Finishing up the semester

Portfolios are due Thursday, Dec. 15 at 8 pm. You may still make minor edits until about 9 am in the morning on Dec. 16, but the portfolio must be essentially done and posted by the evening of Dec. 15 or you will receive an incomplete in the class until your portfolio can be read at the beginning of next semester.

Here’s what you need to do to accomplish that:

Your portfolio will consist of a cover letter plus three essays (chosen from Essays 1, 2, 3, and 4). Once you have some feedback on your Essay 4 (which I’ll try to give by Thursday, Dec. 8), decide which of your four essays you’d like to put in your portfolio. Note that “The Place Where You Live” is not one of the ones you can use since it is not a full essay. To make your decision, you may want to look at the rubric that will be used to assess your portfolio. If you’re considering using Essay 3, make sure it has enough text to demonstrate your writing abilities; if you chose to do an infographic, for example, text may be limited in your “summary” part of the assignment. Feel free to check with me if you’d like some advice on what to include, but the decision is yours.

The fourth essay (the one that will not be in your portfolio) can be turned in (if it hasn’t already been graded) as late as noon on Thursday, Dec. 22.

Now focus on revisions you may want to make for the three portfolio essays. With time limited, the three areas I’d suggest you focus on are these:

  • grammar and usage issues as marked on your final drafts with yellow highlights
  • focus of both essay (thesis statement for argument, unified concept for photo essay) and paragraphs (topic sentences)
  • research skills (format of Works Cited and in-text citations)

If you have additional time, you may want to do more revision, based on comments on both rough and final drafts. Note that there is a section on Revision at the top of the blog that will give some guidance as well.

Consider the order of pieces in your portfolio. The cover letter, of course, will come first. Essays do not need to be presented in the order they were written; generally the advice is to start with your strongest piece.

The next step is to compose a cover letter for your portfolio. Instructions and sample student essays from previous semesters are here. Discuss your essays in the order you will present them. I will not require that you turn in a rough draft of this letter, but I’d be glad to give you feedback if you want. For most students, it is a relatively easy task. Do remember that it is one of your portfolio pieces, so it should demonstrate your writing abilities of organization, focus, and development. It may also be a place to highlight your personal voice and sparkling wit.

Here’s a video that goes over some of these things and shows you how to set up your portfolio on your blog:

If you have any questions, either email or (maybe better) post a comment below. I will be looking over your portfolios on Thursday (or earlier, if you tell me that they are ready) to spot check assignments and make sure portfolio is complete and accessible.

Exercise on finding and evaluating sources (online class only)

For this research exercise, first choose one of the following housing trends:

  • smart homes
  • McMansions
  • modular home construction
  • tiny homes
  • net-zero homes
  • green building techniques
  • tent cities
  • assisted living facilities (where do Old Folks live?)
  • boomerang kids
  • keeping chickens

Imagine that you are will be writing a short report on this housing trend, with some statistics establishing it is a trend, some description of the trend, and a brief analysis of its causes and/or effects. You will not actually be writing this report!

Use some of the search strategies you have read about to locate one source of the following types: book, magazine article, newspaper article, academic journal article, blog post, encyclopedia/wikipedia article, web page from an organizational web site, and video. These do not have to be all “good” sources; post some deliberately bad ones for contrast.  If you find books, link to the amazon page for the book, if possible. Indicate how you found the source (what search engine and what search terms). Use this exercise as a chance to try out some new search methods; in particular, I’d like to encourage everyone to try out the research databases.

On your blog, make a post titled something like “Research project” (with subject in parentheses). List hyperlinks for the sources you find (video to come), and label each by type of source. Then for each source, construct the MLA Works Cited entry, and write a brief evaluation of each source in terms of its relevance, authority, bias, and currency. Do you consider the source excellent, good, mediocre, or poor? Be sure to give some evidence for your judgment; for example, what evidence do you see that the author is credible (or not)?

If you have questions as you work, please feel free to post them as comments below this post.

