Emerson’s School


English 394.11 | Fall 2015

Professor Meehan

Office: 116 Goldstein | Hours: MWF 11.30-12.30 and by appt.


All course information (including assignment schedule and blog) available at this Web site: (bookmark and use often)


Course Description:

This course explores the work of a major author of nineteenth-century American literature and culture, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his significant influence on other writers and thinkers such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ralph Ellison, and Annie Dillard, extending to other artists including the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the filmmaker Terence Malick. While exploring Emerson’s leading role in the nineteenth-century literary and social movement in America known as Transcendentalism, we will also turn attention outward to his wide-spread influence in the areas of poetics, philosophy, environmentalism, and public intellectualism.  Emerson was America’s first public intellectual and interdisciplinary scholar; thus, while pursuing a better understanding of this important literary figure, we will also seek to learn from him, as scholars and intellectuals ourselves, invested in communicating our knowledge to the public. Course work will include blogging, short critical essays, a substantial final essay informed by research and criticism, class presentations, and active participation in seminar discussions.


Course Objectives:


Focusing on close and intensive readings of Emerson’s texts and scholarly writing that develop those readings, culminating in the seminar paper, our exploration will concentrate around three primary learning objectives for the English major.


  • Literary History
    • Students read representative authors (British or American) at an advanced level: Emerson.
    • Students recognize the trajectory of literary periods (British or American) and one period in depth: Transcendentalism.
  • Critical Reading
    • Students analyze texts critically using literary terminology.
    • Students demonstrate the ability to use at least one critical method or interpretive strategy in analyzing a text. In particular, we will engage with interpretive strategies guided by Lawrence Buell’s critical biography of Emerson.
  • Rhetorical Knowledge
    • Students grasp the linguistic and stylistic conventions of writing within the discipline.
    • Students make effective use of revision and editing strategies in producing writing.
    • Students demonstrate the ability to present a clear argument and support that argument with evidence. The final research project of the seminar and the two writing projects leading up to it.






The issue of grasping Emerson’s thought and by extension, his influence—and more generally, of grasping ideas in reading and writing—will be the object and the subject of our study: since Emerson often thinks and writes about this question of the reader’s/writer’s grasp—and writers such as Whitman refer to the challenge and necessity of grasping Emerson in return. In other words, my intention is for you to leave this course with a better grasp on than you had at the beginning—but also a better grasp on the problem and potential of learning from this important writer, lessons that you can apply to other writers and figures of interest to you in your studies, and to your own development as a writer and scholar. This is one of the things I have in mind with the course subtitle, “Emerson’s School.” Since this is a Writing Intensive course, these lessons in writing and critical thinking apply whether or not you are an English major.


Required Course Texts:

Available at the College Bookstore.

Buell, Emerson.

Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson’s Prose and Poetry (edited by Porte and Morris; Norton Critical Edition)

Rankine, Citizen

Additional shorter readings will be provided through links or pdf copies.


Course Expectations and Experiences:

àCreative Reading:

Following the examples of Emerson, I will require that you keep some form of a reader’s/writer’s journal as a medium for you to engage in the reading, writing, and thinking more creatively (Emerson’s figure) and gymnastically (Whitman’s metaphor). Because this is an advanced course, I will be leaving the journal up to you as to when and how you do it. I will expect you to have some version of it for use in class; and to have it available whenever we conference (so that you can tell and show me what you have been thinking about recently). Frequently, I will assign short writings that you will post to the blog and dates in which you will lead class discussions; from these you will also develop your writing projects. The intensity and attention required for this sort of close reading and writing begins with a journal or notebook.


àWriting Projects:

Two main projects, described on the course blog under “Writing Projects.” In addition, you will have a longer, final project due during exam week. Since this is a Writing Intensive course, we will be giving attention to writing process (developing ideas, revising your argument, editing for clarity and precision) in completing these projects. In addition, you will have an ongoing semi-formal writing assignment: blogging in response to reading, described under “Blogging” on the home page.


