Writing Projects

Emersonian Relations

Purpose: As you might expect from an upper-level English course, the primary method of “testing” your perceptions (from reading, from class discussion and lecture) and performance will be by way of your writing. I expect your writing projects to reflect not only that you have read intensively but that you have a grasp of the critical issues we are exploring in class discussion and in critical readings. In other words, everything we read and discuss and which I post to my blog will, indeed, “be on the test.” This is also a course that focuses on how English majors put rhetorical knowledge (and “creative reading”) to work in developing advanced writing and research projects leading toward your Senior Thesis. This means that I will not only assign frequent writing but that I will also foreground with each assignment how to approach the kind of critical writing and thinking that we expect in this discipline—and with Emerson and public intellect in mind, the kind of writing and thinking that can effectively relate to a broader audience of intelligent readers. In a broad sense, this is the purpose and the audience for the projects described below.

Audience: Scholarship and essay writing may be personal and subjective—but it is also in key ways public. In this sense, you will be challenged (as every scholar is) to consider your writing in relation to audience. We will attend to this in class workshop (attend to revision and editing) where I will invite you to give more time to this outside of class.  With the final project, I will also encourage you to take your writing beyond the primary audience of this course (myself and the other students, your blog) and consider working toward publication in one of our campus venues such as The Medium, The Collegian, or The Washington College Review or a publication beyond campus.

General Format: For any citations, use MLA format [in-text citation; works cited at end–refer to Purdue OWL]. Each project will be submitted to Canvas as well as posted to your blog. The copy uploaded to Canvas must include each of the following in order for me to read and grade it: [1] Abstract of the essay (cover-sheet) [2]  Honor Code Statement at the bottom; [3] proper citation format (including works cited) for all citations. If you forget to include these, your project will be returned for you to include the proper format, and counted as late.

             Abstract: A statement of argument, its keywords, and focus of the evidence; approx. 100 words. See cover-sheet

           Honor Code statement: I pledge my honor that I have completed this work in accordance with the Honor Code.

Writing Project One: Philosophical Relations

Critical Problem and Purpose: Understanding Emerson the Philosopher. The philosopher John Dewey claimed Emerson as a significant philosophical influence, calling him America’s “philosopher of democracy,” but also noted that Emerson was misunderstood and neglected by philosophers. Stanley Cavell, another philosopher who claims Emerson for American philosophy, argues that Emerson is ironically rejected by the philosophical tradition that he helps to found.

Questions: Why do you think Emerson has been often misunderstood in terms of his philosophy, or discounted by philosophers? What’s a key element of Emerson’s philosophy as you understand it that has made it liable for misunderstanding or neglect? How might this element of Emerson’s thinking inform writers and thinkers who come after him, or (if you prefer) relate to thinkers or philosophical traditions that come before him?

Guidelines: As a way to focus your attention suitable for 5 pages (think of this as the beginnings of what could emerge into a larger project for the Final), you should engage directly and closely with at least one key text from Emerson that we have read that supports your argument. In addition, to elaborate and extend your argument, make a philosophical connection to an idea in William James or Annie Dillard or (if you prefer) to another philosopher or philosophical tradition that you understand as bearing a relation to Emerson. Finally, make at least one critical connection to Buell’s biography and criticism for further support and authorize your argument. Approximately 5 pages (double-spaced) or 1000 words.

Writing Project Two: Poetic Relations

Critical Problem and Purpose: Tracing Emerson’s Poetic Influence. Emerson is claimed as a significant poetic influence on America’s greatest and most influential poets, namely Whitman and Dickinson. At the same time, Whitman would later reject Emerson and also emphasize that “Emersonianism” called for such rejection of influence. To make matters even more complicated, Emerson by many accounts is not considered to be himself a very good poet—his poetry was in the prose of his essays, as Buell and others (and Emerson himself) put it.


  1. Option 1. Comparison. What is a key element of Emerson’s poetics, as you understand it, that makes him a significant but complicated figure in American poetry, influential, yet also likely to be misunderstood if not rejected? How does this element of Emersonian poetics inform or relate to writers who come after him? [Select at least one of the later poets we have read to pursue the relation with Emerson]
  2. Option 2. Contrast. What is a key element of either Whitman’s or Dickinson’s poetics that you would contrast with Emerson’s conception of poetry, and argue for as a more influential conception of poetry in the American tradition? How does this element of Whitman’s or Dickinson’s poetics inform or relate to writers who come after him? [Select at least one of the later poets we have read to pursue the relation to Whitman or Dickinson]
  3. Option 3. Emerson’s poetic prose. The problem many have claimed, including Emerson, is that his essays are more poetic than his poetry. Elaborate upon this idea by relating one of Emerson’s poetic essays to one of the other poets we have read. In what ways is the essay poetic? How might the poetics evident in that essay influence the later poet?


