Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
Like all of Princeton’s mandatory freshman Writing Seminars, the ultimate goal of WRI 190 is to get students writing in the scholarly manner that will be expected of them for the rest of their academic career. This is meant to be achieved gradually over the course of three papers of increasing length, depth, and breadth of material covered. Additionally, class discussion is geared towards getting students to approach the topic in a way conducive to their writing. Peer reviews and discussions of papers in class provide more specific and detailed critiques. Later, these include conferences meant to foster an even smaller and more personal analysis. This also serves the purpose of teaching students how to give helpful criticism while examining papers analytically.
The first unit of the course focuses on a book and a series of lectures and its goal is to approach the papers by focusing on how the two pieces interact. The goal is primarily to create a basic, arguable thesis to form the backbone of your argument and that of future papers. The lectures are a bit dense and may require re-reading after class discussion.
The second unit of the course pulls on a far wider selection of readings and a film. Selections from four books are used to critically analyze the arguments made in a film. This requires a different method than analyzing written works and focuses primarily on relating the readings to the film. Therefore, the emphasis is on citation and the proper way to bring in sources effectively.
The final unit of the course is a research paper on any topic in the broad category of American Mysticism. This requires a lot of independent work, which can include reading books, blogs, and articles, watching videos, or even conducting interviews. During this time, occasionally movies will be assigned to watch for discussion in class, even if they aren’t strictly related to everyone’s topic. The freedom for this unit is a double-edged sword. It provides a lot of opportunities for students to write intelligently about something they’re interested in and bring together diverse and interesting topics. It can also be immensely intimidating, since there is less structure and the topics are too diverse to permit a very codified approach to the topic.
Because this is a Writing Seminar, the focus is on learning the underlying skills as opposed to the material. That being said, this course covers a lot of readings, which range from historical to philosophical to anthropological. Some are dense and hard to follow for one not innately interested in the subject. Prior knowledge of the subject is not expected or required, but could certainly be an advantage in choosing topics for the research paper.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
Because each class is discussion based and requires participation, attendance to every class is mandatory and only two absences are permitted for the entire semester. Generally classes are a group analysis of the assigned material. The instructor leads the discussion and steers it in the proper direction. Sometimes the majority of the class is spent trying to find the key parts of the author’s argument, chiefly motive and thesis. It is usually beneficial to take notes about these topics, as they will be useful in the papers. However, they are often confusing or unclear. Asking for clarification can be a great help in these cases. Additionally, it often helps to highlight specific parts of the texts analyzed, either as things you want to talk about or have identified as important. Throughout the course, the instructor will provide resources on how to read and take notes effectively and go over them in class. Experiment with a few different ones until you find one you like. It is easy to become overwhelmed from the amount of material covered unless you follow some of the methods for a quicker reading described in the course. It can be helpful to keep track of pages where topics you are interested in are covered so it will be easy to refer back to them while writing.
One aspect of classroom instruction that is particularly useful is peer review. After drafts are submitted, each person is required to read and write a review of two selected people’s papers. In class, there is time to go over each paper in detail and suggest particular strategies to improve it. Sometimes the advice may conflict as people have different ideas of what they liked, but always defer to the instructor’s advice.
A focus of the classroom instruction is on limiting the scope of one’s claims. This is something always addressed in regards to the readings and films, and a constant topic of debate and correction in papers. Taking examples from the readings and class discussion will help you to frame your argument in your papers, which will save a lot of time and potential rewrites.
The conferences provided for each paper are also a valuable resource. You meet with the instructor individually for the first paper, with a partner for the second, and in a group of three for the final paper. Here you will get concrete and specific instruction as to the best place to go with your paper. Be sure to spend some time preparing for these, both so you have an idea of what you need help with in your own paper and what you think of the instructor’s comments, but also so you are prepared to help the other students improve their own. These conferences, as well as class discussions, go towards your citizenship grade. This is easily augmented by participation in both areas and generally not a major concern for students.
It is a good idea to become familiar with all of the terms that commonly come up in class. These will not only make it easier to contribute in class and write a better essay, but it will also make it easier to follow what’s going on in each class and help keep you up to date with the content.
Learning For and From Assignments
It is incredibly likely that the methods demanded of students in WRI 190 are completely different than anything they experienced in high school. Papers should be focused on analyzing how the author makes their arguments and the nuanced ways in which he or she is effective or falls short of his or her intended goal. For students used to analyzing and debating the content of an article and not its writing style, this can seem frustrating and even pointless initially. The structure of the course accounts for this. First, drafts of papers are due. After a few days, the instructor will return these with comments before a conference and class discussion. After going over the draft and suggested revisions, there is generally about a week until the final paper is due.
The most important takeaway from a Writing Seminar is how to write, and therefore the papers are by far the most important part of the course and where you will learn the most; the subject of the class is secondary to this goal. Frequently papers will need to be entirely rewritten from the first draft. Sometimes it is easier to simply start from scratch with the new ideas and advice from the first draft in mind. Don’t be disheartened by this, as everyone goes through this transition and once you adjust to the requisite style, future papers will become much easier. Take student suggestions with a grain of salt. If they prompt you in a direction similar to the instructor or you find them interesting, run with the idea, but don’t feel you need to account and correct for every one of them.
Do not expect extensions to be granted. The course structure is quite rigid and rarely permits such changes. Occasionally if the class is falling behind Prof Laufenberg will push everyone’s due date back a day or two, but do not rely on this happening. Start the papers as early as possible and be prepared to do lots of revision to your draft.
Far and away the best resource for a Writing Seminar is the Writing Center. Here, you can and should schedule appointments to meet with a fellow for an hour to go over your paper. These sessions can greatly help you get an idea of where to go with your paper and some additional things you can work on. Rarely do Writing Center fellows give you specific instructions. Rather, the goal is more to talk out the paper and try to figure out what you want to say with respect to the prompt with the fellow acting as a sounding board. These appointments can help you figure out how to handle comments or work in new ideas. Be sure to schedule these in advance. It can also be a good idea to schedule multiple appointments in advance for a paper you’re struggling with. One early on in the process can help you get going in the right direction and one towards the end can help you make smaller tweaks to end up with the best possible draft or final paper.
Firestone Library and its resources (including librarians) are especially key in working on the final research paper. Librarians can help you approach problems from new angles and find relevant and unique material you may not otherwise have considered. Its large selection and online resources are also by far the easiest way to find scholarly material on your subject.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
The goals of all Writing Seminars are very similar and their subject of research is mostly of secondary importance. For that reason, consider this class if you are interested in American mysticism and related topics. However, the focus will be on writing in a new way. It will be a lot of work, with a lot of time spent reading, writing, and critiquing. There is a lot of material covered, but plenty of resources available to get you through the class. Once you get acclimated to this style of writing, the class will become much more manageable. The topics you learn here will be very relevant in any future courses you take that involve papers and will undoubtedly greatly improve your academic writing and thought process.