Dangerous Ideas: Essays as Social Criticism

The details
Philosophical, Historical, and Interdisciplinary Studies (School of)
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 6
Thursday 05 October 2023
Friday 15 December 2023
11 September 2023


Requisites for this module



Key module for


Module description

This module examines how writing in the form of the essay can be subversive and shake up conventional ways of thinking and communicating.

During the term, we will look at several essays that challenge and often satirize dominant ideas, existing social arrangements, and provoke us to explore the many varieties of writing itself.

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To provide students with a ground in the history of the essay.

  • To explore issues related to the selected essays and to be able to relate those issues to the politics, social contexts and ideological debates of their times, and subsequently.

  • To stimulate students to develop skills in written communication through essay writing, and through oral communication and debate in seminars.

  • To encourage students to think and write in both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary ways.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module, students will be expected to be able to:

  1. Be able to demonstrate a familiarity with, and an understanding of the material considered on the module, specifically the history of the essay.

  2. Be able to draw connections between a diverse range of written forms produced in different historical periods.

  3. Be able to distinguish critically between different methodological and disciplinary approaches to the issues in question.

  4. Be able to write in an informed, critical and argumentative manner on the material covered by the module.

Skills for your Professional Life (Transferable Skills)

  1. Define the task in which they are engaged and exclude what is irrelevant.

  2. Seek and organise the most relevant discussions and sources of information.

  3. Process a large volume of diverse and sometimes conflicting arguments.

  4. Compare and evaluate different arguments and assess the limitations of their own position or procedure.

  5. Write and present verbally a succinct and precise account of positions, arguments, and their presuppositions and implications.

  6. Be sensitive to the positions of others and communicate their own views in ways that are accessible to them.

  7. Think 'laterally' and creatively (i.e., to explore interesting connections and possibilities, and to present these clearly rather than as vague hunches).

  8. Maintain intellectual flexibility and revise their own position based on feedback.

  9. Think critically and constructively.

Module information

`Essay` here does not refer to the sort of thing you typically write for an undergraduate module. The essay, rather, is a distinct literary genre that has played an important role in the humanities and social sciences ever since its invention by Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century. Essays may mask themselves as innocent excursions but, as with Jonathan Swift`s `A Modest Proposal` or George Orwell`s `Politics and the English Language`, the essay can rapidly overturn accepted opinions and provoke the questioning of values.

Today, the essay is emerging as a critical tool in the examination of all aspects of human experience, both the profound and the ephemeral. In addition to studying some classic essays, students will get a chance to contribute to the genre by writing an essay of their own.

To prepare for this module, suggested introductory reading:

Orwell, George. 'Politics and the English Language' [1946]. In The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, 354-367. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.

Learning and teaching methods

This module will be delivered via:

  • One lecture per week.
  • One seminar per week which functions as a writing workshop.


This module does not appear to have a published bibliography for this year.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Coursework weighting
Coursework   Autumn Weekly reading quizzes TOTAL    30% 
Coursework   Essay (2500 words)   22/12/2023  70% 

Exam format definitions

  • Remote, open book: Your exam will take place remotely via an online learning platform. You may refer to any physical or electronic materials during the exam.
  • In-person, open book: Your exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer to any physical materials such as paper study notes or a textbook during the exam. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, open book (restricted): The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer only to specific physical materials such as a named textbook during the exam. Permitted materials will be specified by your department. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, closed book: The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may not refer to any physical materials or electronic devices during the exam. There may be times when a paper dictionary, for example, may be permitted in an otherwise closed book exam. Any exceptions will be specified by your department.

Your department will provide further guidance before your exams.

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Matthew Burch, email: mburch@essex.ac.uk.
PHAIS General Office - 6.130; isugadmin@essex.ac.uk.



External examiner

Prof Raphael Hallett
Higher Education Consultant - Senior Advisor
Available via Moodle
Of 18 hours, 17 (94.4%) hours available to students:
1 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s), module, or event type.


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