First-Year Seminar:
Language's Power to Write Our Worlds

English 140
Fall 2003
Professor Portnoy
Email Address:
Office: 4172 Angell Hall, 763-4279
Office Hours: Tuesdays 10 - 11 am and Thursdays by appointment between 4 and 6 pm


Course Information


Welcome First-Year Seminar Texts for the Course
Primary Activities Services for Students
with Disabilities
Office Hours
Communication Grading Academic Integrity
Some Final Notes


Welcome to English 140. This class, “Language’s Power to Write Our Worlds,” has a specific question at its heart: how powerful is language? Other questions follow from that central question: what difference does language make? what kinds of power does language have to write—or right—our worlds? how does language work to persuade people or to bring about change? to build community? to empower or disempower people? To engage these questions and others that we’ll develop as we proceed, we’ll read some theories about the rhetorical dimensions of discourse, and we’ll examine a range of public texts in a variety of media.

If you participate fully in this course and complete the course requirements successfully, you can expect to understand language as action, rather than as representation. You will begin to imagine language as a means by which power dynamics are created, deployed, sustained, altered, and redeployed and even as a means by which we can create, deploy, sustain, alter, and redeploy power dynamics. You will be able to describe (at an introductory level) the ways that language operates to constitute, normalize, prescribe, restrict, facilitate, and support identities and worldviews. You will increase your abilities to critically evaluate the discourse that surrounds and influences you, and to transfer the knowledge you learn in the classroom to other areas of your studies and your life. Because our reading, listening, discussing, observing, concluding, interpreting, inquiring, and evaluating will be intense and sometimes quite challenging, you will improve your oral, aural, and written communication skills. And, if all goes as planned, you (and I) will have a great time and be inspired to continue thinking about language’s power to write our worlds for years to come.

What Does it Mean that this Course is a First-Year Seminar?
As you know, this course is a First-Year Seminar. What does that mean? Lots of things. For instance, it means that the class is small, so that you have a chance to get to know me and your classmates well. I have an opportunity to convey to you the intellectual excitement and enthusiasm my research inspires in me, and you have an opportunity to learn about what it means to be engaged in a stimulating research project, to do the kind of academic scholarship central to academic life at the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s top research universities. Together, we have a semester-long opportunity to learn from each other—you from me and your classmates, me from you and your classmates—in an intense, highly participatory setting.

I want to emphasize three things central to my understanding of academic life at Michigan that will be a part of our first-year seminar. First, being at a great research university means that you are surrounded by some of the most intellectually active and varied thinkers in the world—and I mean the people sitting next to you in class and in the Union, as well as the teachers of your classes. Talk with them and listen to them! Get started by actively participating in our class discussions.

Second, to do the kind of intellectual work required of UM students, you’ll need to think critically: go beyond memorization, passive acceptance of ideas, and old patterns of thinking. Critical thinking means that you are evaluating, comparing, synthesizing, and integrating. It doesn’t require that you change your mind, but it does require that you understand and own your ideas, rather than accept without question ideas other people espouse. Critical thinking is an active process, and one which you must practice in this class to meet its requirements.

Third, intellectually engaged people don’t make sharp distinctions between their academic and “extracurricular” lives. They think critically about things outside the classroom walls. They transfer the knowledge they learn in class or in their scholarship to other aspects of their lives. To that end, you will bring materials in to class that you encounter outside of class. You will use those materials to better understand the concepts we’re studying in class. You’ll also use the concepts we’re studying in class to better understand those materials. That interactive work will take place informally every day, and formally in at least one presentation you will make to the class.

Texts for the Course
Selecting the texts for this course was challenging but fun. The biggest challenge was narrowing down the list of texts and the topics of our inquiry. You will notice that we are sampling several topics (for exampe, constitutive rhetoric, gender, and bilingualism) rather than delving deeply into a few topics. I designed the course as an introduction to language’s power to write our worlds, and decided that we would gain more from this methodology. It is not the only way to organize a course like this one, however, and we’ll talk about other possibilities as we move through the semester.

The readings have been compiled for your convenience and they are being stored at Excel, a test preparation and copy center. You may use this set of readings to make a copy for yourself at Excel. Their copies cost $.07 per page, with optional additional charges if you want your copies bound or three-whole punched. Excel is located at 1117 South University Avenue, above Ulrich’s computer and engineering store. Their phone number is 996-1500.

Other texts will be available online, on reserve, or through venues including the University’s Film and Video Library. Details on these texts will be announced during the semester.

I ask people to refer directly to texts during discussion. Please bring assigned texts to class so that you easily and quickly can find the passage(s) or image(s) under consideration.

Primary Activities
The schedule of assignments includes texts to be read, heard, or viewed and two exams. In addition, I expect you to participate in class discussions and other activities, give one brief presentation to the class, and write three short responses to texts.

I expect you to read, watch, or listen to all of the texts on the syllabus carefully and come to class ready to talk about your reactions to them. I recommend that you read, listen, or watch with a pen in your hand, so you can jot notes or ideas while you are engaged.

