WRT 563/663 Syllabus and Week-by-Week Class Plan


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WRT 563/663 Course Section 01
Course #2282/2276, The College of Saint Rose
Nonfiction Writing
Fall 2015; Daniel Nester, Instructor
Wednesdays 6:15pm-8:45pm
Albertus Hall Room 301
E-mail: nesterd@strose.edu; Phone: 518-454-2812
Website: danielnester.com
Teaching Blog: nestersteachingblog.wordpress.com
Office: Dolan Hall, 442 Western Avenue, First Floor #2
Office hours: Mondays and Wednesdays 3pm-5pm and by appointment

Course Description for Fall 2015

This advanced workshop will study and cover modes of literary nonfiction: first-person and immersion journalism, personal essay, literary interviews, and profiles. We will dip our toes in new storytelling methods: video, audio, and web publishing platforms. Through assigned readings, students will read published models, hand in written assignments, and critique each other’s work each week. We will investigate and pitch to venues, publish one review or interview in Pine Hills Review, and collaborate on a final project that will be published on the Medium platform. Prerequisite: WRT 563 or permission of instructor. Fulfills 600-level
writing requirement. May be taken more than once for credit. (3 credits)

General Course Description

This course is a workshop in nonfiction writing, namely “creative nonfiction.”  What is creative nonfiction?  We will begin with one definition from Lee Gutkind, called the “godfather” of the genre, and work from there.  Gutkind defines creative nonfiction as “nonfiction that employs techniques like scene, dialogue, description, while allowing personal point of view and voice (reflection) rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity.” I have an extended attempt at a definition here.

A writing workshop works from the premise that when a group of writers convene on a regular basis to present and help each other with their writing, the work will improve, and students will begin to see unexpected, surprising things show up along the way.  Much like a traditional workshop in, say, poetry or fiction, we will present copies of our writing each week for written critique and discussion.  The writing may be produced from open-ended assignments or from exercises and assignments given to you by your instructor.  I have posted The “Rules” of A Creative Workshop here.

We will also have presentations on assigned readings.

Required Texts

Williford, Lex and Michael Martone. Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present. New York: Touchstone, 2007. [Amazon listing]

Copies of writing and web links will be supplied by the instructor. Do plan on printing at least 100 pages throughout the course of the semester, as well as making Xeroxes of your own drafts for others in class.  Make plans accordingly: add prints through your ITS account, if necessary, to make sure you can print out your readings or your own work for class.  Failure to be able to come to class with your own printed documents or copies of other students’ work will mean he or she is unprepared for class.

Course Requirements, Percentage of Your Final Grade

• 35% Participation: discussions, reading reactions, presentations, Writing Center visit, conferences, group work, group writing, critiques of student work;
• 35% Informal writing: weekly writing assignments, journal-writing in composition notebook, in-class exercises;
• 30% Formal writing: Two longer essays, exams, one at midterm and on at the end of the semester; Final Portfolio

Rubrics and Syllabus Statements and Policies

Some of these are applicable to this class and some are not. I include everything here to give you more of a sense of how I teach as well as to get a better idea of my assessment methods

I use a grading rubric for many of my individual assignments. The following apply on class-by-class basis, and should give you an idea of how I assess student performance.

Participation, Collegiality, and Conduct Rubric
Creative Writing Assignments Not for Workshop: An Evaluative Rubric
Student Reading and Writing Rubric

Syllabus Statements and Policies
We’ll go through these quickly in the first week of class. Please read through these.

Snapshot from My Grade Book
Writing Format
File Format and How to Name Your Files

Attendance Policy
Conferences and Drafts
Late Work
Participation: Writing Class
Required Materials and Skills
Recording Devices

Student-Led Discussion: Tasks of the Workshop Discussion Leader, Lead Critic
The “Rules” of a Creative Writing Workshop

Academic Integrity
Students with Disabilities
Writing Center Visits

Week-by-Week Class Plan 

This section of the class syllabus is updated and adjusted often. Please check each week for changes and clarification regarding what work is due and what will be covered in class.

Week 1: September 2

Introductions. Go over Syllabus, assignments
Present: Immersion Writing Assignment, Profile Feature Story, and Author Interview Assignment

Hemley (introduction), Rakoff, Sparrow (in Immersion Writing folder)

Due: Saturday, September 5, 11:59pm: Immersion pitches, with light research, possible news peg; name file “LastnameFirstnameImmersionPitch” and place in “01 Immersion Pitches” folder in our Dropbox; copy and read everyone else’s work; pick up physical copies at Dolan Hall next Monday morning

Week 2: September 9

Present and discuss pitches for our Immersion Writing Assignment

Hemley (An Immersion Journalism), Kessler (in Immersion Writing folder)

Due: Saturday, September 12, 11:59pm: Profile pitches, with light research, questions; name file “LastnameFirstnameProfilePitch” and and place in “02 Profile Pitches” folder in our Dropbox; copy and read everyone else’s work; pick up physical copies at Dolan Hall next Monday morning

