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On Critical Essays

This page takes on two important questions about the three critical essays you will write this semester in this course: what and what for. It also includes links to the assignment sheet for each critical essay and an explanation of "re-vision" and extra credit opportunities. My goal is to make this page as useful to you as possible, so let me know if it can be improved. If anything is badly worded, unclear, or missing, please contact me with constructive criticisms and suggestions. Thanks.


Your critical essays are to be thesis-driven, analytical, and persuasive four-to-six-page papers. That is, they should not simply be personal responses to what you have read, or simply statements of your opinions or assertions of your views, but should instead be organized to convince your readers to accept an argument you have developed in response to a specific question. You will be provided with several options for each essay and, for the last two, you will have the opportunity to invent your own approach (subject to my approval), including a creative response or a carefully-designed lesson plan (if you want to explore other genres than the critical essay per se). In addition, you will have the opportunity to rewrite one of your critical essays or write a reflective essay on your three essays at the end of the semester if you want to work further on your skills in analytical and persuasive writing (and improve your grades!).

What For

Since this course is an introduction to African American literature and culture, I've weighted it toward exposing you to the diversity of both rather than choosing to focus on only a few major texts or writers. This means that your discussion questions and our class discussions must of necessity tend to either specify--by focusing on particular, significant details--or to generalize--by finding large-scale connections and comparisons, parallels and tensions, in what we've been reading. The critical essays, which come at the end of the first three geographical units in the course, allow you to move from generating questions and noticing patterns to developing arguments and supporting your own critical interpretations. Thus, the critical essays are your chance to focus in on a particular topic or question that most interests you (this involves reviewing your notes and memories of the readings), to delve more deeply into specific readings (this involves choosing the readings that best allow you to address the topic or question you have chosen and focusing on those parts that seem most relevant to the topic), and to develop and support a sustained argument about the relation between the readings and the topic or question (this involves both critically analyzing the texts you have chosen to focus on and crafting a valid, persuasive argument). Doing these things will not only improve your skills in active, critical reading and analytical, persuasive writing, but it will also prepare you for the final research project.

The other major purpose of the critical essays is for me to indicate clearly what I see as the major questions or issues raised by each of the first three geographical units in the course. Along with the introductions to each unit, they should provide you with an intellectual framework for approaching African American literature and culture. It's easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, especially while hiking through one or among them, so these questions (and the course web site more generally) are designed to help you orient yourself on this literary and cultural terrain. It is highly recommended that you consider carefully each of the options given before settling on one on which to focus your critical essay.

Assignment Sheets

Critical Essay #1: Country

Critical Essay #2: City

Critical Essay #3: Nation

For your first essay, you must choose one of the options listed on the assignment sheet. For your second essay, you will have the option of proposing your own topic or question which will provide the focus for your critical essay. For the third essay, you will have the additional option of experimenting with genre as well as with subject matter (creative response, plan and rationale for a lesson plan, etc.).

Revision and Extra Credit Opportunities

You may rewrite one of first two critical essays and have the grade on the rewrite replace the grade on the original. See the assignment sheets for the first two critical essays for requirements, suggestions, and due dates.

You may also to choose to write a fourth critical essay (on the "world" unit), and/or write a reflective essay on what you learned about analyzing African American literature/culture through the critical essays you wrote in the course. The grade(s) on these essay(s) would be averaged into your lowest grade among the required critical essays and will be counted toward your preparation/participation grade (in some cases, doing either or both of these things can make up for missed classes that will be hurting your final grade in the course). However, you should consider your workload at the end of the semester and decide whether the time devoted to extra credit work would be better spent doing an excellent job on your final research project.

M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S

ENGL 240: Intro to African American Lit and Culture, Spring 2001
Created: 2/12/01 10:45 pm
Last modified: 5/3/01 4:29 pm