Shelley Reid .


English 309
Introduction to Nonfiction Writing

Course Information

Fall 2008  -- TR 10:30-11:45  
Professor E. Shelley Reid


Policy Page

Go to Assigments Page

Go to Schedule page

Books Grading Participation/Late Work
Plagiarism Writers' Guide Go to Blackboard site




Officially speaking, this class is designed to provide space and time and motivation for you to further develop your abilities in writing nonfiction.  We will also attend very carefully to the processes that surround writing and that help writers improve their strategies: 

  • reading

  • thinking about and responding to reading from a writer's perspective

  • anticipating the effects that contexts and audiences will have on writing

  • generating and organizing ideas

  • drafting

  • researching

  • reflecting on one's writing

  • learning and experimenting with new strategies

  • reading one's own and others' drafts with a writer's eye

  • revising

  • re-revising

  • editing

  • polishing

 . . . and starting the whole process again.  More importantly, in this class we will focus on helping everyone improve as a lifelong writing-learner, and so there will be space and time to practice three crucial things: Writing from Home, Writing for Change, and Trying Something New.





Writing True (Perl & Schwartz), Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Kingsolver), and  The Writer on Her WorkVol. II (Sternburg).  Also purchase one of the following two books:  Best American Magazine Writing 2005 (Lehman) orBest American Essays 2005 (Atwan).  Additional texts will be made available through library reserve or Blackboard.  You should also purchase a writing handbook (such as Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference) if you don't have a (recent) copy of one already.


Please buy 2-3 basic pocket folders (no plastic, no three-hole brads) to keep your writing in, and be sure to have back-up storage (disks, flash drives, etc.) for your documents. 

A Note about Portfolio Grading

This is a workshop-based class with a strong portfolio component.   You will receive very few formal letter grades on your written assignments, though you will receive a profusion of evaluative and supportive comments from me and your peers.  This style of evaluation -- focused on the work in your final portfolio -- emphasizes revision strongly, grading the quality of your work only when your writing is at its best point.

However, if at any point you are concerned about your letter-grade-standing for an assignment or overall, please come see me so we can talk about it.


Your Responsibilities:  Grade Weights & Measures

(See the Assignment Descriptions for full details)



First Portfolio Assignments: Try something!

30% (150 pts.)

Workshop Draft with Guide (3 required)

20 points each* for the first three; 10 points each* thereafter

Writer's Commentary (3 required)

10 points each for the first three, 5 points thereafter

3x3 (b)log + response (1 required)

10 points for the first, 5 points thereafter (max 25)

Reading Analysis (1 required)

10/5 points each (max 25)

Public Letter (1 required)

5/3 points each (max 15)

Extra Peer Review (optional)

5 points each (max 15)

Writer's Journal/Exercises (optional)

5 points each* (max 15)

* guaranteed





First Portfolio, Quality/Growth Evaluation

5% (25 pts.)





First Portfolio Preparation & Participation

7% (35 pts.)





Midterm Proposal and Conference

10% (50 pts.)





Second Portfolio (holistically graded)

40% (200 pts.)





Second Portfolio Preparation & Participation 

8% (40 pts.)



Final Grade Score Chart:

485-500 = A+

435-449 = B+

385-399 = C+

300-349 = D

465-484 = A

415-434 = B

365-384 = C

<300 = F

450-464 = A-

400-414 = B-

350-364 = C-

Completion Policy:  You must complete and turn in three workshop drafts & commentaries, the proposal, and two portfolio-revisions & commentaries to pass this class.

Originality Policy:  While you may certainly work with a topic that you have written about before, you may not submit, in whole or in part, any work for this class that has been (or is about to be) submitted for another class.  Check with me if you have any questions.

The 3-Point Policy: At the end of the term, I do not "round up"; there is no last-minute "extra credit."  However, if you are within 3 points (no more) of a higher grade, and I have seen clear evidence of you "going the extra mile" throughout the semester -- making great improvement as a writer, taking extra care with peer reviews, breaking a sweat with your revisions, enlivening class discussion or peer groups with your wit and/or insight, etc. -- I reserve the right to give you the higher grade.  There is no persuading me to do this with pleas or sad stories or chocolate cake at the very end of the term or after the grade is recorded; my decision, once made, is non-negotiable.



My Responsibilities:  Feedback, flexibility, and support

In order to make a draft-and-revise-and-revise class function well, everyone has to work together.  Part of my responsibility is to ask you to stretch beyond what you're currently comfortable with; part of it is to provide support and space for you to work on projects that are important to you.

