Introduction to Nonfiction: The Essay
“Essay: theater of the brain” [David Shields]

English 221

Professor Meehan

Office: 116 Goldstein | Hours: MWF 12.30-1.30; also by appointment

All course information (including assignment schedule) available at course blog: (bookmark and use often)

Course Description:

We study the essay, the oldest and arguably most significant form of nonfiction. As you will see, this is not necessarily the “essay” you were asked (or forced) to write in earlier schooling. Essayists, from Montaigne and Emerson to contemporary writers of what’s called creative nonfiction have viewed this literary form not as punishment so much as performance and experiment. “Essay is a verb, not just a noun,” the contemporary essayist John D’Agata notes, “essaying is a process.” We will explore that process as both readers and writers of essays across three parts of the course, moving us from classic to contemporary examples, and from critical perspectives on the essay to creative performance of our own essaying. Part One: The Philosophy of the Essay—origins and principles of the form. Part Two: The Rhetoric of the Essay—the essay in series and longer form, used to argue, expose, explore. Part Three: The Poetics of the Essay—innovations of the essay in recent forms of “creative nonfiction,”  including multimedia. The course will culminate with a substantial essay that you develop and prepare for actual publication.

Course Objectives:

In focusing both creatively and critically on the craft of nonfiction, specifically the essay form, this course has four primary learning objectives that correlate with learning goals of the English department and the goals for a Writing Intensive course.

English Department learning goals:

Literary History: Students understand the conventions of at least one literary genre (fiction, poetry, drama, nonfiction)

Critical Reading: Students analyze texts critically using literary terminology

Rhetorical Knowledge: Students make effective use of revision and editing strategies in producing writing.

W2 Requirement (Process of Writing) goals:

  1. Critical Thinking: Students develop the ability to raise questions and identify problems related to particular subjects or situations and to make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research. 
  2. Writing Process: Students develop the ability to use appropriate strategies for generating, developing, composing, and revising writing and research.
  3. Rhetorical Knowledge: Students develop the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and disciplinary contexts in creating and comprehending texts.
  4. Goal 4: Knowledge of Conventions: Students develop an awareness of the formal guidelines, ranging from matters of grammar and style to conventions of research and documentation that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate to writing in a particular discipline or context.

Humanities Learning Goals:

Students completing a Humanities distribution course will:

  • interpret and express the range of human experiences represented in works of thought and imagination;
  • examine the cultural, creative, and historical traditions and values of the humanities.

Course Texts:

Available at the College Bookstore.

Classic and Contemporary Essays: selections provided to students in pdf or online throughout semester

D’Agata, The Lifespan of a Fact

Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

Emerson, Selected Essays (available online)

Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted

Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

Shields, Reality Hunger


Course Expectations and Experiences:

Creative Reading:

I will require that you keep some form of a reader’s/writer’s journal as a medium for you to engage in the reading, writing, and thinking more creatively.  I will expect you to have some version of the journal for use in class for discussion as well as various writing workshops we will have focusing on philosophy, rhetoric, and poetics of the essay; you should also have it available whenever we conference (so that you can tell and show me what you have been thinking about recently). Your blogging assignment can emerge from, and reiterate, what is in your journal.

Writing Projects:

Three main projects, described on the course blog under “Writing Projects.” Since this course counts for the W2 writing requirement, we will be giving attention to writing process (developing ideas, revision, editing) in completing these projects. In addition, you will have an ongoing semi-formal writing assignment: blogging in response to reading, described under “Blogging” on the home page.

Late Policy: Writing projects turned in late, without prior discussion with me, will lose credit (approximately half-grade per day). No project will be accepted more than one week late. As always, communication with me in advance regarding any difficulties you are encountering is the best way to go.


I expect active and engaged participation in discussions of our readings and in the various field study experiments we will do—including getting outside and observing, exploring, tracking the environment. I will sometimes present ideas and focal points for discussion—but don’t expect a lecture course. If you don’t participate, class time will be far too silent. Your participation will be assessed, along with attendance, as part of your overall grade. I will use as a basic rubric for that assessment:

90-100: very strong to excellent; thorough engagement in all aspects of course; exceeds expectations.

80-89: strong engagement in all aspects; meets expectations.

70-79: average to sufficient, room to improve engagement; below expectations.

