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The University of Southampton

ENGL1086 The Act of the Essay

Module Overview

This module focuses upon the essay as a critical practice and a literary form. The essay is fundamental to literary criticism, and basic to assessment across your degree. But the essay is also a literary and popular-cultural genre in its own right, a form that marks the invention of the individual and the compulsion to, as Virginia Woolf puts it, ‘write one’s self’. During the course of this module, you will both hone your own skills as literary essayists—writers writing about writing—and weigh up the historical and thematic proportions of the essay as a form. You will explore the eccentricities and paradoxes of essay-writing across history, through ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, from its origins in the sixteenth century to popular journalism and blogs in our own time. In doing so, you will look closely at essayists’ choices of writing style, rhetoric, evidence, and argument—criteria that are fundamental to succeeding in and enjoying our discipline, and to our work as critical readers and individual writers.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Better develop your thoughts through the writing process;
  • Appreciate different contexts and purposes for writing
  • Use independent and self-reflective critical judgement


The module will introduce students to principles of rhetoric, composition and discourse as they relate to their own writing and to reading literary texts. It will engage with a range of texts, including classical and historical texts on rhetoric, historical and contemporary essays.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

The module weekly allocation of two one-hour teaching periods will be used flexibly for lectures, seminar and small group discussions. A range of summative writing exercises will be used, with some micro-writing exercises and peer assessment exercises taking place in class times. This module includes a Learning Support Hour. This is a flexible weekly contact hour, designed to support and respond to the particular cohort taking the module from year to year. This hour will include (but not be limited to) activities such as language, theory and research skills classes; group work supervisions; assignment preparation and essay writing guidance; assignment consultations; feedback and feed-forward sessions.

Completion of assessment task40
Independent Study7
Preparation for scheduled sessions54
Wider reading or practice15
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French (2012). Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. 

Gertrude Himmelfarb (2009). The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays. 

John Gross (2008). The Oxford Book of the Essay. 

Philip Lopate (1994). The Art of the Personal Essay. 

Ian Hamilton (2000). The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays. 

Denise Gigante (2008). The Great Age of the English Essay. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Draft essay  (1000 words) 30%
Final essay  (1500 words) 70%


MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (2000 words) 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External


Costs associated with this module

Students are responsible for meeting the cost of essential textbooks, and of producing such essays, assignments, laboratory reports and dissertations as are required to fulfil the academic requirements for each programme of study.

In addition to this, students registered for this module typically also have to pay for:

Books and Stationery equipment

Costs associated with this module will not exceed £90

Please also ensure you read the section on additional costs in the University’s Fees, Charges and Expenses Regulations in the University Calendar available at

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