Who Gives a $#% About an Oxford Comma?

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Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” song. Opening line: “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?”

On The Colbert Report, Vampire Weekend debate the Oxford comma here. Debate begins at 2:45 mark.





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Chloe Caldwell-Inspired Writing Prompts

71X+9qFI+uLThe following prompts all draw from and are inspired by Chloe Caldwell’s essay collection Legs Get Led Astray, and are written by students in the Fall 2014 graduate creative nonfiction class.

One-line prompts

  1. Write an essay about what you wanted to be when you were younger.  Cite early memories.
  2. Write an essay about a time your parents caught you doing something sexual.
  3. Write about something you feel strong emotions about.  No sentence can be more than 12 words long.  Present tense.
  4. Write about who you wanted to be and who people thought you would be and how that changed/stayed the same.
  5. Pick a phrase and start a majority of your sentences with it (at least every paragraph).
  6. Write about three songs from your childhood or adolescence that you know by heart—the more embarrassing the better.
  7. You return home one night to find your house/apartment building has been condemned. You can go back in to get only what you can fit in a backpack. What do you take?
  8. Write about a time when you snooped on someone.
  9. Write a segmented essay in the present tense, organized by sections involving different people you’ve had relationships or friendships with.
  10. Write an essay where each sentence contains no more than ten words.
  11. Have the first line of your piece begin with “You told me…” Do the same for your last line.


Medium-Sized Prompts 

The ‘Someone who you used to be close’ Prompt

Write about someone who you used to be close to but have grown away from.  List at least twenty memories from when you were close to this person.  Each memory should fill one short paragraph and be written in second-person as if you are talking to the person.  Each paragraph must include a common word or phrase.  Write three short paragraphs at the end stating how the relationship has changed.


The ‘Recent awkward experiences’ Prompt

Write about recent awkward experiences you have had with adults.  Use stories about children to show the similarities between youth and adults.   Show the ways the adults have stayed the same and how they have changed.


The ‘Place you lived or worked previously’ Prompt

Write about a place you lived or worked previously.  Show how your feelings of the environment connect to the sexual relationships you were involved in at the time.


Large Prompts

Inspired by Caldwell’s “That Was Called Love” (37) essay:

Pick a time period in your life when a roommate moved in or you developed a new friendship that took up much of your time and life.  Write about some seemingly inconsequential days spent with this person and give as many specific details as you can.  (Think about how Caldwell refers to the moments when she fell in love with you/ that person.)  Use specific addresses for the occurrences as subtitles.  Don’t use names!  Use first person “I” when writing about your own actions, second person “you” when referring to the actions of the roommate/friend, and plural “we” for shared experiences.  No names: just I, you, we, or a friend or a roommate.


Inspired by Caldwell’s “The Shit You Say” (135) essay:

Write an essay about a lover/partner/husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend and begin 90% of your sentences with “You say” referring to that person, and of course, the think he or she has said.  Always refer to the person in the second person.  Write about specific things this person said.  Use at least one serious encounter and one silly encounter.  Separate the two encounters and then write a paragraph that combines the two.  Consider how Caldwell uses a line of dialogue from this person as her final line of the essay.


Inspired by Caldwell’s “True Love” (155) essay:

Caldwell’s material is very risqué, to say the least, but she also includes a few lovely essays about her relationship with children that give a different dimension to the collection.  Write about a time when you had a startling revelation about life through the eyes of a child and perhaps because of your relationship with the child.  Use dialogue to show the innocence and imagination of the child and to juxtapose how adults sometimes forget what is really important. Include that moment with the child where you realize something crucial about life.  For Caldwell, it’s that “Duh” reaction from Henri before he says what he and Caldwell have—True Love.  Reflect on this moment toward the end just like Caldwell does at the end of the essay when she reflects about how she has progressed as a person, maybe because of this relationship with Henri.  Try to find important or poignant words spoken by the child to use as your title like Caldwell.


