Narrative as Argument: Composing the Stories of People and Places Around Us

This syllabus was co-authored by Annika Konrad and Anna Floch Arcello.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion – Works of Collected Nonfiction

“The human being is a storytelling animal, or, actually, the storytelling animal, the only creature on Earth that tells itself stories in order to understand what sort of creature it is.  Some of these stories are immense, the so-called ‘grand narratives’ of nation, race, and faith, and others are small: family stories, and stories of elective affinities, of the friends we choose, the places we know, and the people we love; but we all live in and with and by stories, every day, whoever and wherever we are.  The freedom to tell each other the stories of ourselves, to retell the stories of our culture and beliefs, is profoundly connected to the larger subject of freedom itself” (xvi).

 Salman Rushdie, Introduction to Best American Short Stories of 2008

This course is founded on the idea that stories/narratives have immense force in our daily lives. They persuade, move, inspire, teach, make us laugh, and make us cry. Our goal in this class is to learn how to use stories in order to serve our purposes as communicators. We believe that learning how to write better narratives will help us in all aspects of our lives — writing for school, writing for job/scholarship applications, writing for work, and writing for ourselves.

Our goal is to begin the course by exploring our own stories, and then to use that knowledge of how storytelling works in order to gather and make arguments about the stories of others and those around you. We would like you to consider how the influences in your life impact the choices you make as writers and researchers. While research is often considered objective and neutral, this class will offer you experience in reflecting upon the role of the personal in the experience of conducting and compiling research. We will conclude the class by finding a critical need within a community and applying the skills of narrative argument you learn throughout the semester in order to find a solution to the problems you investigate.

Required Texts/Materials

  • The required course packet is available at StudentPrint, 333 E. Campus Mall, 3rd Floor. Hours: 9:30-6:30.
  • Additional readings will be available on Learn@UW.
  • You will also need a notebook for all your in-class writing.

Units and Requirements

Our exploration of narrative in composition will consist of three units. For each unit, we will produce a number of short pieces of writing and a longer culminating essay that will all be collected in a concluding portfolio.

Unit 1: Using Personal Narrative to Communicate an Argument

In this unit, we will read and practice writing personal narratives that make arguments. Through the essays we read, we will attempt to figure out what tools are useful for writing powerful narratives that communicate specific points. We will focus on crafting personal voices that have distinctive impacts on readers and we will begin examining how to make arguments in our narrative writing. We will begin learning how to workshop in small groups and discuss writing and reading as a large group. These are skills we will continue to practice throughout the remainder of the course.

Unit 2: Using Research to Investigate the People and Places Around Us

In this unit, we will work toward using the skills we learned in Unit 1 to write an essay that investigates the stories of others. We will use a template based upon an audio essay from This American Life. We will also read written essays that demonstrate how to investigate and create compelling essays about the stories of others. We will learn about how to observe, interview, and find reliable sources, in order to construct a clear argument. Our goal is to create an essay that combines narrative and a variety of types of research in order to engage and persuade readers.

Unit 3: Using Narrative Arguments to Fulfill Community Needs

Our goal for this unit is to use what we’ve learned in this class to fulfill a real-life goal. We will examine the communities around us and think about how we want to use argument, narrative, and research to address a problem or need within a community. We will be required to choose a specific medium (digital or otherwise) that is well-suited to the specific community need. We will begin by analyzing examples of multimedia narrative research that address specific community needs. The last few weeks of the unit will focus on presenting your projects to the class and soliciting feedback.

Writing Assignments

Each week we will complete a writing exercise and workshop it with our writing group. These exercises are meant to be starting off points for one longer essay due at the end of the unit. Our hope is that through your writing and workshopping, you will identify pathways of writing that you would like to develop into a longer, more polished piece. At the end of each unit you will write a concluding essay that will exemplify your strongest writing in that sequence.


At the end of each sequence you will work on one long writing project. The short writing exercises will build up to this longer writing project. A portfolio includes the short exercises we have done in each unit, corresponding drafts, as well as a longer writing assignment and a writer’s memo that frames the portfolio and your work as a whole.


