Sequenced Graded And Ungraded Writing Assignments In A Writing-Intensive Literature Syllabus

Lynn Keller, English, UW-Madison
This sample syllabus shows how Professor Lynn Keller assigns ungraded, low-stakes journal writing in her writing-intensive literature course to let her students develop their ideas before they turn them into a high-stakes, graded essay.  

Modern American Literature Since 1914


Time and Place: 2:30‑3:45 110 Noland
Office hours: Tuesday 1:00‑3:00 and by appointment
7131 Helen C. White Hall, 263‑3794


Course Description:

This course surveys American literature in several genres from 1914 to the present, acquainting students with some of the major movements, voices, and issues of twentieth‑century literature in the U.S. We will focus a good deal on examining the interaction between literature and history, seeing how authors have responded to important historical events and how they have contributed to major social movements, especially the struggles of women and racial minorities for social justice.

This course is a writing-intensive course, which means that we will use a variety of writing activities, closely integrated with the course material, to help you master the interpretive and analytic skills relevant to the study of prose fiction, poetry, and drama. You will write regularly in a reading journal, in brief informal exercises, and in formal assignments, and we will be talking about effective writing in class. In addition, each student will benefit from working with an undergraduate Writing Fellow who will provide feedback on drafts of several assignments before you revise those papers. Class periods will be conducted largely as discussion, and all students are expected to contribute thoughtfully and regularly. For more information on assignments, expectations, and requirements, please see the section following the course calendar.


Course Requirements:

There are six major course requirements, which will be supplemented by brief ungraded writing exercises. These requirements are 1) participation in class discussion, 2) weekly journal writing in response to assigned readings, 3) one short 3‑5 page research paper devoted to an historical issue relevant to an assigned literary work, 4) a 1‑page statement about how that research affects your understanding of the text to which it is relevant, 5) and 6) two 5‑6 page interpretive/analytic essays about works of literature assigned in the course, each due in draft as well as “final” form.


Oral participation implies coming prepared to voice your views and insights, to defend them when appropriate, and to contribute to the teamwork implied in discussion that is simultaneously critical and collaborative. This demands reading the course assignments carefully before class (and students enrolling should be prepared for the substantial amount of reading this course requires!); once you are in class, it demands listening carefully to what your classmates say and focusing on the issues at hand.


The weekly journal assignment provides an informal setting in which you will articulate and begin to develop your own responses to the texts. Keeping the journal serves several purposes: it will provide a means of recording key insights and reactions that you may wish to contribute to class discussion; it will help you probe your ideas about the text and may well lead to your identifying topics on which you would like to write your analytic essays; it will provide an additional incentive for you to stay caught up with the required reading and to read thoughtfully; it will keep me informed about your thoughts and views if these do not emerge clearly in class discussion.

Each week, you should produce two entries, each a substantial paragraph or two in length. (The average weekly entry would probably be between one and two pages in length. Two pages should be considered a maximum.) One of the weekly entries should be a focused response to some aspect of the text. For instance, you might want to examine the motivation of a particular character, or consider the effect of a particular narrative strategy. You might want to trace (briefly) a theme or a pattern of imagery. You might want to discuss the impact of the work's structure or style. You might want to focus on a scene or a speech that baffles or intrigues you and discuss what makes it confusing or compelling, etc. Since the entries aren't long, you'll need to keep a fairly narrow focus. This will be a place for exploratory work, for trying out ideas or tentative analyses—not for finished arguments. The second weekly entry should record your personal impressions of the text. If you find this assignment so engaging you can hardly put the book down, why is that? If you feel no emotional connection to this work, what makes it hard to connect to? Do you find the fictional world created an improbable and far‑fetched one? Does the author offend you with his/her views? What do you admire about this book, or what do you deplore about it?

Your journal entries may be either typed or handwritten. If handwritten, please write legibly. If using a computer, please double space and use one‑inch margins. I recommend that you not use a spiral notebook, but that you keep a folder or a loose‑leaf notebook. That way, when I collect your journal for a two‑week period, I won't take away the notebook in which you'll want to be writing over the weekend.