The Girlfriend Prompt

This prompt comes after reading Chloe Caldwell’s “Girlfriend” on page 75 of Legs Get Led Astray. Caldwell often writes in the second person POV, which makes readers feel as though they’re looking at a letter she has written to someone who’s influenced her life.

To complete this assignment, start by thinking of someone you were once close to, but have drifted apart from. Who stands between you and this person? If there isn’t a person to blame, then ask yourself what caused the rift in your relationship.  Was it a specific event? Once you’ve identified the catalyst, lead with it. For example, Caldwell opens with “You have a girlfriend now, but…” By starting with this, she tells readers exactly who/what stands between her and this person from the past.

Next, identify a timeframe. When was your relationship active? When was the last time you remember spending time with ____ in a meaningful way? Caldwell’s timeframe spans eleven years, from age eleven through age twenty-one.

Once you’ve identified the timeframe, pick a memory from each week, month, or year of your relationship. Make each memory a paragraph in your piece. Caldwell begins each paragraph with “You have a girlfriend now, but…” You, too, should consider starting each paragraph the same way you opened the piece.

Once you’ve written a paragraph for each memory on the timeline, include a paragraph recapping the entire relationship: a snapshot, if you will. What things did this person often say or do? How did this person show that he/she cared about you? What is special about this person? Consider starting each sentence or memory the same way you started the piece, but do not give each memory its own paragraph, and do not feel obligated to mention where the memory fits on the timeline. This paragraph should end with a note about what the estranged friend/lover/relative is doing now.

Include one last paragraph that ruminates on the person or event that caused the rift between you and the estranged friend/lover/relative. This paragraph may be as short as four sentences. Try to distill your thoughts about the change into short sentences. Try to begin each sentence the same way you opened the piece.


The Expectations Prompt

This prompt comes after reading “My Mother Wanted To Be Betty Boop” on page 48 of Chloe Caldwell’s Legs Get Led Astray.

Start by thinking of someone who has attempted to shape you in several different ways throughout your life. Though this is likely a parent or caretaker, it could also be a friend, lover, or close relative. In the “Betty Boop” piece, Caldwell writes about her mother.

In Caldwell’s piece, she mentions a few of her mother’s expectations for her, but mentions several of the mother’s expectations for herself. The ratio in the piece is 3:9. Try to maintain this ratio in your own piece by remembering what your friend/lover/relative expected of you, but more importantly, what that person expected of him/herself.

Begin each paragraph with “ _____wanted.” After you state what your friend/lover/relative wanted, reflect on his/her desire to fulfill that expectation. Caldwell begins by stating that her mother wanted to be a dancer. She goes on to remember moments when she and her mother danced together. Include yourself in _____’s expectations as much as possible—even when the expectations mostly concern your friend/lover/relative.

When you discuss what _____ expected of you, make sure you adhere to the rule that you must start each paragraph with “_____ wanted.” Caldwell does this by using the phrases “My mother wanted me to…” or “My mother wanted her daughter to…”

After at least twelve paragraphs that begin this way, you are allowed to break the rule. Caldwell breaks the rule by using the phrases “ ____says that” and “____ told me.” Think of a few tid bits of advice you’ve heard from this friend/lover/relative that could fit into this mold.

Finally, give your readers an image of this friend/lover/relative. Caldwell does this by including a few paragraphs made up of sentence fragments. These paragraphs should sound like somewhat of a list. Begin each sentence fragment with the tag for your friend/lover/relative. The first paragraph should be about places he/she often went. Try to relate these destinations to the expectations you’ve recounted above. The next paragraph should state a few important items this person owned. Where were these items kept? Remember that these items should relate to the expectations above. The final paragraph should state a few actions or activities this person often did/does. For example, Caldwell writes, “My mother: Standing at the counter reading the newspaper and eating pretzel rods” (51). Remember that like the other two paragraphs, the final paragraph regarding actions/activities should relate to the expectations you’ve listed at the beginning of the piece.


