Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Michael Pollan's notes for the Intro and Chapter One: The Apple (also: colons & semi-colons!)

Before, during, or after you read the apple chapter of Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, please take a look at Pollan's notes for both of these chapters, which we'll talk about on Friday, in addition to discussing the chapter itself.

And here's the information on colons and semi-colons that I shared in class today.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Defend Americans' right to assemble and petition our government

If you care about our First Amendment rights as Americans to peaceably assemble & to petition the government for a redress of grievances, please submit an official comment on the regulations currently under consideration to create new barriers on organizing protests and large gatherings like the Million Man March near some of our most important government buildings in Washington D.C.

Our nation has a long history of marches, gatherings, and protests––from a wide range of points on the political spectrum–– that have been held on the National Mall and other places of national and symbolic importance in D.C.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

My Feelings Relating to the Word "Relatable"

I wrote the post below the second time I taught Nonfiction writing, so it's several years old at this point. But a couple weeks ago I referred in passing to my dislike of (and resignation regarding) the word "relatable," and a student in fourth period was curious about a fuller explanation, so I am reproducing the post here in the unlikely event that you want to hear my whole rationale for why I dislike the word. (Note that I wrote this back when I was not resigned to its use, so I was more inclined to rant about it. Now that I'm resigned, there's really no point. I'm sure you can relate :)


Nonfiction Writing is one of my favorite classes to teach. I love spending a semester helping students learn how to write eloquent, concise, engaging personal essays and seeing them develop a compelling writing voice of their own.

The last time I taught Nonfiction Writing was the first time I came across the word "relatable" in my students' writing. A student or two described the voice or tone or topic of an essay we'd read as "relatable." My reaction to this word was negative, but it didn't seem like a big deal, since it didn't come up more than a couple times. I may have mentioned the word to my students, and if I did, I may have told them that it's not a real word. I may not have. I don't remember. I certainly remember thinking "That is not actually a word, and if it were... feh."

That was a couple years ago, and now I'm teaching the class again. And in the first assignment I collected, where students responded to several essays of their own choosing, I came across the word "relatable" at least a dozen times. One student, normally a clear, precise, and confident writer, used the word a total of four times in a two-page paper.

I've been an English teacher long enough to know that before I make some pronouncement to my class, along the lines of "That's not a real word" or "The correct pronunciation is...," I need to check my sources. The English language is vast, complex, and ever-changing. We are fortunate to have a gigantic vocabulary at our disposal, and our words come from every corner of the globe, with new ones being added and old ones morphing into new ones all the time.

So I looked up "relatable" and found that it is indeed in the dictionary. Of course it's in the dictionary, because it is in fact a word. It means "able to be related." Like a story. But that's not how my students are using it. They mean "able to be related to." And according to my beloved ginormo desk dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th edition), that's not the definition. "Relatable" is just there at the end of the entry for "relate," meaning that the AHDEL defines it my way, not my students' way.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, however, backs up the young'uns:

re·lat·a·ble/riˈlātəbəl/ Adjective: 1. Able to be related to something else.
2. Enabling a person to feel that they can relate to someone or something: "Kate's problems make her more relatable."

Why do I hate this word? It's not the very fact of turning a verb into a noun. "Debatable" is fine, as is "dependable" and "deniable." Partly it's the preposition thing. To relate something is very different than to relate to something, and part of me thinks that therein lies my issue.

But no. I'm not normally picky in that way. It is a little ugly to cram "to relate to" into an "able" ajective. But it's more than that.

I think my problem is an assumption that underlies the word: that if this character, this person, this being has something very obvious in common with me, I can "relate to" him, her, it, and thus I can validate him, her, or it. And if we have nothing in common that I can see from a cursory glance, then I might just feel that this voice isn't speaking to me. And I find that a bit solipsistic and shallow.

In fact, there's a better word that we English teachers have been promoting for years that fits the "relatable" bill but is less dependent on the reader's (or viewer's or listener's) experience and worldview being replicated by the artistic or writerly perspective in question. It's "sympathetic." The question of whether we can sympathize with a character, with a writer, with a voice is a much larger one, and (I would argue) enables a more sophisticated and a more outward-looking conversation.

