|Back to Marlboro home|
Writing Seminar: Reading and Writing the Natural World
“Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tributes of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)
“He had known no other place. From babyhood he had moved in the openings and foldings of the old farm as familiarly as he moved inside his clothes. Before he bought it he had farmed it for five years as the tenant of other heirs. But after the full responsibility of it fell to him, he saw it with a new clarity. He had simply relied on it before. Now when he walked his fields and pastures and woodlands he was tramping into his mind the shape of his land, his thought becoming indistinguishable from it, so that when he came to die his intelligence would subside into it like its own spirit."
Wendell Berry, “The Memory of Old Jack” (1974)
Nature is both the place of our lives and the very ground of our imagination. Walking a fine line between rhapsody and detachment, between aesthetic celebration and scientific explanation, nature writing captures our endless fascination with the natural world. In this writing seminar, we will read a range of American nature writers (Henry David Thoreau, Gretel Ehrlich, Rick Bass Terry Tempest Williams, Annie Dillard) and a variety of genres (essays on solitary and backcountry living, travel and adventure stories, memoirs, poetry). We will consider how nature writing awakens an ecological way of seeing—how recording the natural history of a place helps us understand how we see, how we know, and how we position ourselves in the natural world. Throughout the semester, we will return to John Muir’s words: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
And, of course, . . .we will write. During this semester, we will explore writing as an activity that we learn by doing, with some coaching. For this reason, our class time will be spent generally doing, not listening to lectures about writing. The way we will work toward our goal is through lots of practice in writing, critiquing, and rewriting. A long distance runner improves her or his times by running faster, more frequently, and through good coaching. A painter spends long hours in the studio, reworking line and color—getting it just right. This class will be your writing studio. You will work on your craft, rewriting, revising, rethinking, polishing; and I will be your coach, your advisor, and your supporter, but not the only coach. All of your writing will be read by other students, and each of you will become a coach. We will take seriously the opening line of Patricia Hampl’s book, I Could Tell You Stories: “A writer is, first and last, a reader.”
We will work toward our goal through lots of practice in writing, critiquing, and rewriting.
The above texts are available at the College Bookstore. All secondary materials will be in the form of handouts.
Well, first off and of most importance—keep up with the readingand writing. Since each discussion and assignment will grow from the preceding one, it is important that you attend class regularly and come prepared to share your ideas.
Papers: You will be writing three papers—one 5 page personal narrative, one 5-6 page critical essay on class texts, and one 8-10 page research paper. Each of these essays will be revised at least twice, and my comments as well as your peers' comments will provide reader response that leads to revision. Since I am concerned with the process you move through to reach your final version, I am asking you to attach to your completed work all preliminary notes, drafts, diagrams, and outlines leading to your final copy. Since other students in class will come to depend on your writing and feedback, being on time with drafts is crucial. Paper grades will go down by half a grade if they are received late. If you are unable to attend class the day a draft is due, please make sure someone brings your paper to class or puts it in my mailbox. If you are late with more than one draft, I will ask you to drop the class and take it when you are better prepared for it.
You will also be writing a 1 page single-spaced response to each day's readings. These will be due at the beginning of class and will provide a foundation for class discussion. Though I may, at times, assign a topic, most often the responses are open; a response paper is a thoughtful reflection/meditation on something in the reading that matters to you, something that sparks your intellectual passions. Many of the topics we discuss in class will provide inroads for your explorations. You may choose to explore themes, characters, plot, narrative style, a specific quotation—what sparks your interest as a reader/as a human being, what seems important, confusing, entertaining or problematic in the narrative. Since the purpose of these writings is to express your ideas prior to class discussion, they will not be accepted late. Daily responses will be assessed on a check-plus-minus system.
In addition to your essays, each of you will be responsible for peer reviews of other students’ papers. Much of the class time will be spent working in groups, giving and getting feedback from your peers. I will be looking at these peer reviews for enthusiastic, honest, and constructive criticism. We will be discussing helpful ways in which to do this in class.
