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Critical Essay

This page takes on two important questions about the critical essays you will write this semester in this course: what and what for; it also includes links to the specific assignment sheet for each assignment. 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. Ditto for any questions you may have about any of the options listed below. Thanks.


Each critical essay is to be thesis-driven, analytical, and persuasive four-to-six-page paper. That is, it should not be simply a personal response to what you have read, or simply a statement of your opinions or assertion 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. In short, you are being asked to generate an original, creative argument that supports your own perspective on the text or texts you've chosen to write on and is persuasive to your intended audience(s).

What For

Over the course of the semester you'll have done a good deal of informal writing--ranging from the free writing on specific topics in class to your weekly reading responses. You'll have gotten good practice at noticing things about literary texts and asking questions of them; we'll have focused a lot in class on making connections between texts and identifying tensions within and between them, interpreting significant passages and image patterns, and considering various answers to questions that you all have posed as well as I. What this assignment gives you the chance to do is develop a sustained argument on a specific topic. The critical essay allows you to focus in on a particular topic or question that most interests you (this involves reviewing your notes and memories of the readings, as well as listserv contributions), 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 project.

The other major purpose of the critical essay is for me to indicate clearly what I see as the major questions or issues raised by each of the units in the course. These should provide you with something of a framework for understanding and reviewing the unit as a whole. Hence, it is highly recommended that you consider carefully each of the options given before settling on one on which to focus your critical essay. It's easy to miss the forest for the trees, especially when there were so many different "trees" we were analyzing each day, so seeing the range of questions I think are most important to consider when looking back on the unit can give you a new, better perspective on what we've read, as well as lay out possible directions for the final research project.

Assignment Sheets

As you know, even though you are required to write only two critical essays over the course of the semester, you have the chance to write three and have your lowest grade dropped. Since this is your first college semester for most of you, I strongly recommend you all take advantage of this opportunity.

Extra Credit Opportunities

As you know, if you decided to do all three critical essays, your lowest grade will be dropped. If you didn't take advantage of that option already, you may turn in a critical essay for the assignment that you didn't do before the end of exam week and have your lowest grade dropped. If you already took advantage of that option, you may turn in a revision of one of the two essays that will be counted toward your final grade and have that revision's grade be averaged with the original paper's grade.

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ENGL 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture, Fall 2003
Created: 9/18/03 1:49 pm
Last modified: 12/10/03 6:27 pm