the proposed subject?

Paragraph 4

Credentials and experience. Why are you qualified to write about this
subject?

We will be workshopping pitches in class in preparation for the Personal Essay (Assignment VI).
Completed pitches are due on Wednesday, April 19; please bring 12 copies of your pitch with
you to class on that day.

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Assignment VI: Personal Essay

[50 pts.]

Personal essays are all about narration and voice. While a good critical essay might very well
includes elements of the “personal” (first-person narration, anecdotes, emotional statements and
evaluations), personal essays marshal these methods in the service of critique.
For this assignment, you are tasked with writing a personal essay (2,000 – 2,500 words) that
combines elements of personal narration and argumentative critique. As such, it is important to
keep in mind that it is not enough to simply be personal; you must aim to connect your personal
experiences, stories, thoughts, and feelings to larger issues or topics. Doing that is what makes
your personal experiences interesting and relevant to a wider public audience.
For example, look at the personal essays we’ve read throughout this unit, and consider the
subjects / topics of each:

Sven Birkerts writes about his memories of using record players, an outmoded
form of technology, but he connects those memories to arguments about how
media and technology shape our memories and understandings of engagement.

Teju Cole writes about his reading of James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,”
and then describes a journey that he took to the very village that Baldwin used as
the basis for that essay. At the same time, though, Cole uses themes of
embodiment to think about what it means to inhabit someone else’s experiences
and memories, and to think about how racialized bodies are, in particular,
connected throughout time.

Peter Coviello, a Whitman scholar, writes about hanging out with his thirteenyear-old daughter and listening to Third Eye Blind. Third Eye Blind, for
chrissakes!

Dan Greenstone writes about how his “little free public library” taught him that
all humans are essentially evil, opportunistic scum.

I wrote about the time I was caught skipping class by Octavia Butler. Also about
the time I invited said author, a Hugo- and Nebula- Award winner, to my science
fiction book club. <wince>

Ben Wurgaft writes about why he likes to write in coffee shops (and why,
historically, most writers have also done so).

Think about crafting your personal essay in a way that highlights your own experiences and
voice but builds connections between the personal and the public (or the political).

ENGL 599 | Spring 2017 | 18
Please note that the rough draft version of your critical essay is due on Monday, April 24th by 5
pm and must be uploaded to our course Wiki (on Blackboard) under the appropriate
assignment page.
You will be responsible for downloading, printing, and reviewing your peers’ essays before
coming to class on Wednesday, April 26th. The final draft of your critical essay is due
Wednesday, May 3rd.