Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Writing in Concert

ENGL 145.401
instructor(s):
fulfills requirements:
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major

Writing in Concert comprises two parts: teaching a common text and writing about the experience using memoir, reportage, and criticism. This year’s text will be Mitchell & Ruff, by best-selling author William Zinsser.

William Zinsser began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, and has long contributed to major magazines. In the 1970’s he taught writing as Yale University, and then, from 1979 to 1987, served as executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club. His 17 books include On Writing Well; Writing to Learn; and Mitchell & Ruff (originally published as Willie and Dwike.) Zinsser’s work encourages and demonstrates economy: “...writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it.”

Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff have been playing jazz together since they met in the U.S. army in 1955. They took jazz to the Soviet Union during the cold war, and to China’s Shanghai conservatory in advance of our recent close relations with that country. Of Zinsser’s account, the New York Times Book Review wrote: “...Though its contents are entirely factual, [Mitchell & Ruff] concerns lives that give the sense of being but fatefully, imaginatively, arranged, and it constantly suggests improvisation—that is, ‘something created during the process of delivery,’ as Mr. Ruff explains the term to the Chinese...He also tells them that improvisation is the lifeblood of jazz.’ William Zinsser’s book reminds us that improvisation is the lifeblood of life, too. [This book is] about difficult passages that end in victorious arrival...”

English 145 students will study the common text in close reading, discussion and preliminary essay exercises. The idea is first to develop an intimate relationship with a text and learn about yourself as a writer from your responses to it. Then, by creating a mini-course syllabus and lesson plans from the excellent curriculum guide provided by Paul Dry Books, you will learn how to help readers at different stages in life and literacy find their own ways to explore the text. Learning the work takes three to four weeks. We will meet the publisher, interview a Temple professor who studies community literacy, and visit the Rosenbach museum. We will also read Zinsser’s On Writing Well, the Ur text of economic writing, and Writing to Learn, as well as Willie’s Ruff’s own autobiography.

Teaching the book (or excerpts of it) requires four to five weeks. We focus on issues of learning and teaching to prepare students to teach at several urban learning sites, each with its own challenges and charisma: high school English classes, a church-based book group, adult education centers, a recovery house, a homeless shelter. Teaching, learning, and experiencing the work are all subjects of short journal and prompt assignments throughout the term, along with the writing of other, focused writing such as syllabi, and lesson plans.

On Wednesday, April 15th, at 10 a.m., readers from the various sites in Philadelphia and the region come together to attend a performance by Mitchell & Ruff, and co-sponsored by Art Sanctuary; the Multi-cultural Resource Center of regional independent schools; the School District of Philadelphia; and the Department of English, the Center for Africana Studies, the Urban Studies Department, and the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing here at the University of Pennsylvania.

That afternoon, Wednesday, April 15th, at 4 p.m., Penn students and teachers from the region will attend a “Writing to Learn” workshop by William Zinsser.

Together, the two events and the classes that preceded and follow it make deep connections among the academy, literature, writers, readers, and learners.

The final essay will reflect each student’s experience with the reading, teaching, and the Reading in Concert performance. The course requires that each student submit the essay, or an excerpt for publication, and to post it on the Art Sanctuary website. Clearly, the emphasis during the term is on focus, practice, learning, relationships, revision, and language. It comes at you from all sides, a literary bum’s rush meant to dislodge comfortable writing habits and push you toward intense, carefully thought, and deeply-felt nonfiction prose.

Here's a taste of what some Reading in Concert students have written:

Community grows me. This is the point I must make here. If I don't start by saying it I'll try to convince myself otherwise. The praise of community is a painful admission for me. I don't want to have to need people. I don't want to admit that community is far more powerful than my own devices. I cannot harvest myself. I cannot truly grow without other people. Every point of my life affirms this need for others. I have never thrived on my own. Yet I can't shake the notion that maybe, if I just give solitude enough time, a break through will come. For some reason I keep my expectations of the future separate from my experiences of the past. I expect to be able to accomplish great things on my own but it has never happened that way. I expect to be disappointed or misunderstood by others yet this has rarely been the case. I expect that teaching Sonia Sanchez will require an outpouring of my intellect and wisdom, yet my most profound moments of learning have come through community experiences. --Josh Macha

As the class dissected Sanchez's words, I realized that I hadn't truly appreciated "Poem No. 8" until that moment. I was more engaged with the text then than I had been at any earlier point in the semester. Sitting at my desk and pulling out my hair while trying to memorize a passage or write a haiku, I had wasted my time battling my inner demons. But there was no time for my inhibitions at this moment; I needed to be present for my students and inhabit the literature with them. For the first time, I let go of my fears, and rose to the occasion. --Rebecca Sherman