Writing summaries

Being able to write a clear and accurate summary is a valuable skill in both school and the workplace. Often when we do research, we read many more pages than we write, and our job is to condense and make sense of that material for our reader, perhaps to use what we have read to make some claim or recommendation. (Otherwise we could simply send our audience to read the original sources themselves.) In addition, writing summaries allows a writer great practice in “pruning” his or her prose to convey the most information within a limited space.

Especially when we are dealing with long texts or difficult material, summary writing can be a real challenge. Even if a reader carefully and completely annotates a text, it can be difficult to start writing because it’s often hard to hold the outlines of the entire article in one’s mind. I think some version of what Bruce Ballenger calls “writing in the middle” is very useful before starting a summary, some form of note-taking or outlines so that you can “see” a map of a multipage article in a small space.

I am an enormous fan of the index card when it comes to summary writing. Depending on the length of the article and the desired length of the summary, I choose an appropriate size of index card and fit all my notes onto that card. I can easily group and rearrange points because I can see the overall structure of the article, and as I take notes I’m working out a possible paragraph structure for my summary. Yes, it takes time to do it this way, but once your index card is complete, the summary writing itself proceeds quite quickly, and the overall result is, I believe, a much more complete and accurate summary. I will post a scan of one of my index cards in a few days…

Qualities of an effective summary

  • The author and title of the work are given. A typical summary might start as follows: In “Some Article,” Jack/Jill Black argues that something or other is true or should be done because x, y, and z. (Note summaries are conventionally written in present tense.)
  • A summary should represent accurately the original text.
  • A summary should be largely in your own words. (It is not sufficient to change a word here or there to its synonym; you should be careful to change both the vocabulary and the structure of the sentence.) It is acceptable to quote an especially important sentence or phrase, but this should be done very sparingly (probably no more than one per paragraph or so). If you do use a quotation, be sure to copy the quote accurately and use quotation marks.
  • A summary should be as complete as possible within the given space limitations; that is, it should be dense (packed tightly with information, with as much info as can fit the space provided or assigned).
  • A summary should be objective, representing fairly the claims of the original author without revealing (except perhaps implicitly) the viewpoint of the summary writer. In order to remind the reader of our summary that you are summarizing someone else’s article, you may want occasionally to use the  author’s last name or “the author” in your summary.
  • A summary should be well-written (with all that implies), in clear and grammatically correct prose (stylistic grace is nice, too!).

Here’s a page on Guidelines for writing a summary that gives some useful tips.

Reading some memoirs

NOTE: The rough draft of your memoir will be due week 3 or 4  (as always, check your Assignments page for deadline).

For most people, writing starts with the personal, and the closest subject matter for writers consists of  happened to them, what they observed directly, their own experiences and emotions. One of the main genres of this type of writing is the memoir.

Why should anyone care about your life?

For any piece of writing, for all writers, purpose and audience are crucial considerations. Why are you writing this? What are you trying to say? What does your reader already know? What new information or new way of looking at things are you bringing to your reader?

In a memoir your material is drawn from your own private experience, but you are writing for a public reader who may well not know you and probably has no particular interest in your trip to DisneyWorld or your car accident or your romantic breakups. You may write journal entries and letters or poems that you don’t share with anyone to help preserve your joys and deal with your pains. But the fact that it happened to you, though reason enough to write it down for yourself, does not necessarily make it a good topic choice for a personal essay.

The memoir writer should consider how his or her individual experience connects to the experience of others. Yes, your readers won’t (generally) have shared your particular experience but they have all dealt with relationships to parents, friends, romantic partners; with feelings of loneliness and disappointment, pride in accomplishment and pleasure in delights of the senses; difficulties of reaching independence and setting one’s moral standards. As you start to consider ideas, to gather memories, to draft an essay, think about what more universal issues are imbedded in your personal experience. By writing about how you dealt with one or more these issues, you invite your readers to connect: to experience vicariously a small portion of someone else’s life and in doing so to examine their own lives.

Here’s an interesting post with some quotes from memoir writers on Why We Write about Ourselves.

The first essay for this class will be a memoir, and to tie to the theme of the course you will be writing a memoir that touches in some way on your experience of home.