Early in the term, you will sign up to present material to the class. We will discuss these presentations during class, but you can expect to apply some of the theories and concepts we’ve discussed in class to texts you’ve selected. You will need to meet with me before your presentation. If you miss your scheduled presentation, you will receive a zero for that part of your grade and there may not be time later in the semester to make up the activity.

There will be two exams during the semester. These exams will include sections in which you may be asked to define terms, identify and briefly comment on the significance of passages from assigned texts, and write longer responses to questions that ask you to synthesize material from the course. We will talk more about these exams in class.

You are required to submit three short essays during the semester. The deadlines for these essays are flexible within certain guidelines. We will discuss the papers and the deadlines in class during the second week of the term.

Participation matters. It is the “engagement” part of “intellectual engagement.” Class participation will be informally but clearly reflected in your presentation, essays, and exams, since these graded activities will benefit from the clarity of thought and expression and the exchange of ideas which class discussions provoke. In addition, class participation is formally accounted for in your grade for this class. Class participation includes (but is not limited to) involvement in large and small group discussion, in-class writings, and an occasional short homework assignment designed to guide you in your study.

Some active participation is taken as a given. Intelligent, frequent participation which forwards class discussion or consideration of relevant issues will raise your grade (questions you ask, by the way, may be as interesting as the answers we come up with). Failure to participate at a basic leve, including by virtue of excessive absences, will reduce your grade, as will negative or inappropriate participation.

I expect you to come to each session prepared, with assignments completed. I also expect you to be attentive and responsive to other members of this class—your colleagues. This classroom must be one of mutual respect and open exchange. The University's Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities explains that the University of Michigan "is dedicated to supporting and maintaining a scholarly community. As its central purpose, this community promotes intellectual inquiry through vigorous discourse. Values which undergird this purpose include civility, dignity, diversity, education, equality, freedom, honesty, and safety." If you have any questions, please review this Statement at <> or call the Office of Student Conflict Resolution at 936- 6308.

Attendance is a prerequisite for class participation (discussions, in-class writings, etc.). Clearly, your presence will have a direct and important effect on your participation in this course. If you are absent, seek out a classmate for an explanation of what you missed, and then see me during office hours.

You may have two absences without penalty. Do not miss your scheduled presentation or an exam. For each absence after the first two, your final grade will be lowered by one-third of a grade (for example, a “B” becomes a “B-”). Two late arrivals or early departures (of less than fifteen minutes) convert to one absence. If you miss more than fifteen minutes of a class, you will be considered absent.

Adapting the Course Procedures and Requirements
If you have questions about course procedures or if you want to bypass a course requirement or a deadline, write me a memo or send me an email in advance. Make clear for what you are asking and tell me whatever I need to know to make a decision, which I will convey to you in writing or via email (making the request does not guarantee an affirmative response). I can't usually give you full attention in the moments after class. I will make better decisions if I am given good information and time to consider a question or problem.

Services for Students with Disabilities
If you think you may need an accommodation for any sort of disability, please contact Services for Students with Disabilities (G-625 Haven Hall, 763-3000) and make an appointment to see me during my office hours within the first two weeks of the semester.

Office Hours
I will hold office hours throughout the semester. Office hours are an extension of the classroom. You are welcome to come by with questions, comments, and concerns. If you are enjoying a reading and would like to discuss it further, if you are having a problem with something in the course, if you don't understand something, please come and see me.

With Me
The most efficient way to get in touch with me outside of class time and office hours is email. During the semester, I usually check my email every weekday—more frequently than I check my campus mailbox for notes. I have an answering machine on my office phone, but I check that only on days when our class meets. Email is by far the best option.

I will use email to contact class members in case class is canceled because of snow or some other emergency, or if I want to pass on useful information about the course. I also will post this sort of information on the website for the course,

With Your Classmates
Your classmates are an integral part of your English 140 experience. I recommend that you introduce yourself to people in this class (you will have opportunities to do so early in the semester), and that you exchange email addresses with several classmates so that you can form study groups, find out what you missed in case of an absence, etc. This email exchange is voluntary, so if someone declines to give you his or her email address, please respect that choice.

Your final grade in this course is determined as follows:
Essays 20%
First Exam 25%
Second Exam 30%
Presentation 10%
Participation 15%
Remember that your attendance affects your final grade for the course.

Academic Integrity
Academic dishonesty, including plagiarism, cheating, double submission of papers, aiding and abetting dishonesty, and fabrication, will not be tolerated. Please read carefully the Department of English Language and Literature's memo on plagiarism which is posted at If you have any questions about "what counts," see me.

Some Final Notes
Commercial Notetaking
The collection, recounting, promulgation, or selling of materials based on this course, including its website, lectures, compiled readings, handouts, or other activities and materials is prohibited.

Changes in the Policies and Schedule of Assignments
These course policies and the schedule of assignments are subject to change. If you are absent, it is your responsibility to find out about such changes.

Most recent update: August 26, 2003.

English 140 Home Announcements Schedule of Assignments Contact Information

A.P. 2003