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Fall Quarter 2014

Humanities Colloquium

Wed 12:30-2:20pm, Lowe 113

John Webster

  • Office Hours: Tu Th 4:30, and by appt
  • Contact: cicero (at)

Nancy Sisko

  • Office phone: 206 543-2634
  • Padelford PL
  • Office Hours: TBA
  • nsisko (at)

Assignments and Updates


In this class we’ll read, write and talk about three things.

  • First, we'll do an introduction to literary reading, starting with a few poems, and then going on to a short story or two. The poems won’t be very long, and they will be chosen to illustrate the different kinds of poems you might find in an English course.
  • Second, we'll help you learn to use some of the campus resources that many students never even find--particularly resources that will be useful to new and international students.
  • Third, we'll talk with you about what English majors do when they leave the UW. What jobs can they get? what further education can they pursue, what skills will they take with them for the rest of their lives?

Anyone is welcome. International students may find it helpful to their English as well as a class that offers a glimpse of the sort of work English Departments do; science students may find it welcome relief from equilibrium equations.

Poetry is a special use of language, a way to communicate using as many of the different dimensions of words as it can to render ways of thinking or feeling or perceiving the worldparticularly those things that are subtle, difficult to conceive of, or too beautiful for simple words alone. It's a kind of painting with words. It is also something human cultures have been doing for centuries, and which has changed immensely over time.

This is a short course, so we will look at no more than a few pieces and help you see how expert readers of literature notice, explore and make sense of its multiple ways of making meaningand particularly by means of its sounds, its rhythms, and its metaphors.

Throughout we will be asking you to think carefully about the works we will read together, and to help you do that well you’ll write a short response paper for every class. There will be no formal papers or mid-term assignments. You will end the class with a 2-3 page reflection on your experience in the seminar.


The only text book for the class will be the pamphlet we give you as we begin, and any other handout we think necessary as we go along. In addition, we'll make things available on line through this website.

If you want to email either of us, please do. But don't be surprised if we cannot always give you a fast response. We get a LOT of email, and we cannot process it all when it first arrives. (Our email addresses are displayed above, at the top of this page.)

Course Grading: This is a graded course, but we will want to emphasize participation and engagement. If you write the short weekly papers we assign, and take part as well as you can in class, and complete the final reflection, you will get full marks.

If it's a class about literary reading, why write for each class?

First, writing is the single most effective way most of us have of making our learning active. The mere reading of poems, by contrast, is an essentially passive process. Though your mind may go through steps enough to make the reading make sense, it rarely goes beyond that point, nor is it forced to build connections to the understandings you have brought with you to the class. Most restricting of all, however, is that without active and engaged work with pen (or computer!) and paper your mind may also not do the re-structuring of conceptual frameworks that will be necessary to your becoming comfortable with the active reading of poetry.

Second, the writing you do will prepare you for our time together in class. With your having been actively engaged in writing before class begins, our sessions will move faster, group work will be more interesting and efficient, and every person in the class will actually have read the assignment and be better able to contribute. Our work together will be better because you will have already made progress on the day’s work before class even begins.

Third, you will learn more. Having to write will help you to confront what you don’t already know, and will give you constant practice with the skills that the active reading of poetry requires.

Finally, writing each week will help make you a more fluent and interesting writer of English sentences. You'll find yourself expressing yourself more easily and with more clarity as we move from week to week, and the pages you have written will give you a record of what happened to your skills as a reader as the quarter moved along.

As graders of your papers, what do we want? Our criterion for the response papers is ECI: “engaged critical intelligence.” That means that you don’t have to be “right,” and you don’t have to be polished. You don’t even have to solve entirely whatever problem I give you. But I do want to see real effort—writing in which your intelligence is critically engaged—even if it’s only to narrate for me the difficulties you are having as you try to come to grips with the assignment.

How Much Time Should You Spend Writing? Some students have spent more time on and felt more anxiety about these responses than is necessary. Please understand: though we genuinely do want you to take this writing seriously, we're not asking for a series of “English papers.” We call them “response papers” to suggest that their purpose is to be responding with an Engaged Critical Intelligence both to the reading and to my question(s) about it.

In specific terms that means: We expect from you either TWO typed pages, or ONE FULLY ENGAGED HOUR of writing. If you want to spend more time than that—fine. Just don’t go over two pages, or, when posting on line, over the posted word-limit.

Our response to your responses. The primary usefulness of the papers you write is in the writing itself. We take it as a given that you will get substantially more from this class by having written regularly throughout than you otherwise would—and end-of-quarter evaluations from earlier classes confirm that most students agree.

Moreover, our intent is that these exercises would be useful to you whether we actually read them or not. Indeed, for the most part our comments will be of the “OK,” “good,” or “I’d like to see more thinking going on here” variety. (If you want more specific response to your work, you are always welcome to come talk with either of us during our office hours.)

Late Papers. As much as we wish it were otherwise, we cannot accept late response papers. You can, however, miss one assignment without losing your credit for completing the course.

We also do not accept emailed papers unless we specifically ask for them to be submitted in that way. Thanks for your understanding.



Course Overview | Texts

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