The Location Prompt

This prompt comes after reading Chloe Caldwell’s “Underground” on page 131 in Legs Get Led Astray.

Think of a place where you’ve had several poignant experiences, including some with the same person—preferably an estranged friend/lover/relative. The place you choose may be broad enough to have sub-locations, or may simply be one definite location. Caldwell’s location is the subway, meaning she has the option to discuss different trains within the subway system. Perhaps you could choose something like “France,” and discuss several different cities within the country. Perhaps you could choose something more limited like “my bed.”

Think of several anecdotes attached to this location. Make a paragraph for each. Begin each paragraph by stating the location. For example, Caldwell writes, “On the G train…” or “On the L train…”  Discuss each anecdote in the present tense.

Some of the anecdotes should tell of experiences you’ve had alone in that place, and some should tell of experiences you’ve had with the estranged friend/lover/relative. End the piece with an experience (or cluster of experiences) that occurred after the friend/lover/relative exited your life. If you’re looking for a ratio to abide by, then consider Caldwell’s Us:Me ratio, which is 19:10.


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Meeting Schedule for English 494: Internship Spring 2015

Before the semester*:
Friday, November 7; 9am-11:00am

(room to be announced)

Bring draft of resume, cover letters. Explanation of requirements of class (rubric). Review of internships available.


Friday November 21; 9am-11:00am

Albertus 112

With the Fall 2014 students; Albertus 112
Bring draft of resume, cover letters. Explanation of requirements of class (rubric). Review of internships available.
Friday December 12; 9am-11:00am
(room to be announced)
Final resume and Draft Cover Letter Draft Due; editing in class.  Mock Interviews.

During the semester:

Friday, January 16 9am-11am; Albertus 112

Friday, March 13 9am-11am; Albertus 112

Friday, April 24 9am-11am; Albertus 112

Attendance will be taken for mandatory meetings. Adjust your internship and work schedule accordingly, as you would any other class.

*If you cannot make any of these meetings, it is student’s responsibility to present alternate days and times as soon as possible, before the Spring 2015 semester ends.

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Six-word leads and headlines for our Immersion Assignments

It’s either big bootie or nothing! — Mardia W.

Relative and no speaky the language. — Thomas G

“These people are real dumbasses, Aaron.” — Aaron V

Black girl, no rhythm. Weird, right? — Alyssa P

I failed at social media intervention. — Madison D

Vegetarian diets for carnivorous college students. — Abby B

Angsty teen starts smoking. Surprise, surprise. — Cali L

American just don’t get non-Americans. — Julian L

Why not drink the Jungle Juice? — Brittany L

Ballin’ on a tight college budget. — Kaelyn D

“Oh no, what do you need?” — Connor M

Stressful life of a college student. — Michaela B

Violets are blue…poetry blew, too. — Kaitlyn B

Eating out with your girlfriend: Dangerous! — Samantha P

Girl goes from Nothing to Nirvana. — Courtney B

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Week-by-Week Class Plan for English 105: Expository Writing, Oral Communication, and Research

English 105: Expository Writing, Oral Communication, and Research
Section E5, Course #1509, The College of Saint Rose
Fall 2014, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 4:15-6:00pm, Albertus Hall 112
Daniel Nester, Associate Professor of English, Instructor
E-mail: daniel [dot] nester [at] strose [dot] edu
Phone: 518-454-2812
Teaching Blog: http://nestersteachingblog.com
Office: Dolan Hall, 442 Western Avenue, First Floor #1
Office hours: Tuesday and Thursdays 3-4pm and by appointment

Week 1: August 28 and 30

Go over syllabus, introductions. Choices for first assignment. Pick an assignment and get start on exercise.

Your Metaphor Quiz: name your assignment LastnameFirstnameMetaphor and put it in your folder by Saturday, August 30, 11:59pm.
Things to include/specifications:
– You should write at least 300 words.
– You should have one sentence that uses a comma and a coordinating conjunction, as we went over in class.