60-69: weak to average; need to improve engagement in most areas; significantly below expectations

below 60: failing

Attendance Policy: Since participation counts in this course (and in learning), your attendance matters. Every student is granted up to two absences during the semester for whatever reason. Three or more absences (excused or unexcused) will begin to affect your final participation grade (approximately a half-grade per absence). Any student missing more than 9 classes during the semester should not expect to pass.  I am flexible and reasonable (was once a student, have kids, get sick, etc)—so communicate with me regarding your attendance. But be aware that I consider it very important for a course such as this.

Technology Policy: Good participation requires a learning environment where attention and invention are possible. I am interested in the inventiveness of writing technologies and will encourage you to explore them with me. Having a laptop or other technologies in class can be productive if you can use it to attend to our focus, but not if you are distracted easily by “the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling” (to cite the essayist Sven Birkerts). Since such clicking distracts me, I will expect you to use technology thoughtfully. Here are my guidelines for thoughtful use:

  1. No cell phones in class. I’m not interested in them; sorry. I recommend leaving it in your room or car or somewhere else, not on you. However, if that’s not possible, then the cell phone must be put away in a bag when you enter; it may not be left on the table/desk or anywhere visible. It must also be shut off.
  2. No laptops out or open in class unless I have (in advance on the assignment page) invited you to use them. On days when a reading assignment is electronic (eg. a pdf) or we are workshopping a draft that you have submitted to Canvas, then I will invite laptop use. However, even on those days, the laptop will also be closed at times when we are not directly using them. For anyone who is in need of the use of a laptop for notes, rather than handwriting in a notebook, please come talk with me to make your case and make arrangements.
  3. Notebook and Pen and Book/Text assigned for class that day must be out and ready for use. These are also technologies and we will use them every class as a basis for discussion and further reading and argumentation.

I will give a friendly reminder only once if there is a violation of any of these (cell phone away, put laptop away, get your book out). After that the participation grade will be affected and a conference will be advised.


I plan to give you a range of feedback and information about your progress and learning—in class, in conferences, on informal assignments and my evaluations of your formal writing projects. I will also ask for your feedback (don’t be alarmed) at various points in a class or a conference. I always want to know what questions you have, about the course as well as your learning, and will frequently ask you for your questions. A great way to demonstrate engagement and learning, especially with a difficult or challenging text or topic, is to ask a question about what one doesn’t understand. I value questions as a rich form of communication—in fact, many of our discussions will begin and end with exploring and updating the kinds of questions you have.

Another valuable resource for communication and experimentation: the Writing Center (106 Goldstein). We will at times make use of the WC’s talent and services as a class; I encourage you to do so individually as well, to discuss ideas, workshop a draft, follow up on a grammatical or rhetorical issue of interest to you and your progress as a writer, begin to map out ideas for your first book or screenplay. Enough to say, I wish I had a Writing Center when I was an undergraduate.

I encourage any student who has concerns or questions about learning differences, documented or not, to speak further with me as well as to consult Washington College’s Office of Academic Skills (second floor of the library). We can explore arrangements that will support your learning experience in the course.

Academic Integrity

Washington College has the following policy regarding academic integrity and plagiarism: Plagiarism is defined by the Honor Code as “willfully presenting the language, ideas, or thoughts of another person as one’s original work.”  Turning in someone else’s work as your own is obviously plagiarism.  Quoting or paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without properly citing your source is also plagiarism.  If you ever have any question at all about whether you are using a source correctly, ask me about it to make sure.  Submitting a paper for this class that contains all or part of a paper that you submitted in another class, without the permission of both professors involved, is also a violation of the honor code. A student found guilty of plagiarism may fail the assignment or the course, and may be referred to the Honor Board for further adjudication.  Whenever you hand in a paper for this course, you must include in your essay a statement that your work has been completed in compliance with the Honor Code. Washington College has contracted with, a web-based plagiarism prevention service. You may be submitting copies of your writing projects to

Integrity suggests wholeness; a synonym would be ecology. Your integrity affects the integrity of the whole learning environment here, in the class (where you are relying upon the response of your peers) and on campus. We will be talking further about the integrity of your writing and the ways that your writing can be inventive without being plagiarized. The point is that I take plagiarism seriously, but as such, also want you to learn and ask questions about it.


I will be assessing your progress and understanding in the course primarily through the blog assignments and writing projects. Each of those will have an evaluation rubric given with the assignment. Assessment is important in learning, as it is in writing; so in addition to my feedback, I will expect you to do some self-assessment and to bring that into your course work and discussions with me whenever we meet for a conference. To give you an approximation of the various kinds of assignments and their value in the overall course grade, consider:

Participation (including attendance): 10%

Reading (blog postings, presentations, journal): 25%

Writing Projects: 40%

Final project: 25%


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