First-Year Composition

Seminar in Composition | ENG-CMP 200 | University of Pittsburgh

Blog: Our Materials of Thinking: a Commonplace Blog

PDF Syllabus: ENGCMP200_1051_SCSpring2015

Course Description Excerpt

In this course we’ll take on as our subject critical inquiry. Both a method of composition and an indication of many genres of writing (academic or otherwise), critical inquiry prioritizes questioning and curiosity over argument and assertion. It is taking on the act of writing as an act of problem-solving, even if a clear solution isn’t ever fully realized by the conclusion. As our primary case study, we’ll read Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, one music critic’s experiment in his own distaste of the musical artist and pop phenomenon Celine Dion. Rather than reading just for what the book has to say, we’ll read as much, if not more, for how Wilson goes about saying things—for how he’s taking up his own point of inquiry—and you’ll develop your own points of inquiry in response.

Primary texts:

  • Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, by Carl Wilson
  • Student writing from the course blogs, essays, and ephemeral assignments

Sample Project Prompt Excerpt

For Bourdieu, taste is always interested—in fact, self-interested—and those interests are social. His theories press the point that aesthetics are social all the way down, just a set of euphemisms for a starker system of inequality and competition . . . What we have agreed to call tastes, he said, is an array of symbolic associations we use to set ourselves apart from those whose social ranking is beneath us, and to take aim at the status we think we deserve. Taste is a means of distinguishing ourselves from others, the pursuit of distinction. And its end product is to perpetuate and reproduce the class structure.

–Carl Wilson

For this particular project, you should develop a point of inquiry around the concept of taste, as a way of attempting to theorize what contributes to our taste perceptions, why that is, and how taste perceptions develop. To do this, you’ll want to orient your essay around a particular issue, point of tension, or question that you feel is important in the conversations surrounding taste.

In previous assignments I’ve provided some driving questions to get you started. At this point, I’d like to turn the responsibility for designing the point of inquiry over to you. What I will offer, though, is some advice. We’ve spoken at various moments about moving to contribute to and/or complicate (rather than merely agreeing/disagreeing), and you’ll want to think of this project as an essay-length complication. In other words, your issue, point of tension, or question will be most productive if you begin by identifying an existing concept or notion you’ve observed (in our texts and your interviews, for instance) that you feel deserves further complication, addition, clarification, etc. This will provide you, and your readers, with a sense of your stakes in a broader conversation.

If we think of Wilson as our case study, Wilson summarizes Bourdieu’s theory of taste as inextricably tied to pursuit of “social ranking” or distinction. Wilson, however, does not fully adopt Bourdieu’s theory. He finds power in the notion of taste development as social, but then complicates Bourdieu’s position by taking up parts of the theory but then altering others (thinking of distinction as “cool,” is one aspect of this).

Both Wilson and Bourdieu constructed their theories of taste by working with data, texts, and experiences they had collected. You’ve collected a lot of data, too, including (but not limited to) moments from Let’s Talk About Love, Bourdieu’s study, your interviews, and your own personal experiences. I expect to see ample use of these resources in your essay, though the resources you prioritize will depend substantially on your particular point of inquiry.

Literature and Composition | Eng 101 | Washington College

Course Description

The purpose of this course is to help us understand the ways in which students, literary authors, and scholars use language to analyze, articulate, and investigate, and to put some of these methods into practice in our own writing. The subject of this course is writing, and how authors (ourselves included) make use of writing to pursue and pin down ideas that are difficult to grapple with.

The difference between this course and a more traditional literature course is that we’ll be looking at literature from a writer’s perspective, and that “literature” is broadly defined. Rather than address the literary “canon,” we’ll look at innovative texts (from web texts and TED talks to hybrid multi-genre poetic experiments) that challenge our expectations in order to think about authorial decisions and motivations. We’ll consider the decisions, as we interpret them, that authors have made and how these decisions impact our experiences as readers. We’ll also read a variety of texts directly related to the writing process and how student writers develop. These readings will help you understand your own choices as a writer and will help you learn to make use of language effectively and productively and in ways that will serve you will in future coursework and in your lives beyond college.

Sample Readings

  • Steven Johnson, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” TED Talk.
  • Flower, Nancy & John Hayes. “The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem,”
  • Hirsch, Ed. “Walking with His Muse, a Poet Becomes His own Destination” The Washington Post.
  • Kreider, Tim. “The ‘busy’ Trap” The New York Times Opinionator.

