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 Expository Writing: Exploring Social and Ethical I  posted by  duggu   on 12/7/2007  Add Courseware to favorites Add To Favorites  
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Walsh, Andrea, 21W.730-1 Expository Writing: Exploring Social and Ethical Issues through Film and Print, Fall 2002. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 10 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Photograph of pen and film frames.

Photograph of pen and film frames. (Image courtesy of Daniel Bersak.)

Course Highlights

This course features a detailed assignments series with supporting documents.

Course Description

This section of Expository Writing provides the opportunity for students- as readers, viewers, writers and speakers - to engage with social and ethical issues that they care deeply about. Through discussing selected documentary and feature films and the writings of such authors as Maya Angelou, Robert Coles, Charles Dickens, Barbara Ehrenreich, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Kozol, and Alice Walker, we will explore different perspectives on a range of social problems such as poverty, homelessness, and racial and gender inequality. In assigned essays, students will have the opportunity to write about social and ethical issues of their own choice. This course aims to help students to grow significantly in their ability to understand and grapple with arguments, to integrate secondary print and visual sources and to craft well-reasoned and elegant essays. Students will also keep a reader-writer notebook and give at least one oral presentation. In class we will discuss assigned films and readings, explore strategies for successful academic writing, freewrite and critique one another's essays. Satisfies Phase I and CI Writing Requirements.



"Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious"- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

"Revision is not the end of the writing process but the beginning"- Donald Murray, The Craft of Revision.

The best writing happens when we, as writers, care deeply about our topics. That sense of profound caring--of passion--often emerges in relation to social and ethical issues--such as poverty, racial or gender injustice, terrorism, homelessness or environmental crisis--that deeply concern us as individuals, family members and citizens of our local, national and global communities. We, as community members, often seek to make sense of these issues in all their complexity, to imagine possible solutions and to act, individually or collectively, to create social change. Writing offers us a critical avenue of engagement with contemporary social issues so that we can understand these problems more profoundly, communicate that understanding to a wider public and advocate for a variety of solutions on the psychological, social and economic level. Focusing on contemporary social issues, this course seeks to provide you with a supportive context to grow significantly as a writer by discovering and engaging with issues that you care deeply about.

This course offers a service-learning option so that you can address social issues such as homelessness, poverty or educational inequality within the community; students often find that they do their best writing when actively engaged with real-world problems. The service-learning option reflects MIT's mission that the Institute "seeks to develop in each member of that community not only the ability to work wisely, creatively and effectively for the betterment of humankind, but also the passion for doing so." While service-learning is not mandatory to fulfill course requirements, it is highly encouraged.  

When you write about social issues, you can see yourself as part of a long tradition of authors--such as Frederick Douglass, Lewis Hine, Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barbara Ehrenreich--who have seen writing as a critical form of activism because they believe that the "power of the pen" can inspire social change. Throughout the semester we will read selections from such writers as Maya Angelou, Rachel Carson, Robert Coles, Charles Dickens, Betty Friedan, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Kozol, Abraham Lincoln, Amy Tan and Alice Walker. We will also screen some documentary and feature films such as Killing Us Softly 3, Dead Man Walking and Girl, Interrupted that center on social and ethical issues. As we discuss the readings and films, we will often return to the questions of how an author's or filmmaker's era, personal history, perspective and rhetorical purpose may have influenced his or her choice of topic and voice or style in addressing a community of readers or viewers. Throughout the semester, we will often raise the question of how people from different gender, racial, generational, religious and economic groups may experience and understand the same social issues.

Required Reading/Library Resources

Watters, Ann, and Marjorie Ford, eds. Writing for Change: A Community Reader. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Lunsford, Andrea A. Easy Writer: A Pocket Guide. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2nd edition, 2002.

+ various articles distributed as handouts and selected documentary and feature films.

The above books can be purchased online at; these readings are also on reserve at the MIT library. Students should bring Writing for Change with them to each class.

In class you will also receive various handouts.

You should also have on hand a college dictionary and thesaurus. The Oxford English Dictionary is available online to MIT students. For general writing reference, consult Easy Writer as well as Leslie Perelman, James Paradis, Edward Barrett, The Mayfield Handbook of Scientific and Technical Writing available online to MIT students. Various reference sources, including the OED, thesaurus and Mayfield Handbook can be found through the "virtual reference" section of the library website at In researching and writing your essays (especially essays 2 and 3), be sure to consult our reference page:

Assignments: Three Essays, Reader-Writer Notebook, Oral Presentation, Final Portfolio

This course aims to help you to grow significantly as a lively and engaged academic writer -- in your ability to understand and grapple with arguments, to integrate both life experience and outside research, to experiment with different voices and styles and to craft creative, well-reasoned and vibrant essays. Our approach within the course is to strive for a sense of "public scholarship" in our writing. "Public scholarship" can be defined as writing that engages with the complexity of ethical and social issues by addressing a more general readership of citizens through dynamic and accessible prose.