On the course calendar you will notice that we will have writing workshops every week. You are required to bring print copies of your work for your group members of workshop days. We use Writing Workshops at all stages of the writing process to provide feedback on ideas, to generate or answer questions related to research, and to provide responses for drafts. The structure of each workshop may change from time to time, but we expect that you will come ready to share your writing and comment on the writing of your peers. It will be important for you to cultivate positive relationships with your classmates. A large part of this course is about listening to others’ feedback about your work and to practice offering thoughtful and honest feedback to your classmates about their writing. All writers benefit from hearing the responses of trusted readers.

**On days when we are having a Writing Workshop, your presence is incredibly important and you should make every effort not to miss it. Therefore, we ask that you do your best to attend workshops and participate fully and thoughtfully in these sessions.**


Each of you is required to meet with me at least twice during the semester to discuss your writing and your progress in the course (you of course may come see me more frequently for assistance). These conferences help me get to know you and your work and also offer a space for us to focus, in detail, on your writing and revision strategies. We will talk in class about how you should prepare for conferences. **Failure to attend a scheduled conference will count as a class absence.**

Coffee Hour Presentations

As one part of the Comm-B oral communication requirement, most weeks students will make oral presentations about their works-in-progress. Because we will be drafting and writing each week of the semester, we will have lots of material to choose from to present to the class. The purpose of the presentation is to practice speaking about our own work in front of a large group and to practice giving oral feedback about another’s work. The presentations will be casual in nature, following the format of a coffee house reading — presentation details to come. Snacks will be provided on some days!


Participation is an integral component of this course. We will be actively discussing and engaging one another in large and small groups everyday of class. Many other factors will go into your participation grade, like leading a class discussion, workshop participation, attitude in class, homework, etc. If you are someone who has trouble speaking in class, please let me know and we can talk about how you can make sure you shine in other aspects of class participation.


Unit 1 Concluding Portfolio: 15%

Unit 2 Concluding Portfolio: 20%

Unit 3 Concluding Portfolio: 25%

Participation (writing workshops, student-led discussion, reading discussions, attitude, two conferences, in-class activities, homework): 20%

Coffee Hour Presentation: 10%

Final Presentations: 10%

Course Policies

Cell phones and other distracting things

Cell phones and other electronic devices disrupt the classroom environment so please turn them off or put them on silent and refrain from using them during our class time; this includes texting, playing games, checking your email etc. We understand that some of you may use computers at different times for taking notes, however, you must refrain from using the Internet during class time unless it is part of a requirement. We promise to respect you, so please come to class ready to respect our time together.

If there is anything you need to succeed, any special accommodations, learning styles or tools that will assist in your learning process in this class please let me know individually – we are here to make sure this class is productive and useful for you, and ultimately it is easier for me to know as soon as possible how to best help you succeed as opposed to later in the semester.

Classroom Community

It our goal to make this course as “student centered” as possible. What we mean by this is that you will often be working with one another in writing workshop groups, small individual reading groups and as a class to discuss your writing and our class reading. In this way you are asked to be an active participant as opposed to a passive listener. From time to time we will ask that you lead discussion around the texts we read and this means that you must come to class prepared with notes and ideas about the readings to guide your discussion. We want to encourage you to connect and discuss with your ideas with one another as opposed to everything going through the teacher. This means we would like you to get to know one another by name, to connect with one another and build relationships, share your ideas and thoughts with one another openly, and guide yourselves through specific reading and writing experiences. Please come to class ready to contribute and interact with one another.

Contacting me

Please contact me if you have questions about course materials, assignments or class policies. I will be happy to answer your questions or discuss any area of concern you may have. The best way to handle substantive issues, or to get extra help on your writing or assignments is through a face-to-face meeting with me – even if you just want to talk about a non-class related issue we are happy to chat.  I really love to meet with students and you are always welcome to see me without an appointment during my office hours. I can also work to schedule an appointment to meet at a specific time if my office hours do not work for you– I will try to be as flexible and available as my schedule allows.

