Dangerous Ideas: Essays and Manifestos as Social Criticism

The details
Interdisciplinary Studies Centre (ISC)
Colchester Campus
Full Year
Undergraduate: Level 6
Thursday 08 October 2020
Friday 02 July 2021
14 May 2020


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA LQV0 Liberal Arts (Including Foundation Year),
BA QV00 Liberal Arts (Including Year Abroad),
BA V900 Liberal Arts,
BA V901 Liberal Arts (Including Placement Year)

Module description

This module examines the social criticism and subversiveness of writing in the form of the essay and the manifesto. During the year, we will look at several essays and manifestos that challenge and often satirize dominant ideas, existing social arrangements, and provoke us to explore the many varieties of writing itself. The module seeks to reappraise the essay and follow the important role it has played in the development of the humanities and social sciences from the 16th century to the present.

Today, the essay is emerging as a critical tool in the examination of all aspects of human experience, both the profound and the ephemeral. 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. Likewise, manifestos like Marx and Engels' 'The Communist Manifesto' may be written specifically to mobilise opinion and overthrow existing social and working institutions, while the 'How to be Idle' manifesto proposes we abandon work itself and thereby challenges the incessant demands in our society that we devote our lives to paid labour.

The readings are primarily chosen on the basis of their historical impact, current relevance and at the same time selected as models for good writing. It is hoped that a consideration of how ideas are powerfully and succinctly communicated will encourage students to experiment, and thus, broaden the approach of those essays produced by the students who follow the module.

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

1. To provide students with a ground in the history of the essay and the manifesto

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

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

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

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module, the student should be able to:

1. demonstrate a familiarity with, and an understanding of the material considered on the module, specifically the history of the essay and the manifesto;

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

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

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

Students should also have acquired a set of transferable skills, and in particular be able to:

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

This module is intended only for students who are taking an alternate capstone module (for students on ISC courses: CS831 or CS300).

It is recommended that you read the following in preparation for this module:

Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, 1995.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto [1848], 218-258. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Learning and teaching methods

There will be a one hour lecture and one-hour class/seminar each week. All teaching events will be accessible to students on and off campus either face-to-face or remotely through online teaching. Weeks 8 and 21 are Reading Weeks.


This module does not appear to have a published bibliography.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   Assignment 1 (Autumn) - 2500 words  19/01/2021  50% 
Coursework   Assignment 2 (Spring) - 2500 words  27/04/2021  50% 

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Matthew Burch, email: mburch@essex.ac.uk.
Dr Lorna Finlayson, email: ljfinl@essex.ac.uk.
A range of staff from across the university will contribute to the module.
Interdisciplinary Studies Centre 6.130. Email: istudies@essex.ac.uk



External examiner

Dr Ross Wilson
University of Nottingham
Director of Liberal Arts
Available via Moodle
Of 36 hours, 35 (97.2%) 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).


Further information

* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.

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