Over the course of the semester, you will write three different essays in draft and revised form. In writing your essays, I will encourage you to:

  • address an intelligent, public audience in a graceful style, providing key information necessary to understand your argument;
  • develop your ideas in an interesting, original and coherent manner;
  • support your arguments with evidence and use sources thoughtfully and appropriately;
  • express yourself in clear, concise language that uses the conventions of grammar, punctuation, word usage and source citation;
  • structure your arguments carefully with clear introductions, transitions, middle and conclusion;
  • title your work in a thoughtful and entertaining fashion.

Each essay will be submitted first, in draft and later in revised form. By draft, I mean a readable, completely written first version of an essay that could be submitted to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. A draft is not an outline, half-written essay or set of notes.

The process of revision--rethinking and reconceptualizing the draft--is essential to the course. Revision means "re-seeing", a significant rewriting of the essay, the stage before line editing. Through the revision process, you may decide to:

  • change your voice as a writer;
  • rewrite your introduction and/or conclusion;
  • modify or completely change your perspective or point of view;
  • integrate additional information, primary or secondary sources;
  • acknowledge a counterargument;
  • reconceptualize the structure of the essay.

You may find that the revision process takes as long or longer than writing the draft or first version. After conceptual revision, line-editing and proofreading are the last steps in the essay writing process.

Each essay will center on particular analytic tasks, and will build upon the skills of the previous writing assignments. For outside research, you have the options of library research and service or community-based learning.

Each student will also keep a typed reader-writer notebook in which she or he will respond regularly to in-class exercises and assigned readings; notebook exercises will be collected when due. Over the course of the semester, reading assignments and preliminary writing exercises will help to prepare you for the kinds of essays that you will be writing. Students are asked to read a newspaper at least three times a week and keep a clipping file of articles, editorials, etc. in their reader-writer notebook on issues of interest.

Each student will also give at least one oral presentation (approx. 10-15 min.) in conjunction with either (or both) essay #2 or #3. After your oral presentation, I will provide feedback on your performance and offer suggestions for improvement.

Course Requirements: Class Participation and Attendance/Writing Workshops

To foster a sense of intellectual community, this course is structured as a seminar. Throughout the term, we will be discussing the work of professional, as well as student, authors. It is crucial that you come to class on time, with required texts and well prepared to offer thoughtful responses to the assigned reading as well as to your peers' writing. To be effective as a seminar participant, you will need to complete reading and writing tasks by their assigned dates. A vital, ongoing intellectual conversation --about our writing and that of published authors--is the heart of the course. 

The writing workshop--in which students respond to their peers' drafts--is a very important part of the course. For each essay, we will have an in-class workshop after essay drafts have been submitted. We will also workshop some shorter pre-draft writing assignments. My expectation is that you will respond to each other's work seriously and critically and approach each draft with sensitivity, insight and imagination. For each workshop, you will be asked to read several drafts, discuss them in groups with your classmates and respond to them in the form of a letter. The ethical norm of our class is that all student writing (drafts and your comments) is considered confidential; you should store other students' drafts in a secure place and not discuss your peers' work outside the classroom. This ethic enables us to develop the trust and security we need as a small writing community.

Since our class functions as a writing community and the first "public" for your essays, it is essential that you attend class faithfully. If you have more than two unexcused absences, it may affect your final grade. Under Writing Program guidelines, you cannot pass the course if you have more then five unexcused absences. Three latenesses count as an absence. If you are absent from class or cannot submit an assignment on time because of a personal, family or medical emergency, please contact me as soon as possible.  In the case of absence, it is your responsibility to contact another student to catch up on what you missed in class and obtain any handouts or assignments that were distributed.
Each essay will be submitted first, in draft form, and later, in a revised version. In reviewing your drafts, I will make extensive comments and suggest some options in revision. I will be available to meet with you to discuss your drafts and revised essays.

Essay Drafts and Revisions; Comments and Grades

Only the revisions of each essay (not drafts) are graded. Pre-draft exercises will be acknowledged with a check and brief comments.

It is important that you submit work on the due date. In case of emergency, each student has a single one day extension on a draft or revision that she or he can take. Please save your extension until you really need it! Late submission of work without an extension may result in a lowered final grade.

To pass 21W.730, all required work must be submitted. The primary determinant of your final grade will be the quality of your revised essays, as well as the thoughtfulness of your reader-writer notebook. However, I will also consider your oral presentations, attendance, preparation for class and your contribution as a peer reviewer for your classmates. Attendance, preparation and participation count for about 20% of your final grade. 