Attendance: Because of our workshop format, attendance is extremely important. Two absences from class can be tolerated—no effect on your grade and no questions asked. More than two absences will affect your final grade. (In extraordinary cases of proven emergency, this provision will be modified). Whether or not you are absent, you are still responsible for the work covered, and essays are still due on the date requested. Chronic lateness will also affect your grade.
Conferences: During the semester, each of you will meet with me for at least three conferences. These conferences will provide individual time for you to discuss your writing. A missed conference is considered an absence.
Evaluation: Grades will be placed on each of your final drafts. There will be no final examination for this course, though we will have a final portfolio review during the last week of classes. So—don’t throw any of your work away.
In assessing your writing I look for the following qualities: (1) Competence: how thoroughly you introduced your topic, and developed and supported your ideas; (2) Creativity: how much you exerted yourself in being inventive, in taking a risk and trying something new or difficult, in approaching the assignment as more than just an assignment, in making what you write interesting to your readers; (3) Clarity: how clearly you were able to get your ideas across to your readers by focusing your topic and using effective organization, sentences, and words: (4) Correctness: how well you followed grammatical and mechanical conventions (punctuation, syntax, spelling), and how clearly you documented your footnotes and bibliography; (5) Care: how well you incorporated suggestions and comments from your readers, and to what extent you presented a neat, readable paper.
Don't let this overwhelm you. I guarantee that it is not as much as it sounds. The writings will be fun, thought provoking, and even entertaining. And, in addition to our class’s community of writers and readers, you have two other great sources for help: check out the Writer’s Block, and also look up Marlboro's writing page on the web at www.marboro.edu/~jsheehy/writing.
The following is a list of our readings for the semester. All essays and poems are in the form of handouts. The reading must be completed by the date listed.
M 9/5—Introduction to the class. “The Face of a Spider” David Quammen, “An Entrance to the Woods” Wendell Berry and “Against Nature” Joyce Carol Oates (essays handed out at intro class on August 31)
W 9/7—The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich, pgs. 1-61
M 9/12—The Solace of Open Spaces, pgs. 62-131
W 9/14—Draft of essay #1 due. Please bring three copies to class.
M 9/19—NO CLASS/CONFERENCES
W 9/21— Walden, Henry David Thoreau, pgs. 3-104
M 9/26—ESSAY #1 DUE with drafts, peer response sheets, and my comments. Please bring two copies of completed essay to class. Walden, pgs. 105-240
W 9/28— Walden, pgs. 241-312 and “Impersonating Thoreau” Rick Bass (handout)
M 10/3— Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, pgs. 3-104
W 10/5—Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, pgs. 105-183
M 10/10—Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pgs. 184-288 and secondary article (handout)
W 10/12—Draft of essay #2 due. Please bring three copies to class.
M 10/17—NO CLASS/WALTER HENDRICKS DAY
W 10/19— NO CLASS/CONFERENCES
M 10/24— ESSAY #2 DUE with drafts, peer response sheets, and my comments. Please bring two copies of completed essay to class. Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams, pgs. 3-166
W 10/26— Refuge, pgs. 167-290.
M 10/31—— Book of Yaak, Rick Bass, pgs. xiii-100
W 11/2— Book of Yaak, pgs. 101-190. RESEARCH PROSPECTUS DUE
M 11/7—Workshop on integrating sources and documentation.
W 11/9—Research Workshop
M 11/14—Research Workshop
W 11/16— Draft of essay #3 (research paper) due. Please bring 3 copies to class.
M 11/21— NO CLASS/CONFERENCES
W 11/23—NO CLASS/THANKSGIVING BREAK
M 11/28—2nd draft of essay #3 due.
W 11/30—ESSAY #3 DUE with drafts, peer response sheets, and my comments.
M 12/5— Portfolio review/Self assessment
W 12/7 No class/portfolio checks