What essays for freshman composition?
July 27, 2006 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Pimp my freshman composition class: what essays would you put on the syllabus?

The fall semester is rolling around again. Our college uses one of those custom published text books, for our first-semester freshman composition class. I've never been very happy with the selections (and the lack of support material). There are a few favorites which will surely make the list, but I'm interested in your opinions about other essays, classic and contemporary. The emphasis of the class is essay writing and using secondary sources. The reading focus is non-fiction. These are junior college kids, if that matters to you.

Here are some things I've used in the past and will probably use again: MLK, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," Lars Eighner's "On Dumpster Diving," Joan Didion's "On Morality," and Olaudah Equiano's "Interesting Narrative."

Pieces dealing with political/ethical quandaries are okay, but I don't want to turn it into a political science class. I also would like to convey that political/ethical opinions come in lots of flavors--not just the polarized versions presented on the cable new shows.
posted by wheat to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I've always been partial to Orwell's Politics and the English Language. Which seems appropriate to the class not so much because of any political bent, but simply for showing how language can be bent to serve an agenda.

I'd also recommend fishing around for a "Christmas edition" of the Economist. The Economist always has sharp writing, but in the Christmas edition, they have a bunch of longer articles on quirky subjects.
posted by adamrice at 12:44 PM on July 27, 2006

E.B. White wrote several incredible essays around the start of World War II. I recall a particularly great one in which he polls vacationers at a Florida trailer park about world government. I can't point to specific essays write now, but they're all in One Man's Meat
posted by Xalf at 12:56 PM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

For something short, try Bertrand Russell's Three Passions.

For longer texts, try an excerpt from, or the full text of, A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. Or, anything by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Swift's A Modest Proposal is always nice for a laugh, but is does go against your goal for less polarized views.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 1:02 PM on July 27, 2006

I think you'll find some good sources in Mythologies by Roland Barthes and in Imaginary Homelands by Salma Rushdie.
posted by mds35 at 1:05 PM on July 27, 2006

You are teaching the course, not taking the course. Right?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:06 PM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sorry, Salman. My bad.
posted by mds35 at 1:06 PM on July 27, 2006

Go through some old Harper's or New Yorkers. (My college writing teacher made us read Harpers every month)

I think that a Modest Proposal is not the sort of polarized view that she's worried about.

posted by stratastar at 1:11 PM on July 27, 2006

I've got it. I took a class exactly like this in college. The essay that hands down had the biggest effect on me as a writer (and now editor) and that I still reread periodically is "How to Tell a True War Story" from The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Obviously it's about the Vietnam War, but this particular essay doesn't really comment on politics. It's about writing, or storytelling, really. But it is also a great non-fiction personal essay in itself.
posted by lampoil at 1:12 PM on July 27, 2006

"The Pleasure Principle" (Philip Larkin).
posted by pracowity at 1:19 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: Steven C. Den Beste: Yes, I'm teaching it.

flibbertigibbet: Ah, I forgot Swift. I have used that essay before and probably will again. It's always fun when someone entirely misses the irony.

I've also used Loren Eiseley's "The Brown Wasps" in the past and William F. Buckley's "Why Don't We Complain?"

Thanks to all for the suggestions so far. Please keep them coming. I'm a fan of Russell and Rushdie. So those are definitely worth looking into.
posted by wheat at 1:26 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: Ah, the O'Brien suggestion is a great one. I teach that in the second semester freshman writing class (which focuses on literature). But it's perfect for this one as well. Thanks also to everyone for providing links to some of these that are online.
posted by wheat at 1:29 PM on July 27, 2006

Some of my favorites from the Norton Reader:

Annie Dillard, "Terwilliger Bunts One"
David Guterson, "Enclosed. Encyclopedic. Endured: The Mall of America (originally published in Harpers, Aug 93)
Scott Russell Sanders, "Looking at Women"
Jessica Mitford, "Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain" (kind of six-feet-underish)
posted by mattbucher at 1:36 PM on July 27, 2006

We read "Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain" as part of my senior English class in high school, and I can assure you that not a single one of us has forgotten that essay.