Week 3: September 16

“Pecs or it didn’t happen,” Doree Shafrir, Buzzfeed
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Gay Talese, Esquire
Bruce Garrison, “Profiles and Personality Sketches) (in Profile Feature folder)

Present and discuss pitches for our Profile Feature Story

Due: Saturday, September 19, 11:59pm: Rough draft of Immersion piece; place in “03 Immersion Rough Draft” folder in our Dropbox; copy and read everyone else’s work; pick up physical copies at Dolan Hall next Monday morning

Week 4: September 23

Read: Rodden, Schlesinger (in Author Interview folder), Franzen interview, Levine interview, Yuknavitch interview

Workshop of Immersion Writing Assignment

Week 5: September 30

From Touchstone, read Jo Ann Beard, Eula Biss, and John McPhee

Individual Conferences: Present research and discuss drafts for Profile pieces

Due: Saturday, October 4, 11:59pm: Essay experiments (emailed to class); 500-750 words; name file “LastnameFirstnameExperiment” and place in “03a Experiments” folder in our Dropbox; print out everyone else’s work and bring to class

Week 6: October 7


“The Voice and the Hammer,” Jeff Sharlett, Virginia Quarterly Review
“Judy Blume Knows All Your Secrets,” Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine

Workshop of Immersion Writing Assignment, continued

Due: Saturday, October 10, 11:59pm: Author Interview research, questions, draft of introduction/header note (200-250 words); name file “LastnameFirstnameAuthor1” and place in “04 Author Interview Rough Draft” folder in our Dropbox; copy and read everyone else’s work; pick up physical copies at Dolan Hall next Monday morning

Week 7: October 14

Present and discuss Author Interview Assignment research, questions, drafts of introductions

Week 8: October 21

From Touchstone, read David Foster Wallace, Cheryl Strayed, Phillip Lopate

Discuss Personal Essay Writing Assignment

Week 9: October 28 

Individual Conferences: Discuss Profile Feature Story, Personal Essay

Due: Saturday, October 31, 11:59pm: Rough draft of Profile Feature Story; place in “05 Profile Rough Draft” folder in our Dropbox; copy and read everyone else’s work; pick up physical copies at Dolan Hall next Monday morning

Week 10: November 4

Workshop Profile Feature Story

Week 11: November 11

Workshop Profile Feature Story

Discuss The Open Letter to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond Assignment

Read: Open Letter examples (in Open Letters folder)

Workshop Profile Feature Story

Due: Saturday, November 14, 11:59pm: Rough draft of The Open Letter to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond Assignment; place in “06 Open Letter Draft” folder in our Dropbox; copy and read everyone else’s work; pick up physical copies at Dolan Hall next Monday morning

Week 12: November 18

Workshop Open Letter to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond Assignment

Due: Saturday, November 21: Rough draft of Personal Essay; place in “07 Personal Essay” folder in our Dropbox; copy and read everyone else’s work; pick up physical copies at Dolan Hall next Monday morning

Week 13: November 25 No class; Thanksgiving break

Copies of Personal Essays will still be available in Dolan Hall.

Week 14: December 2

Workshop Personal Essays

Due: Saturday, December 5: Rough draft of Author Interview; place in “08 Author Interview” folder in our Dropbox; copy and read everyone else’s work; pick up physical copies at Dolan Hall next Monday morning

Week 15: December 9

Workshop Personal Essays

Week 16: December 16

Final conferences.

Final Portfolios due December 16, 6pm; place in “12 Final Portfolio” folder in our Dropbox

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The Open Letter to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond Assignment

Your Assignment

Write an open letter to a person, object, or entity unlikely or unable to respond. Make it clear to your readers that this is, indeed, a letter, email, or some sort of written communication, one with an argument, support, evidence, critical thinking. Don’t shy away from appealing to the emotion of your subject or entity, or to be funny or use satire; at the same time, have a actionable point or solution.


The inspiration of this assignment comes from the column of the same name that appears on popular online magazine McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Although most of those open letters are comical are satirical in nature, your assignment does not need to take on the same tone, although you certainly can. The open letter as a sub-genre of writing goes back to the beginning of writing itself. which is usually published in a newspaper or magazine or even pasted on wall, is a powerful rhetorical device which gives the reading audience the impression they are listening in on a private conversation made into a public document, intended to rouse public opinion.

An open letter has an argument, support, evidence, often research. It often appeals to emotion, often ridiculously so, as is the case with Chris Crocker’s Leave Britney Alone open letters-related video. There are songs that take the open letter form (Beastie Boys, Living Colour,), comedy sketches (Kids in the Hall, David Cross), too many YouTube videos to speak of (seach “open letter to” and you’ll see what I mean).

There is a great list of examples in the Open Letter Wikipedia page, ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail to Steve Jobs’ Thoughts on Music.

