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Critical Response Essay #2: Assignment Sheet
Assignment: You have several options for your second critical response paper; unlike the first essay, however, I am giving you the option of choosing your own question to answer for this essay.
- 1. Develop your own question and thesis. See the main critical response essay page for advice on this. If you choose this option, you must email me your question and thesis statement by Sunday morning at the latest.
- 2. Remember, too, that you may choose to write a "creative response paper" in place of a critical response essay. See the main critical response essay page for advice on this. If you choose this option, you must email me your plans by Sunday morning at the latest.
- 3. Compare and contrast what any two authors (from James to Cisneros) do with ghosts in their fiction. Particularly focus on the question of how and to what ends each of your authors use ghosts. Please analyze only one story per author--five pages is too short to do more than examine two texts. Also, remember that a comparison/contrast essay is not simply a list of similarities and differences but is one in which you come up with a main argument that you back up using evidence drawn from similarities and differences between the texts. Finally, if you've dealt with this "how to do things with ghosts" theme in previous work, do not simply repeat your prior analysis but push it further.
- 4. Write an essay in which you respond to one claim from a literary critic in the How To Do Things With Ghosts page by closely analyzing at least two of the texts we've read (from James to Cisneros). You may agree with the claim, disagree with it, or suggest a modification of it, but the key point is to "test" the general or theoretical claim against your reading experience. Do the texts you've chosen to examine do what the critics claim they should do? Be specific.
- 5. Since The Turn of the Screw was published, readers have disagreed over how to interpret James's novella; many have argued, in fact, that the ghosts in the Governess's narrative are figments of her imagination. Your task if you choose this option is to agree or disagree with this claim and to try to convince your readers that your position is the best interpretation of The Turn of the Screw.
- 6. In "Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers," Maxine Hong Kingston writes that she put the "White Tigers" chapter near the beginning of her work "to show that the childish myth is past, not the climax we reach for" (57). What do you think is the "climax we reach for" in her book--return to China? acceptance in America? construction of a stable sense of self as Chinese-American? independence from her family? reconciliation with her family? something else? Your task if you choose this option is to try to identify this "climax we reach for" in The Woman Warrior and to justify your claim.
- 7. We've been talking a lot in class lately about the assumptions that various cultures seem to hold about what ghosts are and what they want. We've been raising many questions, such as: are there any beliefs about ghosts that are universal (shared across all cultures)? are there any assumptions about ghosts that are unique to a given culture (specific only to that culture)? or is it only possible to make weaker claims, such as "certain assumptions about ghosts are shared across some cultures," or "some cultures have beliefs about ghosts that tend to be distinct from most other cultures' beliefs"? Your task if you choose this option is to choose two works that you believe reveal a lot about cultural assumptions and to write an essay in which you either a) generate and defend some generalizations about a given culture's beliefs about what ghosts want, or b) generate and defend some generalizations about the significance of the similarities and differences between two different cultures' assumptions about what ghosts want.
Format: 3-5 pages (roughly 750-1500 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: Wednesday, 3/24/99, in the envelope outside my office door (Fenton 240) by 4:00 pm. With my permission, you may turn the paper in by 4:30 on Thursday, 3/25.
Texts: You may choose to focus on any combination of texts from Henry James to Sandra Cisneros.
Criteria for Evaluation: See the comments on the first critical response essay for qualities I look for in a paper.
Stats and Suggestions for Revision
Grade Distribution: A+ = 0; A = 1; A- = 2; B+ = 10; B = 15; B- = 21; C+ = 4; C =3; C- = 7; D+ = 1; D = 0; D- = 0; E = 0.
Essay Options Chosen: #1 = 3; #2 = 0; #3 = 10; #4 = 7; #5 = 9; #6 = 21; # 7 = 13.
