You can download the course syllabus (as of Feb. 10, 2009) here.


From the earliest days of European presence on the continent, the idea of a “natural” law has held great power for Americans.  For much of American history, those who sought to change the status quo have appealed to natural law, and they have claimed this law could and should replace more “ordinary” laws.  This quasi-religious belief in transcendent justice is one of the hallmarks of American identity, as we will discover when we read political, legal, and fictional works from eras of intense social conflict in American history.  After a brief introduction to the concept of natural law, we will read the Declaration of Independence, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” among other works of literary, political, and legal protest.


During this course, I expect you to do the following:

  • Polish your prose style
  • Develop a set of concrete and reliable techniques and processes that enhance your own writing, such as textual annotation, brainstorming, summary, and revision
  • Learn to engage in inquiry-driven research that is motivated by a desire to provide the answer to questions you develop about a text
  • Generate papers that feature creative, original, argumentative theses, and refine them through discussion with me and with your classmates
  • Identify and use a documentation format appropriate for an academic essay
  • Foster your appreciation of rhetoric, which is the study of techniques of persuasion in writing
  • Develop a sensitivity to the issues of natural law and protest that this course encompasses
  • Evaluate and improve upon your progress toward these goals as you assemble a writing portfolio

Over the course of the semester, all students in the class will be keeping e-portfolios a little like this one.  You’ll be able to use the portfolio in any way you design; you are in charge of structuring it and deciding what its contents will be. I encourage you to keep notes, journals, links, lists of ideas, references, and drafts here, in electronic format, as well as in hard copy (in a binder or accordion folder).  You should also keep copies of all assignments; you can decide how much of this material to make visible to me and to your classmates.

At midterm and at the end of the semester, you’ll be compiling all your work in format that I and other faculty can review.  You’ll also be writing a critical introduction to your portfolio, which will explain how your work during the semester enabled you to achieve the course goals. We’ll talk more about how to assemble and introduce an electronic portfolio as we go, but the important thing to know for now is that you should expect to spend time on the internet, working on your portfolios, reading, and commenting on material people in the class (me included) post to their portfolios.  Gathering and maintaining a portfolio will comprise almost half your course grade.