M A I N * L I N K S

SUNY Fredonia
Division of Arts and Humanities
ENGL/INDS 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture
Fall 2008
Section 1: MWF 3-3:50, Fenton 174
Office: Fenton 265; MWF 1-2, Th 3-5, and by appointment; 673-3856
E-mail: simon@fredonia.edu; brucesimon18@yahoo.com
Web site: www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/
ANGEL space: https://angel.fredonia.edu/

Critical Essay

Assignment Sheet

Due: No later than 11:30 pm on Monday, 1 December 2008, in the CE drop box on the course ANGEL site. It is your responsibility to complete your papers on time in the proper format (.doc or .rtf, not .docx); late papers will be accepted, but they will lose a full grade for every day they are late and I will not provide comments on them. There is no need to flirt with the due date, however. You'll be much better off if you write your essay within a few days of finishing one of the first 3 units of the course. That way, you'll have plenty of time to take advantage of the course's generous rewrite policy (see below) if you want to work on improving your writing.

Format: 3-5 pages (roughly 750-1500 words), double spaced, with reasonable fonts, font sizes, and margins; 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 the links page for explanations of this style of citation); the basic template is Author. Book Title. City of Publication: Publisher, Date of Publication.); proper MLA format for quotations within a paragraph--"quotation" (12)--and blockquote format for quotations five lines or longer. [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 so as to be as concise, clear, and persuasive as possible. Don't let the page limit limit your exploration of ideas.]

Criteria for Evaluation: Your grade for the critical essay will be determined by the coherence and validity of the paper's arguments, the effectiveness of the paper's structure in conveying your ideas and convincing your audience, and the quality of the paper's prose (including grammar, syntax, and punctuation).

Audience: In general, think of your immediate audience as those who have taken and are taking this class; hence, you can assume that your readers have read the texts you're writing on and you don't have to include the kind of background that someone not taking this course would need.

Draft Policy: I would be happy to offer brief comments on your drafts, so long as you get me them 2 classes before the paper is due.

Rewrite Policy: I will accept rewrites of the critical response essay, so long as you get them in within two weeks of receiving comments on your previous draft from me. Because for many of you this will be your first piece of formal writing in an English class in your college careers, those who get their rewrites in on time can have their original grade replaced by the new grade. If you prefer, you may write a new essay on a different text or option that can also replace the original essay grade.

Assignment Options: You have several options for your critical essay; however, unlike the final research project, you will not have the option of making up your own topic or question for this first paper.




General Considerations

1. At the most general level, in your critical essays you must present an argument about or offer an interpretation of at least one of the texts we've read in class. You should have a central question that you are trying to answer in your essay, and you should be working to persuade your audience that your answer is plausible by offering whatever evidence seems most relevant to your argument and audience.

2. Because the paper length for your critical essay is so short, compression and conciseness are key. You should try to pack as much into this small space as possible. But don't bite off more than you can chew--it should be possible for you to answer the question you choose within the page limits of the assignment. This means that you have to choose your question particularly carefully, as well as rank the evidence for your argument so that you focus on the most telling moments in the text. Finally, you must be particularly ruthless about syntax and diction--make every word count, and cut or revise any words or phrases that aren't doing important work for your argument. However, this kind of revision for conciseness should take place only after you have fully explored your ideas, the best ways of communicating them, and the best means of persuading your audience that they are true/plausible. First get your ideas down, then put them as effectively as possible, and only then revise for length, precision, and conciseness.


Note: I've numbered the paragraphs in this section to correspond to the numbering in the previous section.

1. The best way to make sure you are making an argument or offering an interpretation is to generate questions that you have about the texts we've read, choose one, and set out to answer it for yourself. You should choose a question that's interesting to you and that you believe you can show to be interesting to your classmates (the audience you should imagine for your essay). Moreover, you should choose a question that's truly debate-able, a question to which you can imagine several possible answers. Your job is to sort through the possibilities and convince your audience that your answer is the most plausible.

