The privilege of study in a college classroom is the experience of higher standards than what you are used to and becoming aware of these standards so as to enlarge your own sense of what can be done.
Your job in the class is to do your best: to hold yourself accountable to your best reading, writing, and thinking. The work that you produce will not in every case be the best that you can do, as you have busy lives and other priorities. But in every case you will work with the time you create for this class and make the most of that time.
My job is to help you get the most of out of the reading we will be doing together, our discussions, and your writing. As a teacher I work hard to practice what I expect from my students. My hope is that together our practice will embody the values that inform the most satisfying and rewarding intellectual work: Self-Awareness, Interest, Engagement, Honesty, Generosity, and Collaboration.
You will be doing a lot of reading in this course–the assigned books, suggested essays and articles, and other print and web sources you seek out on your own. One of the intellectual skills I hope you will develop this semester is what Emerson calls the “assimilative” power of the mind. Reading as a writer will at the same time expand your own capacities to use what Emerson called the “spontaneous” power of the mind.
Every week you will complete the reading on the timeline, read all of the essays on the course blog by your classmates, and read the materials Mark posts on the course blog. Other reading materials (author interviews, quotations, supplementary texts) will be made available as the course unfolds.
We are always learning to read: indeed the reading in this class is predicated on the fact that there is no inherent meaning in words: and for this reason, the writing you will do in this course will emphasize what you can do with what you read. The writing will help you take more from your experiences as a reader, help you think more about what you are reading, and give you room to experiment and grow as a writer. Your writing will explore not only your response to the books but also the way that the books must be understood in social, historical, and cultural contexts.
As a person who identifies as a writer–and as someone who teaches writing, as well as teachers of writing–I think a lot about how to help students develop a process for becoming more thoughtful and articulate. While I am attentive to whether a student has completed the readings, or can restate facts, I aspire for each of my students to develop into more thoughtful and articulate human beings.
When you experience a piece of writing you admire in this course (and there is much to admire!) take note how the writing works. Build a “Quotation” page on your blog to keep these sentences and paragraphs in mind. Use them as models to try out different forms and styles. You might also spend some of your idle time wandering around in the blogosphere to see for yourself how writers work with the tried-and-true imperatives of clarity of purpose, economy and rhetorical awareness.
One way to think about the activity of writing is to consider it as an extension of reading–of making meaning from a text. I’m not sure I know of a better description of this process than the following excerpt from an 1872 essay by the poet Walt Whitman called “Democratic Vistas”:
Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers
The act of writing is at the same time, of course, a means of expression and communication. Writing challenges you to express yourself in a public setting where you will be expected to communicate effectively what you have to say. Because you are writing both for the class and for the public, we will necessarily practice the kind of writing that will be read (and one hopes taken seriously) by an audience of informed and engaged readers. While some may see this writing as informal, this kind of writing can actually be more demanding, as you are writing for more than a grade. What you have to say matters; and everyone wants what he or she says to be heard, to be taken seriously.
If you have questions about the writing projects, or are having difficulty completing the writing by the due date, please come and talk to me.
Each day of class when we are discussing a book this semester we will be rewarded with the insights of two discussion partners. The responsibility of the discussion partners is simple: send Mark your notes on the reading by noon on the day of class. Your notes, page references for passages, a draft of the essay you are working on, a list of questions—the form is what you want it to be. Every discussion partner should, however, provide me with at least five page references. I will then post what you send on the Ephemera page and we will use what you come up with as a place to start or to enrich our discussion in class. Also, I will expect you to be a bit more active in class and will look to you to help carry the discussion. I am happy to meet with you before class or talk by email if that will help you to prepare for the responsibility.
Editorial Assistants On Thursdays during Weeks 6-11 our writing workshops will continue. But we will be adding the insights of two editorial assistants each week. The editorial assistants are responsible for 1) reading all of the essays posted on Sunday; 2) comparing notes on the essays (either in a face-to-face meeting or an email exchange); 3) sending Mark a written summary of one effective writing strategy or a suggestion for revision, with 2-3 examples, by noon on Thursday; and 4) sharing with the class a brief summary of your editorial insights. I am happy to meet with the editorial assistants before class or talk by email if that will help in preparing for this class responsibility.