Dividing the class alphabetically according to last names (Groups A and Z on the course calendar), I will collect half of the journals each week on Wednesday, so that each of you will turn in your journal regularly every two weeks. I will not collect journals on the two Wednesdays when the longer essays are due or on the day before Thanksgiving. However, I do expect you to keep up with your journals during those weeks so that when I next collect them, I find material related to all the weeks’ readings. Since these journals are relatively informal (written in full sentences, but not edited or revised) and I want them to be a place where you feel free to explore, I will not make corrections or offer extensive comments, though I may acknowledge ideas I find particularly promising or points I find especially compelling.


The brief historical research paper provides you with a different kind of writing experience—that of synthetic reportage rather than interpretation—while encouraging you to think about how history may inform, be assimilated into, or be transformed in literary works. Each student will select an issue from a list I produce (alternatively, you may identify an issue independently and gain my approval for pursuing it) and then consult at least three sources in developing a brief, well-organized report to which a bibliography will be attached. I'll provide information in class about what kinds of sources are acceptable and about my expectations for this paper. These reports are due on Wednesday, October 1. At any subsequent time in the course (up until the last class meeting), you may turn in the follow-up one-page statement that considers how that knowledge affects your reading of the literary text. For instance, if the author has taken liberties with historical information, what does that reveal about the author's agendas? Or, how does an understanding of particular historical pressures help explain characters' actions? (There is no set due date for this assignment because the relevant works are assigned at different dates throughout the semester.)


You may well find that observations you make in your journal or ideas you present in the follow‑up to your historical report lead you to the topics for your interpretive essays. Each of these two essays will draw upon skills of close reading and of more broadly conceptual analysis. That is, in each one you are to present an argument about a work (or perhaps several works, e.g. several poems) that develops out of close analysis of the text(s). These essays are to represent your own interpretive labors, not your processing of other critics' work. While you are welcome to consult sources that provide historical, political, or geographical information, I do not want you to consult secondary sources about the literary works or their authors. Of course, if you use any secondary sources, you must acknowledge them in footnotes and bibliography. (Note that honors students will, in other contexts, be asked to engage with some critical literature.) You are required to bring to class a complete draft of your essay on a specified date at least two weeks before the final due date. This draft will go to one of the Writing Fellows assigned to this course, who will respond with written suggestions and meet with you in an individual conference. By a “draft,” I do not mean something rough and unformed; rather, I mean a version in which you have worked hard to present your ideas as fully, clearly, and persuasively as you can. This is important because it puts you in the best position to benefit from peer review; it increases the likelihood that the person giving you feedback can point you toward improvements you might not have made on your own. When you turn in your “final” version at the beginning of class on the specified due date, it must be accompanied by the draft submitted previously, along with the Writing Fellow's written comments on that draft. The historical essay and the interpretive/analytic essays must be printed, not handwritten. Use standard-size font, double spaced lines, standard one‑inch margins, and a dark printer. You want me to focus on the quality of your ideas, not on the quality of your printer or your xerox machine, so please be sure the copy is easily legible. Be sure to keep a hard copy of each assignment for yourself.



10% for participation (quality and consistency). Anyone who attends consistently and participates with reasonable regularity will receive at least a B. Those who contribute more often (and do so thoughtfully, not simply so that their voices will be heard) will receive higher grades than B.

20% for, in combination, the weekly journals, the brief writing exercises, and the one‑page follow‑up to historical research paper. The journals are not formally graded, but since I expect you to spend time and energy on them, they will nonetheless "count" in your final grade. Journals that follow the specifications above and demonstrate consistent understanding of and engagement with the readings will receive at least a B. Particularly thoughtful journals will receive higher grades. Brief writing exercises will not be graded, but their successful completion will be noted in my grade book. Assignments not completed will have a negative effect on your grade. The thoughtfulness and insight of your one‑page follow‑up to the historical report will determine the grade on that assignment, which will figure into this portion of the final grade.

10% for the historical research paper.

30% for each of the two analytic essays. If you submitted a draft that was incomplete or very sloppy (i.e. obviously tossed off at the last minute before it was due), and/or if you did not attempt to respond to suggestions made for improvement, the grade on this assignment will be lowered.