Becoming a Great Essayist

Rated 2 out of 5 by from Much more tell than show I must confess to being disappointed with this course. The chief problem is that the teacher tells you in general terms what you should do (and this too often is a counsel of perfection) but does not provide examples of how it is done. This is disappointing, because at the beginning of the course, the teacher says she would give examples, including from her own work. I am sure she has many appropriate examples in her files; it is a pity that she did not use them or did it only too sparingly. She was dealing with an important subject, and I hope she is given an opportunity to do a revised edition when she could do justice to her experience and erudition.
Date published: 2021-05-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Too Politically Correct for Me I was both disappointed and irritated by this course. Had I a chance I'd send it back. It's taught by a p.c. prof whose examples come often from the New York Times--reflecting the sentiments of East Coast "intellectuals." This needed a different, energetic instructor with a neutral orientation. And her delivery is as exciting as tepid dishwater. There are a few ideas I picked up watching these chapters but it wasn't worth the effort. That this woman is a Fulbright scholar and someone chose her as teacher of the year must surely reflect her social connections.
Date published: 2020-12-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from In Other Words... I am a devoted TGC student. Sometimes I buy, sometimes I use the library. Either way, TGC offers the best courses available. Period. However...this course is not merely the worst course I've taken (I've listened/watched dozens), it is the only bad course I have taken. Professor Cognard-Black repeatedly uses the phrase "in other words". Sorry, but if you are teaching how to write you DO NOT EVER use this phrase. For if you need to say something in other words, just say it that way to begin with. It is the mark of an amateur. Further, after a brief dance with Montaigne, Addison, and Steele, Professor repeatedly refers to her own writing, or some other contemporary essayist who is known only or mostly to MFA grads. When she does mention Matthew Arnold it is only to put him under the lash. And other reviewers are correct when they allude to the Professor's selections as suggestive of politics. I smelled a rat by the second lecture and it only got worse. I can live with it if I am learning how to write a great essay. But that is not what she was teaching here. There is a difference in Becoming a Great Essayist and Writing a Great Essay. You will not learn the latter here. My advice: read the best and imitate. Pick up Orwell, Montaigne, Charles Lamb, Joseph Epstein, even John McPhee or Emerson. Skip this course.
Date published: 2020-11-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Useful as base knowledge. Solid foundation for anyone new to writing craft. This can be a jumping-off-point for new students. However, if you have been developing your craft for a few years, are familiar with philosophy and literature, you won’t learn anything new. I personally was able to distill thirteen valuable implications, a sort of heuristic set of fundamental principles to create meaningful prose.
Date published: 2020-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Helpful lectures and lecturer I especially enjoyed the lecture on polemical essays, since that's the kind that I often seem to end up writing. I had some observations on the subject that I shared with Jennifer by email and she took the time to respond very helpfully, which I greatly appreciated. I often contact authors and lecturers and usually don't get responses, let alone ones that deal intelligently with the issues that I have raised.
Date published: 2020-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Immersion in this subject was easy Immersion in the subject of "Becoming a Great Essayist" was made possible for me via Prof Cognard-Black's enjoyable presentation. Her depth of knowledge shone through and made the subject accessible. I had no idea there were so many types of essays, nor did I totally understand what they were. Many years ago, a tutor who delivered a course to me on "The Art of Reading" suggested to that I should read The Essays. He said: "Oh Diane, the essays, you must read the essays!", It is only now, after viewing Prof Cognard-Black's lectures that I understand why he was so enthusiastic. I'm a reader, more than a writer (my interest is mainly in how and why it's done, more than the doing of it), and now, going forward, a whole new area of reading is waiting for me.
Date published: 2020-09-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A Course on Subtle Indoctrination Ok, I didn't like when university profs were being painted with a broad brush as indoctrinating America's children to hate our country, themselves, and to become unthinking zombies that see everything based on melanin count, but after only 7 lectures into this, my eyes are open and I see how there may sadly be some truth to this. Now I know I need to be so careful where I send our kids to school. The lecturer is very intelligent, an excellent presenter, and offers up very useful information that will--no doubt--help others write great essays. If only this lecture series wasn't also to try and subtly manipulate its audience to jump on their own special bandwagon. You have to sort of roll your eyes, cringe and wait to get back to the actual useful and instructive teaching in between long bouts of soapboxing. It starts small. At first, it was nod to climate change, then a little genuflection at the altar of feminism, then the requisite fawning over Obama. Okay, no problem, there is merit in all these things. But in this 7th lecture where she actually confesses SHAME for her own Nebraska home roots. Three guesses why this would be? You know. She then encourages us to look at our family home, state, city, country and see if we can join her in discovering the make-believe but good for political rallying reasons to feel self-loathing for where we come from, too. She then selected an essay to share one writer's ideas that Israel is a racist state! Thomas Jefferson is frowned upon as being irrational in his sentiments toward King George rather than "helping promote the equality among men" he initially started with. She then admits that while these ideas might offend some people, "she has to tell the truth" because she obviously thinks she has the monopoly on that commodity. Ug! I will press on with the rest of the lectures because I am capable of ignoring when others are trying to rope me into groupthink, but I am so, so, so disappointed. There was so much potential here with a great subject. She is a good lecturer and had a world's wealth of material to draw from, but she chose to crusade here, to soapbox, to make yet some other topic all about race, and signal her own virtues over others by being willing to self-flagelate and take the blame for something that has nothing to do with her own choices in life. These seem her chief motives. Teaching essay writing is but the vehicle. Where is her ethos? I repeat, there is good information in between the propaganda. I am an adult so clearly able to see when someone is trying to manipulate me, so I will press on. No doubt this review won't even be posted anyway as I am not on the right bandwagon. At least she has shown me how satisfyingly easy it must be to warp minds with young students who are so, so naive and blinded still by their reverence for a professor's title, credentials and position of authority (not to mention power over their grades). Thanks for that, thanks for the actual teaching, and thanks for helping me and my husband screen and scrutinize university faculty for our own children much more carefully.
Date published: 2020-06-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing! The course content is good and the presentation is adequate. The various types of essays are explained and examples are given and read to you be the professor. However, from the title "Writing Great Essays" and the sales line "Becoming a Great Essayist", I believe that Great Courses implied that the course would teach how to write essays. For me, the course failed to do that. I don't believe there was more that a minute or two in some of the lectures that actually tried to teach how to write an essay. I would not recommend this course to anyone without a detailed description of what it does and does not do.
Date published: 2020-04-24
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Becoming a Great Essayist
Course Trailer
Steal, Adopt, Adapt: Where Essays Begin
1: Steal, Adopt, Adapt: Where Essays Begin