More Open Letter Examples

“An Open Letter to the Person in Charge of New Punctuation” by Courtenay Hameister
“An Open Letter to the State of Pennsylvania” by B.R. Cohen
Bill Gates’ rather infamous “Open Letters to Hobbyists” [here]
Emile Zola’s “J’accuse” [here]
William Banting’s “On Corpulence” [here]
Michael Ian Black has more than a few open letters in his new book, My Custom Van…And 50 Other Mind-Blowing Essays That Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face
“Change We Can Believe In: An Open Letter to Barack Obama” from The Nation magazine [here]

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Profile Feature Story Assignment

Accompanying animated GIF accompanying

Accompanying animated GIF accompanying “Pecs or It Didn’t Happen.”


Your assignment is to write a profile story, a feature-length piece of first-person journalism that centers on an individual person. The subject you choose does not have to qualify as newsworthy, famous, or even timely; your job is to tell a compelling, true story using the tools nonfiction writers have at our disposal: a particular point of view, research and interviews, scenes and dialogue, speculation, and storytelling.

Medium Publication

There’s a twist. Before we pitch our stories, we will develop a common theme: for example, a subject, location, or attempts to answer a question. We will then publish them as a group of pieces in a pop-up publication on the popular content management system Medium. We also need to come up with a name for this publication.


“Pecs or it didn’t happen,” Doree Shafrir, Buzzfeed
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Gay Talese, Esquire
“Inside the Mansion—and the Mind—of Kim Dotcom, the Most Wanted Man on the Internet,” Charles Graeber, Wired
“The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador,” Karen Russell, GQ
“Judy Blume Knows All Your Secrets,” Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine
“The Voice and the Hammer,” Jeff Sharlett, Virginia Quarterly Review


Pitch: Select 1-3 prospective subjects for a Profile Feature Story. Conduct some light research and come up with a pitch for each of your stories, which you’ll distribute in class. Pitches come in all shapes and sizes: tell one specific story to draw us in, ask a question that you will investigate in your story, or tell us something about yourself to establish a point of view. The class will greenlight each pitch.

Research: This will run the gamut from direct or tangential research, online and library work, collecting articles, consulting social media, compiling photos.

Title: have a compelling title and subtitle.

Interviews: Preferably in person and with a recording device. You will interview main subject and at least two more people.

Format: this is open-ended. You can have sections with subheaders, several vignettes and narratives, descriptions of past events/flashbacks and present-day scenes; any of these are acceptable. The degree to which you include yourself in the story is entirely up to you as well.

Word count: 1200-1500

You must conduct an in-depth interview. You will need to hand in your questions and notes, so be prepared. If you use a tape recorder, you must transcribe your notes.

Three images to accompany your story: original photos, drawings, archival images from subjects

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Author Interview Assignment

This is assignment is to interview an author of a recently released or soon to be released book of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. These interviews will be edited and published in the College’s online literary magazine, Pine Hills Review.

Before we start, we will read about the literary interviews and examples of interviews with authors.

John Rodden, Performing the Literary Interview (introduction, in Dropbox)

Interviews: Some Published Formats (on the Teaching Blog here)

Toni Schlesinger, Five Flights Up (excerpts, in Dropbox)

The Paris Review’s Art of Writing interviews: Phillip Levine, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood

Elizabeth Hildreth’s awesome interviews for Bookslut: Matthew Lippman, Christopher Salerno,  Sonja Livingston

Conducting The Interview

Ideally, you should meet your subject in person, but we are in Albany and these authors are all over the country. So how do we approximate a face-to-face interview? There’s the phone, of course, and Skype. Those would be fine, as long as you can find a way to tape it. There’s also email. But sending one email with, like, 20 questions is not the ideal way to conduct an interview. To conduct an interview over email requires a couple backs-and-forths on email over a period of time. On the other hand, people are busy, and the degree to which a subject may want to go back and forth varies.

Bottom line: establish and agree how the you the interview will be done before starting. We will discuss all this in class.


Word Length: 1200-1500 words, including an introduction (200-250 words)


Research, Questions of Author Interview due October 26, 11:59pm in “Author Interview” folder of our Dropbox

Transcript of Interview of Author Interview due November 16, 11:59pm in “09 Author Interview” folder of our Dropbox

Final Draft of Interview of Author Interview due November 30, 11:59pm in “10 Author Final Draft” folder of our Dropbox

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Final Conferences for English 218

It’s time for your final conference. Please sign up for one of the many available slots below. Times are available on a first email, first come basis. At our conference, we will go over the following: a breakdown of your final grade; your strengths as an active learner in this class, ways you think you can improve; your Final Performance.

These conferences will take place in my office, which is Dolan Hall, 442 Western Avenue, Albany, NY 12203. My office is Room #1, the first on the right as you walk in. Please note that a missed conference, or one you fail to schedule with me, counts as a missed class (i.e., one absence), and cannot be made up.

Tuesday, March 31

1pm Abrie M

2pm Eva C

2:30 Ercan K

3pm Juliana W


4pm Stephen R

4:30pm Rachel D

5pm Jacky T

Wednesday April 1

11:30am Courtney B

1pm Danielle S



Thursday, April 2




4:30pm Daniel S

5pm Olivia S

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