A sampling of my notes from some class discussions…

Initial Conversation: what’s in an Essay? 

Provisional Paragraph: The essay is… [finish that sentence (your claim) than elaborate the paragraph with your answer–a reason and some evidence supporting that reason]

Rethinking the Essay (Part 1): what characteristics and keywords of “the essay” have you encountered (been taught, been punished with) before entering this course? How do they compare with Dinty Moore’s presentation? The beginnings of your essay about the essay.

Strategy for generating/organizing some ideas (and a possible essay form): abecedarian. Characteristics arranged alphabetically.

Sample: the opening of Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country. What characteristics do we see? Connections to Moore?

Rethinking the Essay (Part 2): Keywords and Characteristics [response to Porter’s “A History and Poetics of the Essay”]. Some of these terms are further defined on the Keywords page.

  • Philosophy [ideas of an essay–what it does, its purpose]:
    • essay as verb; to try, attempt, test (not a fixed or finished thought);
    • fluid, dynamic: ‘thought thinking’ (Porter)
    • dramatic: scene, persona, mise-en-scene, conflict/crisis/resolution
    • uncanny: relation of familiar to unfamiliar/strange, or defamiliarizing the familiar; Freud, “unheimliche”
    • intimacy: showing an idea to the reader
  • Rhetoric [how an essay organizes our attention–how it does what it does]:
    • ‘reader-friendly’ (Moore); audience–yet also personal
    • moves reader toward ‘resonance’ or ‘recognition’
    • complicates, deepens a previous view or understanding of something (related to uncanny)
    • structure: non-linear, parataxis
  • Poetics [how the essay is made: the language, the media used]
    • playful, creative: not a transparent view of reality
    • ‘creative nonfiction’: elements of fiction and drama and poetry used to convey truth
    • documentary


Initial read of the opening paragraphs–note the keywords

Closer read/paragraph: what does “I do not teach; I only relate” imply? What characteristics of an essay does this idea of relation (not teaching) suggest?

White, Woolf, Dillard

How do these essays “only relate”? Identify characteristics of these essays.

Analogy: proportion, correspondence. A way that essayists relate.

Metaphor: a compressed, imagistic analogy. Literally: carry across, transfer

Journal: thoughts on a contemplative essay of your own–what might you do? How would you “only relate”? How explore the “uncanny” relation between familiar and strange? Craft strategy: explore what you don’t know, understand; doubt what you think you know.

Montagine’s motto: What do I know?/Que sais-je?

Emerson: American Scholar, Circles

  1. Journal warm-up: neither essay is explicitly about essay writing–but find a line/passage that you think demonstrates or suggests how Emerson writes, or how he thinks about writing–(and thus, how we need to read Emerson). What are some implications in that passage–what are you seeing and hearing in terms of his philosophy, his rhetoric, his poetics? What does this essay teach us about writing?
  2. Class conversation.
    1. American Scholar: what vision of writing/reading (what scholars do) is demonstrated or performed, if not discussed? What elements of his logic, rhetoric, poetics do you notice?
    2. Circles: same question.
    3. The problem of Emerson’s encyclopedia . How does this speak to what you have begun to experience in his essays?
    4. Strategies for reading Emerson? Ideas for an essay you might write inspired by this writer, this style of ‘thought thinking’, or one of his topics?

Emerson: Experience

Experience is one of the great essays in American literature–and in the tradition of essay writing. It’s not easy. Let’s see what we can learn from it. Groups.

  1. Groups: The “argument” or philosophy of “Experience” (and more broadly, of Emerson’s essays this week): one lesson–focus on a paragraph/passage that you felt you began to grasp, wrote about in the blog, notice what’s working, what’s going on.
    1. read the passage to your group: offer some ideas and specifics; build on other passages. As a group: what’s the philosophy/argument of the essay? What lines convey this best?
    2. check in on questions/confusions: share, clarify with the group.
  2. Class conversation
    1. the philosophy and argument.
      1. the “highway”: what’s the philosophy here? What thinkers/writers might have been influenced by this vision that ‘everything good is on the highway’?
    2. links to American Scholar or Circles or Self-Reliance: does this extend the view of “creative reading” and “only an experimenter” or does it break/contradict that earlier vision?
  3. Rhetoric and Poetics:  What do you notice? what role does that play in the essay?
    1. discuss: Particular poetic or rhetorical figures we can add to our list? what element of Emersonian style might you play with?
      1. note the rhythm of an Emersonian sentence in “Experience” moving us through a paragraph. A syntactical/poetic rendition of surprise/provocation/temperament/balance/mediation–moving us through the series and surfaces and depths of the essay. Examples: opening paragraph; the controversial “So it is with calamity…”
      2. Metaphor and Metonymy–review.
    2. What sort of Emerson-inspired essay might your write? How would you approach it? (continue to think of this into Monday’s reading.)

