First-Year Writing: Critical Conversations

Director of First-Year Writing, Wendy Schor-Haim

First-Year Writing: Critical Conversations courses invite students into the vibrant scholarly life of the college. Working in small, discussion-based seminar classes over the course of one semester, we read challenging literary texts and critical scholarship, helping students to develop fundamental skills in analysis and academic writing that allow them to take their place in vitally important scholarly conversations. Students choose one of three rubrics – Legacy of the Mediterranean, Women and Culture, or The Americas – each of which explores and questions a particular literary tradition.

A “critical conversation” is a conversation about ideas. It is sophisticated and thoughtful rather than one-sided and simplistic; it’s not about finding one right answer but rather about closely analyzing all of the evidence at hand and discovering something meaningful. By communicating what you discover clearly and cogently, you add to the broader scholarly conversation. When engaged in a critical conversation with other scholars, you consider their ideas in ways that help you develop your own thinking, rather than merely agreeing or disagreeing with what others have to say. The critical reading, discussion, and academic writing skills we focus on in First-Year Writing provide a foundation that crosses disciplinary boundaries and will help you in all of your courses.

Legacy of the Mediterranean

"Custom and authority are no sure evidence of truth." Isaac Watts, Logic; or, The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth (1802)

Where do our (often unconscious) assumptions about our world and our place in it come from? This course explores key intellectual moments in the literature of the Mediterranean world, whose ideas gave rise to the structures governing much of the Western world today -- structures that sustain and perpetuate ideas about power, authority, gender, and morality that influence our lives in ways both visible and invisible. We read these texts, primarily imaginative literature, to see how they reify, comment upon, resist and/or imagine alternatives to existing social and ideological structures; reading in this way allows us to consciously name and examine how ideology both shifts over time and, in vital ways, remains constant, inviting us to question the myth of progress at the heart of canonicity. No two syllabi are exactly the same, but works studied in the fall term include Homer, The Odyssey; The Homeric Hymn to Demeter; Euripides, The Bacchae; Virgil, Aeneid; Dante, Inferno; Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales; Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe; and Shakespeare. Works studied in the spring term include Milton, Paradise Lost; Voltaire, Candide; ; William Wordsworth (selected poetry); Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Darwin, Marx, and Freud (selected essays); Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness; T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land; Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse; Zora Neale Hurston, Of Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God; Toni Morrison, Beloved; and Nella Larsen, Passing. Critical scholarship from a variety of traditions (feminist, queer, post-colonial) and thinkers (bell hooks, Christine Froula, Edward Said, Karen Horney, Toni Morrison) allows us to interrogate these texts and the traditions they support, complicate, challenge, etc.

Women and Culture

“Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. “ Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.”

This course offers a revisionist response to the constraints of "the canon," wherein women are often portrayed as peripheral characters, their power confined to the islands of classical witches and the attics of Romantic madwomen. The Women and Culture curriculum challenges traditional dichotomies that cast gender as an essential attribute rather than a cultural construction, and interrogates the categories of both "woman" and "culture" themselves. No two syllabi are exactly the same, but works studied in the fall term readings include Hymn to Demeter; Ovid, Metamorphoses; Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book; Marie de France, Lais; Kebra Negast; Shakespeare, sonnets; Beauty and the Beast; West African Bride Myth; and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, selected poetry. Spring term readings include Milton, Paradise Lost; Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; Luisa Valenzuela, selected stories; Eliza Haywood, Fantomine; Lady Hyegyong, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights; Emily Dickinson, selected poetry; Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway or A Room of One's Own; Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens ; and Yvette Christiansë, Castaway. Critical scholarship sources include Sara Ahmed, Gloria Anzaldua, Judith Butler, Laura Mulvery, and Michel Foucault.

The Americas

This course transcends traditional and arbitrary distinctions separating Caribbean, North, South, and Central American literatures. The Americas emerge not as colonial subjects but as active historical and aesthetic agents.  Emanating from what might be called the geographical site of modernity, American literature is characterized by unprecedented diversity and innovation.  In addition to classic novels, short stories, and poetry, this multicultural curriculum features works ranging in scope from creation accounts to autobiographies, as well as indigenous genres including captivity and slave narratives that belie New World declarations of independence.  No two syllabi are exactly the same, but works studied in the fall term include the Popul Vuh; William Shakespeare, The Tempest; Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, selected poetry; Phillis Wheatley, selected poetry; William Apess, A Son of the Forest; Esteban Echeverria, "El Matadero"; Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie; Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself; Herman Melville, Benito Cereno. Spring term readings include Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson; Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; José Marti, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, selected poetry; T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land; Pablo Neruda, The Heights of Macchu Picchu; Machado de Assis, Dom Casmurro; William Faulkner, "The Bear"; Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

First-Year Writing Workshop

Offered in the Fall of each year, First-Year Writing Workshop (ENGL-BC1204) is designed for first-year students who would benefit from more intensive support with their critical reading and academic writing skills. FYW Workshop shares the same goals and overall structure as FYW, and the syllabi are substantially the same. FYW Workshop meets three days per week, is worth four credits, and  class sizes are slightly smaller. Incoming first-years who believe they would benefit from the intensive critical reading and writing support offered in FYW Workshop should contact Cecelia Lie, Associate Director of the First-Year Writing Program (

First-Year Writing and First-Year Seminar are foundational elements in a student's academic experience, giving students academic skills Barnard considers necessary for future success at the college. For this reason, as with courses students take to fulfill a major or minor requirement, understanding how a student has mastered these skills requires a more specific and nuanced assessment than a simple Pass/Fail. Therefore, students may not take either First-Year Seminar or First-Year Writing courses Pass/Fail.