American Dreams

For centuries, the notion of the “American dream” has been a concept that has resonated through major political movements, civil rights activism, American advertising, and legal debates over how to interpret the nation’s foundational written documents. “The American Dream,” the political scientist Cal Jillson has argued, “has always been, and continues to be, the gyroscope of American life. It is the Rosetta stone or interpretive key that has helped throughout American history to solve puzzles of how to balance liberty against equality, individualism against the rule of law, and populism against constitutionalism. The American Dream demands that we constantly balance and rebalance our creedal values…” (“The American Dream and Its Role in American History” 5). And yet this concept is imagined and carried out quite differently by different groups of people. From where did the term originate? Is there more than one “American Dream”? How has the meaning of this concept changed over time? Who were the first American dreamers? Do certain groups have more trouble attaining the dream than others? Answering these and other questions, we will trace the ways in which the “American dream” is formulated in writing—from historical documents, such as speeches and treatises, to contemporary literature and essays. Students will respond to these works using a variety of critical approaches, from the personal essay to the research paper, in order to explore the ways in which an “American dream” is presented as both a stable force that resists change as well as a national myth that reflects shifting priorities.

Beauty

Most of us think we know beauty when we see, hear, or experience it. But what is beauty and what makes a thing beautiful? Our chief task in this course will be to analyze our basic assumptions about beauty. How have our beliefs about beauty and the beautiful been created and shaped through writing (as they continue to be rewritten)? Experiencing beauty – viewing Michaelangelo’s David, hearing Bach’s Requiem, reading a poem by John Keats – enhances our lives. However, the concept of the beautiful has had many different meanings over time and these definitions and representations have innumerable real-world repercussions. On one hand, beauty has been called the noblest aim of art and life, enriching our everyday aesthetic experiences. On the other hand, beauty has been used as justification for discrimination, exclusivity, and unthinkable atrocities. Yet none of these uses, or abuses, could be effective or, perhaps, even possible without the construction and dissemination of an ideal of beauty, often through writing. We will learn to recognize the means through which writing shapes and expresses our conceptions of beauty. In turn, students will develop their own ideas and thoughts about the topic through clear and effective writing. Thus, through reading, writing, and rewriting, students will explore the ways that beauty has been constructed and how it defines perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world.

Celebrity Culture

[Description TBD]

Comedy and Satire

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Creativity

What is creativity? What does it mean to be creative? Where do new ideas come from? (Or is there even such a thing as a “new idea”?) Throughout history, artists, writers, psychologists, musicians, scientists and philosophers have tried to pinpoint that moment of creation, the spark from which original thought emanates. The ancient Greeks believed creative inspiration was bestowed by the nine Muses. Sigmund Freud theorized that creativity arises from unlocked unconscious desires. Albert Einstein held creativity to be a gift of the intuitive—and not the rational—mind.  Though conventional wisdom often treats the creative mind as an innate ability, studies suggest that creativity is less a gift than a studied practice available to us all, and that through measured steps, we can all hone, refine and expand our creative potential.

In this course, while we examine the ways artists and scientists from a number of fields document, explore, and interrogate the creative process, we will explore the creative processes that fuel our own writing as well. We will engage a number of creative strategies as we create our own original compositions, paying careful attention to the writing process, addressing questions about where our ideas come from, how we organize those ideas into writing, and how we draft, revise, and overcome obstacles in the creative process.  Finally, we will explore the ways creativity manifests in our writing through analysis, assertion, association and stylistic expression. Though college courses frequently distinguish creative writing from other forms, this course will explore the ways that all writing is a creative act.

Cultural Identity

How do you identify yourself culturally?  How is cultural identity important to you (or not) and to your peers and family? How does this cultural identity aid or limit you in understanding yourself and advancing your goals?  This writing course explores questions of cultural identity through consideration of individual and collective memory, the literary and popular imagination, and the sociology and history of racial, ethnic, and class relations. Students enter debates about identity politics by reading and responding to memoirs, essays, and articles from scholars and writers across the disciplines. In order to examine and critique dominant patterns of relations between cultural groups in society at large and on campus, students investigate beliefs, historical events, and voluntary associations and how they intersect individual experience. Since writing is an important tool for asserting and clarifying cultural identities, assignments include the opportunity for students to reflect on their own cultural backgrounds and to expand the range of their individual voices.

