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Critical Response Essay #1: Assignment Sheet and Rewriting Tips
Assignment: You have several options for your first critical response paper; however, unlike some of your other papers in this course, you will not have the option of making up your own topic or question for this first paper. Choose one of the questions below and answer it, drawing on at least one of the stories we've read thus far in the course (from Leone to Hawthorne):
- 1. What makes a "ghost story"? What are the defining features of the genre? What are the boundaries of the genre? Your task is to come up with a definition of "the ghost story" and illustrate/defend it by showing how at least one text that we've read thus far either is or is not a ghost story. (Remember here that sometimes the most efficient way to explain/justify a definition is to show how it helps you judge the "tough cases," where it's difficult to tell whether a story is or is not in the genre.)
- 2. What makes a "good" ghost story? What are the criteria for quality/excellence in this genre? Your task is to persuade your classmates of your views on what constitutes a "good" ghost story, using one or more texts that we've read thus far to illustrate/justify your claims. (Remember here that showing how one story is "better" than another can be a way of generating/defending a set of criteria to determine literary excellence.)
- 3. Many of the stories we've read thus far, from Chesnutt to Hawthorne, seem to be stories about storytelling. They feature scenes of telling and listening, or use multiple narrators, or focus on several ways of telling the same "story." Sometimes it seems that by focusing on the process of storytelling authors are trying to educate their own readers on how to read their texts. What kinds of lessons about reading ghost stories are being taught in these early texts? Your task is either to focus in particular on the lessons about reading one writer seems to be teaching in a single text or to identify some general reading lessons that can be gleaned from several texts. (Remember here that analyzing the process of storytelling, as represented in a given text or texts [focusing on scenes of telling and listening], can help you figure out what the author might want you to learn about reading in general. Remember, too, that authors might set up both positive and negative models of listening, or may want you to see the limitations of all the modes of listening in the stories.)
- 4. Many of these early ghost stories are about history, or, more precisely, the presence of the past in the present. How and to what ends does a given author use ghosts or haunting to raise issues that have to do with the relation between past and present? (Instead of "history," you might focus on another concept [like "culture" or "power"] and relate the use of ghosts or haunting to that concept instead.)
- 5. Many of the stories we've read thus far develop a particular symbol, or metaphor, or allegory that adds an extra dimension of meaning to the literal story. Focus on one of these figurative strategies and show how and to what ends an author creates a given symbol, metaphor, or allegory.
Format: 2-4 pages (roughly 400-1200 words), with a title and a heading that includes the course number or title, your name, and the date; word-processed; double-spaced; font Times 12 point or similar; preferably laser-printed. [Please be aware that you'll get a better grade if you first develop your ideas fully, without feeling that you have to stop at a certain page or word limit, and then go back and condense, cut, and otherwise revise to be as concise and clear as possible. Don't let the page limit limit your exploration of ideas.]
Due: Monday, 2/8/99, in the envelope outside my office door (Fenton 240) by 7:00 pm.
Texts: Any story or combination of stories by Paul Leone, Charles Chesnutt, Joseph Bruchac, Robert Olen Butler, and Nathaniel Hawthorne that we've read in class thus far.
Stats About Your First Drafts
27 answered question #2, 17 did question #4, 10 did question #1, 9 did question #5, and 1 did question #3.
The grade distribution on first drafts was as follows: A+=0, A=0, A-=3, B+=8, B=10, B-=11, C+=11, C=6, C-=10, D+ and below=5. Remember that if you choose to rewrite, your new grade replaces your grade on your first draft.
Tips for Rewriting
I will accept rewrites up until the day the second critical response essay is due. It is in your best interest to hand in your rewrite as soon as possible, so that you may get more comments from me on your writing before beginning to compose critical response essay #2. I am available during office hours and by appointment to discuss strategies for re-vision and rewriting. Do not turn in your revised paper until you have considered my comments carefully and read the following paragraphs. They contain crucial advice.
First off, you should not rewrite unless you plan to do more than simply fixing typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. (Please note that in my comments on your papers, I do not copy-edit papers [although I point out patterns and suggest some sentence-level revisions]--it is up to you to find and fix these kinds of problems.) Unless you plan on revisiting your main argument, the way you organized your essay, and your use of evidence, what you do will not be a true "re-vision" of your essay at all. Only such re-visions will have a good chance of getting a higher grade.
