The Art of Commentary

Course Description

Art often comments on life, but commentary is an art form of its own. Commentary is an ancient practice but has become ubiquitous in the age of social media with the rise of hot takes and think pieces. In this class, we will cultivate the art of skillful commentary. Commentary simultaneously informs, entertains, and persuades the audience. We will read and write a series of genres, including reviews, editorials, polemics, and essays, that define, interpret, and unveil the meaning of art.

Course Goals

  • Develop a distinctive voice as a writer
  • Understand how genres function through conventions, ranging from structure and paragraphing to tone and mechanics
  • Write in several non-fiction genres, including conceptual essays, reviews, editorials, and polemical essays, adapting your writing style to different audiences
  • Consider writing as an ongoing process, which includes generating ideas, drafting, revising, and polishing
  • Practice critiquing others’ works in constructive ways through peer review workshops

Course Assessment


Choose a book, film, or album to review. Introduce your reader to your subject, including a brief outline of the artist’s career. Summarize your subject without giving too much away. Explain your subject’s aesthetic power and cultural significance. Contextualize your subject by comparing it to similar works or situating it within a wider artistic movement. Evaluate the strongest aspects of your subject. Describe relevant information about how the book/film/album was made. The goal is to entice your reader’s curiosity.


Advocate for a specific position in which you strongly believe. Pose a problem and present a solution. Express your position clearly and concisely. Deploy vivid anecdotes and compelling data to support your position. Anticipate counter-arguments. The goal is to persuade your reader to agree with your reasoning.


Choose a contemporary viewpoint which you find problematic. Expose the flaws in this line of thinking; reveal its internal contradictions or negative ramifications without resorting to ad hominem attacks. Offer an alternative perspective. The goal is to discredit your opponent’s position.


The French word from which “essay” is derived means “to try”—not to have the last word on, but to investigate, explore, or wander. Essays are not, however, random musings, but rather follow a line of thought. Essays begin with a central question. Choose an idea that you want to explore. Take your reader on a journey, like a museum guide describing a series of exhibits. You might discuss the trajectory of an artist’s career or the development of a specific art form.


Date Topic Reading Writing
Thursday 8/16 Introductions
Tuesday 8/21 Reviews Wesley Morris, “Jordan Peele’s X-Ray Vision”
Thursday 8/23 Christopher Tayler, “Goings-on in the Tivoli Gardens”  
Tuesday 8/28 Julian Lucas, “New Black Worlds to Know” Review proposal due
Thursday 8/30 Ronda Racha Penrice, “Beyoncé’s Coachella performance was an unprecedented celebration of black cultural influence in America”
Tuesday 9/4 Soraya McDonald, “Janelle Monáe wants you to be happy. And then she wants you to fight” Review draft due
Thursday 9/6 Aisha Harris, “‘This Is America’ and Atlanta Secure Donald Glover’s Legacy”
Tuesday 9/11 Peer review 1  
Thursday 9/13 Editorials Eve L. Ewing, “Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts” Review due
Tuesday 9/18 Brent Staples, “X-Men, Not All Fiction” Editorial proposal due
Thursday 9/20 Stephen L. Carter, “Let HBO Make ‘Confederate’ Before You Judge It”  
Tuesday 9/25 Roxanne Gay, “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction” Editorial draft due
Thursday 9/27 Peer review 2
Tuesday 10/2 Polemic W.E.B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art” Editorial due
Thursday 10/4 No class
Tuesday 10/9 Fall break  
Thursday 10/11 Alain Locke, “The New Negro” Polemic proposal due
Tuesday 10/16 Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”
Thursday 10/18 Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”  
Tuesday 10/23 Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears” Polemic draft due
Thursday 10/25 James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel”
Tuesday 10/30 Ralph Ellison, “The World and the Jug”
Thursday 11/1 Peer review 3
Tuesday 11/6 Essays Vann R. Newkirk, “King’s Death Gave Birth to Hip-Hop” Polemic due
Thursday 11/8 Questlove, “When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” Essay proposal due
Tuesday 11/13 Clint Smith, “What Would W. E. B. Du Bois Make of Black Panther?”
Thursday 11/15 Albert Raboteau, “Balm in Gilead: Memory, Mourning, and Healing in African American Autobiography.” Essay draft due
Tuesday 11/20 Jesmyn Ward, “Jay Gatsby: A Dreamer Doomed to Be Excluded”  
Thursday 11/22 Thanksgiving
Tuesday 11/27 Essay due