For students who entered MIT before summer 2001, receiving a grade of B- or better in the course means that you have passed Phase I of the Writing Requirement. For students who have entered MIT after summer 2001, the Communication (CI) Requirement replaces the Writing Requirement. See the Writing Requirement website at for more information.


Throughout the semester, I am available to meet with you in conferences to discuss your drafts and revisions and to suggest strategies for improving your writing.  My role is as a writing coach to explore options with you, as you decide how to revise your work. Conferences also offer a rich opportunity to extend the conversations of the course about the readings and general strategies for successful (and enjoyable!) writing. You should come well prepared to conferences to discuss your options for a particular essay or type of writing. Some students find it most helpful to see me at the pre-writing stage of brainstorming and outlining, while others prefer to meet at the point between draft and revision, or at midterm time to discuss their progress and goals for the rest of the term. Two conferences are required for the semester.

Academic Honesty and Originality

As a MIT student, member of our class and the larger community of writers, you are expected to abide by the norms of academic honesty.  Borrowing someone else's language and/or ideas without proper acknowledgement is academically dishonest and a form of plagiarism, which can have serious academic consequences at MIT.

In class, we'll discuss how to acknowledge sources and how to avoid plagiarism. For different styles of citing sources (MLA, APA), see Easy Writer, The Mayfield Handbook or the Writing Center website (address below).

MIT’s academic honesty policy can be found at the following link:

Writing Center/Writing Resources

The Writing and Communication Center also offers consultations on student writing and oral presentations. You are encouraged to visit the Writing Center at any point in the writing process: prewriting, drafting or revising.  For further information, visit the website: The Center website, as well as that of the Writing Requirement Office at, also include links to a wide variety of resources for writers.
The Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies website at also has information on a range of topics of interest to writing students: other writing classes, program advising, requirements for majors, minors and concentrators, and lectures and readings by authors on campus. Each spring the Program awards the Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes for student writers. More information on the Karmel prizes can be found on the website and at the Program office.



  Unit One: First Essay; Writing Focus: Personal Narrative  
  1       Intro to the Class as a Writing Community

Writing about Social and Ethical Issues
                      Distribute: Syllabus, Course Calendar, Writer's Letter assignment, Course information sheet, Exercise 1.1, Essay Assignment #1  
  2       Reasons to Believe: The Roots of Ethical and Social Values

Introducing Personal Essays

In Writing for Change

  • Marion Wright Edelman. "A Family Legacy." Pp. 24-30.
      Exercise 1.1, Notebook Exercise on Edelman, Writer's Letter       Discuss: Sample student essay  
  3       Reasons to Believe and Act                          
  4       Developing and Sustaining Ethical and Social Values

The Personal Essay: Crafting Engaging and Effective Introductions

In Writing for Change

  • John F. Kennedy. "Inaugural Address." Pp. 89-92.
  • William F. Buckley. "A Call to Arms." Pp. 125-133.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. "A Letter From Birmingham Jail." Pp. 285-299.
  • P.W. Alexander. "Christmas At Home." Pp. 100-103.
  • Jeremy Taylor. "Service Learning: Education with a Purpose." Pp. 193-199.

Film Clips: Eyes on the Prize.

      2 Notebook Exercises (Class #3, Class #4)          
  5       The Writer as Social Activist: A Literary Tradition               Draft Essay 1 (2 copies + cover letter. (Due two days after class #5)

Workshop students: email drafts (as Word documents) to classmates
      Read/Discuss: Assigned Readings.

Bring in: Introductions, Essay 1 (4 copies).

Workshop Preparation; Distribute Workshopping Letter
  6       Writing Workshop, Draft Essay 1; The Craft of Revision               Workshop letters to classmates. (Copies to instructor)       Distribute: Handouts on Revision (3)  
  Unit Two: Second Essay; Writing Focus: Investigative Essay/Comparative Analysis  
  7       Representing Social Issues and Problems; Images                          
  8       Narratives of Poverty and Homelessness      
  • Selection, Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol.
  • Jonathan Kozol. "Are the Homeless Crazy?"

In Writing For Change

  • Peter Marin. "Helping and Hating the Homeless…." Pp. 270-283.

Film Clip: A Christmas Carol


Notebook Exercise: Comment comparatively on the power of Marin's and Kozol's essays (1½-2 pp.)

Revision, Essay #1. (2 copies + cover letter and marked-up Draft) (Due two days after class #8)

      Review: Essay #2 assignment.
Introduction to Community Research
  9       The Writer as Witness, Participant and Investigator: Inside the World of Poverty and Low-wage Labor      
  • Excerpt, Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America. (Handout)

Film Clip: America and Lewis Hine.