Perhaps we need to promote sympathy as a better lens through which to evaluate writing than "relatability." And perhaps we need to have a conversation about other, more specific, less flabby words that fit into the big baggy mess that is "relatable." But I begin by rejecting the word.

I do not relate.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Finding sources on gender non-specific language

You are interns for a small online magazine that focuses on popular culture from a general interest point of view. Your boss wants you to write a casual but informed 600-word piece on gender-nonspecific language in the twenty-first century. It should introduce the basic issue of gender specific language and give a very brief bit of history (feel free to use Anne Fadiman as one historical source), and it should end by offering readers advice on and/or range of options for how to approach gender nonspecific language. 

Begin by sharing the list of language issues related to gender that each of you made last week. Decide on which issue or issues seems the most pressing and the most relevant to a magazine audience of college-educated younger adults interested in popular culture. You can choose one issue, or a small handful with one being the main focus.

Then make a list of places where you might find information about the issue(s) you've chosen to focus on––this can include print and online resources, but also any other information source you could access within a small budget (for example, contacting experts or commenters in any number of fields or areas by phone, email, etc.). 

Then spend a few minutes trying to find two or more sources to check for basic information that you can use to begin to shape the very first draft of your piece. 

Create a rough outline for the piece you envision (including references to any information you intend to gather from more time-intensive means like interviews).

If you have time, write the first paragraph or two.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Notebook questions (and a note) for "Best American Answers to the Question 'What Do You Believe...'"

For the "Best American Answers to the Question 'What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It,'” please complete the following in your notebook:

  1. As you read, write down the last name of the writer and the first three to five words of the answer for each of these answers, then as you finish each decide whether it seems to be making an argument. Write “yes,” “no,” or “yes and no” for each answer. (You don’t need to explain at this point, though we will likely discuss your whys on Wednesday.)
  2. Decide which two answers offer the most persuasive logic for their "thing I believe in even though I can't prove it." What specific elements of these answers make each persuasive for you?

Note: In the last paragraph of her answer, Alison Gopnik refers to Dan Dennett’s answer, which is not reprinted in this group, but can be found online here. Basically, his answer is a rather Wittgensteinian “I believe, but cannot yet prove, that acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language) is a necessary precondition for consciousness.”

Monday, October 01, 2018

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Group work for college administrator admissions essays

1.     As a group, come to an agreement on which two essays among the six that we read for today seem most like argument essays, which seem most strongly to make a debatable point. For those two essays, agree on a sentence that you think is the best candidate for a thesis statement.

2.     Imagine that your group is the admissions committee for an elite graduate program for college administrators seeking an advanced certificate in Social and Emotional Learning. Excellent writing skills are one of the criteria for admission. Other qualities the committee is looking for are strong leadership abilities, good critical thinking skills, and emotional intelligence. 

You have a group of six finalists, all of whom have been deemed equal in every respect (graduate school transcripts, publications, service to their universities, etc.) and now you must choose which two candidates to admit based on the writing samples you have before you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Revision advice

Here's a link to the text of the PowerPoint presentation on revision I've beenI sharing with you in class, in case you want to revisit any of the strategies or ideas we covered.

You're encouraged but not required to revise essay #1. Remember that revisions are due a week after you receive your feedback from me (or on Friday, September 21, if you received your feedback before Friday, September 14). But you are also welcome to ask for an extension on your revision for essay #1. Don't forget your cover letter detailing the significant changes you've made in your revision. (Below, you will find a few examples of revision cover letters.)

Example #1:

Example #2

Example #3

Monday, September 24, 2018

The power of the open letter

If you're interested in a discussion of the open letter as a form of political protest, "The Intimate, Political Power of the Open Letter" by Emily Nordi explores how the form has been used as a vehicle for literary activism by writers of color.