General Comments: The papers improved in two noticeable ways from the previous assignment to this one: first, more people did well (28 at B or better this time compared to 21 at B or better last time); and second, fewer people did worse (15 at C+ or worse this time versus 32 at C+ or worse last time). That makes me happy--and it should make you happy--but it should also underscore the need to think carefully about how you approach a writing assignment and what it will take to improve your writing still further. Let me offer a few further pieces of advice; they are meant as supplements to the advice from the previous assignment page (the fact that some of the careless errors and more serious writing problems I noted on that page happened again implies to me that suggestions on that page are still relevant). So without further ado:
- First, consider that the process of writing typically takes place in three stages--pre-writing, drafting, and revising--and that it's important to become more conscious of how much time and what kinds of things you do at each stage. It's the toughest thing in the world to be faced with a blank page and have to start from scratch. Most successful writers do some kinds of pre-writing activities to "warm up" their writerly engines. There are many ways of doing this, but the basic purposes of taking notes, copying down key passages, doodling, and other more focused pre-writing activities is to brainstorm ideas (often through timed free writing--one way of doing this it to give yourself two minutes to write all you can on a specific question and then choose the best ideas from what you've written and try to develop those in another two-minute burst--the key is to keep the pen moving and write whatever comes to mind), to explore possibilities (don't close down or go into editing mode too quickly--try to get a sense of the range of approaches you could take to answering a given question), and to organize their thoughts in some way (not necessarily in an outline or fully-fleshed out blueprint for the entire paper, though--sometimes in a diagram, or web of connected ideas, or on notecards, or whatever approach works best for you).
- I've said a lot about pre-writing because too often people have never heard of it, despite its paramount importance. But it's also important to distinguish between the drafting and revising stage, and to be clear when you're doing what. You don't have to do the first, finish it, and only afterwards do the next; you can alternate between the two as you go along. But the key thing is to be aware of what you're doing and why. I tend to write a bit, then go back over it and revise it, then write a bit more, revise it, and so on (trying not to get too caught up in the revision process, however). This is just one way of doing it; basically, you have to figure out what process works best for you.
- Drafting is taking your pre-writing materials and, by turning them into sentences and paragraphs, attempting to generate a main argument and back it up as persuasively as possible. You shouldn't be so concerned with the exact order in which things should appear or how much you're writing at this stage; rather, you should be trying to get your ideas down on paper as precisely and specifically as possible. You should be less concerned at this stage with being logical, coherent, or polished, and more concerned with turning your ideas into sentences and figuring out what the main point of the paper is. When you're in drafting mode, resist the temptation to fiddle with your spelling or check your grammar or do other minor editing tasks. That's for later. Stay focused on getting your main ideas down on paper in whatever order they occur to you.
- The last--but not least--stage is revising. This is also an often-overlooked stage, but in many ways it's the most important. Pre-writing and drafting can help you figure out what it is you want to argue, but revising is how you go from getting your own ideas clear in your head to making them clear and compelling to someone else on paper. It's a process of imposing some sort of structure on the relatively stream-of-consciousness first draft you've probably produced. You'll need to read over your draft as if you are not the author, to forget what you meant to say and look at exactly what you did say, and to consider ways of saying it better (or changing what "it" is in the first place). This could involve cutting extraneous material, reordering paragraphs or combining parts of different paragraphs into a new one, or composing new sentences and paragraphs, but whatever you're doing, the goal should be to make sure you have a main argument and are considering possible ways of making it most effectively. Only when you've worked your paper into the order you think is most persuasive should you get down to making your writing better at the sentence level or focus on developing key parts of the paper like the introduction and conclusion or topic sentences and transitions.
- Proofreading and final editing should be the absolute last stage of the process. Don't get caught up in making a sentence perfect early on, because who knows? you might decide to cut it later because it's no longer relevant to your main argument. But do make sure that what you turn in represents the most polished and considered piece of writing you're capable of putting together.