Also: Amy Tan, "Mother Tongue"
Margaret Talbot, "Les Tres Riches Heures de Martha Stewart"
Nancy Mairs, "On Being a Cripple"

If you wanted to compare and contrast two essayists who often share the same material, you could do worse than Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan, both of the Atlantic. They have each written extensively on motherhood and suburban life in general. I know Flanagan fills a lot of people (women, in particular) with disgust, but I find her hard to write off - she's a funny, smart, compelling essayist.
posted by anjamu at 2:50 PM on July 27, 2006

Isaiah Berlin, 'Historical Inevitability', or 'Two Concepts of Liberty' (both can be found in 'The Proper Study of Mankind', a collection of essays).

More of your students will think they grasp the depth and subtlety of the arguments than actually do, but both of the above are remarkable examples of how to discuss big ideas to a general readership while retaining both clarity and precision. And, you will find Berlin's political views nuanced enough to fall outside the polarization you wish to avoid (and, it will not hurt that when not complely abstract the political questions are all familiar but several decades removed from the present).
posted by little miss manners at 3:36 PM on July 27, 2006

Others may hate this suggestion -- pile on! -- but I recall really enjoying David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster," and think that students would be engaged by it.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:07 PM on July 27, 2006

An off-the-wall recommendation: Steve Albini, "The Problem with Music," from the Baffler. Actually, many of the Baffler essays, especially those collected here, are thought-provoking and well-written.

Other suggestions:

Three of Tom Wolfe's collections: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965); The Pump House Gang (1968); Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976). [Note: Phred too lazy to provide links.] He was at his sharpest during this period, and these essays are endlessly rereadable. You could almost pick at random here.

There's a New Yorker profile of Simpsons writer George Meyer that is both entertaining and a great piece of writing. I now bravely include the link .
posted by Phred182 at 6:58 PM on July 27, 2006

Just want to say that I agree with Clyde's suggestion. "Consider the Lobster" would be excellent.
posted by mattbucher at 7:24 PM on July 27, 2006

...maybe not so bravely. According to an article in The Atlantic, the George Meyer profile was circulated for years before publication.

Page 3 of this article.
posted by Phred182 at 7:26 PM on July 27, 2006

I'm glad you posted this question. We don't get to chose our textbooks where I teach, so many of us go book-less and use public domain works or whatever essays we can get through our databases on the web.

I don't tend to focus on "great" prose because I've never felt comfortable with my ability to extract lessons from their art that fit my students' writing needs. Instead, I try to find articles that display models of explication, analysis, or argument that are more akin to academic papers (albeit from popular sources) and that do a good job translating complex subject matter into understandable prose.

That's just a personal preference - I change my philosophy on teaching comp every few semesters or so

Some people really don't like him, but I've found Malcolm Gladwell's articles (which are all available at his site) are good at demonstrating cause/effect theses and at integrating research.

I also like Oliver Sacks' essays. I taught "Speed" last year (From the New Yorker, I think) and got some good responses from it.

Barbara Ehrenreich's "Maid to Order" essay in Harper's about 8 years ago generates vehement discussion. She's also a useful model for integrating sources. I also include some letters to the editor that the article generated as wonderful example of white liberal guilty rationalizations counterarguments.

Finally, Howard Gardner's writing on his theory of Multiple Intelligences has always resonated with my students.
posted by bibliowench at 7:58 PM on July 27, 2006

I managed to omit John McPhee. Should have mentioned him first.
posted by Phred182 at 8:08 PM on July 27, 2006

I taught freshman composition both semesters last year and this is what we read:

“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin
“Corn-pone Opinions” by Mark Twain
“Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard
Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman,”
“Red Shoes” by Susan Griffin
The White Album” by Joan Didion
“Notes on Camp” by Susan Sontag
“Looking for Zora” by Alice Walker
“The Marginal World” by Rachel Carson
“Knoxville: Summer of 1915” by James Agee
posted by theantikitty at 8:47 PM on July 27, 2006

Oh man, 'The White Album' by Joan Didion, and David Foster Wallace's extraordinary essay about Michael Joyce (in A Supposedly Fun Thing...). Vastly more moving than the lobster essay, to my mind, though perhaps not as good a demonstration piece, as such. In media/cultural studies one of the finest essays I've read is Clifford Geertz's 'Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight' from his Interpretation of Cultures; a surprisingly compelling piece of cultural anthropology, and a vital example of a kind of descriptive analysis ('literary' anthropology if you will).