First, learn what the essay is-and what it is not. See how the practice of writing essays has evolved over centuries yet has remained versatile, and examine the many uses of essays across the ages. Numerous essayists find starting out to be the most daunting part of writing. Professor Cognard-Black alleviates these hesitations, using examples from Aristotle to Michel de Montaigne to Edgar Allan Po...

34 min
Memory Maps and Your Essay's Direction
2: Memory Maps and Your Essay's Direction

Much like a photographer who can change the angle, lens, lighting, and focus of a scene to evoke emotion from viewers, a writer colors an essay with his or her individual perspective simply by relaying his or her truth of it. This lecture focuses on looking at the world around you with a new lens, showing you how to convey those memories you've kept as an experience rather than just a recounting o...

29 min
Secrets, Confession, and a Writer's Voice
3: Secrets, Confession, and a Writer's Voice

One of the most remarkable consequences of essay writing is the illuminating insights you discover about yourself. The nature of the essay doesn't allow for plot building or outlines-you simply sit and write, which means the story takes its own direction. Professor Cognard-Black encourages this process of discovery and shares stories of how many an essay she started on one topic turned into a diff...

29 min
The Skeptical Essayist: Conflicting Views
4: The Skeptical Essayist: Conflicting Views

Many essayists find themselves doing an about-face as they write, sometimes because they may not have fully researched or thought through an idea before making claims about it. Essays that present conflicting views are not uncommon; Socrates would commonly switch sides in order to test all parts of an argument, and many others have followed his example. Learn how writing essays that provide both s...

30 min
The Reasonable Essayist: Artistic Proofs
5: The Reasonable Essayist: Artistic Proofs

Professor Cognard-Black introduces you to artistic proofs, which are grounded in your expertise and colored by your own observations and experiences. The most important artistic proof in any essay is ethos-the writer's ethical appeal or credibility. She demonstrates how to effectively use ethos along with logos or rationality to bring reasonableness into your essays, which vital to writing effecti...

