Reading and Writing the Personal Essay

Course Description

This course examines the literary and cultural significance of the personal essay. We will begin with some influential theories of the essay, and conclude by considering the changing media—from periodicals to blogs—in which it appears. In between, we will explore some of the many reasons writers have had for writing themselves into their essays, such as explaining their personal tastes, demanding action from their readers, bearing witness to trauma, and making the personal political. Course readings will be drawn from across the rich history of the personal essay, including works by Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Alice Walker, David Foster Wallace, Elif Batuman, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. As we explore the literary history, structure, and style of the personal essay, we will also reflect on what this genre reveals about the modern person. How are individuals shaped by social, cultural, and political forces? How are the ways we construct and express ourselves affected by changes in the media? And what might the personal essay reveal about the shifting boundaries between self and other, public and private, fact and fiction? Throughout the course, students will complete a series of short critical assignments, culminating in a final paper in which they will apply what they have learned to produce personal essays of their own.

Course Details

  • Grading Basis: Letter Grade or Credit/No Credit
  • Unit-Range Information: 3 units for students outside of major and for students who want to transfer units to their home institution; 5 units for students in major to count toward major program requirements.
  • Limited Enrollment Details: Flexible on enrollment cap, but the cap helps keep the course at a seminar level and provides a better ratio of students per instructor.
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