Emerson: Quotation and Originality.

  1. Philosophy, rhetoric, poetics of this essay.
    1. Remix: recompose the essay–each reading a favorite sentence. Does it make sense? What might this tell us about the rhetoric of his essays? The poetics of his sentences (back to Experience).
    2. How does Emerson’s view of writing here (and in other essays) complicate or challenge the conventional views of composition, school writing? What’s “original” here?
      1. Note the philosophical and rhetorical strategy: counterargument
      2. How do these views compare with your emerging vision of the essay (note the focus of First Writing Project)?
      3. what is a line from Emerson thus far (perhaps in your journal) that you could use to quote and recompose for your project? What originality might that quotation lead to?

Shields, Reality Hunger, chapters A through D.

  1. Shields: share passages that you might add to your commonplace book/use for your own essay writing about essay writing.
    1. thoughts on his method: a version of Emerson’s encylopedia.
  2. Journal Experiments:
    1. Rhetorical keywords: Parataxis (vs Hypotaxis) 
    2. Metonymy
    3. Intellect Receptive and Constructive
      1. Receptive: compost associations/initial responses to Shields
      2. Constructive: a particular line of thinking or association you might pursue further, build around.

Emerson, Shields, Recomposition

  1. Blog conversation.
    1. What do you see at work in Shields (philosophy, rhetoric, and/or poetics) that you might want to write about or learn from? What would you forward/borrow? What would you challenge/counter, to develop a more complicated version of your philosophy?
  2. Class conversation.
    1. Shields: what’s at work? what’s effective?
    2. Back to Emerson: what about Shields’s use/reading of Emerson: critical insights?
    3. Your emerging philosophy of the essay: what are other examples you might bring in to your discussion? Questions on the project?

First Writing Project: Developing an Argument for (and in) an essay.

Some composting strategies

  1. Problem: Any essay or argument contends with experience. In other words, it poses or explores and responds to a problem or question. It proposes to rethink a conventional view, or a given understanding perhaps that we are too familiar with. [or Shields, 107: theater for investigating rich questions.
    1. Therefore, the basis of any argument (or thesis): Given, Problem/Question, Response.
    2. Practice: what is the problem Emerson is responding to in: “Experience” or “Self-Reliance” or “Quotation and Originality”? What’s the problem White responds to in “Once More to the Lake” and what is his response, his answer? What is a potential given/problem/response for your project on the essay?
  2. Exposition: keyword. In essays, the exposition is where the critical narrative/exploration develops the argument (or thesis, or response). This is where the argument (response to problem) unfolds, complicates–in the body, the evidence. Think back to one of our previous essays: examples of exposition that supported/developed the argument/philosophy of that essay?
    1. Practice: draft out a personal experience that relates to your philosophy of the essay–a possible analogy, a particular experience you have had.
      1. think of this as Inductive method (see below)–or to use Emerson: intellect receptive/spontaneous power
  3. Forwarding: use of another text/critical idea (ie, a quotation) not to dump information but for effective exposition. Practice with a quotation from Lopate or Sanders that you could use in the project. Basic structure:
    1. introduce/paraphrase/set context
    2. effective selection of quotation
    3. extension/interpretation following quotation–putting the quotation to work for your argument.
  4. Starting to Draft: how not to stare at a blank screen
    1. Inductive Method: skip the statement of the argument (the introduction), perhaps sketch out a hypothesis or possible thesis–but focus on the exposition, see where that takes you: particular experiences you have had with essays, particular passages from essays we have read that you could do some close reading. Inductive method.
    2. Deductive method: borrow/forward someone else’s philosophy to set up your philosophy by comparison or contrast. Then see what places that leads you.
      1. Shields/Sanders/Emerson argues that the essay is/does _____. I would agree, since in my experience…
      2. or: Shields/Sanders/Emerson argues that the essay is/does _____. In my view, however, the essay _____.

