Final Writing Project on the Writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If literary criticism is ever to conceptualize a new disciplinary domain, it will have to undertake first a much more thorough reflection on the historical category of literature; otherwise I suggest that new critical movements will continue to register their agendas symptomatically, by ritually overthrowing a continually resurgent literariness and literary canon. At the same time it is unquestionably the case that several recent crises of the literary canon–its ‘opening’ to philosophical works, to works by minorities, and now to popular and mass cultural works–amounts to a terminal crisis, more than sufficient evidence of the urgent need to reconceptualize the object of literary study.”  
–John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993)
The second writing project in this course is an invitation for you to understand more fully the subject you have chosen to study in college (“English”) and the object(s) of English studies (literature,writing, texts, culture, discourse, poetics, hermeneutics, interpretation, and so on).
Your project is to complete a 2000 word post explaining the field English Studies. The title of the post will be “What is English?” Your work is to provide what you take to be a sufficient definition of the field of study

Consider your post a brief introduction to the field of study. I recommend that you cite language in what you read (see suggestions below) or provide links to university or college web pages to help you and your reader make sense of the field of study.In class on Wednesday we will start with the English major at Keene State College—its design, rationale, and organization. As one of the people who helped to design the current major, I will give you some insight into the choices we have made and the choices available to students as they choose courses. We will also gather information from the other college and university programs I asked you to look over since we last met.The first stage of this project is for you to do some reading. Look on the web. (See below.) You can also look in the library or use the online databases in the Mason Library. One of the questions that has preoccupied professors and students of English since the inception of English Studies has been the definition of literature. Is literature “imaginative writing”? Is literature writing that uses a special or peculiar language? Is literature something special, a privileged form of language? Is literature a kind of language (or discourse) that is non-pragmatic? These questions should be of interest to students, especially those who aspire to teach language and literature.Before you begin writing, my recommendation is that you do the following:

  • Reflect on the work you did since last week when I asked you to conduct a web search for English departments. Consider how undergraduate majors in English are designed. Consider again the mission statements and look again at the course requirements in these majors. What choices and values appear to be determining the English major at different colleges and universities? What do you make sense of the many areas of study that fall under the broader definition of English: linguistics and discourse analysis; rhetoric and composition; creative writing, literature and literary criticism; critical theory and cultural studies; English education, and so on.
  • Consider the history of English studies. Browse professor Rita Raley’s web page The History of English Studies. The page was produced by Raley in 1995 as part of her graduate studies. Raley’s site has a really helpful catalog of primary documents by Thomas B. Macaulay; John Henry Newman; Adam Sedgwick; Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett; Mary Wollstonecraft; Raymond Williams; Gayatri Spivak; Gauri Viswanathan; D.J. Palmer; Chris Baldick; Franklin Court; Brian Massumi; Avital Ronell; and others. The site also has an excellent Bibliography should you wish to continue learning about the history of the discipline of English.

Questions about the “literary” and the “imaginative” have a long and fascinating history. Among the most useful anthology of writings grouped under the title “Literary Criticism and Theory” is the two-volume set, Critical Theory Since Plato and Critical Theory Since 1965 edited by Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle.

Writing Project #1: On Writing in School: Reflections on the Academic Essay
Due Monday January 25 by 5 PM

Write a 1500 word (approximately five pages double-spaced) narrative about your experiences writing in school. I encourage you to refer to at least one essay (or essays) you have written to tell your story. The title of your blog post will be “On Writing in School”

An Essay concerning Humane Understanding in fo...
An Essay concerning humane understanding in four books (1690) by John Locke (1632-1704) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This first writing project is a reflection on your experiences as a writer in school—both before you came to college, as well as in your college classes. Your reflections will help us begin our conversation this semester about the essay as a genre of writing. The project assumes that 1) you are familiar (and practiced) at writing essays (including the persuasive essay requiring you to support a claim with reasons, evidence and analysis; 2) you have given some thought to your experiences as a writer; and 3) that you are willing to identify and describe the expectations and conventions of the forms that fall under the title “academic writing.”

Most college-level writing assignments use the term essay with a term that describes what is expected from the writer. “Academic,” “argumentative,” “analytic,” “persuasive,” “research” or “personal”–assignments that use these terms most often include a list of required elements: introduction, thesis, topic sentences, evidence, conclusion, and a works cited page, and so on. In addition, most of you have also learned in your high school English classes that essays are assessed using relatively common standards. These standards are represented by such words as clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness.

Academic essays serve a number of purposes. They are used to test an argument or arguments; to persuade the reader; to demonstrate that you have completed the required reading; or to assess your understanding of subject matter. Often, the essay is taught as part of a writing process, working from the principle that writing can improve by thinking about what you have written and then making changes based on further thinking. But in most every case, the essay is a means to a particular end—whether exploring or developing thought, “getting it right,” or “getting a grade.”

As you think about this project, and the academic essay, you might consider the following questions. Why write an essay? What are the motives that underlie the essay (both your own, and those of your teachers)? What is the relationship between the writing process and the product? In your experience, what qualities distinguish your most successful academic essays? When you sit down to write an essay, what do you actually do? Are there particular elements of the essay that have been difficult for you? Has writing essays helped you become a more effective writer?