'The White Album' and 'Slouching Toward Gomorrah' by Didion are nigh perfect, but maybe long, maybe too idiosyncratic. Then again all these suggestions are.

The opening of Eric Auerbach's Mimesis, the chapter on Odysseus's scar, is one of the great literary essays. But perhaps too high-scholarly for freshman comp.

What about A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf? Long, too long, but a feast.
posted by waxbanks at 8:49 PM on July 27, 2006

i had to write about a jerry farber piece and it stuck with me
posted by chuckforthought.com at 9:07 PM on July 27, 2006

How about including something by Chuck Klosterman? Maybe as a warm-up piece to get the kids interested?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:42 PM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Among professional philosophers, these guys have a number of interesting articles on practical matters (each is famous enough to be the first Google hit for his name, and you'll have no trouble finding their stuff in your library).

Peter Singer - Has tons of published stuff. His article "On Famine" is a bit of a cliche in intro ethics classes, but it makes for good discussion. He argues that we have a duty to give aid to starving people wherever in the world they live, and that we as individuals must give until we are at subsistence level ourselves. American students -- in my experience -- hate, hate, hate this conclusion, but have a hard time giving good reasons why we should reject it. Much of Singer's writing has this quality -- very extreme conclusions, hard for first-time readers to see how to resist them. He's also famous for writing about animal rights.

Thomas Nagel - Writes on widely separated topics. Your library should have some of his books of essays; flip through to find topics that appeal. The essays are nearly all pithy, contain interesting arguments, and are accessibly written. Try the collection Mortal Questions, and the essay (in that collection) "Death". If we just disappear when we die, how can it be bad for us to die? Another very famous essay from that collection is "What is it like to be a Bat?", which is really interesting but might be hard to use for your purposes.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:29 PM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Er, sorry. The articles from philosophers will be argumentative essays, and will not deal with the kinds of secondary research that you're after. They make for great discussions and starting points for students to write their own argumentative essays on the topic, that's what I was thinking of in recommending them.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:40 PM on July 27, 2006

"What's Going On?" is the introduction to the book Spoken Soul by the Rickford brothers and it works as an essay on its own. Lots of thoughts on the topic of Black English vernacular from people like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. A fun, dynamic read.

Also fun is to "pull back the curtain" by finding accessible articles from some of those journals of composition and look at them with the students -- present these young writers the conversation that is happening about them!
posted by Aghast. at 10:51 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: LobsterMitten: I focus quite a bit on argument, logical fallacies, and the like. So argumentative/philosophical essays are perfectly fitting. In that case, they find other arguments and craft their own, navigating between them.
posted by wheat at 11:18 PM on July 27, 2006

My boyfriend and I were just discussing this topic, and we agree that the Lobster article might not be a place to show college freshman into the world of writing essays. Have you seen those footnotes? And as someone who made it through, and enjoyed Infinite Jest, I feel qualified to say: leave David Foster Wallace for them to discover on their own.

I will add to the suggestions by putting MFK Fisher on the list. She has great collections of food writing, which include war time issues. Our favorite collection is a few books together called The Art of Eating.

David Eggers' is heralded for the publication of the Best Nonrequired Reading and there is a yearly collection called Best Essays of ( ) that we enjoy when we come across them.
posted by bilabial at 4:00 PM on July 28, 2006

Response by poster: I wanted to thank everyone for all the great suggestions. I wanted you to know that I also grabbed a copy of Best American Essays, 2005 (here's the table of contents) in order to hit some contemporary selections. It has the David Foster Wallace essay which Clyde Mnestra mentioned, as well as "Speed" by Oliver Sacks, which bibliowench suggested (I'm reading that one right now and like it). It also had a selection from Jonathan Franzen that looked good.

I can't really mark a favorite here, as every post contains good advice. Since I won't have time to read every essay suggested before the semester kicks off, there are undoubtedly some gems here that I won't discover in time to use them this fall; I'll keep those in mind for spring. I'm going to power through as many as I can. And I'll blog the final list (URL is in my profile) for anyone interested.
posted by wheat at 8:14 AM on August 4, 2006

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