  • As a way to focus your attention suitable for 5 pages (think of this as the beginnings of what could emerge into a larger project for the Final), you should engage directly and closely with at least one key text from Emerson that we have read that supports your argument.
  • In addition, make a specific connection to Whitman or Dickinson or another poet we have considered to elaborate your argument (with specific reference to one of their texts)
  • Poetics suggests the makings of language: use the OED or Silva Rhetoricae to focus on the connotations of a keyword or phrase, or a key poetic or rhetorical figure, in one of the texts.
  • Finally, make at least one critical connection to Buell’s biography, or one of the other critical readings of Emerson’s poetics we have read (Chiasson, Folsom, Birkerts) for further support to authorize and extend your argument. Approximately 5 pages (double-spaced) or 1000 words.

Final Project: The Uses of Creative Reading

Critical Problem and Purpose: Reading Emerson the way Emerson wants to be read (as Buell puts) but also the way we, as readers and scholars, want to read him today. What’s the use of reading and understanding Emerson, as you have managed to do this semester?

Pursue a further, creative reading of Emerson, or an Emersonian relation, picking up on a question or problem we have been considering, and/or take up a question of your own. For English majors, this project could lead you into a thesis proposal. For everyone, the level of writing and thinking I expect you to develop here should be suitable for submission to a campus publication—in addition to our course web site. In short, it should be among the most substantial writing you have done to this point in your career. The final product: 8-10 pages (approximately 1500-2000 words) + presentation.

Options for the topic of the essay:

  • Development/Expansion of Project 1 or 2: further reading and research into Emerson and Philosophy or Emerson and Poetry. Not just a revision of the earlier project, but an expansion, with further connection to both critical perspectives and additional relations (philosophers or poets/writers) to extend and perhaps change your argument.
  • Emerson and Rhetoric: Pursue an issue from our study in Part Three that explores the problem of Emerson and race, Emerson’s social thought and engagement with reform, Emerson and education. An important and lively problem to take up: Emerson has often been discounted as disengaged with public matters. Does your reading of Emerson’s rhetoric support that assumption? Would Ellison or Rankine support that assumption? What figure today might you relate to this rhetorical Emerson, and to what purpose?
  • New/Other Relations: Pursue a reading and argument for Emerson’s relation to a writer/thinker/artist/public intellectual/contemporary issue of your choosing. Perhaps one that we have gestured to but not spent much time with (Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Frost, Terence Malick) or a relation to someone you have encountered in other courses and areas of your studies. You might argue for Emerson (and/or Emersonian transcendentalism) as an explicit relation, or perhaps more as a subtle inspiration, a way to understand and read this other figure or issue more creatively.

Required criticism: To help you develop your argument, you are required to have at least 3 different citations of secondary criticism that effectively develop your reading and complicate your thinking. I want to see you put other critical perspectives to work. These works will emerge from the annotated bibliography that will be part of the project. For a project of this length and level of complication, I will also expect extensive forwarding of primary text (close reading of key Emerson texts and any other authors discussed) as well as effective forwarding and countering of critical perspectives—including your own (in other words, effective counterargument).

Final Project Steps:

  1. Initial Proposal
    1. Topic/project option you are choosing
    2. Texts you plan to focus on, from Emerson and others. What’s your interest in these texts?
    3. Problems and questions you will pursue: what do we need to understand differently, clarify, or rethink with regard to your topic and these texts? how will your reading of Emerson in this project help us do that?
    4. 100 word abstract (the given/problem/response of your argument–at least what you think it might be at this point).
  2. Annotated Bibliography
    1. Annotated Bibliography: a listing of 7-10 sources (both primary and secondary) relevant to your project, with brief 3-4 sentence annotation for each. That annotation should include 3 elements: Basic summary of the argument/text; keywords and particular issues from the argument/text of interest; uses and limits of this source for your project. [note: in the case of Buell’s Emerson, you may consider an individual chapter as one source]
    2. Revised project proposal: Revise your project abstract based on your bibliographic study. Include in the abstract a critical perspective that you are planning to use, as well as new texts and issues that have emerged since the initial proposal
  3. Initial Drafting and Peer Response (Canvas)
  4. Publication (Canvas, and posted to blog, with link to Course Magazine)
  5. Conference Presentation: a 5-7 minute presentation of your research to the Class.
    1. Guidelines: Prepare to lead us in a discussion of where your project goes. This doesn’t mean simply read from your paper–though you might want to read from specific passages that you are quoting from Emerson and others. Think of this as expanding upon your abstract, unfolding it to map out where your argument goes, inviting us to read further the full project. You can also think of this as a presentation on its way to a longer TED talk–or going all the way back to Emerson’s age, a much longer lyceum lecture. Use of relevant multimedia is an option.

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