Week 2: September 1 and 3

Lecture on Style Guides. Please view the Lecture on Style Guides in our folder. I went over a lot of this in class, but some of it I did not. It’s a Powerpoint with recorded narrations, so you will have to go to Slide Show > From Beginning. I also saved it as a video file. Let me know before next class if you have trouble viewing or hearing this.
Readings. In our shared Dropbox folder (“01 ENG 105 Readings and Class Materials”), you will see four short readings, all of which are immersion writing pieces. Please read them for Tuesday, September 2, so we can talk a bit about what your final products might look like.
Your Immersion Pitch. For Tuesday, September 2, you will all come up to the front of the class to pitch your immersion idea. This only needs to be 1-2 minutes, but you do need to be prepared.
Week 3: : September 9 and 11

Saturday, September 6: Pre-writing, notes, and rough drafts of your Immersion Writing Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameImmersionPreWriting and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm. Include 1. An explanation of your immersion stunt/experiment; 2. History of, or behind, or surrounding your immersion stunt/experiment; 3. An explanation of your news peg; 4. The raw transcript from your in-class interview, and any other interviews you have already finished.

September 9: Ledes/Leads, and Summary, Paraphrases, and Quotes. Possible ledes/leads for your piece.

September 11: View video lectures in “01 ENG 105 Readings and Class Materials” folder:

Lecture_Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summaries Presentation 1 Why
Lecture_Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summaries Presentation 2 The Summary
Lecture_Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summaries Presentation 3 The Paraphrase
Lecture_Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summaries Presentation 4 Quoting and Quotations

Also: Bring in articles on-screen (one peer-reviewed article, one web page or news article); Coming to a Reckoning

Week 4: September 16 and 18

Saturday, September 13: Rough drafts of your Immersion Writing Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameImmersionRoughDraft and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm.

Tuesday, September 16: Workshop for Immersion Introductions begin

Thursday, September 18: Workshop for Immersion Introductions (cont.); introduction to Moth Storytelling Assignment and The “I Remember” Writing Assignment (after Joe Brainard) as pre-writing.

Week 5: September 23 and 25

Saturday, September 20: Final drafts of your Immersion Writing Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameImmersionFinalDraft and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm.

Tuesday, September 23: The “I Remember” Writing Assignment (after Joe Brainard); 2,000 words minimum; name document LastnameFirstnameIRemember and place in your Dropbox by 4:15pm; read Moth Storytelling Assignment and listen to examples as well as student examples; start reading Caldwell, Legs Get Led Astray

Thursday, September 25: Listen to Moth Presentations; present Moth Storytelling Assignment two-minute pitches in class. Subjects subject to class approval; go over Chloe Caldwell-Inspired Writing Assignment; read: The Little Seagull Handbook, Write section (1-78);

Week 6: : September 30 and October 2

Saturday, September 27: First drafts of Moth Storytelling Assignment, recorded as sound or video file (Name document LastnameFirstnameStory1 and upload to your Dropbox folder Tuesday, April 22, 11:59pm

Tuesday, September 30: Feedback returned on recordings; pre-writing for Chloe Caldwell-Inspired Writing Assignment; read: Caldwell, Legs Get Led Astray; read: The Little Seagull Handbook, Research section (79-108) and from Strose Prose, Pecha “Hitting a Tool with a Tool” (7) and Zobre “The Dive” (15)


Week 7 : October 7 and 9

Saturday, October 5: Rough Draft of your Chloe Caldwell-Inspired Writing Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameImmersionChloeRough and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm.

