Dangerous Ideas: Essays as Social Criticism

The details
Interdisciplinary Studies Centre (ISC)
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 6
Thursday 03 October 2019
Saturday 14 December 2019
25 July 2019


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA R9R4 European Studies with Spanish,
BA R9R9 European Studies with Spanish (Including Foundation Year)

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. 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.

The readings examined on the module 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:

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 the student should:

be able to demonstrate a familiarity with, and an understanding of the material considered on the module, specifically the history of the essay;
be able to draw connections between a diverse range of written forms produced in different historical periods;
be able to distinguish critically between different methodological and disciplinary approaches to the issues in question;
be able to write in an informed, critical and argumentative manner on the material covered by the module.

Module information

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

Weekly lecture, plus a weekly seminar that will include staff presentations, student-led intellectual discussion.


  • Leon Battista Alberti. (1999) The use and abuse of books = De commodis litterarum atque incommodis, Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press.
  • Friedman, Milton; Friedman, Rose. (1980) Free to Choose, London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Breanne Fahs. (2008) 'The Radical Possibilities of Valerie Solanas', in Feminist Studies. vol. 34 (3, The 1970s Issue) , pp.591-617
  • Marinetti, F. T. (2009) 'Founding and manifesto of futurism 1909', in Futurist manifestos, London: Tate.
  • Haraway, Donna Jeanne. (c2003) The companion species manifesto: dogs, people, and significant otherness, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. vol. 8
  • Joselit, David. (2016) '1909', in Art since 1900: modernism, antimodernism, postmodernism, London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Montaigne, Michel. (1993) 'Of the Cannibals [1588]', in Complete Essays, London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Wallace, David Foster. (©2014) The David Foster Wallace reader, London: Hamish Hamilton.
  • Berger, John. (1992) 'Ape theatre', in Keeping a rendezvous, London: Granta Books.
  • Kincaid, Jamaica. (2000, c1988) A small place, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
  • (no date) Free to Choose: Part 1 of 10 The Power of the Market (Featuring Milton Friedman) - YouTube.
  • Otto Wagner. (1988) Modern architecture: a guidebook for his students to this field of art, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Rossi, Andrew; Delbanco, Andrew. (2014) Ivory tower, Hollywood, California: Paramount.
  • Orwell, George. (1994) 'Politics and the English language', in The Penguin essays of George Orwell, New York: Penguin. vol. Penguin twentieth-century classics
  • Oscar Wilde. (2001) 'The Soul of Man under Socialism', in Soul Of Man Under Socialism And Selected Critical Prose, London: Penguin Books Ltd., pp.125-162
  • Solanas, Valerie; Ronell, Avital. (2015) SCUM manifesto, London: Verso.
  • Tom Hodgkinson. (2005) How to be idle, London: Penguin.
  • Weeds Are Us « Michael Pollan, https://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/weeds-are-us/
  • Aimé Césaire; Robin D. G. Kelley. (2000) Discourse on colonialism, New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Orwell, George. (2000) 'Appendix: the principles of newspeak', in Nineteen eighty-four, London: Penguin. vol. Modern classics
  • Nussbaum, Martha Craven. (c2010) Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. vol. The public square book series
  • Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich; Stedman Jones, Gareth. (2002) The communist manifesto, London: Penguin Books. vol. Penguin classics
  • John Hayward. (1934, reprinted 1939) 'A modest proposal', in Gulliver's travels and selected writings in prose & verse, London: Random House.
  • Manifesto of the Communist Party, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework Assignment 1 (Autumn) (3500 words) 15/01/2020 100%

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
A range of staff from across the university will contribute to the module.
Interdisciplinary Studies Centre General Office - 6.130; Email: istudies@essex.ac.uk.



External examiner

Dr Ross Wilson
University of Nottingham
Director of Liberal Arts
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).


Further information

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