Much of this sorting process will take place before you ever sit down at a keyboard or desk to compose your paper. You should reread the story(-ies) you're writing on, mark significant passages, write questions or observations in the margins, take notes, brainstorm, make up lists or charts, doodle, try to produce an outline, free write--whatever "pre-writing" process works best for you at getting your interpretive juices flowing.

When you move on to the drafting and rewriting stages, remember that a key part of persuading your audience that your answer is plausible and your evidence is relevant is anticipating how they might react to your answer and evidence. By imagining possible objections or counter-examples and then either explicitly or implicitly forestalling them in the written essay, you show your audience that you are taking them seriously and that you have thought carefully about the question. It's much more persuasive to deal with a major objection or counter-example to your argument than to pretend it doesn't exist. In fact, one of the best ways to make your own thesis stronger is to try advancing a thesis that contradicts yours--it helps you figure out the weak spots in your own argument. Some people find this process of imagining counter-evidence and counter-arguments more helpful to do early in the pre-writing stage, others when revising their first draft.

You will most likely find that you need to write a first draft that is much longer than the page limit in order to a) figure out precisely what your main argument is and b) figure out how best to convince your readers of the plausibility of your argument. Therefore, it is in your best interest to give yourself time to not only write that longer first draft but also to go through a serious re-vision process--to select, prioritize, reorder, condense, and cut in light of putting your ideas as clearly, concisely, precisely, and persuasively as you possibly can. The upshot of this is that you should never, ever, decide not to pursue a line of thought in writing because doing so will take you over the page length. Follow the idea where it takes you. Most experienced writers don't write their first drafts with a set blueprint in mind--they generally discover what they mean or change their minds while writing. Worry about page lengths only after you've thought through the issue in writing to your satisfaction.

2. You should choose a subject on which you have a number of original observations that you can string together or distill into a coherent argument or interpretation. Above all, choose something that interests you and on which you feel you have a perspective that's distinctive. Try to bring to our attention something that you've noticed about the work or works in question to which you feel that the class as a whole hasn't paid sufficient attention.

Whatever option you choose, you should be able to say why it is important. The more you think about this, the more effective your introduction and conclusion will be--you will be able to answer the "so what?" or "why should we care?" question with which most readers approach every piece of writing.

One consequence of the need for conciseness is that you may find that you need to rethink the "five-paragraph" essay structure you were probably taught in high school. (You know: the kind where you have a "funnel"-style introduction in which you move from a general observation to your specific, three-part thesis statement; a body consisting of three paragraphs of "evidence" for each of the three parts of your thesis, complete with topic sentences that restate each part of the thesis and a transition into the next paragraph's topic sentence; and a "reverse-funnel"-style conclusion that restates the thesis and takes it from the specific to the general.)

Although you should definitely hang onto the key elements of the five-paragraph essay--an introduction, body, and conclusion; a main argument; some kind of topic sentences and transitions; a sense of structure; and a consideration of evidence--you should definitely avoid the "funnel" and "reverse-funnel" styles of introduction and conclusion and absolutely avoid needless repetition. Cut to the chase. Develop your own personal voice and style of analysis and persuasion. The only thing your introduction must do is "hook" your readers and make them want to read the rest of the essay (this is usually done by giving them some sense of where the rest of the essay is going or what the point of the essay is). The only thing your body must attempt is to persuade your readers of the plausibility of your answer to your central question. The only thing your conclusion can't do is restate the thesis or move from the specific back to the general. Your conclusion should "shift gears" in some way, approach your answer from another angle or discuss what follows from it. Above all, be aware of the form and structure of your own writing: think about what points you want to make in what order--about the most effective way of ordering your essay so that it helps you persuade your audience of your point's validity.

M A I N * L I N K S

ENGL 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture, Fall 2008
Created: 9/26/08 7:18 pm
Last modified: 9/26/08 7:18 pm
See http://www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/engl240s05/ for the Spring 2005 version of this course, www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/engl240f03/ for the Fall 2003 version, www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/engl240/ for the Spring 2001 version, and www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/en240/ for the Fall 1999 version.