The Digital Revolution

While digital optimists celebrate the ways new technologies have amplified the powers of the individual voice, provided new possibilities for collaborative work, and opened up additional avenues for producing and sharing creative works, there are an increasing number of critics who remain skeptical.  Some of these skeptics argue that our ability to read and focus has been reduced, our capacity for thinking and synthesizing has been undermined, and that we are drowning in a sea of meaningless information.  In this writing course, rather than simply embracing or rejecting either side of this debate, we will read carefully from multiple authors and synthesize into nuanced writing their perspectives with our own ideas, experiences, and analysis. Some central themes we will revisit throughout the course are questions of voice, audience, self-expression, and individual and collective authorship.  We will consider the practical and theoretical implications of researching, reading, writing, and presenting information with new technologies, and we will also write about what interactivity and connectivity mean for our lives. Who owns our personal data and protects our privacy?  In what ways do we have ownership or control over the words we write online?  We will explore how new digital tools and platforms are used, and we will also make use of them ourselves for the writing we do in this course.

Ethnography

[Description TBD]

Food

Like language, food traverses national borders, transforms itself in transit, and reinvents itself over time.  Also like language, its social importance is often obscured by its very ubiquity. On a basic biological level, food certainly determines “if” we are. But socially, it often declares “who,” “where,” and “what” we are as well.   And, every ingredient we consume is the result of a number of choices—conscious or not—that contain very real political, economic and environmental concerns.  In this writing course, our task is to denaturalize this omnipresence of food and investigate its connection to language through the study and practice of various genres of food writing. We will examine the science of food not only at a cellular level, but in the kitchen and on our palates as well. And finally, in a nation of excess, we will consider the implications of food’s absence. Through careful analysis, extensive research, and a lot of writing, we will attempt to uncover our own relationship with food, learn to articulate the basic trends in food studies, and identify, practice, and improve upon different writing styles.

Higher Education

Our guiding assumption in this course is that higher education functions through a series of relationships, and that exploring these relationships through writing will help us to contextualize the way we understand both higher education in America and our personal college experience. We can think of these relationships in different clusters or “frames”: as conversations between students, their families, and their teachers; between faculty and administrators; and between universities and the racial, ethnic, and geographical communities from which they draw. Through a progression of formal and informal writing assignments, we will contribute our voices to these conversations. One of the clearest ways that we can begin to understand what drives these conversations is to read and write about them in the context of the institution of which we are all a part: The City University of New York (CUNY). The process of observation, argument, evaluation, and revision that has driven changes in educational policy at CUNY is the same process that you will engage with as you participate in the interchange of ideas and information through your writing in this class. We will also explore the series of choices and circumstances that led to your decision to come to CUNY. What will be your relationship to this institution? How do your reasons for coming to college compare to generations of students who preceded you? How do your values converge with or diverge from the values of your university?

Literacy and Language

In this course, we will explore the relationship between the writer and society through a specific (though widely conceived) genre: the literacy narrative. Literacy narratives are autobiographical accounts that can address a wide range of questions: What is literacy and how does it help us construct our identity and define ourselves in the world? How do literacy and language connect us through the written word to culture, the economy, politics, and history? How has our process of language acquisition shaped the ways we think, learn, and write? While exploring the autobiographical narratives of others, and contextualizing that writing within the framework of texts written by academics who analyze the use of voice, audience, motive, style, structure, and other rhetorical elements of narrative discourse, we will write in order to consider what it means to express “self” in the midst of a broader society. We will transfer the knowledge we gain from the writing about others’ literacy narratives to help us articulate and write about our experiences in our own educational autobiographies, and to explore the challenges presented to all those seeking a liberal arts education in a twenty-first century global society. Our course focuses on the power of the written word, helping us to investigate and articulate the ways in which literacy and language dictate our place in the world.