Tuesday: October 7: Workshops of Chloe Caldwell-Inspired Writing Assignment pieces

Thursday, October 9: Chloe Caldwell visits class, has public talk at 6pm, and reads at Frequency North reading series in EAC at 7:30pm

Week 8: October 14 and 16

Saturday, October 12: Final Draft of your Chloe Caldwell-Inspired Writing Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameImmersionChloeFinal and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm; read: Laymon, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

October 14: In-Class Moth Storytelling Assignment sessions begin; go over Kiese Laymon-Inspired Writing Assignment; read: The Little Seagull Handbook, part of Edit section (251-303)

October 16: In-Class Moth Storytelling Assignment continue

Midterm Conferences

Week 9: October 21 and 23

Saturday, October 12: Rough Draft of your Kiese Laymon-Inspired Writing Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameImmersionKieseRough and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm; read: Laymon, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

Tuesday, October 21: Workshop of Laymon pieces

Thursday, October 23: Kiese Laymon visits class, has public talk at 6pm, and reads at Frequency North reading series in EAC at 7:30pm

Week 10: October 28 and 30

Saturday, October 25: Final Draft of your Kiese Laymon-Inspired Writing Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameImmersionKieseFinal and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm.

Tuesday, October 28: Argument brainstorming and presentations; read: The Little Seagull Handbook, next part of Edit section (304-354)

Thursday, October 30: Works Cited for Argument due; in-class working thesis presentations


Week 11: November 4 and 6

Saturday, November 2: Rough Draft of your Argument Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameArgumentRough and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm.


Tuesday, November 4: No Classes for Advisement Day

Thursday, November 6: Workshop of Argument Rough Drafts

Week 12: November 11 and 13

Saturday, November 9: Draft #2 of your Argument Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameArgumentDraft2 and place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm.

Tuesday, November 11: Workshop of Argument Draft #2

Thursday, November 13: Workshop of Argument Draft #2; begin work on Pecha Kucha Presentation Assignment

Week 13: November 18 and 20

Saturday, November 16: Draft #3 of your Argument Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameArgumentDraft3 place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm.

Tuesday, November 18: Pecha Kucha Presentation Assignment work continues

Thursday, November 20: Pecha Kucha Presentation Assignment in-class begin

Week 14: November 25 and 27

Saturday, November 23: Final Draft of your Argument Assignment; name document LastnameFirstnameArgumentFinal place in your Dropbox by 11:59pm.


Tuesday, November 25: Pecha Kucha Presentation Assignment in-class continues

Thursday, November 27: Thanksgiving Break

Week 15: December 2 and 4

Tuesday, December 2: Revision Workshops

Thursday, December 4: Revision Workshops

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George Plimpton, Participatory Journalist


17:49 Sports Illustrated

26:25 Football



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Filed under English105Fall2014, Immersion Writing

Make Your Own Variations on Grief Assignment

Daum_Meghan_My_Misspent_Youth coverMegan Daum’s 2001 collection, My Misspent Youth, is a modern classic of personal essay writing. From the title piece’s account of leaving New York City (and its nod to Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All Them”), to the memoir-driven piece that recounts a music nerd childhood (“Music is My Bag”), to a meditation centered on a hatred of wall-to-wall carpeting (“Carpet is Mungers”), Daum’s collection is a Generation X mixtape, an account of idealism meeting the real world.

The last essay in the book, “Variations on Grief,” is described as a “savage self-indictment,” but that only explains it in part. Here’s Daum from a recent interview with Emily Gould, on the occasion of the reissue of the book:

It’s an essay about the narrator’s friend who dies at 22 and she’s essentially unable to mourn his death because he essentially did nothing with his life—his life was so empty as to almost literally have been heading for death all along. Moreover, the narrator gets into this relationship with the friend’s parents wherein she’s essentially lying to them about what a great life he had. It’s a brutal, brutal piece.  Audiences have every right to ask all the questions they want. So my answer that night, which I’ll reiterate here, is that when you write about real people you’re constantly calibrating what’s worth revealing and what’s just not.