More important, it is only by going through such a re-vision process that you will truly learn how to write more effectively. It's a cliche--but still true--that you have to treat your mistakes and failed experiments as learning experiences. Think of the last time you had to learn a difficult skill that required of you some persistence and ability to deal with frustrations and obstacles (from, say, learning to drive a stick shift to the last video game you learned to play to the last lab course you took to the last math proof you tried to derive). Learning the craft of writing is no different.
Moreover, no professional writer expects to get a draft perfect the first time--hardly anyone even comes close--and they accept that rewriting is where most of the real work of writing happens. In fact, many prefer the re-vision process to the process of generating ideas and composing a first draft, as crazy as that might sound to you.
So be sure to read my comments on your paper carefully and devote some time to thinking about what you want to change. The following pointers may also be helpful:
- Writing as Thinking: Writing your critical response papers and final essay are your best opportunities in this course to consider a difficult question in the depth needed to answer it adequately. Think of all the questions you've been asking on your reading responses, particularly the ones that nag at you and frustrate you because you're not sure of how to answer them. Your papers are the place to do the thinking required to answer the questions that matter most to you. This is not the sort of class where the professor will explain all there is to know about the text--this is simply not possible with something so complex, difficult, and open to multiple interpretations as most literature is. You won't leave a literature course feeling you know all there is to know about what you've read, but you should leave it able to become aware of what you don't know and able to develop ways of figuring it out on your own and in discussion with others. In other words, literature classes tend to be designed to turn you into an active and critical reader--someone who is able to generate interesting questions and can take significant steps toward coming up with plausible answers to them. There is no requirement of the course more crucial for developing the latter skill than your papers. Reading responses are much more about coming up with questions and observations; in-class exercises are much more about developing your critical and interpretive skills; discussion is much more about identifying difficult questions and sifting though multiple ways of answering them; and the exam is much more about demonstrating one's critical and interpretive competence. It is really only in your papers that you put together every aspect of the course and can focus in on one question and one or two texts--and in the process perhaps figure out something you hadn't known before you began writing the paper. Once you think of the writing process as being about discovering something about a text or issue that you hadn't know before you began the process--rather than as an exercise in transcribing your class notes into a more organized form or basically regurgitating others' ideas--you will find that your papers dramatically improve. (Be aware that in some disciplines this conception of writing is not accepted--the regurgitation model is all too often the norm--but in literature courses, at least, the writing as thinking/writing as discovery model should become yours.)
- Assignment: Be clear about what the question is asking and what you are required to do when answering it. More than three-quarters of the papers displayed some degree of confusion about the precise requirements and expectations of the question they chose to answer. For instance, on the first question, many people described ghost stories they read rather than offered a definition of the genre. Or on the second question they simply stated without justifying or explaining or defending their criteria for what makes a good ghost story. Or on the fourth question they talked generally about history or culture without ever analyzing how and to what ends the writer(s) they focused on used the figure of the ghost to raise issues having to do with culture or history--and didn't get into enough specifics about what issue(s) the writers had chosen to emphasize with their ghosts. Or on the fifth question they failed to identify the symbol or metaphor they had chosen to analyze and remained much too vague and general in their answers.
- Argument: Most of the papers had a fairly clear central argument, but over half of those arguments had fairly serious logical difficulties. The most common problem came up repeatedly on the second question, where people did not distinguish between author- or text-centered criteria for identifying a good ghost ghost story, on the one hand, and reader- or audience-centered criteria, on the other--much less consider how these two kinds of criteria could come into tension. Remember that it's not enough to come up with any thesis-statement-like sentence to be placed at the end of your introduction. Many of the theses I read either showed great confusion about the assignment or little thought put into their genesis. For the first and second questions in particular, this could be a function of taking the question too lightly--what seem like very simple little questions are often quite complicated once you start to consider them carefully.