The best way to contact me for an appointment or to ask a clarifying question about assignments is through email.  I prioritize emails from students and will definitely hope to get back to as soon as possible or within 24 hours of your email.  If for some reason you have not received a response from me within a day, please send another message on top of your original email.  Please be as polite, courteous and clear in your messages as possible, this will help encourage a swift and prompt response from me.  For example your email should look something like this:

Dear Annika, or Hi Annika,

        [The reason you are writing, specific questions, concerns, how best to reach you etc.]

        Sincerely, or Best,

        [Your name]


Attendance is required. English 201 is a small seminar-like course and the presence of each student matters. You need to be in class, on time, prepared, every meeting. This matters for your own learning as well as for the contributions you can make to the learning of others. Obviously we all get sick or overwhelmed. For those unavoidable times when you are sick or otherwise unable to come to class, the attendance policy of the English department allows 3 absences without penalty. Please use your absences responsibly and do not come to class if you are sick. We just ask that you email about an absence before class so that we know not to expect you – we are happy to help you out in any way, but it is important to keep me updated. If you miss class, it is your responsibility to find out what you missed and to make up any work as required. Excessive or habitual tardiness may be counted as an absence.

The final course grade may be lowered for each absence after the first 2 absences. (An A will become an AB; an AB will become a B; a B will become a BC, and so on). An absence beyond 6 absences in a MWF class or beyond 4 absences in a TR class (the equivalent of 2 full weeks of class) may result in a student failing the course. An instructor has the discretion to take into account extraordinary reasons for an absence such as a severe accident or illness, a family emergency or death, a recognized religious holiday, or jury duty. Documentation may be required. Too many absences for whatever reason will prevent you from completing the required coursework and in the case of excessive absences, I may recommend that you drop the class.


The elevators in Helen C. White are notoriously slow before class starts. We understand that this can be frustrating, but please allow yourself enough time to get to class in a timely fashion. Excessive tardiness will count as an unexcused absence.

Late work

You will do a lot of writing and revising in this course and a lot of work with your peers, which means that all work must be turned in on the date specified. Work turned in late, including drafts, can result in grade penalties. Work that is more than a week late will not be accepted – we can address exceptional circumstances on an individual basis.  In addition to emphasizing the importance of turning work in on time, I also want you to communicate with me and let me know if you are having particular issues or problems completing your assignments.  I will always work with you to make sure you are getting the most out of this course and to ensure your success as a student in this university.

Additional Policies and Requirements

Please carefully read the following policies and let me know immediately if there’s anything here you do not understand or that you have questions about. Plagiarism and Academic Honesty

The University of Wisconsin and the English 201 program consider plagiarism a serious violation. Plagiarism is:

  • using someone else’s words or ideas without proper documentation when quoting and paraphrasing;
  • copying some portion of your text from another source without proper acknowledgement;
  • borrowing another person’s specific ideas without documenting the source;
  • turning in a paper written by someone else, an essay “service,” or from a World Wide Web site (including reproductions of such essays or papers);
  • turning in a paper that you wrote for another course or turning in the same paper for more than one course without getting permission from your instructors first.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has established a range of penalties for students who plagiarize, including a reduced grade on a redone assignment, a failing grade for the assignment, a failing grade for the course, or even suspension or expulsion from the university. All instances of plagiarism are reported to the English 201 Program Director. For more information, see


McBurney Center. Students with disabilities should contact the McBurney Disability Resource Center for assistance: . If you have a disability that affects your performance in this class, please let me know as soon as possible so we can make accommodations.  

Writing Center. The Writing Center does not schedule appointments for students with English 201 assignments, but it offers a variety of useful resources, including handouts and writing classes. On occasion, we’ll meet in the Writing Center’s computer classroom or in adjacent rooms for writing workshops or presentations. For information, visit .

English 201. For more information about English 201, visit

You may also contact the English 201 program director—Dr. Michael Bernard-Donals,—or the assistant program director—Tim Johnson,