Seminar in Composition Studies: The Personal Essay in Composition and Rhetoric

ENG 705: Composition Theory

TTh 1:30-2:45pm

Professor: Sarah Allen

Format: face-to-face

In this course, we will situate the personal essay within the field of Composition and Rhetoric, tracing a particular lineage for the genre that intersects with important figures in the discipline’s history, like Heraclitus, Gorgias, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Emerson, William Gass, Cixous, Peter Elbow, bell hooks, and Donna Haraway. However, we will also reach beyond those names to examine “nature essays” by essayists like Annie Dillard and Sy Montgomery, as well as essays selected by students in the course that conduct sociopolitical critique and constructions of situated selves within a variety of cultural, historical, and ideological frameworks. This opposition between “nature” and “the social” is central to the discipline of rhetoric and composition, as well as to the ways in which the personal essay has evolved as a genre. Finally, we will look to the ecological turn in the field to examine the ways in which essayists are participating in the decentering of the human being, which is simultaneously disrupting the opposition of “nature” and “the social.”

In the end, students will produce their own works of creative nonfiction that are somehow both speaking to/within the discourses of rhetoric and composition, while also doing the critical work that the individual student is invested in—personally and professionally. It is the negotiation of those two investments that, I hope, will prove to be the most productive in the final essay, as it will offer students the opportunity to connect their work to their own identities in ways that are meaningful and critical—avoiding sentimentalism or idealization and, instead, practicing a relentless skepticism, which is the heart of the genre in rhetoric and composition.

Student Learning Outcomes:

Students will…

situate the personal essay within the field of Composition and Rhetoric, tracing a particular lineage for the genre

identify, analyze, and teach essays that conduct sociopolitical critique and constructions of situated selves within a variety of cultural, historical, and ideological frameworks

critically engage with the opposition between “nature” and “the social” that is central to the discipline of rhetoric and composition, as well as to the ways in which the personal essay has evolved as a genre

explore the ecological turn in the field to examine the ways in which essayists are participating in the decentering of the human being, which is simultaneously disrupting the opposition of “nature” and “the social”

produce their own publishable works of creative nonfiction that are somehow both speaking to/within the discourses of rhetoric and composition, while also doing the critical work that the individual student is invested in—personally and professionally

Possible Assignments:

Biweekly reading responses, which will be short (4-page) personal essays that synthesize and respond to the readings.

Selection and presentation of an essay, including research that situates the essay within the discipline (e.g., by pointing to themes or modes of critique that are valued by the discipline) and including the facilitation of class discussion on the essay.

Final, research-based personal essay that might be submitted for publication.

Possible Readings:

Heraclitus, Fragments

Gorgias, Encomium of Helen

Montaigne, excerpts of Essais

Nietzsche, excerpts of Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil, and Ecce Homo

Emerson, “On Nature”

Gass, “Emerson and the Essay”

Cixous, “Laugh of the Medusa”

Peter Elbow, excerpts of Writing with Power

bell hooks, excerpts of Talking Back

Donna Haraway, excerpts of When Species Meet

Dillard, “Seeing” and excerpt of The Writing Life

Montgomery, excerpts of How to be a Good Creature

Readings chosen by students