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

Module Aims

The aims of this module are to: • develop your own writing and enjoyment of writing; • assess various strategies for constructing arguments; • locate and evaluate primary and secondary research material.

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 would be used flexibly for lectures, seminar and small group discussions. A range of formative and summative writing exercises will be used, with some micro-writing exercises and peer assessment exercises taking place in class times.

Wider reading or practice18
Independent Study10
Completion of assessment task40
Preparation for scheduled sessions60
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

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

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

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

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

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

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


Assessment Strategy





MethodPercentage contribution
Draft essay  (1500 words) 30%
Final essay  (2000 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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