Memory

Oftentimes, the “official” history of events and the personal recollection of those same events are quite different.  Many times they diverge entirely.  Yet neither can rightly be called the “true” or the “false” or even the “complete” version of events.  How is this possible?  In this writing seminar, we will investigate the processes by which societies and individuals codify their respective memories into the “official” narratives of events.  Students will also explore the storytelling strategies employed by writers of autobiography and study the ways in which writers recall and reconstruct lived experiences.  Throughout the semester, students will respond to various scientific, theoretical, literary and recorded “texts” and will produce their own original portfolio of writings in which they position themselves within and respond to the on-going debates concerning the ways in which personal memories interact with, and are shaped by, collective memory, and the importance of narratives to personal and national identity.  Students will also have the opportunity to conduct original research in the form of a “field interview,” the goal of which is to assemble a series of personal 9/11 narratives and upload them, along with written transcripts and analyses, onto a web site that will serve as archive, memorial, and witness.

New York City

City derives from the Latin civitas and civis, meaning citizen. What does it mean to study a city’s history and development, to understand how its citizens coexist and comprise the many complicated layers of community that create a city? How are multiple identities defined and redefined in a bustling metropolis? New York City is an international nexus, exerting powerful influence in the areas of commerce, finance, architecture, culture, art, and politics. A big city of small neighborhoods, its many cultures are shaped by centuries of immigration. As E.B. White wrote, “To a New Yorker, the city is both changeless and changing.” New York City’s vibrant history and legendary diversity have always provided fertile ground for writing; there is a longstanding tradition of exploring and writing about the rich complexity of this city that we will seek to build on in this course. What areas of inquiry have these writings explored and what do they reveal about the city? What topics of debate have surfaced and what questions and conflicts have emerged, and how can our own writing analyze, interpret, and add to the body of work that already exists? Through the reading of fiction, journalism, essays, and urban studies; the viewing of films that use NYC as a setting in different ways; and our own formal essays and informal, open-ended writing, we will locate in our writing our own NYC voices among the many voices of the city.

Page to Stage

How does a written text become a living, shared moment in the performance space? Actors, directors, playwrights, critics, and audiences all play a role at varying stages of the process, influencing each other and the shape of the final production through explicit and implicit means. This writing course introduces a range of historical and contemporary plays and a variety of writing tasks in order to explore current debates about the nature and purpose of live theater as well as the relationships between performance and text. This course is rooted in the idea that bringing a written text to the stage engages a range of intellectual challenges that reach beyond the theater and are central to effective scholarly writing. For example, adapting a short story into a performance script requires interpretation and analysis through close, critical reading, while presenting an historically important play involves extensive research into both primary and secondary sources in order to answer persuasively the urgent dramaturgical question, “why this play now?” Advocating textual analysis as a way to discover and generate meaning, From Page to Stage invites students to practice moves of scholarly argument and rhetoric that apply across the academic curriculum.

The Planet

What does it mean for the earth to be irreversibly changed by human activities? How are humans vulnerable to out-of-control ecosystems? Ecological movements have historically relied on the rhetoric of a vulnerable earth and, to a lesser but increasing extent, of vulnerable human societies, in making their claims. Imagining an earth that can be irreversibly damaged has involved a battle between competing conceptions of an earth too large and stable to be permanently affected by human activities. While environmentalist writers often depict humans as exercising violence on “nature,” anti-environmentalists rely on images of humans helpless before the onslaughts of nature itself, either too insignificant or simply too human to affect the course of ecological forces. This course invites students to grapple with the power and precariousness of ecological and social systems, of earth and nature, in order to explore how imagination is embedded in environmental rhetoric and discourse (how we write and speak about the environment as individuals and societies). As an introduction to college writing, this course focuses on the academic practice of participating in meaningful conversations. It addresses ways to read, listen, and respond to various points of view with our own observations and insights in clear, fair, well-developed, and organized written and spoken arguments. In particular, students will work to develop proficiency at both analyzing and using language to reflect and engage the struggle over ecological health and visions of planetary violence and vulnerability.

Reading Film

Film production shares much of the vocabulary of writing: filmmakers “compose” shots, learn the “grammar” of film, transition between scenes with “film punctuation,” and use “leitmotifs” to convey “characterization.” Film audiences also use some of the language used in responding to writing: comparing an adapted film with its source novel, skimming through a DVD’s “chapters,” or complaining about a narrative film’s “plot.” Considering these strange overlaps between the two rather different media, we can use the concept of “reading film” to hold up a lens to our understanding of the English language, particularly what it means to write and read “texts” in the liberal arts. While our focus throughout will be on developing the fundamentals of college writing, we will take film studies as a model to compare and contrast just what it is we do when we read and write. What overlaps and what diverges between the skills useful in “reading” between the two media? How is writing like and unlike filmmaking?