- Evidence: I would guess that around half of the papers had fairly serious problems with using evidence or otherwise backing up major points. Too many papers relied on assertion rather than persuasion. On the second question in particular, this tendency turned too many papers into an expression of preferences or opinions rather than an attempt to persuade your readers to accept the validity, coherence, and utility of your criteria for recognizing a "good" ghost story. Some people were tempted into a kind of subjectivism or relativism ("it's all up to the reader") and some people were tempted into a kind of isolationism ("it's all up to me")--and ended up making claims that would be laughed at if applied to, say, the question of what makes a good basketball player or a good listener or a good public policy. Finally, people tended to avoid discussing Butler's "A Ghost Story" or Hawthorne's "Alice Doane's Appeal," both of which are implicit meditations on what makes a good ghost story. Generally speaking, not enough people really made the transition from a kind of masked "personal response paper" to a "critical response paper"; making this transition involves recognizing that the claims you want to make are debate-able and considering how best to convince someone who might well disagree with you that your claims should be taken seriously. Using evidence well is crucial to this process.
- Structure: Fewer than a quarter of the papers had serious difficulties in organization or structure, which is a good sign, but more than half still relied on the kind of formulaic five-paragraph essay form that was taught when I was in high school. The five-paragraph structure is a good way of getting across the importance of organizing your ideas and of teaching the fundamentals of writing--having a main argument, writing good topic sentences and transitions between paragraphs, and backing up statements with evidence--but it can become a hindrance at the college level, particularly in coming up with interesting introductions, transitions, and conclusions, and in actually thinking through what it would take to convince someone else of your main argument.
The following aspects are less important in some ways but more important in others. The key emphasis in this course is not on the sentence-level of your writing and below--it is much more focused on the conceptual and structural levels of writing. However, in most of your other courses and outside of college you will be judged on more "surface" aspects of your writing. And as your reading experience should show, it is not that an author's ideas float somewhere independent of the words on the page and how they are arranged; rather, in the best writing, every word (even some punctuation marks!) counts. So even though I won't be commenting as much on these aspects of writing in detail on your papers, I still consider them to be quite important:
- Voice and Tone: Too many papers didn't have a strong individual "voice." Strive to make your writing "sound" like you at your most coherent, organized, and measured.
- Sentences: Almost every paper could have used another edit for clarity, conciseness, and flow. Too many papers had multiple sentences that repeated the same point over and over and over (and over). Too many sentences could have been combined (into compound or complex sentences with ideas nicely subordinated). A few sentences here and there didn't have subject-verb agreement or parallelism in the sentence structure.
Having a friend read a draft and simply marking places that are unclear or cluttered for you can be a great way of identifying "problem" sentences. Also, trying to read what you wrote aloud to yourself can be instructive--when you stumble, it's likely that there's something up with the sentence.
- Words: Some common errors included 1) misspelling authors' names and the titles of their works (a cardinal sin!); 2) careless typos; 3) confusing possessives with plurals; 4) confusing "its" (possessive) and "it's" (=it is) or "their" and "there." I'll be sure to add to this list of "pet peeves" over time!
- Formatting: Many people did not know to put titles of stories in quotation marks ("Daniel Kenton") and to underline or italicize titles of books (Chautauqua Ghosts). Nor did they include a title for their papers (another cardinal sin!). Nor did they know the proper format for introducing, quoting, and citing passages from texts. See the final essay page for advice on formatting.
- Punctuation: The most common errors were overusing or misplacing commas and misusing semi-colons. I introduced some people to the dash (--), which is a useful little punctuation mark when you want to connect two ideas with something stronger than a comma (,) but don't have two "independent clauses" (sentences)--and so a colon (:) or semi-colon (;) is out of bounds. See how I just used it? Saved it from being a run-on sentence (oops--sentence fragment!--should have used a dash). It's a pretty informal kind of punctuation mark, and many people frown on it (I tend to overuse it, as you can see), but it does come in handy.
- Overall Presentation: Very few papers--even ones that got high grades--had the "look" of a finished draft. You should always hand in your best effort and make every paper something you would be proud to show to anyone. Even when you know you can rewrite to replace the original grade--as you can in this course--you should still do the best you can.
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EN 209: Novels and Tales, Spring 1999
Created: 2/16/99, 10:02 am
Last modified: 3/11/99, 8:59 pm