First Writing Project: Revision Strategies.

Some Tools to generate reflection and revision

  1. Track Changes (and multiple files)
  2. Writing Center conferences–as well as conferences with me
  3. Use Journal/notebook for reflection–keep a Project log.
  4. Rubric
  5. Peer Response: Revision Questions

Abstract: sketch out in notebook–an abstract of where your project is at this point.

  1. What’s the project, the argument? 2-3 sentences of the basic argument. [remember: an argument is composed of a given/problem/response]
  2. What’s working? Identify an element of the draft that you have worked on and is helping to develop the essay.
  3. What else? What other/different and contrary perspective might you consider as a way to strengthen your argument?
  4. What’s next? What do you need to work on next, what’s on your to-do list?

Counterargument workshop (groups):

  1. Write the counter to your argument in 2-3 sentences. What’s  the opposite/negative of the Argument?
  2. Share the counterargument versions of your argument–groups respond with ways that could be supported and also their own counters (where they disagree).
    1. Identify places where you can then strengthen your argument  and its terms (the disagreement with your counter is an agreement with your argument).
    2. Identify places where placing and exploring this counterargument would strengthen the clarity and complexity of your essay–and allow you to turn back to your argument with a refined, more complicated understanding.
    3. Revise your abstract–now with a stronger sense of what your argument is–and the problem/argument  it is responding to.


Part Two: The Rhetoric of the Essay

Required: Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (through page 70: first 4 essays)

  1. Journal [5 min]:
    1. If you are to write an essay of an encounter or expedition somewhere in the ‘wide world’, what might you do–compost some ideas.
    2. If your essay were to be inspired by Dillard–what would that inspiration look like (in terms of how Dillard writes, thinks, sees).
    3. Discussion of ideas
  2. Dillard’s Vision.
    1. what does the total eclipse set up for this book of essays–for how we will explore/encounter/see the world through the lens of this writer?
    2. some keywords to add: ekphrasis; specificity
    3. some poetics: her use of photographic metaphor/simile; her very active verbs.


Required: Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (through page 94)

  1. Journal [5 minutes]: take an idea for a possible encounter/expedition essay (essay about the natural world, a place, a topos) and practice writing with Dillard’s vision of specificity: try ekphrasis (think of an image associated with the location) or metaphor or metonymy to extend the focus on particular details.
  2. Further Readings.


Required: Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk  (finish)+ Blog

  1. Blog conversation (groups): what’s the purpose or ‘argument’ of the book overall? Is there something that organizes the essays and this writer’s vision throughout–or are these random assortments? Is there a philosophical and rhetorical project for the collection–or just individual essays, and lots of interesting language and moments?
    1. Share passages, then decide upon a representative moment from a later essay that the group believes indicates a larger philosophy and rhetoric–or indicates the failure. 
  2. Class conversation; reports from each group.


Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life  [beginning through chapter 3] (linked here)

  1. Notebook: Douglass’s Ethos. Identify a moment in the text thus far where you see Douglass establish/reinforce his ethos, his credibility and character. What’s the ethos, how does he establish/reinforce it?
    1. Discussion–explore passages.
    2. what’s the rhetorical project here? how does Douglass compare/contrast with other essayists? Differences with Dillard, similarities?
  2. Focal Point: Douglass’s rhetoric of the image/slave narrative.
    1. complications of his beginnings–see blog post.

Required: Douglass, Narrative of the Life [chapter 4 – 9]

Workshop–essays in progress: compost ideas for an essay you might pursue that explores desires for freedom, experience with its absence or with types of bondage, with trauma, with racial or cultural identity, stereotypes. Also: what might you do rhetorically with this that is inspired or informed by what Douglass does?
Further Readings.  Documentary.

Required: Douglass, finish Narrative of the Life + blog

  1. Discussion: If the philosophy of this essay is clear (or clearer): an argument against slavery, what about its rhetoric. How does Douglass arrange and present that argument?
    1. pathos: example of where pathos is strong. What rhetorical element is at work–course keywords, or other elements of essay writing? [notebook/rereading first]
    2. logos: example of where logos is strong. What element is at work?
  2. Where does Douglass leave us?  What are philosophical elements of the issue? what are rhetorical elements–how race is written, represented, interrogated?