Reading and Writing Queens, NY

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Science and Culture

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Social Movements

This course focuses on the experience of getting from here to there, and the ways in which writers depict their journeys. When we choose between modes of transportation we are also choosing the kinds of experiences we’ll have along the way. Driving across the city produces a radically different experience from taking the subway, bus, or riding a bicycle.  Our guiding principle will be that writing, like traveling, is a process of moving things from one place to another.  Rather than moving people from place to place, we will explore how writing moves ideas from our minds to the page. We will reflect on the risks and benefits of the choices we make as we write by comparing them to choices we make when we travel.  The fiction, personal essays and academic articles we read and discuss will serve as models as we work together to identify and master the key elements of academic writing: thesis, motive, evidence, analysis, structure, and style. In the first part of the course, direct observation will serve as the basis for analytical narratives and comparative analysis. Subsequently, we will explore the impacts of transportation policy on the lives of city residents in a research paper. Our overarching goals will be to develop an awareness of how writing changes our experience of the city, and how the choices we make as we write determine the shape our ideas take in our reader’s minds.

The Visual World

We tend to assume that seeing and writing are fundamentally different processes: we experience the world visually and express our ideas about it verbally. Considering the increasingly visual character of daily life—film and video, social networking, and cell phone cameras, for example—the line between image and text may be less distinct than it seems. As art critic and painter John Berger notes, even the quintessentially verbal act of reading begins, for many of us, in seeing words on a page or screen. Given these complications, it might be more accurate to say that the two processes are interrelated and interdependent rather than that they are separate and distinct. As a writing course, the primary aim of The Visual World is to discover interactions, overlaps and conflicts between seeing and writing. In order to promote reflection on the conventions of academic essays, reading and writing assignments focus on types of expression that depend heavily on visual presentation, such as advertisements, comics and photographs, some of which treat text itself as a visual element. While most of the writing in the course will be text-based, some activities will call for experimentation with visual and verbal forms.

Writing Our Biology

In Writing Our Biology, we will consider how our knowledge of biology depends on what we write about science. To test the hypothesis that writers create images of biological “reality” that pass as pure “fact,” we will explore society’s understanding of health by examining the language we use to talk about it.  Since we often assume the study of the human body works towards the goal of healthiness, examining assumptions about what “healthy” means can help us recognize how language shifts and changes our understanding of biology.  In studying how writing shapes what we call “health,” we will examine writing ranging from sports literature to arguments for eugenics.  Some of the questions propelling our reading this semester will include: on which common metaphors and images do writers of biology depend?  How do biology writers change their tone and style to suit different audiences?  What are the motives of the writers we study and what do they tell us about our motives?

Writing Economy

[Description TBD]

Writing Religion

“In the beginning was the Word,” opens the Gospel of John. Over the past several millennia, words have been central to all the world’s major religions, whether in the form of sacred texts, traditional liturgy, or canon law.  Just as important to world religions are the commentaries on those texts, which show the perpetual importance of the argument over words.  But why have we so hotly debated the value of religion lately?  After all, the fundamental facts regarding religion have changed little in the past century: there’s been no real new evidence for or against the existence of God over that time, for example, nor major revisions to the Bible, Qur’an, or other major texts.  Yet what has changed is the rhetorical situation in which religion is placed, the sense of how and why religion relates to the ever-changing morals, politics, science, and worldview of our contemporary moment.

As our culture evolves, so must evolve our understanding of how religion fits into it.  As a result, it might justly be said that the very center of current debates over how we should view religion, whether at our kitchen tables or on the floor of Congress, is the composition, exchange, and framing of rhetorical arguments about the place of religion in our world and lives. By examining a variety of materials – ranging from traditional religious texts to contemporary essays to religiously-themed pop singles – we will investigate how writing and reading religion influences our relationship to society as well as our understanding of and commitment to our personal beliefs.

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