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Critical Essay #1

This page includes the assignment sheet for the first critical essay along with suggestions for revisions. 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.

Assignment Sheet

Due: no later than 5 pm on Friday, February 23, 2001, either in my mailbox in the English department main office (Fenton 277), or in the envelope on the bulletin board outside my office door (Fenton 240).

Format: 4-6 pages, double spaced, with reasonable fonts, font sizes, and margins (be warned that barely getting on to the fourth sheet of paper does not a four-page paper make!); title that indicates main argument of paper; heading that includes your name, the course name or number, and the date; bibliography and citations in MLA style (see links page for explanations of this style of citation); proper quotation format ("..." [12]. for quotations within a paragraph; blockquote format for quotations five lines or longer).

Options: Here are your options for the first critical essay. In each of these options, your job is to come up with an argument that you are trying to support by using textual evidence to persuade your readers of your interpretation's validity. You will not have the option of choosing your own topic/question for this essay, as you will for future essays; instead, you must choose one of the following topics and use at least one of the works we've read thus far in the semester in developing your response to it.

Suggestions for Revision

Your "re-vision" of the first critical essay is due before you leave for spring break; no revisions will be accepted after spring break. You must turn in your original paper along with your "re-vision" of it. The grade on your "re-vision" will completely replace your original grade; doing a "re-vision" will also count toward your preparation/participation grade.

Here's the grade breakdown on the first critical essay: A=0, A-=4, B+=2, B=6, B-=10, C+=5, C=3, C- or below=0. 18 people chose option #5, and grades ranged from A- to C; 6 people chose option #2, and grades ranged from B to C+; and 2 people each chose options #4, 6, and 7, with grades ranging on those options from B to C. After revisions, the grade distribution changed to: A=1, A-=4, B+=3, B=6, B-=10, C+=4, C=2, C- or below=0.

Here's what these grades mean. Generally, to get a B+ or higher, you had to have understood what the assignment was asking you to do, come up with a main argument that is argue-able, debate-able, and non-obvious, and done a good job persuading your readers to agree with it (the more ambitious your argument was and the better your support for it, the higher your grade rose). To get a between a B and a C+, you had to have raised doubts about your understanding of the assignment, had a main argument that was more descriptive than analytical, or had problems in the way you attempted to support it (the shakier your understanding of the assignment, the less analytical your thesis was, the more problems you had with supporting arguments, evidence, organization, and grammar, and the more clear misreadings of the text[s] in question, the lower your grade fell in this range). And to get a C or lower, you had to have had serious problems with your understanding of the assignment, had an incoherent, contradictory, or reductive main argument (or lacked one altogether), and had serious problems with your mode of supporting it (the more problems with the main argument, structure, and use of evidence, and with your understanding of the text[s] in the question, the lower your grade fell).

I write extensive comments on your papers. I recommend reading the closing statement first for my overall assessment of your essay and suggestions for revision. Only after reading that should you go through my marginal comments on each page. When doing this, be sure to distinguish between formatting suggestions, identifications of grammar/punctuation/citation errors, questions about your readings of a given passage, comments about structure and argument, and suggestions for revision. Oh, and check marks, underlined and/or starred passages are meant to identify important observations, arguments, or ideas worth developing further. If you have trouble reading my handwriting or deciding what to focus on for your "re-vision" of your essay, make an appointment with me. Hopefully what follows will help clear up ambiguities, but don't hesitate to talk things over with me--sometimes hearing something can help you understand a point differently than reading it!

Between what I wrote on your paper and what I'm writing here, I hope it's clear that I am more interested in how well your paper works on the persuasive/analytical level than in what specifically you are arguing for or against--so only worry about being "right" to the extent that you have considered other points of view and thought carefully about how best to support your own. Students always worry about "what the teacher wants," and I'm sure we all have had teachers for whom a good grade on their papers was dependent on your regurgitating their ideas to show you had done the reading and paid attention in class--well, I think you can see I am not one of those teachers (or at least that I believe I am not!). As I have emphasized in class and on the critical essay page, the critical essays are your chance to go beyond our class discussions and bring your understanding of the unit and certain texts in it to a new level--they require extra work and additional thinking and reading; they require you to make a critical, or analytical, or interpretive leap beyond making observations. The best papers stem from a question for which it's possible to give many plausible answers, because then you have to make a case for your answer being more plausible than other potentially plausible ones.

I say all this because as you approach the challenge of revising your essays, you need to set priorities and goals for yourself. Fixing all the punctuation and grammar errors when my comments indicate you had a fundamental misunderstanding of the assignment will not raise your grade one iota. Doing the kind of proofreading you should have done the first time around isn't a "re-vision" of your prior draft, but just a minor edit of it. Similarly, focusing only on reformatting quotations and citations when my comments suggest you need to revise the thesis and defend it better is a waste of your time. So is polishing the prose of a paragraph that may well be irrelevant to your main point. This is not to say that punctuation, grammar, formatting, and polished prose aren't important, but rather that you shouldn't let working on those things keep you from focusing on the larger questions of how well you understand the assignment, how well your main argument addresses the stakes or significance of the parallels and tensions you've observed in the texts you're analyzing, and how well you organize the paper and marshall evidence so as to persuade even the most skeptical readers to accept the validity of your argument. I think you'll find that as you consider these larger questions, and revise your introductory paragraph, the urge to include plot summary as filler, to repeatedly restate your claim rather than support it, and to multiply examples in support of a simple point will fade away. Because you have a much clearer sense of what you're trying to convince your readers to believe, you will be better able to organize your paper and decide what evidence best fits with which arguments, which in turn well help you make your sentence-level writing as precise and concise as possible.

Here are a few quick tips for checking over your revised essays after you've taken on the big questions discussed in the previous paragraph:

Specific suggestions for each option follow:

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: 3/8/01 7:41 pm
Last modified: 5/9/01 12:38 pm