Sample Project Prompt Excerpt

In our recent readings we’ve been looking at a variety of approaches to where ideas come from, and practicing how to read for argument analytically and become a conversant in the conversation we’re witnessing. In this essay you’ll join in conversation at least two of the following authors from our readings (Kreider, Krashen, Flower and Hayes, Hirsch, and or Johnson). Your task, in the end, is to emerge with your own stance in response, after having taken ample time to assess and evaluate the conversation started by these earlier works, and in relation to one another. To do so, you’ll not only consider what the argument is (what question is the author seeking to work through? What assumptions does the author make?) but how the author makes it (how do the author’s moves and genre affect your interpretation of their argument? How does the mode/genre he/she is writing in benefit or limit their ideas?).

Literature and Composition | ENG 101 | Washington College

Course Description

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is, he does not draw upon a reservoir; instead he engages in an activity that brings him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays, plays, laws, philosophies, religions… I live by the certain richness, an idea difficult to pin, difficult to say, and perhaps offensive to some. ~ William Stafford

The subject of this course is writing, and how authors (ourselves included) make use of writing to pursue the “idea hard to pin, difficult to say” (as Stafford puts it). We will look at texts (read written works, both literary and academic), we will read and think about writing (as a topic in and of itself), and we will write (to improve our thinking, and put our thinking into practice). In other words, we’ll consider how writing is a project and a process (a pursuit, an undertaking, an act) as much as it is a product (a thing with observable qualities that has an effect on us as readers). My hope is that you will leave my course with more confidence and self-awareness (as readers, writers, and thinking human beings) as you continue onward in your college careers and your lives beyond. In many ways, this course serves as your introduction to collegiage-level thinking, operating under the premise that writing offers a means of developing ideas and articulating them, and not only for ourselves, but others. It is my own belief that sophisticated writing requires (and determines) effective organization, plausible claims and overall argument, careful observation and use of evidence, as well as stylistic and grammatical proficiency, which are the overall objectives of the first-year composition course at Washington College.

Sample readings

  • Bartholomae, David. “Against the Grain.”
  • Monson, Ander, “Essay as Hack,” from Vanishing Point. Webtext.
  • Nelson, Maggie. Jane: A Murder.

Sample Project Prompt Excerpt

In our latest book, Jane: A Murder, Maggie Nelson implies or hints at the reasoning behind her project, but does not describe it directly. This is not, after all, your average murder mystery story. The purpose of this project is not to determine who done it in the traditional sense of the genre. What, then, is Nelson’s purpose in writing this project? For this essay you will choose one segment of the book (one type of section, prose poetry, news article, dialogues with others, etc.) or thematic thread (dream sequences, Jane’s journal entries, Nelson’s entries, etc.) to focus your attention. Your ultimate purpose is to to offer an interpretation for how Jane: A Murder teaches us how to read it. What do you interpret Nelson’s “project” to be and why? Is the project the same for her as it is for us as readers?

Composition | Eng 101 | George Mason University

Course Description

This course will serve as your introduction to college-level writing, and will equip you with the tools to help you investigate a topic, emerge with some of your own ideas, and deliver those ideas effectively to an audience. The skills you will acquire in this course will be applicable to future academic writing assignments you will encounter in your disciplines, as well as in the world outside of the academy. To assist our learning and provide us with a topic upon which to ruminate this semester, the writing assignments, readings, and discussions will grapple with writing in public spaces (blogs, web media, public radio, print media, Facebook, billboards, graffiti, etc.) To enhance our understanding of this topic, we’ll contribute to class blogs which will serve as our own version of public writing.

Sample readings

  • Cass Sunstein, “Media and Democracy: A ‘Daily Me’ or a ‘Daily We’?
  • Transcripts from the 2008 presidential campaigns, speeches by Barack Obama, August 28, 2008, John McCain, September 4, 2008 |
  • “Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell

Sample Project Prompt Excerpt

We have been talking through how to make your sources “speak” in your essays (to you, to the reader, and to other sources), and how you, the author, are the facilitator of the conversation. Your role in this conversation is to assess and analyze the arguments and information presented by your sources and come to claims of your own, based on that work. Given that these published works are also publics, consider how they’ve presented themselves in their respective media and use that information to frame the character you imagine them inhabiting.

In this exploratory assignment you will literally put your sources into conversation with each other by imaging they have been put in a high-stakes environment of complex relationships and exchange. Your sources can be fighters in a boxing ring, tennis players, superheroes and villains, jury members, political figures competing for office, or any other characters you can imagine your sources inhabiting.

You, on the other hand, are the sports analyst, a reporter, a judge, or some other character who observes, facilitates, and analyzes the conversation (or fight, as it may be) between your sources. Ultimately, you are the character who draws conclusions of your own (decides who wins based on superior skills, enter the boxing ring yourself, decide on a verdict, etc.)


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