Late Policy: Writing projects turned in late, without prior discussion with me, will lose credit (approximately half-grade per day). No project will be accepted more than one week late. As always, communication with me in advance regarding any difficulties you are encountering is the best way to go.



I expect active and engaged participation in discussions of our readings and in the various field study experiments we will do—including getting outside and observing, exploring, tracking the environment. I will sometimes present ideas and focal points for discussion—but don’t expect a lecture course. If you don’t participate, class time will be far too silent. Your participation will be assessed, along with attendance, as part of your overall grade.


Attendance Policy: Since participation counts in this course (and in learning), your attendance matters. Every student is granted up to two absences during the semester for whatever reason. Three or more absences (excused or unexcused) will begin to affect your final participation grade (approximately a half-grade per absence). Any student missing more than 9 classes during the semester should not expect to pass. I am flexible and reasonable (was once a student, have kids, get sick, etc)—so communicate with me regarding your attendance. But be aware that I consider it very important for a course such as this.


Technology Policy: Good participation requires a learning environment where attention and invention are possible. I am interested in digital communication environments as well and will encourage you to explore them with me—even as we explore our interaction with the analog environment. Having a laptop or other technologies in class is a great idea if you can use it to attend to our focus, but not if you are distracted easily by “the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling” (to cite Sven Birkerts). Since such clicking distracts me, I will expect you to use technology thoughtfully. This means no communication during the class that is not pertinent to the class: no cell-phones (ringers off), no instant messaging, and no work from another class. Violators will be asked to share the communication with the rest of the class and may be removed from class.



Emerson is very interested in communication with his readers. I am as well: I plan to give you a range of feedback and information about your progress and learning—in class, in conferences, on informal assignments and my evaluations of your formal writing projects. I will also ask for your feedback (don’t be alarmed) at various points in a class or a conference. I always want to know what questions you have, about the course as well as your learning, and will frequently ask you for your questions. A great way to demonstrate engagement and learning, especially with a difficult or challenging text or topic, is to ask a question about what one doesn’t understand. I value questions as a rich form of communication—in fact, many of our discussions will begin and end with exploring and updating the kinds of questions you have.


Another valuable resource for communication and experimentation: the Writing Center (106 Goldstein). We will at times make use of the WC’s talent and services as a class; I encourage you to do so individually as well, to discuss ideas, workshop a draft, follow up on a grammatical or rhetorical issue of interest to you and your progress as a writer, begin to map out ideas for your first book or screenplay. Enough to say, I wish I had a Writing Center when I was an undergraduate.


àAcademic Integrity

Washington College has the following policy regarding academic integrity and plagiarism: Plagiarism is defined by the Honor Code as “willfully presenting the language, ideas, or thoughts of another person as one’s original work.” Turning in someone else’s work as your own is obviously plagiarism. Quoting or paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without properly citing your source is also plagiarism. If you ever have any question at all about whether you are using a source correctly, ask me about it to make sure. Submitting a paper for this class that contains all or part of a paper that you submitted in another class, without the permission of both professors involved, is also a violation of the honor code. A student found guilty of plagiarism may fail the assignment or the course, and may be referred to the Honor Board for further adjudication. Whenever you hand in a paper for this course, you must include in your essay a statement that your work has been completed in compliance with the Honor Code. Washington College has contracted with, a web-based plagiarism prevention service. You will be submitting copies of your writing projects to


Integrity suggests wholeness; a synonym would be ecology. Your integrity affects the integrity of the whole learning environment here, in the class (where you are relying upon the response of your peers) and on campus. We will be talking further about the integrity of your writing and the ways that your writing can be inventive without being plagiarized. The point is that I take plagiarism seriously, but as such, also want you to learn and ask questions about it.



I am doing something different with assessment in this seminar—or, I presume, different from what you might be expecting. Read more about it on the course blog under “Assessment.” To give you an approximation of the various kinds of assignments and their value, consider:

Participation (including attendance): 10%

Reading (Blogging assignments, presentations): 25%

Writing projects: 40%

Final project: 25%



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