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English 450, Spring 2020

Advanced Expository Writing: The Long Essay

University of Massachusetts Amherst

  • INSTRUCTOR: David Fleming, PhD
  • CLASS MEETINGS: MW 2:30 - 3:45 pm, South College W205
  • OFFICE: South College W351
  • OFFICE HOURS: T 2:30 - 4:00 pm, W 1:00 - 2:30 pm & gladly by appt.
  • PHONE: 545-2972 (o)
  • EMAIL:

  •  Description  |  Assignments  |  Texts  |  Policies & Grades  |  Calendar  


    Although the word gets applied to any and all forms of school writing, the “essay” as a genre of written inquiry, expression, and communication is, ironically, often neglected in the academy. In literary corners of English Studies, it rarely rises to the level of the “Big Three”: fiction, poetry, and drama. And in the postsecondary teaching of writing, it can get lost in the overriding concern for students’ growth as academic writers, as producers of critical and analytic discourse, research papers, and other scholarly genres. In “real world” contexts, meanwhile, the essay often struggles to find a place amidst more obviously professional discourse: reports, articles, and other workaday forms of written communication. Yet the essay opens a space for writing that no other genre fully exploits, a space where the subjective and objective meet, where a personal voice can be heard in contact with the “real” world, where creative, scholarly, and documentary impulses meet.

    As defined here, the essay includes many different kinds of nonfiction prose, from memoir to profile, nature writing to arts criticism, personal reflections to more public forms of discursive engagement. The essay is distinct from fiction, in one direction; academic writing, in another; and journalism, in a third – even as the boundaries among these categories constantly shift and blur. “Creative nonfiction” is one way to talk about, and raise the stakes for, the essay as a genre, but that phrase sometimes excludes “expository” forms of writing which overlap with journalism while resisting the mundane and ephemeral. In this course, we will take a capacious view of the essay, refusing to define the genre too precisely, even as we make sure to highlight kinds of writing that aren’t usually central in courses focused on “literary,” “professional,” or “academic” discourse.

    The course is meant to be a culminating step in the department’s “expository writing” coursework, building on courses like English 350 Expository Writing, but there’s no expectation of substantial experience in the genre. We’ll read widely in different kinds of essays, learn composition techniques and strategies, share writing in peer response groups, and work through a sequence of increasingly challenging projects, writing multiple drafts for each one and attending to both content and form in the process. We’ll begin with short, informal pieces of writing, working up to longer, more complex projects, aiming for a publishable 5,000 word essay by the end but seeing that, finally, as only one piece in a semester’s portfolio of work.

    Learning goals. In this course, you can expect to

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    Work in the course will include:

    Reading and discussion.  Reading is crucial for developing skill as a writer: it can function as inspiration, as model, as material to center group reflection and discussion. We’ll do some reading for every class meeting. Sometimes the reading will be from required texts meant to provide common material for analysis and discussion; sometimes you will bring in texts you have located yourself to share with us; and very often we will read and respond to one another’s compositions.

    Writing.  The main work of the class, however, will be your own writing. You’ll complete a variety of projects, beginning with shorter assignments, 3-5 pp long (DS), and working up to longer texts of 8-15 pp (DS) and even longer. For each project, you’ll submit intermediate drafts to me and/or your peers, and you’ll compile all your process work in a unit portfolio. At the end of the course, you’ll submit all your finished essays in a final portfolio; we may collaborate on a class magazine as well. Expectations for the course include effortful invention in initial drafts, thoughtful revision in later drafts, careful editing in final versions, and punctual submission of all materials to the instructor and peer responders.

    Obligations to our writing community. We will do much of our writing and reading together; and we’ll be sharing our work often in class and in other venues. Your active, sympathetic, and reliable participation in our classroom community will be important.

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    The main source of readings for the first half of the semester will be current issues of The New Yorker, a weekly publication that has been important in the history of the American essay. The magazine is available for free through UMass Libraries, but I encourage you to order a student subscription for the semester. (I’ll have more to say about this by email and in class.) In the second half of the semester, we’ll survey a wider, more diverse selection of venues for the contemporary essay; each of you will be responsible for learning about one or more of these other venues, finding model essays suitable for your own work, and sharing what you find with the rest of us.