      Proposals, Essay #2. (Five copies)

Notebook Exercise on Ehrenreich
  10       The Writer as Interpreter of Social Issues: The Value Of Comparative Analysis: Research Strategies       Course Library Page               Pairs Workshops: Proposals #2

Library Session
  11       Writers Engage With Media Culture and Beauty Imagery      

In Writing For Change (student essay)

  • Amanda Morgan. "When Beauty Is the Beast." Pp. 356-363.   

Film: Killing Us Softly 3

              Read/Discuss: Assigned readings (distributed in class)  
  12       Writers Address Contemporary Debates: Race, Gender and Issues of Equality

Approaches to Comparative Analysis: Options in Introductions/Conclusions

In Writing For Change

  • Ronald Takaki. "Breaking Silences: Community of Memory."   Pp. 219-232.
  • Susan Faludi. "Blame It on Feminism." Pp. 238-250.
      Notebook Assignment: Compare Takaki and Faludi          
  13       Writers Confront Contemporary: Educational Inequality, Past and Present: Individual Portraits      

In Writing For Change

  • Maya Angelou. "Graduation." Pp. 155-165.
  • Jonathan Kozol. "Corla Hawkins." Pp. 176-181.
  • Mike Rose. "I Just Wanna Be Average." Pp. 165-176.

Notebook assignment: Compare Rose and Kozol or Angelou

Draft, Essay #2 (2 copies + cover letter) (Due two days after class #13)

      Distribute: Workshop #2 letter
  14       Writing Workshop, Draft, Essay #2               Workshop Letters          
  Unit Three: Third Essay; Writing Focus: Investigative/Advocacy Essay  
  15       Writers as Investigators and Advocates: Modern Classics in the Literature of Social Change      

Excerpts from:

  • Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique.
  • Rachel Carson. Silent Spring.
  • George Orwell. "Politics and the English Language."
      Notebook Exercise on Friedan or Carson       Review Essay #3 Assignments  

Reading Films Critically (PDF)

      Film: Girl, Interrupted.                  
  17       Writers Explore Contemporary Issues: Mental Health


  • Susanna Kaysen. Girl, Interrupted. (Excerpt)

In Writing for Change

  • Tracy Thompson. "The Wizard of Prozac." Pp. 347-356.

Film: James Mangold. Girl, Interrupted.

      Notebook Assignment: Girl, Interrupted

Proposals, Essay #3 (5 copies)
  18       Writers Define Contemporary Issues and Advocate Solutions: Education      

In Writing for Change

  • E. D. Hirsch. "Cultural Literacy." Pp. 188-193.

Notebook Assignment on Hirsch and Orwell

Revision, Essay #2. (2 copies, coverletter + marked-up Draft) (Due two days after class #18)

      Small Workshops: Proposals, Essay #3  
  19               Film: Dead Man Walking.                  
  20       Writers Debate Policy Issues: Capital Punishment

Incorporating Personal and Public Voices
      Film: Tim Robbins. Dead Man Walking.
      Notebook Exercise, Dead Man Walking

Incorporating Interview Material and Secondary Sources

Models of  Advocacy Essays: Student Essay (MURJ)


Writers Debate Policy Issues: Capital Punishment

Incorporating Personal and Public Voices



Film: Tim Robbins. Dead Man Walking.

  22       Approaches To Advocacy      

In Writing For Change

  • Randy Fitzgerald. "Owls Are Not Threatened, Jobs Are." Pp. 419-423.
  • Cynthia Hamilton. "Women, Home and Community: The Struggles in an Urban Environment." Pp. 412-418.
      Revisions #2       Oral Presentations  
  23       Writers as Visionaries: Fiction as a Laboratory for Utopian Ideas and Dystopian Critiques      

In Writing For Change

  • Ernest Callenbach. "Ecotopia." Pp. 440-446.
              Oral Presentations  
  24       Writers as Visionaries: Fiction as a Laboratory for Utopian Ideas and Dystopian Critiques      

Excerpts (distributed in class):

  • Aldous Huxley. Brave New World.
  • George Orwell. 1984
  • Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid's Tale.

Notebook Exercise: Compare your own Visions of utopia and dystopia

Drafts, Essay #3 (Due one day after class #24)

  27       Revision Strategies for Advocacy Essays                          
  28       Advanced Revision/Publication Workshop                       Oral Presentations  
  29                               Workshop, Draft Essay #3  
  30                               Oral Presentations; Course Evaluations  
  31       Last Class: Celebration                       Portfolios due by end of day (with revision #3)  






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