Open letters can also address more personal concerns, or can even be used to humorously raise issues with a colleagues, public servants, institutions, or nursery rhyme characters, as is sometimes the case in the various "Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond" at McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

In the last few minutes of class, begin thinking about who or what you would write an open letter to if you could (or had to). Make a short list of what you might want to say in your open letter, and if you have time, begin drafting the first two or three paragraphs.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Launching Points and Monday's reading assignment

We'll talk about launching points in class today, so her are a few resources for you to consult if you feel your essay needs a launching point and you're working on creating one:

A basic overview of the launching point

A simple example of a revision that introduces a launching point

A second example essay in need of a launching point

The second essay with a more nuanced launching point introduced through revision.

And here is your reading assignment for Monday, James Baldwin's "A Letter to My Nephew" (this is a link to online publication; here's a PDF version if you prefer to print the essay). Written in 1962, "A Letter to My Nephew" is an open letter (a genre we'll talk about in class on Monday), and thus it serves the dual purpose of a correspondence and also an essay (or, in many cases, some other public statement).

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Tuesday, September 18 in class

A few modes of opinion essay, as reflected by purpose-announcing titles

·     “In defense of…” (as in Judith Drake’s 1696 long essay, An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex)

·     “An Apology for…” (as in R.L. Stevenson’s 1877 essay “An Apology for Idlers”)

·     “In Praise of…” (as in Bertrand Russell’s 1935 essay, “In Praise of Idleness”)

·     “In Celebration of…” or “A Celebration of…” (as in “A Celebration of Life”by Rene Dubos)

·     “Against…” (as in Susan Sontag’s 1966 essay “Against Interpretation”)

·     “A Critique of…” (as in Emmanuel Kant’s 1781 workCritique of Pure Reason)

Claim: A single, debatable assertion, expressing a particular “take” on or an informed opinion on a topic or issue. A claim is an essential element of every point you make, and of the argument as a whole. You can’t make a point without making a claim.

Choose a claim from Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating” or Stevenson’s “An Apology for Idlers” and write three paragraphs agreeing and expanding on it (and/or updating it for the twenty-first century) OR disagreeing with and disproving it (and/or suggesting why it isn’t relevant in the twenty-first century)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Hazlitt group work

William Hazlitt, “On the Pleasure of Hating”

Discuss these questions with your small group, taking turns recording answers in this document as you arrive at conclusions:

1.    Take the long paragraph beginning at the top of page 190 and ending at the top of page 192 and break it into several shorter paragraphs. Where would it make sense to break this very long paragraph up? What effect does breaking it up have?

2.    Does Hazlitt actually see Hating as a “pleasure,” or is it something else? What else might this essay be called? (“On the ______ of hating?” “A ______ for/of hating”? Or…?) Does this seem like a defenseor an apology, or is it something else entirely (and if so, what would you call it?)

3.    Does this defense of hating seem in any way true to you? (Does it seem to show us something important about its age and/or culture, or about human nature itself?) Or is more a product of its author’s personality? Why? Find one or two pieces of evidence for one perspective, or the other, or both.

4.    Is hating an important part of contemporary mainstream American culture? If so, how so? (And if not, what makes you say so?) Answer in a well-developed paragraph that encompasses the complexity of your group's discussion on this question.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Reflecting on your direction for essay #1

Five minute quick-write (in your notebook):
  • If you already have an idea for your topic or direction for Essay #1: Describe your general idea for your essay and briefly sum up where you think you might go with it
  • If you're still deciding on a direction: Sum up the most promising couple of ideas you have so far and where you think you might take each
  • If you don't have any solid ideas for a direction yet : Look through the writing you’ve done in your notebook and identify two kernels of writing that you think could become an essay. Pick one to explore more and write about how it might become an essay, or combine the two, if that seems interesting. 