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    Class Policies & Grades

    Please read the following policies carefully and let me know if you have questions about any of them.

    Attendance:  Regular attendance in this class is important and thus required. If you must miss class for an unavoidable, legitimate reason – serious illness, death in the family, religious observance, etc. – let me know as soon as possible, and remember that you are responsible for any missed work. Beyond one unexcused absence, your final grade will be reduced 1/3 letter grade for each day missed. Coming to class excessively and/or repeatedly late, or turning in work late, may also result in penalties. For campus-wide expectations about attendance, see the University’s Academic Regulations 2019-20 here.

    Engagement. Mere attendance, though, is not enough; a course like this requires engagement: with ideas, with language, with one another, with the world. I ask that you be willing here to stretch your linguistic and literary muscles, to risk exposing your thoughts and words in “public,” to be prepared to participate actively in every class meeting. I also ask that you practice taking care of one another, being generous, supportive, and forgiving even as you push and challenge, working to strengthen our community even as we make it safe for difference and disagreement.

    Classroom Civility and Respect. “The University of Massachusetts Amherst strives to create an environment of academic freedom that fosters the personal and intellectual development of all community members. In order to do this, the University protects the rights of all students, faculty and staff to explore new ideas and to express their views. While the principle of academic freedom protects the expression and exploration of new ideas, it does not protect conduct that is unlawful and disruptive. The University preserves a high standard for members of the community in terms of mutual respect and civility.” For more, click here. For the University's diversity resources, go here.

    Academic Honesty Statement. “Academic dishonesty is prohibited in all programs of the University. Academic dishonesty includes but is not limited to: cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and facilitating dishonesty. Appropriate sanctions may be imposed on any student who has committed an act of academic dishonesty. Since students are expected to be familiar with this policy and the commonly accepted standards of academic integrity, ignorance of such standards is not normally sufficient evidence of lack of intent.” For more information, click here.

    Accommodation Statement. “The University of Massachusetts Amherst is committed to providing an equal educational opportunity for all students. If you have a documented physical, psychological, or learning disability on file with Disability Services (DS), you may be eligible for reasonable academic accommodations to help you succeed in this course. If you have a documented disability that requires an accommodation, please notify me within the first two weeks of the semester so that we may make appropriate arrangements. For more information, consult the Disability Services website here.”

    Final grade.  Your final grade for the semester will be based on the following formula:

    Project 1 10%
    Project 2


    Project 3


    Project 4


    Project 5




    Final Portfolio




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    Calendar (tentative)

    day topics and assignments
    1 W 01/22 Introduction to class. Introduction to Project 1
    2 M 01/27 Project 1 draft due
      W 01/29  
    3 M 02/03 Project 1 due. Introduction to Project 2
          Mon., Feb. 3 is the last day to add or drop the class with no record
      W 02/05  
    4 M 02/10 Project 2 draft due
      W 02/12  
    5 T 02/18 Project 2 due. Introduction to Project 3
          Mon., Feb. 17 is a holiday; Tues., Feb 18 is a Monday schedule.
      W 02/19  
    6 M 02/24 Project 3 draft due
      W 02/26  
    7 M 03/02 Project 3 due. Introduction to Project 4
      W 03/04  
    8 M 03/09 Project 4 draft due
      W 03/11  
    9   03/15-03/22 Spring recess
    10 M 03/23 Project 4 due. Introduction to long essay report
          Tue., Mar. 24 is the last day to drop with ‘W’ and select ‘P/F’ (back to top)
      W 03/25  
    11 M 03/30 long essay reports
      W 04/01 long essay reports, cont'd
    12 M 04/06 Introduction to Project 5: the long essay
      W 04/08  
    13 M 04/13 Project 5 outline
      W 04/15  
    14 W 04/22 Project 5 draft due
          Mon., Apr. 20 is a holiday; Wed., Apr. 22 is a Monday schedule.
    15 M 04/27 Project 5 presentations
      W 04/29 last day of class. Project 5 presentations, cont’d
    16 M 05/04 final portfolio due
    * T 05/12 final grades due

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