The Essay as Form and Practice

In this course students will explore the essay as a literary genre. We’ll discuss the personal essay with its reflective and even lyrical features, and examine the more overtly public orientation of persuasive essays. Since the essay is such a ubiquitous and flexible form of communication, relied upon for a wide variety of needs, we’ll examine the ways in which colors of the personal distinction “blendingly enter,” to use Herman Melville’s phrase, those of the public distinction. There is no hard boundary between the two, and understanding this allows the student to see a writer’s work as an expression of self-definition. Moreover, it allows the student to see the writer coming to terms with how she or he has been defined by history and culture.

We’ll practice intensive reading, looking at the craft of an essay; we’ll be alert to rhetorical devices and figures (how a thought or feeling is expressed). For example, we will read and discuss Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to consider not only his rhetorical style, but also the evidence of how thoroughly he understood his audience and how carefully he developed the logical progression of his argument. (Please note that this discussion will necessarily involve thinking about race and racism in the United States.)

We’ll pay close attention to the stages of writing an essay: discovery, responses and appeals, and revision. Students will write personal, broadly descriptive, and persuasive essays; they will produce short reflection pieces on the readings, inquisitive in nature, exploring themes and personal responses, which may be developed for the essays. While the course is not a creative writing workshop, a central component of the course involves each student in a shepherding role. The student will help guide a discussion of a fellow writer’s essay, a practice that will develop skills in literary analysis. Finally, we’ll consider the college application essay.

Fall Semester:
Reading will include, Annie Dillard: The Abundance, James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time, Andre Dubus: Meditation from a Moveable Chair, Virginia Wolff: The Death of a Moth, Martin Luther King: Letters from Birmingham Jail.

Spring Semester:
Martin Luther King, Jr. "Behind the Selma March", "Next Stop: The North", "A Time to Break Silence", "A Testament of Hope", James Baldwin: No Name in the Streets, Mary Oliver: Upstream, Barry Lopez: About This Life.


  • "Mr. Wray is doing a terrific job of correcting my son’s essays. He provides feedback over and over and my son keeps making them better. He doesn’t mind helping him rewrite and then rewrite again. He gives not only advice on wordiness and grammar, but on getting the main idea and the feel. He is encouraging but at the same time finds all things that need to be improved."
    - Shelly C, California

  • "Mr. Wray has been phenomenal. He's made a lifelong impact on my daughter in the way she writes and reads essays, but also as a human being. She said she's never had a teacher who thought and discussed things so deeply."
    -
    Tamar A, Virginia

  • "Thank you Mr Wray, I  really loved this class, especially the discussions. I think the topics you chose, as well as the source material, were really great and engaging. You were always kind, respectful,  and thoughtful to all of us. When someone shared an idea they perhaps didn't think through 100%, you would always take it into consideration, and lead it into more thought-out ideas. Your energy in our discussions was infectious! The course helped me very much in regards my writing as well."
    -
    Judah F, California