Ten-minute walk-and-talk:

In pairs, walk toward Kenney Gym along Stoughton, pass DCL, turn left just before you reach Kenney, and walk around the quad leading toward Beckman. We'll walk around the loop of that quad and come back the same way we came. As you walk, spend five or so minutes discussing one person’s essay ideas and six or so minutes discussing the other person’s. (I’ll let you know when five minutes have passed and you need to switch.) Each of you should share your ideas as concisely as you can, then your partner should briefly sum up 1. the aspect of your idea that seems most interesting and promising to them and (if there’s time) 2. the thing that seems most "thorny"* to them, and then share their ideas for things to consider in pursuing the idea. Bring your notebooks along. 

(We'll talk about "thorny" in class.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A few select blogs from former Nonfiction Writing students

A couple of posts from Clara's thoughtful, introspective blog, Solo: "Post #1 (reflection, very dramatic)"(on the topic of Frank Ocean's then-recent record, Blonde, from which Clara took her blog title), "Thoughts on being vulnerable," and "introverts, elitism, and Uni."

Anupam's vivid and engaging travel-themed blog, L'Avion Rose.

Lily's blog, Dashing On, which has a series of excellent travel posts (with beautiful pictures) from a trip she took to Ireland with her family the summer before she took NFW.

A post from Simone's blog, Cliff Notes, on the subject of her art postcard collection. (Check out the rest of her blog, too, if you're interested.)

Claire's blog, The View from Thing 2, which offers a variety of humorous and nicely detailed posts on a range of personal and usually fairly lighthearted topics.

"Dspburtte" from Xanthe's blog SpaghettiOs and Sunshine

"Art" from Adi's blog, Enter Title Here

"If you’ve seen me in the hallway" from Daniel's blog, Daniel Ramkumar's Deeply Personal Rummagings of the Mind and Soul

Read at least three posts from one of the blogs above, and then read at least one individual post each from three of the other blogs. Then we'll talk.

(Keep some brief and basic notes in your notebooks as you read. Most importantly, the names of the blogs you read and the titles of the posts. Also, anything that strikes you about the voice of the writer, the topic[s] they focus on, the details they include in their post, and anything else that really jumps out at you.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Reading for Wednesday postponed

Today in class we voted to postpone our reading of one of the four essays listed in the post below until next week, in favor of one extra work day for the multimedia project.

Some of you still need to take the reading poll, however, so please do that now if you haven't already!

Friday, December 01, 2017

Reading poll, part II

Please take this reading poll to decide which essay we'll read and discuss together next week.

Here are links to the four possible choices:

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Feedback on a very early draft of your portfolio reflection

Choose a partner, if possible someone you’ve worked with on peer editing one of your essays this semester (if not, that’s okay too). Take about 20 minutes to read their draft reflection and answer the following questions on their draft (questions 1-3) and on your own draft or in your notebook (question 4):
  1. What was the most interesting and/or surprising part of this draft reflection? 
  2. What did you want to hear more about?
  3. List between one and three questions you were left with after reading this draft reflection.
  4. Did reading this make you think of anything you want to add to your own reflection? If so, make a note of it in your notebook or on your own draft reflection. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Choose-one-of-two-essays discussion questions

For the Gelareh Asayesh essay:

1. Asayesh describes the veil she wears to the wake of a family friend as “this curtain of cloth that gives with one hand, takes away with the other.” How would you sum up the things she feels wearing hijab “takes away” from her (and/or women in general), and the things it “gives” her (and/or women in general)? Does each side of this divide seem equally compelling or powerful, given her essay?

2. Discuss whether the ambivalence Asayesh expresses toward wearing hijab is something you related to while reading this essay, and (if so) which aspect(s) of your life made it relatable for you.

For the Barack Obama essay:

1. What surprised you the most about this essay?

2. Obama says “everywhere I go across the country, and around the world, I see people pushing back against dated assumptions about gender roles.” This essay was published about sixteen months ago. Do you think that generalization is more or less true than it was then? How? Or is it both more true and less true? How?

For both essays:

3. Can you imagine writing an essay for publication sometime in the future? The two essays you chose from today are from Vogue and The New York Times, respectively. Can you envision a context where you might publish a personal essay in a similar publication? If not, is there any context where you see yourself writing an essay that an audience larger than a classroom would read? Why and/or why not? Discuss.