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Summary of Assignments

Shorter Paper
Paper Prospectus
Annotated Bibliography and Progress Report
Final Paper


You will be required to meet with me at least three times during the term, including an introductory conference at the beginning of the term. (Naturally, you are welcome to consult me more than three times.) If all goes well, this should be a pleasant requirement to fulfill; I just want to let you know the conferences are coming. All I ask--nay, beg--is that you show up when we agree that we'll meet. If you really really can't do so, please email me to let me know not to wait for you.


This assignment was adapted from one given by Michael Barsanti

There are many assignments due for this class that are called "Responses." Students are often confused by these assignments, in part because they are less formal than what they have been asked to write for classes in the past. These are not essays or themes: they do not need to support a single argument or provide a neat introduction and conclusion. Responses can include questions for the class, conjectures, gut feelings, and speculations. They should, however, provide specific textual evidence for whatever points they want to make. (In other words, quote readings specifically, with page numbers, rather than referring vaguely to them.) Responses should represent a first attempt to make sense out of the assignment, a first attempt at getting the bits and pieces you have marked in the reading to hang together in some way. In grading them, I will reward careful presentation of textual evidence, intellectual risk-taking, and efforts to provide material for class discussion. I also expect you to write in standard prose, as opposed to the less formal language of email. As far as the content of responses goes, however, be fearless: the correctness of these preliminary thoughts is not a factor. Responses are due by 10:00 pm the evening before the class for which they are assigned. Because the success of this course depends on our ability to read and consider responses in advance of each class session, late responses will incur severe grade penalties: the maximum grade for a late response will be a C.

Here's how I imagine you doing these assignments:

You read the assigned readings, and mark them up accordingly with passages that strike you. In some cases, you may be assigned to follow a particular theme or answer a particular question. Other times, I will leave the assignment open-ended.

  1. Having finished the reading, you page back through what you have read, scanning over the things you've marked. You look at the clock and note with satisfaction, or even a touch of smugness, that you have left ample time to think through your ideas, write a careful response, and edit your prose.

  2. You sit at a computer and type. You do this in a word-processing program. Blackboard is incredibly unreliable as a text editor, and as some students and I have discovered, it will sometimes forget what you have typed if you try anything tricky. Let me repeat that with emphasis: Do not compose responses in Blackboard. You will get burned if you do, and I will not be sympathetic because I am warning you, in bold type, of the danger. You can be tentative, speculative, or downright wrong about what you're saying.

  3. You type a response of fewer than 400 words and read it over, fiddling with it as you please. (If you get carried away and write more than 400 words, choose the parts you most want us to read and bring your other ideas to class for discussion.) You take the time you have left between writing and the deadline to read your response aloud and edit it for clarity.

  4. You copy and paste your response into the appropriate place on the class discussion board.

Should you have trouble with the discussion board server for any reason, send an email to the class (including me) with your response, and post it to the board when the technical problems are resolved.

These responses will be fodder for class discussions and for papers. Each student should print all the responses for each class and mark potential comments or questions. I might collect your copies of the responses occasionally to see how well this process is working.

Shorter Paper

The shorter paper (5-7 pages, 1500-2000 words, to be turned in any time before fall break) should fulfill the following assignment: At some point during the semester, you will inevitably find that we as a class have not discussed a particular text in the ways that you think it needs to be discussed. We will have ignored an aspect of the text that interests you, or misread it, or simply approached it from an angle different from the one you would like to explore. You might have raised the issue in class or in a listserv response, only to find that the discussion went elsewhere. Your assignment is to write an essay in which you situate your own viewpoint in relation to this class discussion--one in which you attempt to show the class another, better way of reading this text. How does reading this particular text from your angle change what that text means or can mean? For example, perhaps we have failed in discussion to notice a set of metaphors or references that illuminates the text. How does noticing that information change the way we read the text?

This assignment is designed to make you identify a discussion that is already--or has already--taken place and to situate your own interpretation and argument in relation to that discussion. The goal of your essay, then, should be to intervene in our discussion--to describe that critical conversation, to explain (in relation to it) what you want us to see, and then to show us how to see it and argue why you want us to see it. Your essay should at least do the following:

Describe what particular class conversation to which you are responding. You need especially to explain what blind spot or deficiency in that critical conversation that you are seeking to address and transform;

Analyze in detail the aspect of, approach to, or angle on, the text that you are interested in, spending time demonstrating how it works and what its larger function is within the text;

Demonstrate how your analysis illuminates the text and forces us to change our stance on the text or this issue; in other words, you will need to spend your last several paragraphs explaining how your analysis challenges the meanings that we produced in our class discussion, and even transforms it. This means that you will need to justify the value of your insights.

Paper Prospectus

Your paper prospectus will be a one-page prose sketch of your plans for the paper; before doing this, you should obviously read the section below. We will use this document as the starting point for a pre-paper discussion early the following week.

Annotated Bibliography and Progress Report

The annotated bibliography assignment is meant to help you synthesize the early part of your paper research before you move on to the last stages of writing. It should include a cover statement that summarizes what you have found (300 words or so) and a list of about ten sources in MLA format, each followed by a brief paragraph describing the author's argument. You will probably look at more than ten sources; I want to see a selection of the most interesting and appropriate ones for your project.

At the beginning of the last week of class, I will ask you for a progress report on your paper. An informal assignment, this can constitute anything from a couple of paragraphs describing the state of your research and writing to a full draft of your paper. I will respond to the materials you give me; you can also suggest questions you would like me to consider in my response.

Final Paper

This essay should be at least 4000 words. You should consider it to be just like the articles that you read during the semester, and you should follow the conventions of critical articles. It is probably best to conceptualize this essay as a longer version of the short essay (see above), except that you will be intervening in a current, real, existing discussion occurring between literary critics in print out there. This means that the aim of this essay is still to challenge and transform existing interpretations of your text in question, but that those existing interpretations will be gathered from recent published literary criticism. Therefore, you will need to acquaint yourself with the critical literature out there that concerns itself with your texts or issues, and that you should make yourself an expert in your texts' reception and production. You should think of your audience, then, as no longer your classmates but rather as the very critics out there whom you are reading, and who are therefore interested in the same issues that you are.

For both the short and the long essay, you'll find critical articles to be helpful as models, since critical essays usually go about their business in the same way that I have outlined above for the short essay assignment. You may find it a good exercise to read critical articles with an eye to writing your own essays. What problem is a given critic re-examining? Why? How is that critic intervening in an already-existing critical conversation? How does that critic wish to transform that critical conversation and/or the poem at hand? Therefore, I strongly suggest that you find a critical writer whom you like and emulate that critic's way of setting up (framing) a problem. This is very different from plagiarizing someone's argument or content; instead, I mean that you should study a writer or an article that you find both persuasive and beautifully written, and try to understand how that writer structures arguments and makes points.

Grade Breakdown

Responses and other short assignments: 20%
Shorter paper: 30%
Annotated bibliography: 10%
Final paper: 40%