- You'll probably have noticed that going through this process will take more time than other possible ways of generating the required page length--ways that are more familiar to you and that you may have come to rely on--but the pay-off is that if you stick with this process, you'll find that you are actually able to write better papers more efficiently. Which raises another point that I want to make: the hardest transition to college writing to make is to go from thinking you have to produce a certain number of pages to thinking that you have to put together the best possible argument within the page limits. The first (typically "high school") way of thinking about writing is generally to come up with as safe or obvious or easy-to-make an argument as possible (which as a result is often less about what you think than what you imagine the teacher wants to hear), write the minimum amount required in the formulaic five-paragraph form, turn it in, and hope. The second way of thinking of writing (which not all college students make the leap to, although all should!) is more challenging but also more rewarding--it means treating writing as an opportunity to discover something you wouldn't have otherwise found out, to come up with an argument that matters to you, and to engage it, the texts you're analyzing, and the audience you're implicitly addressing with both logical rigor and attentiveness to nuance, subtlety, and complexity. It will probably take you longer to accomplish, it may require more of you, and it will definitely mean taking more intellectual risks; however, the result will be not only a better grade but also more satisfaction out of what you've written.
- The last general comment I'll make is about the need to keep pushing your writing. As you have seen from the first rewrite, it's difficult to improve your grades on a rewrite if you just leave most of the paper as it was and change a word here or there, or add some new paragraphs at the end. A true re-vision requires you to take a hard look at how well you fulfilled the requirements of the assignment or answered the question, whether you have an debate-able main point or argument, whether you back it up effectively with textual evidence and relevant examples, whether you organized your paper well, whether your writing was clear and concise, and whether your introduction and conclusion are not simply mirror images of each other. You may find that you need to focus on a different text than one of the ones you chose, or rethink your argument, or make any number of revisions that will mean that the second draft looks quite different from the first. This is part of the writing process--and you won't get better unless you work on it. Finally, this process may make you see the text or texts you're writing on differently, or force you to reread sections of the text, or read a passage closely, or notice something about it that you had never thought of before. This is what writing as re-vision is all about--it means that you're not only rethinking what you've written, but getting a new perspective on the text or texts you're analyzing.
Comments on Specific Options: First off, I was disappointed that so few people took advantage of the "choose your own topic" and creative response paper options; some of the best papers from last semester were creative responses. Second, and offsetting that earlier disappointment, I was glad to see that over 30 of you focused on one of the two longer works in detail (by James and Kingston)--nice job!
- #3: Grades on this option ranged from C- to B+ (10 papers). What I found most surprising was how few people took the most obvious comparison/contrast approach--linking stories that were clearly related, such as Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Joyce Carol Oates's "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly," for instance. Many papers in this category could be improved most fundamentally if their authors consider carefully why they are comparing and contrasting the texts they chose to write about in the first place. Doing so would help tham have a point to the paper beyond listing similarities and differences. What can we understand about each text's use of ghosts by comparing it to the other? The second way to improve papers in this category would be to put as much emphasis on the "to what ends authors use ghosts" side of the question as "how authors use ghosts" side. To take an example from the first third of the course (and hence one that's not eligible for the second critical response essay): to say that Butler uses the figure of Miss Linh to reveal the narrator's sense that he has been figuratively consumed by America is to say "how" Butler used the ghost in "A Ghost Story," but it does not address his purposes or motivations in using the ghost in that way, which is equally as important as the "how" question. For each story you focus on, be sure to consider both the "how" and "to what ends" questions--but then you must also figure out how to compare and contrast the various uses most effectively. Usually this will mean organizing the paper by uses rather than by stories, so that you are treating a specific aspect of both stories in the same paragraph, rather than writing one essay on one story, then another essay on the other story, and putting them together with an introduction and conlcusion. Doing it this way may help you come up with a larger argument about the significance of the the similar and different uses you've noticed. This is the most difficult step in writing a comparison/contrast essay, but also the most important, and it ties back to my opening comment on this option: you need to have a point to putting the two texts you've chosen together--or find one in the course of comparing and contrasting them. Otherwise your paper will be more descriptive than analytical. What conclusions can you draw from putting these two texts and their use of ghosts together? If you can answer that question, you're well on your way to having a main argument or point to your paper for this option.
