ENGL 421 Sections

Fall 2023 Section

01. Writing about Architecture. TTh 11.35-12.50

Christopher Hawthorne

Led by an architecture critic, this course guides students through the process of learning how to look at, analyze, and write about the built environment surrounding them, with a particular and sustained focus on the architecture of the Yale campus. It does not require students to have experience studying or writing about architecture. Indeed, it will begin with basic questions: What is the difference between architecture and building or shelter? What does it mean to look closely and critically at a work of architecture? What is the connection between this kind of looking and the act of writing about architecture? What specific literary tools help us write most clearly and effectively about works of architecture and convey their shades of artistic, social, cultural, political, economic, and ecological meaning? How should writers grapple with the fact that that public architecture, unlike art forms such as cinema or literature, imposes itself on its audiences? Over the course of the semester class discussions will gradually expand in scale, considering first the architecture of the room; then of the building; then of the campus or neighborhood; and finally of the city. Regular writing exercises marking this trajectory will be supported by readings drawn from architecture criticism and history as well as poetry, fiction, and literary non-fiction. The goal is to bolster students’ understanding of the built environment—and at the same time to sharpen their writing, and their ability to analyze the world around them, in ways that reach well beyond architecture.

Also ARCH 386.

Spring 2024 Sections

01. Writing about Legal Affairs. TTh 1.00-2.15

Lincoln Caplan

Law is integral to American life and lore. Legal affairs are the means through which society works out how law shapes virtually every aspect of life.

The goals of this course are to help students deepen their skills as readers by reading and talking about writing on legal affairs, and strengthen their writing and confidence in it by thinking and writing about stories and subjects that strongly interest them.

The course is a cousin to a seminar I have long taught or co-taught at Yale Law School, with an important difference: that course is for law students and assumes knowledge about law; this one assumes no knowledge of law and is for students with a wide range of interests in the topic.

The reading is organized around different subfields in legal affairs and different kinds of legal processes: court coverage, criminal law, law’s civil side, legal history, and more. The writing will be essays calling for students to engage with legal subjects from different perspectives.


02. Writing about Medicine and Public Health. TTh 1.00-2.15

Medical and public health stories shape the way individuals view health and disease, and coverage sometime influences scientific research or health policy. This course will give students the chance to join this conversation by writing about medicine and public health for general audiences. To do this well, students must develop a keen sense of audience as they translate complicated science, explain its ramifications, and provide historical context. Students will write breaking news stories, blog posts, a researched feature article, and a personal essay. They will also have the chance to interview a patient and write a profile that combines the physiology of the disease with the impact of illness on wellbeing. In class, we will analyze essays, book chapters, podcasts, film and news stories for craft.

03. Writing about Clothes. MW 2.30-3.45

Kate Bolick

What are you wearing right now? What does it reveal about you? Where does it come from, who made it, and how much did it cost? “Dress is the frontier between the self and the not-self,” the British critic Elizabeth Wilson once wrote. This vast, ambiguous borderland is humanity’s most visible mode of expressing who it thinks it is and who it wants to be—and therefore endlessly open to scrutiny.

In this nonfiction writing seminar we’ll explore clothing as both personal communication and cultural phenomenon. What was up with Virginia Woolf’s orange stockings? Why did Marlene Dietrich wear top hats and tails? Who sells more sneakers—famous athletes (Michael Jordan) or famous rappers (Run-DMC)? Through readings and class discussions we’ll approach clothing from as many angles as we can manage: aesthetics, psychology, sociology, economics, technology, politics, the law, and so on.

Major assignments will be a literary personal essay, a cultural-critical-historical essay, a fashion review, and a profile or reported business/retail feature. Readings will include standout examples of those five nonfiction forms, along with a few theoretical and historical works, by Roland Barthes, Daniel R. Day (aka Dapper Dan), Christian Dior, Rosemary Hill, Ann Hollander, Jamaica Kincaid, Janet Malcolm, Charlie Porter, Bernard Rudofsky, Judith Thurman, Carol Tulloch, Virginia Woolf, among others.

04. Writing about Cities. MW 11.35-12.50

Pamela Newton

Big cities present a unique set of opportunities and challenges. They are hubs of art and culture, finance, and fine dining. They serve as canvases for architects and urban planners. At the same time, they are sites of injustice, inequality, and division along lines of race and class. Cities constantly challenge us to forge communities on a large scale, learning how to live harmoniously with each other. In this course, we will explore city life through reading and writing about cities in several non-fiction modes. Major assignments will include a literary personal essay, an opinion piece/editorial, a journalistic feature (which can be a profile), a film review, and a policy memo about city infrastructure. We will supplement our readings with other kinds of “texts” (images, films, recorded talks), and we will welcome guest speakers to our class to share their professional experiences writing about cities. Given our proximity to New York City, much of our material will be centered on that particular metropolis (we may even take a field trip), but the course is concerned with city life on a national and global scale. We will also look for opportunities to use New Haven, the city around us, as a source and a test case for our ideas. Through our study and practice of non-fiction writing for a range of audiences, we will seek to join an ongoing conversation about the past, present, and future of the modern city.

05. Writing about Music. TTh 2.30-3.45

Adam Sexton

It has been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture – and indeed, evoking melody, harmony, and rhythm with words can challenge even the most observant and eloquent among us. In this section of English 121, students will read and discuss writing on music by not only scholars and critics (e.g., Margo Jefferson and Kalefa Sanneh) but also journalists (Joan Didion and Susan Orlean), novelists (Zadie Smith and Jesmyn Ward), and many others. The focus will be on popular music, very broadly defined, and among the concepts to be investigated are taste and “cool.” Written assignments will include a critical review of a performance or recording, a literary essay on a musical topic, a profile of a musician, and an academic paper. The goal of the course is for students to improve their skills at observation, description, and analysis of culture.


06. Cultural Critique: Style as Argument. TTh 11.35-12.50

Kim Shirkhani

An examination of how exemplary critics, such as David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, Roxane Gay, Emily Bernard, Eula Biss, Kelefa Sanneh, Ariel Levy, Jia Tolentino, and others, use elements of style—diction, tone, rhetorical schemes and tropes, narrator, structure—as both a mode of investigation and a means of communication. Our close attention to how these writers use style as argument will help students develop crucial rhetorical skills that focus on the emotional and experiential as much as the logical or factual elements ofpersuasion.
Units will be organized around readings that highlight a particular stylistic approach—critique via personal narrative, artful analyses of cultural framing (society’s narrative instinct), and more in-depth critiques that interweave personal narrative or perspective with research and analysis. Students will close read model essays for craft, research cultural objects that interest them, and produce their own cultural critiques designed to question and persuade not merely with style but by way of style.

Prerequisite: English 114, 115, 120, or another writing-intensive (“WR”) course at Yale.

May be repeated for credit, as long as your second section teaches a different genre or style of writing. (But you can’t count more than one section of English 421 for credit toward the English major.)

Questions? Before or during registration, contact the instructors or the course director, Andrew Ehrgood.