THE CHOICE OF TOPIC IS A CRUCIAL DECISION FOR A WRITER. It’s important to give yourself time to think about some of the possibilities. (One other thing to keep in mind as you start to consider subjects: make sure that you choose something that you’re comfortable sharing with others. I have had wonderful essays on abuse and addiction and other very personal topics and readers have been uniformly supportive when classmates have been brave enough to write about such things, but not everyone is willing or able to reveal such painful parts of their lives. As a writer you want to think about choosing subject matter that you care deeply about, questions and puzzles in your life that you want to untangle, but you also need a certain distance on the material to be able to write about it effectively. Please feel free to email me if you want any advice on topic choice. Or you may want to post a comment below if you’d like some feedback from either me or some of your peers, especially if you;re torn between two ideas for an essay.

In this type of writing we can see this interplay between the specific and the general. As a memoirist your goal is twofold: to describe your individual experience in enough detail that the reader feels as if he is sitting on your shoulder (and getting inside your head) as you went through this experience and to connect the individual experience to something  more universal that will cause the reader, perhaps, to remember and question his own experience. In order to do this, you will need to focus on a particular event that occurred over a fairly limited time frame; another option is to write a sort of mosaic, where you weave together fragments of memory (this is a more challenging and experimental sort of memoir, but I’m open to whatever creative structures you’d like to play with.)

Here are several sample essays from previous semesters:






For anyone that’s interested, you may want to read through this segment (click the blue download button from the Dropbox page) from my own memoir-in-progress, which (coincidentally!) does fit the assignment, though it’s much longer than the 1000 or so words the assignment suggests.

Reading response 1. (See Assignment tab for deadline for your class.) Here are some professional samples from you to look through. Pick one that appeals to you.

Read through the essay, thinking about how the essay uses the specific experience of the writer to connect to a more universal experience. On a sheet of paper (for a change!; Face-to-face students will do this on paper to turn in; online students should post their response on their blog. Be sure to give the title of the essay you read along with the following information: in a sentence or two, what seems to be the “theme” (or universal aspect) of the essay?; list the three specific details that seemed most successful (either because they gave a sharp image or conveyed strong emotion or some other criterion you specify).

The Place Where You Live

(Note: For due dates for your particular class, see the Assignments page for your class. As of Sept. 8, this has not yet been assigned for all classes.)

Click on hyperlink here to access the assignment “The Place Where You Live.” After you’ve read the assignment, look over some of the samples posted on the right of the screen (on the Orion magazine site). As an introduction to yourself and your “place,” follow the instructions to compose a short essay (about 350 words) and post it to your blog. You may write about a place where you do not currently live, but that you  consider home. You may want to narrow your focus from the city or town as a whole to some smaller part of it (your neighborhood or street), but don’t just describe your own house. As the instructions indicate, you may include photographs or some other form of image. If you have any problems posting to the blog, don’t worry!!! Just email the entry to me (or yourself) and I’ll help in class.

In writing a place description, you want to bring your readers to this place, so that they feel as if they’re looking over your shoulder (or through your eyes). In order to do that, you can’t just say that a place is beautiful or dull or breath-taking (or any other such “telling” adjectives). Instead you need to use the “showing” details that will paint a picture of the place, so that your reader sees the same thing that you do. In order to do that, you will need to see the place yourself. If you can, it’s always helpful to visit a place you’re trying to describe, to look for those details that will best convey the look and feel of the place. If you can’t visit the place (because it’s too far geographically or you’re written of some place long ago), try to picture it in your mind. Use your memory and imagination to collect up some mental snapshots that convey the essence of the place from your perspective: not just the the houses were well- (or not-so-well-) kept up, but a typical house that you could describe; not that the people were friendly, but a representative action from a particular person.

Here are several student samples for inspiration:

  • Rachael
  • Nicole (She submitted her piece to Orion magazine and had it published on their website and her photos were published in the magazine!)

And here are a few professional samples as well.

Warning: Note that this is not a research assignment but rather should be written from your own observation. Please do not consult wikipedia; some students in the past who have done this have used information from online without properly citing it and have received zero for the assignment.