Kaysen, Girl Interrupted (initial discussion)

  1. Notebook: What’s the project? What’s she doing in there? Where is that working so far–place where you get a sense of the project, her argument, her purpose?
  2. Closer Reading: What’s working? Essay elements that work for her project.
    1. Keywords: immersion (again); documentary; metadiscourse; counterargument
  3. Further reading/composting this week–what’s your version of a conflicted essay?
    1. My escape from _________ or The pleasures of hating ___________

Kaysen, Girl Interrupted (final discussion)

  1. Group conversation: What’s she doing in there? What’s the project? Are you persuaded? Why and where?
    1. Identify evidence to discuss and share with class.
    2. What are the conflicting views? Are they resolved?
  2. Class conversation:
    1. Evidence for her project and its persuasiveness.
    2. Rhetorical elements of her project (from any of our course keywords)
    3. What’s next: where does this leave us? Note how she concludes.



Second Writing Project Workshop: The Rhetoric of the Essay

Addressing the rhetorical effect of an essay: how ideas are not just addressed/presented, but necessarily redressed, refocused, reformed [insight from Hill, The Science of Rhetoric]

  1. Examples from our texts of rhetorical effect–of existing ideas or preconceptions being redressed, refocused, reformed. 
    1. Dillard; Douglass; Kaysen; Abani
  2. Ways that the writer does this–and thus ways that you can do this in your essay.
    1. Keywords; rhetorical elements of your writing (Rubric: complexity, development, arrangement, coherence, language, audience)
    2. Required rhetorical element that effects refocusing: counterargument.

Poetics of the Essay: Video Essay

  1. Warm-up: Bresland argues that image promiscuity is changing the way we write and our conception of what writing means.
    1. Do you agree? where do we see this influence of the image in writing overall in our culture? What example from the video essays we read/viewed seems particularly effective (and/or problematic) as an essay–and potentially as the way we will do essays in the future?
  2. Poetics of the essay
    1. philosophy: what is it, why?; rhetoric: how is it working, organized, focused?; poetics: what does it do, how is it made?
    2. Examples: watch? read? view?–what’s the appropriate verb?
      1. the Dickinson/Wren essay 
      2. Zidane
      3. Bowling: what does this do as a video essay?

Poetics of the Essay: Audio, Web, Further Reading

  1. Blog Conversation: Believing and Doubting the New Media Essay
    1. Discuss essays from this week that you believe are effective, work as essays–what’s working, what elements of the poetics are effective? Point to at least one that you would offer as an effective way that the essay is being rethought and remediated in the digital age.
    2. And essays that you doubt, that are not effective, not working–why? Point to one that you claim as an example of what’s problematic about the essay in the digital age.
  2. Further Readings in New Media Essays

The Essay as Hacking

  1. Notebook: Monson’s definition of the essay as hack. What’s the vision, Are you persuaded, Why/why not?
    1. Paragraph response: 
      1. Connect this vision to any of the essayists/essays we have encountered in the course–an example that demonstrates what “essay as hack” could mean. What elements of the essay (philosophical, rhetorical, poetic) speak to this character of the “hack”?
    2. Discuss examples
    3. Further reading:
      1. “My Body”–how is Jackson hacking the personal essay/memoir?
      2. Zidane or Rankine’s “Situations”
      3. A TED talk–does it “hack” the lecture?
      4. What are you interested in hacking?

John D’Agata/Lyric Essay

  1. How negotiable is fact in nonfiction? How flexible are you willing to be with the truth in an essay?
    1. Before reading this text, what did you believe? What’s an example of a fact or truth that you might write about in an essay that you would be willing to alter? an example of something that you wouldn’t?
    2. After reading: what do you believe? what in the text confirms or changes your perspective?
  2. Closer Reading
    1. In the essay itself: what are engaging moments as an essay–elements of its philosophy, rhetoric, poetics that we can recognize?
    2. In the commentary: what interests or concerns you about D’Agata’s argument for the lyric essay?
  3. Further Reading
    1. Introduce Final Project
    2. Compost: ideas for a possible final project essay, inspired by D’Agata. Take something you have been thinking about, started to track in your journal–and approach it more as poetry than as essay. What might you do? What are you willing to do with the facts?
    3. Further readings