- #4: Grades on this option ranged from D+ to B+ (7 papers). What happened to some people was that they chose particularly difficult claims to respond to. What happened to others was that they misunderstood or oversimplified the claim they chose, which meant that although they often had coherent arguments that made a lot of sense, they weren't actually responding to the claim itself. The best papers stayed focused on the claim and stayed specific in their responses to it, drawing effectively on textual evidence to illustrate and justify their main points. In other words, I was less interested in whether you agreed or disagreed with a given claim than in why you did, and I graded papers on the effectiveness of their presentation of their argument about another critic's claim; part of this evaluation process was considering the relevance of texts and passages chosen to illustrate and justify the claims in the paper. So if you're rewriting, think carefully about what exactly the critic is claiming, what texts might be most relevant to that claim, and what passages can most effectively help you respond to it.
- #5: Grades on this option ranged from B- to A- (9 papers). I think the higher grades on this option can be attributed to the fact that those who made the choice to write on James's difficult novella read it quite carefully (if you didn't understand it or weren't interested in it, you skipped this option). Also, because the essay question was so specific, it was easier to come up with a thesis and to find textual evidence to support your views. What every paper needed improvement on was in the strategies of persuasion used--while it's soemwhat persuasive to give evidence in support of your claim, it's even more convincing not only to organize it for maximum effect but also to consider what arguments and evidence someone who's arguing "the other side" might use and try to come up with counter-arguments. If you have any debating experience, this was the option for you, because winning a debate is all about anticipating the best arguments the other side might throw at you and figuring out ways of countering them. The question of whether the ghosts are real or the governess delusional has been going on for several decades (and it's mutated in recent years so that it's not simply an either-or choice), so I'm not expecting you to settle the debate in five pages, but I am expecting you to consider carefully how best to make your case given that there are strong arguments on the other side.
- #6: Grades on this option ranged from C- to A (21 papers). This was the most popular topic, and people approached it in very interesting ways. Some argued that there is no climactic moment but that you can identify major themes of the text or purposes of the author that constitute what "we reach for" (as Kingston put it in her essay); their arguments would have been improved if they had shown not just that these themes or purposes are important, but that they are the most important, or at least more important than the issues in "White Tigers" that Kingston said in her essay were part of the "childish" past. Some argued that the moment when Kingston confronts her mother in the last chapter--or the realization that occurs after it--mark a climax in her memoir; the danger with this argument is of replacing a "childish myth" (Kingston's identification with Fa Mu Lan) with an adolescent one (telling off her mom; the rebellious American teenager). Some people argued that the "climax we reach" for was becoming recognized as an American, or an American woman, or a Chinese American, or a Chinese American woman, or as a writer, or as a Chinese American writer, or as a woman writer, as a Chinese American woman writer. Just as in the previous option, I was less concerned with what people's identification of "the climax we reach for" was, and much more interested in how well they were able to back up their case for whatever climax they identified. The point was not to find "the right" answer, but to present as persuasive a case as possible for the answer they did come up with--this usually (but not always) required people to show both how the memoir led up to a certain moment and to show how that moment was climactic. I was glad to see that almost everyone who chose this option realized that it was about more than finding the "high point" of the book, but also about what Kingston's goals as a writer and her purposes for writing her memoir were. That's why there were so many B's and B+'s on this option (9 out of the 25 total).
- #7: Grades on this option ranged from C- to B+ (13 papers). There were a range of approaches on this option, so it's hard to make generalizations about it or give advice that would apply to all the papers. Some people chose to emphasize what beliefs about ghosts revealed about the larger culture and its assumptions not just about the "supernatural" but about such issues as gender and race. Others focused on representations of what ghosts want and how they differed from culture to culture. Others argued against the notion that any beliefs about ghosts are universal. For those who discussed more than one text, the advice on the third (comparison/contrast) option will be useful (see above). The key thing on this option, as on all the rest, is to make sure your main claim is clearly phrased and that you include in your paper what you need to back it up effectively--rewriting this option (and others) will force you to think about what it would take to "prove" or justify your main argument, as well as ways of actually doing it.
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EN 209: Novels and Tales, Spring 1999
Created: 3/15/99, 10:21 am
Last modified: 4/22/99, 7:52 pm