Work for week 1

(This post gives the first week’s work for online students, due Sunday, Sept. 11. Work for face-to-face classes will be split into smaller chunks; see Assignments page to the right to see deadlines for your class.)

Read the post Welcome to College Writing and the syllabus for your class. If you have any questions about the syllabus, please leave a comment on the syllabus page so that everyone can see my answer–if you have a question, probably others do too! Also read the short pages Tips for college (and college writing), Paper vs. screen, and Setting up your blog. These pages are all listed under the Intro tab above, but it may take you a little while to feel comfortable navigating around. I will always give hyperlinks to info I’d like you to read, so you shouldn’t ever have to be searching around the blog; please let me know right away if you can’t find something or if a link is broken.

Set up your own blog, follow the procedure to “Join a class” described in the instructions, and send me an email with your class, your name, and the name you’d like me to use for your blog link.

As a first post on your blog and an introduction, write a chunky paragraph or several (about 250 words, or more, if you want) that tells us something about who you are as a writer and/or a reader.  You might want to think over questions such as the following: what were some memorable pieces of writing (or reading) you did as you were growing up? what writing do you do these days (think about writing to connect to friends and family, work-related writing, writing for self-expression and/or to relieve stress)? how do you write? where? do you have favorite utensils? favorite kinds of paper? who were some influential writing teachers you had and why? what were the stages in your development as a writer and reader? what do you see as your strengths and weaknesses as a writer or reader now? what would you like to work on during this semester with respect to your writing? You may also want to include where you stand on the paper vs. screen issue. Of course, you do not need to answer all of these questions!  Any questions of that sort (or other similar ones you might think of) are fair game for this “assignment.”

Feel free to approach this as “creatively” as you’d like. Some of my students in the past have responded to this prompt with a poem. If you’d like to include something visual, a photograph or several, to illustrate your words, go right ahead!

Welcome to College Writing

I’m happy to welcome you to the course blog for English 101 and to fifteen busy weeks of reading and writing! This will be the central space for the course, an electronic version of our classroom where you will be able to go to find assignments and class notes, as well as to read the writing of your colleagues.

Please bookmark this site on your computer (or make a note of its URL if you use multiple computers).

I will  be posting a video-tour of the blog by the end of the first week of classes.

First I’d like to mention a few things that may be different from this course and other sections of English 101:

As you can see, I use blogs instead of eLearning, for both my online and face-to-face courses. In addition to this course blog, you will also each be setting up your own blogs, which you will use to post rough drafts and informal writing. I believe that blogs are a tremendous technology that allows writers both to set up their own personal writing space and to share that writing easily with others. The sense of audience writers can get from this is invaluable. Though this may cause some of you some anxiety (exposing your work-in-progress to the eyes of others), I want to emphasize its potential to create a community of supportive writers. Also, looking at the work of others can often be a great way to get both ideas and inspiration for your own writing! (If you’ve never blogged before, don’t worry!! It’s easy; I’ll provide a short video to show you how to get started, and I’ll be available the first week and later to meet with anyone who wants some face-to-face help.)

(Note that I will be posting comment but not  grades on your blog entries; all final drafts will be turned in on paper or through email.)

In addition to the blogging, the other maybe-unusual aspect of this course is the course is theme-based. As you can see from the title above, you will be writing this semester about place, with the course organized into three sections that move from the personal to the public: a first unit on house, home, and domestic spaces; then a unit on commercial spaces (i.e., stores); and a final unit on civic spaces. (Thanks to my daughter Emily for designing the header!) In part, this theme grew from coincidence (I kept running across articles I liked that fit the theme), but also because I believe that good writing starts from paying attention and keeping your eyes open, and this theme demands that.

For more info about the set-up of the course,  you can  access the syllabus in either online or face-to-face version from the links across the top of the page under the first column titled “Intro”–it will stay there for the whole course, as will major assignments for the class. If you’d like to look or work ahead, check out the assignment links there as well. You can find each week’s assignments and deadlines to the right by clicking on the link marked Assignments under your class.