Some notes about feedback on your drafts

It is my responsibility to return your drafts to you with useful comments, balancing three needs:

  • the need for specific, honest suggestions about how you might improve

  • the need for responses that support you while you "try something" on your own, even if it's not fully conceived yet

  • the need for timely feedback, so that you can apply suggestions given about one project to your work on an upcoming project

As you know, the needs for specificity and for speed sometimes conflict; the goals of guidance and open-ended support are sometimes in tension with one another.  I'll do my best to balance these; please let me know if you feel a different balance would serve you better as a writer.



Some notes about emailing me

Being an old fogey, I spend a lot of time on email, and would much prefer to answer your question when you have it (and while it's still a small question) than to have you forget the question or have it turn into a large frustration!  You can help me to help you if you can . . .

  • put the course number -- "Engl 309" -- in the Subject line, along with a short description of your reason for writing, and take the extra minute to write a complete piece of communication (salutation, message, signature, absence of glaring errors, etc.).

  • be specific in your question or comment: what have you already tried or considered, and what are you now concerned about?

  • use or include your GMU address in the email; for privacy reasons, I will respond only to that address.

I read email daily, but I don't always respond immediately; I usually do email catch-up on Friday or Saturday.  If your question is time-sensitive -- you need a response soon to meet a deadline -- please indicate that in your message.  If I don't get back to you in my catch-up time, please send me a quick reminder in case I've forgotten.

As a rule, I don't add current students as friends via Facebook. Nothing personal: it's just that we work together so much as part of our class, I figure we each need our own space outside it during the semester. You can always check back with me in December if it's one of those things you do.

English 309 and the Kairos of Classroom Learning:
Participation and Late-Work

Kairos is a Greek term used by rhetoricians and writers to denote the idea of taking the right action (or choosing the right words) at the right time (or for the right audience/context).  Kairos is time measured by its felt-quality, not its numerical quantity: students and writers both need to "use their time well."

Classroom Kairos:  When you listen to other views, write notes to yourself about topics, work with others' writing, and voice your reactions for others to learn from, you increase your own depth and breadth of learning.  In a collaborative, workshop-based class, as with choir rehearsal or basketball practice, attending is both a physical achievement and a mental process.

Activities in each class meeting will be valued at up to 1 point per class.  Writing exercises, reading preparation, and discussion will contribute to this score.  If you miss a class you should turn in any required work, but you will not be able to "make up" participation points.

Workshop participation requires extra concentration, and will be credited at up to 1.5 additional points for each workshop. (Students who miss a workshop due to a Rare, Unpredictable Natural Disaster may have the opportunity to make up some of their workshop participation points.)

You should also be actively present in and well-prepared for face-to-face meetings, or you may lose class participation points. Any serious breach of good class conduct may cause you to lose all points in this category.

Please plan to be on time for each class.  If you are frequently late, you may lose participation points.  However, in an emergency I would much rather have you come late than not at all.


Assignment Kairos: The quickest way to come to hate a writing class is to fall behind in it.

Late assignments are those arriving any time after class on the due date.  If you need to, you can email me a copy before class to avoid a grade penalty, though you may still need to turn in a hard copy.  If you drop off a late assignment to my mailbox in Robinson A 487 or post it to Blackboard, send me an email to let me know.  Please don't place assignments near, on, or under my office door.

A workshop draft must be turned in on time for the appropriate workshop in order to "count."  All other due dates are given to help you prepare for a particular class discussion or activity, so missing the due date will count against your preparation/participation grade.  Late portfolios or proposals will lose 5% per calendar day.

Lateness due to Rare, Unpredictable Natural Disasters will not usually incur penalties; it is your responsibility to provide explanation/documentation of such occurrences.  (Note: The flu is not rare, and a lack of parking spots is not a natural disaster . . . .)

Computer Crises are neither Rare nor Natural, and most of them can be avoided or controlled with good advance preparation.  Lateness due to individual electronic disasters will earn sympathy but not special consideration.  Please back up your files, print often while in process, and print final assignments before the Very Last Minute.


Kairos can be a flexible concept; special cases will receive special consideration.  Overwork, as you know from your own and your friends' experiences, is not a special case.  Alien abduction is a special case.  Between the two lie a variety of cases that can be discussed.  Don't panic -- but do plan ahead when possible, and contact me as soon as possible if you run into trouble.


Other Policies

Students with Disabilities

Students with documented disabilities are legally entitled to certain accommodations in the classroom.  If you request such accommodation, you must present me with a contact sheet from the Disability Resource Center (703-993-2474).  I will be happy to work with students and the DRC to arrange fair access and support.

Policy on Plagiarism

In informal or collaborative situations, the ideas you share among your fellow students take on a collective "ownership"; suggestions offered may be freely taken.  In the case of a draft workshop or informal writing, consulting with other students is usually strongly encouraged. 

