Writing Seminar: Literary Understanding

Fall 2000. Tuesday-Thursday, 10-11:20. D43
Instructor: Laura Stevenson
Office: D23A

Course Description

To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader; that is, you need to understand how writing works and what writers do to create the effects they want. Once you've developed that understanding, your education as a writer continues every time you read a book; without it, all your writing is shooting in the dark, and progress is necessarily haphazard.

Understanding how writing works requires analytical, scholarly, and intuitive skills. In this course, we will work on all three. The first paper (on fairy tales) is analytical and scholarly: it involves developing an understanding of how a story is affected by its audience, its social assumptions, and its historical context. The second paper (a "modest proposal") is intuitive: you learn how a satire works by writing one. Exercises on Boccaccio's Decameron will develop your skills in uncovering differing layers of meaning in deceptively simple tales – and with those layers, the discovery that Boccaccio is saying two entirely different things at once. A third paper, on Camus's The Plague, will use the skills developed in the first two papers and the exercises to unravel an extended parable and understand how a comparatively modern writer has used it in fiction. Discussions of and in-class explications of poetry will increase your awareness of how (not what) a poem means – useful information, should you happen to write poetry occasionally yourself.

In class, we will talk about all aspects of writing: language and its uses, genre and its effect on meaning, narration and its difficulties, the perils of subjectivity and objectivity, and the pitfalls of research. Your writing will be some of the writing discussed – especially in conferences and workshops – but the larger goal of the course is to enable you to develop literary understanding of your own, thus insuring your continuing progress as a writer when the class is over.

Back to the top


Course Policies

Paper grades: the base grade concerns the level of discourse --the sophistication of the ideas put forward and the clarity with which those ideas are expressed. This grade can be obtained only by consulting with me in person. From the base, I subtract 1 point

(out of 100) for each error in grammar, punctuation or spelling, and I record the total

number of errors at the end of the paper. Subtracted points on papers 1 and 2 are re-added to the base grade if the errors are corrected with a tutor within a week of the paper's return.

Papers 1 and 2 may be completely revised and resubmitted (once only). Revisions must be submitted on or before the revision due-date to be considered for higher grades. Optional small revision workshops will meet in my office.

Late papers: papers are always due at noon on the day for which they are assigned. A paper is not late if it gets to me before I have left campus. Timely submission of all papers and revisions raises the final grade 2.5 points out of 100.

Late papers are penalized 2 points per day up to 24 points (twelve days). Thereafter, they receive an automatic 60, minus points reduced for errors; they may not be revised.

One paper extension is granted per semester per student; no extensions on final paper.

Attendance: Perfect, prepared attendance raises the final grade by 2.5 points out of 100. Two (excused) absences are forgiven; a third excused absence lowers the final grade 1 point out of 100. Each absence after that lowers the final grade by 5 points out of 100. In general, I ask students who are chronically unprepared, or who miss more than five classes, to withdraw from the course.

The only acceptable excuse for cutting a workshop or coming to one without a paper is a doctor-signed certification of bubonic plague.

Conferences: each student must sign up in class for one conference on each paper. The schedule of conferences will be posted on the door of D29A after everybody has signed up. Cutting a conference (as opposed to trading times with somebody else or changing times with prior – i.e., 24-hour – notice) is the equivalent of cutting a class.

Office hours: are posted weekly on the door of D29A; students should sign for appointments. If nobody has signed up, students are welcome to drop in at open hours.

Back to the top


Texts (at the bookstore unless otherwise marked):

  1. Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. (Mentor)
  2. Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert. (Vintage)
  3. "Sleeping Beauty," (versions by Giovanni Batiste Basile and Charles Perrault) – handout
  4. "Cinderella," (versions by the brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault) – handout
  5. Jonathan Swift, "A Modest Proposal" – handout
  6. Selected poems by Shakespeare, Keats, Auden, Browning and others – handout


  1. Wayne C. Booth, et al., The Craft of Research (extremely intelligent)
  2. Webster's New World Speller/Divider (a must for slaves to spell-check)
  3. Diana Hacker, A Pocket Style Manual (grammar check won't do the job)
  4. Handling Sources (online)

 Back to the top  


Course Calendar

September 5-8. Introduction and Fairy Tales

September 11-15. Fairy tales in cultural context

September 18-22. Double meanings

September 25-29. Conferences on paper 1.

October 2-6. The Double Book

October 9-12. Conferences and Boccaccio.

October 16-20. Hendricks Weekend and Paragraph development

October 23-27 Camus 1 – just read it.

October 30-Nov 3. Theme, Character, Parable

November 6-10.

November 13-17 Conferences and preparation for research papers

November 20-24: Research and Thanksgiving

November 27-Dec 1 Conferences on research papers.

December 4. Term Papers due in D29A at noon. No extensions. No late papers.

December 5. Last class: evaluations, portfolio checks.

Back to the top