31 min
The Unreasonable Essayist: Strategic Irony
6: The Unreasonable Essayist: Strategic Irony

After discussing the importance of presenting a reasonable essay, Professor Cognard-Black explores the world of unreasonable essays, often written for the sake of humor or irony, or to be provocative, such as Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." You'll explore an example of an essay that showcases conflicting views yet remains reasonable, and then look at examples where unreasonable writers use p...

31 min
The Empathetic Essayist: Evoking Emotion
7: The Empathetic Essayist: Evoking Emotion

Revisit Aristotle to master the craft of pathos-being able to express empathy for the subject of any essay. Learn how to elicit emotions from your readers while remaining authentic and not manipulative, clichéd, or contrived. Reflect on honest and moving uses of language from Maxine Hong Kingston and Barack Obama, who once perfectly summed up the importance of pathos in a speech by saying, ...

30 min
When an Essayist's Feelings Face Facts
8: When an Essayist's Feelings Face Facts

To help keep your essays from becoming overly sentimental, Professor Cognard-Black discusses pitfalls for writers to avoid. You'll be introduced to three examples of what rhetorical theorists call logical fallacies and then take on the challenge of an assignment that brings together emotional appeals with rational ones to achieve credibility, empathy, and candor. You'll examine Naomi Shihab Nye's ...

30 min
Unabashedly Me: The First-Person Essay
9: Unabashedly Me: The First-Person Essay

The use of a first-person perspective in essay writing is a powerful tool that invokes intimacy, empathy, and witness. Ethos is more inherent in an "I" essay because the person sharing the story actually experienced the events. Learn how to write concisely to avoid an "I" story becoming simply an outlet for your own feelings, instead using your emotions to develop a broader appeal that will intere...

31 min
Essayists as Poets: Tapping into Imagery
10: Essayists as Poets: Tapping into Imagery

This lecture opens by inviting you to "walk into" a photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1893 and reflect on what you would feel, smell, hear, and taste if you were actually in the scene. Only after you've noted the reactions of those senses are you then invited to describe what you might see. Using imagery in essays does more than describe and evoke a scene, however. When done well, imagery ca...

30 min
The Visual Essay: Words + Pictures
11: The Visual Essay: Words + Pictures

Writing a visual essay requires you to detach yourself from how you have been taught to view images your whole life. Rather than passively observing and judging, you must challenge yourself to get into the visual. Repeated and lengthy viewings of visual artifacts are one step. Once you start writing, though, the goal is to not recreate the exact image that you saw, but instead to reimagine it-to v...

31 min
Writing Inch by Inch: From Draft to Polish
12: Writing Inch by Inch: From Draft to Polish

Professor Cognard-Black guides you through Aristotle's process of inventio or invention, which is that period of discovery as you write your first draft. You'll examine openings from a number of published works, gaining a powerful toolkit that can help you craft the first sentence of your first draft. From there, Professor Cognard-Black provides a multitude of invaluable tools for revising, editin...

30 min
Short Forms: Microessays and Prose Poems
13: Short Forms: Microessays and Prose Poems

Learn how essays can break the rules of conventional writing, allowing you to design essay forms to match your needs rather than being forced to fit the rules of more conventional forms. Examine structures that reimagine the essay, such as the microessay and the prose poem or "proem." Professor Cognard-Black shares her own students' work to explore what elements went into these examples to make th...

30 min
The Memoir Essay
14: The Memoir Essay

A memoir is often confused with a personal essay, but Professor Cognard-Black shows you the difference, once again using examples from her own students' work. She then provides numerous tips to help you recreate your memories and turn them into fascinating pieces of writing. Learn techniques that allow you to get as detailed as possible in your descriptions while still maintaining a central focus ...

31 min
Lyric Essays: Writing That Sings
15: Lyric Essays: Writing That Sings

From the Greek "lyre," a lyric poem expresses a writer's thoughts and feelings through the intimacy of the first-person narrator, evoking a strong emotional reaction in the audience. Professor Cognard-Black demonstrates the similarities between a lyric poem and a lyric essay and shares a moving example of a lyric piece written by one of her own students that uses memory fragments and figurative la...

29 min
The Epistolary Essay: Letters to the World
16: The Epistolary Essay: Letters to the World

Professor Cognard-Black reveals a common form of communication that is rarely thought of as an essay, though it often is: the letter. Coupled with an engaging activity, you'll see how a handwritten letter differs from any other form of direct communication. You'll explore the similarities between letters and the epistolary essay as they both speak to a specific audience and convey a strong sense o...