Nonetheless, unless the assignment is designated as a team effort, the final assignment should demonstrate your own thought processes and original presentation of ideas and arguments. 

Learning to effectively -- and ethically -- blend one's own ideas and analysis with information and evidence obtained from outside sources is a significant challenge for writers in the twenty-first century.  I will give reminders about strategies for handling sources as part of our class.  However, writers must also take responsibility for practicing the basic principles listed below.

To avoid plagiarism, meet the expectations of a US Academic Audience, give their readers a chance to investigate the issue further, and make credible arguments, writers must

  • put quotation marks around, and give an in-text citation for, any sentences or distinctive phrases (even very short, 2- or 3-word phrases) that writers copy directly from any outside source:  a book, a textbook, an article, a website, a newspaper, a song, a baseball card, an interview, an encyclopedia, a CD, a movie, etc.

  • completely rewrite -- not just switch out a few words -- any information they find in a separate source and wish to summarize or paraphrase for their readers, and also give an in-text citation for that information

  • give in-text citations for any facts, statistics, or opinions that the writers learned from outside sources and that are not considered "common knowledge" by the target audience

  • give an in-text citation for any facts, statistics, or opinions which the writers know but which are not part of the "common knowledge" of their target-audience (this may require research to provide credible outside-source support)

  • give a new in-text citation for each element of information -- that is, a single citation at the end of a paragraph of outside-source information is not usually sufficient to inform a reader clearly of how much of the paragraph comes from an outside source

Unless I specifically say otherwise for this class, you must include a Works Cited or References list at the end of any essay that draws from external sources, providing full bibliographic information for every source cited in your essay.  Different disciplines, genres, and publications will have slightly different citation expectations, which we will discuss further. 

"Unintentional" plagiarism, or significant errors or omissions in citation, are serious problems, and they will result in serious consequences.  If you ever have questions about a citation practice, please ask me!



For Writers Only

What are those marks on my essay draft?

I'm really not worried about "grammatical" errors or editing-level problems in our first round of drafts.  After all, once you get around to revising, some of these sentences may grow into something else entirely. 

However, if I see a pattern of errors or sentence-level problems developing, I want to have a way to help you notice it.  So I use a strategy called "minimal marking," which some of you may have seen before in other English classes.  In most cases, I don't identify the exact mechanical error (sometimes I give a hint), but I mark theline in which a problem occurs so that you can locate the problem.  If you can't find the problem, or would like some help with it, please ask.

On hardcopy, X's in the margin each indicate a problem in the adjacent line, of the following sorts:

w. = word (spelling, homonym [its–it's] error, typo, wrong word, omitted word)

p. = punctuation (often an extra, misplaced, or missing comma, sometimes a semi-colon or colon)

s. = sentence (the sentence that starts in this line may be a run-on, fragment, or tangled sentence)

c. = citation (in-text citation is missing, has incorrect parts, is not punctuated correctly)

In online-grading, yellow highlights also indicate a problem area.

Sometimes, especially on early drafts, I'll indicate that something more general is working well or somewhat amiss:

[ Brackets around a phrase] suggest that it could be deleted or condensed to focus the sentence

Squiggly-underlines indicate language that is Engfishy, vague or too confusing for me to see clearly

Check marks indicate praise! That's "you got it!" or "you go girl! [or guy]." (See also <smileys> )

Underlines, single or double, indicate a really strong phrase or sentence! (So do green highlights!)

When you come back to revise your writing, or when you're looking for clues about how to improve your sentences, try reading out loud, slowly & with gusto, to see if you can find what you need to change. Please don't ever just delete the sentence! It might be crucial for showing what you mean!



But what do I write about?

Only you can ensure that you're stretching yourself and learning at least some of what you need to learn as a writer right now.  As you look at your assignment options for this class, please

  • take time to choose your topics and assignments early and wisely -- people who make last-minute, "oh, I'll just write about bears" decisions risk turning the writing into a frustrating task rather than an opportunity for learning and exploration;

  • be willing to "try something," to give an assignment the "old college try," even to turn in something that's not really working yet, just to see what you might be able to learn from it;

  • and let me know if you have an idea about an assignment that would make it fit better with your learning goals; we'll see what we can work out.


Final mantra:  Don't Panic!

Writing is hard work, but unlike flying a jet plane, arranging a wedding reception for 1000 people, or herding piranhas, any emergencies it produces can usually be satisfactorily handled if they are spotted early and dealt with directly.  Please let me know as soon as you can if you run into difficulties, feel stranded or overwhelmed, or hit a wall, and we'll look for an alternate pathway.  Nobody writes alone: learning to ask for and accept help is crucial for us all.






Last updated August 2008.Email Shelley Reid