“I’ve lost a hell of a lot of sleep over this piece over the years,” Daum continues. “It’s a ruthless piece of writing that has, rightly so, turned a lot of people off. But the flipside of turning some people off is that you’re going to reach other people that much more intensely. So you constantly have to ask yourself if what you’re writing is in service to the piece, if the pain you’re potentially causing one person is worth the possible benefit it might have to readers.”

“[I]t’s so important to go to the brutal places and trust that it’s worth it.”

Reading “Variations on Grief” over the years has given me the courage to not be the hero in my own writing and to urge my students to do the same. Sometimes I am the villain, or at least the antagonist as well as protagonist, in my own stories. That’s just a fact. It’s not only important to offer up all sides of oneself in personal narrative; it’s absolutely necessary. 

You may find that, in making yourself unsympathetic, you will make more connections with readers than if you portrayed yourself as the perfect everyperson main character, so common in mainstream film.

Daum_Meghan_Variations_on_Grief First ParagraphYour assignment is to write your own “Variations on Grief.” To do this, you will imitate the exterior of the essay, what I like to call roadsigns or markers, that Daum leaves along the way to guide the reader–as well as, I suspect, to indicate to the reader the essayist herself is still trying to sort the story out.

Pick a friend, lover, or relative who has left your life. This friend or relative does not need have passed away for the purposes of this essay. It’s only necessary that this person no longer takes part in your life.

Explain this person’s appeal, or why this person was once close to you. This is only part of what you’re going to need to do in your introduction, so you’re going to have to be succint and specific.

Explain how this person left your life. Again, specific and succinct. There will be time to explain later, but in the beginning, you need to let us know, in a nutshell, what happened.

Marker #1: “Some specifics” (p. 159): Give us the who, what, when, and where, of the end of this relationship. In Daum, it explains the beginning of the illness, and where she was in her life (her job, gym, access to a messenger service).

Marker #2: “This is about death” (p.160): This is your first “this is about” marker, so make yours count! In Daum, she goes for the most literal meaning of the essay as a whole. Without someone’s death, after all, there can’t be the grief.

Marker #3: “This is about death and it is also about blame” (162): Try the “and it is also about” sentence construction in your own Marker #3. Build on the literal reading of your own essay. Example: If you write in Marker #2 “This is about young love,” clarify in the next marker with “This is about young love and it is also about cheating.”

Marker #4: “This is about lying”(163): Now things are going to get tricky. It’s time to self-interrogate yourself, to expose one of your own faults. This is essential for any kind of personal essay to work: as Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and The Story, the narrator of the personal nonfiction is an “unsurrogated one.” No one stands between you and the reader–no character with a different-but-similar name, no third person narrator in a fictional account. You are “you” on the page. And for you to register as real, you have to have faults, the same as everyone else.

What is your version of “lying” in this essay? Write that down.

Return to the explanation part, how this person left your life (167). By this point in your piece, we will want to know more about what actually happened to call for the writing of this essay. Give us more details. If you can’t help but write down the entire story, then break it up and leave some for later on in the piece.

Find a metaphor for the end of this relationship (168). For Daum, it’s seeing the Clinton inauguration on television, the changing of he guard. I might suggest you look outward, rather than inward, for this metaphor; in other words, try to remember or research what was going on in the outside world around this time, and remember if it affected you in any way.

Marker #5: “Gamesmanship is something this is also about” (169): In my reading of the essay, this “gamesmanship,” while an amplification of “lying,” is also perhaps ia watering-down or even wimping out explanation of it. A rationalization, if you will. So here, for this marker and this section, try to get yourself off the hook, and be lame about it.

There are other elements of “Variations on Grief” to emulate. The biggest one skipped over here is is finding an equivalent to relationship with Jan and Howard, the parents of the dead friend in the essay. You might try to find the equivalents in your own version of the story: mutual friends after a break-up, for example, or other ex-lovers who swooped in on the rebound. The possibilities, unfortunately for human nature and fortunately for we writers, are endless.




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Filed under Make Your Own Assignments, Writing Prompts, WRT 563: Creative Nonfiction