31 min
Portrait Essays: People in Words
17: Portrait Essays: People in Words

One of the most important parts of portrait essays is to understand that any depiction of another person-whether a famous stranger or a family member-is also a depiction of the writer. With this lecture, you'll delve into this dynamic between a subject and its writer and examine this power struggle as it plays out in a portrait essay. Using examples from Truman Capote and Scott Russell Sanders, yo...

32 min
The Essayist as Public Intellectual
18: The Essayist as Public Intellectual

While public intellectual essays don't step outside personal reflection, they do grapple with social issues, often myth-busting popular beliefs. This style of writing is distinct from a portrait or lyric essay. Professor Cognard-Black demonstrates this difference through her own examples and those of well-known public intellectuals, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Salman Rushdie. You'll learn how ...

33 min
Polemical Essays: One-Sided Arguments
19: Polemical Essays: One-Sided Arguments

Originating in the medieval period, polemical essays are the form for writers who wish to focus on a topic from one perspective only. They are often written to be deliberately polarizing. Refusing to shy away from volatile issues, it takes a strong writer to turn an antagonistic rant into a persuasive, polemical argument. Professor Cognard-Black shares examples of both well-written and overly stri...

31 min
Historical Essays: Past as Present
20: Historical Essays: Past as Present

See how non-artistic proofs are immensely important when crafting a historical essay, especially since history is subjective, and the way you tell the story shapes how it will be understood. The non-artistic proofs of research and data set the scene for a historical essay, which connects personal memory to a larger project of human history. Professor Cognard-Black shares samples of strong historic...

32 min
Humor Essays
21: Humor Essays

One of the most surprising insights into humor essays is the revelation that most humor comes from misfortune. This idea has been around for centuries, as even Aristotle noted that laughing at tragedy is cathartic for both the writer and the audience. You'll delve into how self-deprecating humor lends itself to creating ethos or credibility in this particular form of essay. Professor Cognard-Black...

31 min
Nature Essays
22: Nature Essays

Nature essays can easily come across as unrealistic. Since the first nature essays were written in the 19th century, such pieces have often romanticized the natural world-but there is value in not sentimentalizing the great outdoors. Examining works by William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Deb Marquart, and Michael P. Branch, Professor Cognard-Black explores the various takes on nature that off...

33 min
Food Essays: My Grandmother's Recipe Box
23: Food Essays: My Grandmother's Recipe Box

Professor Cognard-Black shows you how a simple recipe is itself a story. As she explains, "It sets a scene, forms a plot, arrives at a climax, and ends with a denouement." Recipes form the basis of edible essays, which start out as instructions and ingredients, but when you mix in personal connections between a dish and your own culinary culture, add a dash of imagery, and stir in the history behi...

32 min
Sharing Your Essays: From Blog to Book
24: Sharing Your Essays: From Blog to Book

The modern form of the essay may be seen daily in blogs, although not all blogs are essays-instead, many are no more than personal journals, rants, or fantasies without broader connections and appeals. Professor Cognard-Black provides examples of what components are required for a piece to be a fully formed blog essay. While looking at examples from her students and professional writers, including...

34 min
Jennifer Cognard-Black

Each of us has the capacity to write meaningful essays that tap into the heartbeat of humanity.


The Ohio State University


St. Mary’s College of Maryland

About Jennifer Cognard-Black

Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland, a public liberal arts college. She graduated summa cum laude from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a dual degree in Music and English. She studied under Jane Smiley for her M.A. in Fiction and Essay Writing at Iowa State University and received her Ph.D. in 19th-Century British and American Literature from The Ohio State University. Among her awards for teaching and writing, she was named a Fulbright Scholar to Slovenia, where she taught the American novel and creative writing. She was the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council individual artist award and was twice the recipient of the Faculty Student Life Award, the most prestigious teaching award at St. Mary's, selected by the students themselves. She was awarded Mellon Foundation grants on three separate occasions, and she won a gold medal in the national 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards contest for an anthology she edited. Nebraska Wesleyan University has named her a Distinguished Alumna and an Outstanding Graduate. Professor Cognard-Black's publications are extensive and eclectic, reflecting her intellectual background as both a writer and a literary critic. She is the author of numerous books, has published her essays and short fiction in a number of journals, and she has appeared on NPR.

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