M A I N * L I N K S
College of Arts and Sciences
ENGL/INDS 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture
Section 1: TTh 9:30-10:50, Thompson W231
Office: Fenton 265; M 10-12, 2-4, TTh 11-12, W 11-12, 1-3, and by appointment; 673-3856
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Web Page: www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/
ANGEL Space: https://fredonia.sln.suny.edu/default.asp
Critical Essay, Spring 2013
As you know, you must turn in one 4-to-6-page critical essay--a thesis-driven, argumentative, persuasive essay on one topic provided for you below--to sharpen your skills in textual analysis in ENGL/INDS 240 this semester. This page lays out your choices and options for that critical essay.
Due: No later than 11:30 pm on either March 1, 2013 (if you choose to write on the Country unit), April 1, 2013 (if you choose to write on the City unit), and/or May 3, 2013 (if you choose to write on the Nation unit) in the CE drop box on the course ANGEL site. If you turn in more than one critical essay, the one that earns the highest grade will count toward your critical essay grade and the other(s) will count as extra credit toward your preparation/participation/team work grade. It is your responsibility to turn in each essay you choose to complete on time in the proper format (.doc, .docx, .rtf, or .pdf, please); 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.
Format: 4-6 pages (roughly 800-1800 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 at least one class before the paper is due.
Rewrite Policy: I will accept one rewrite of a critical essay from each student, so long as you all turn it in by the end of exam week. 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 instead 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 assignment unless you choose to write more than one critical essay this semester.
Country (due 1 March 2013)
- Consider the works we've read that involve the production of personae--the creation of an "I" that is representative in some way or form of a larger group--from the dramatic monologues among the poetry we read to the autobiographical works of Douglass and Jacobs to the first-person narrators of various stories and novels. Compare and contrast how and to what ends two different authors construct different personae. Your job for this option is to craft an argument about what's at stake in the creation of representative "I"s, drawing on evidence from your analysis of the relations between the two works.
- Consider the works we've read that involve the use of apostrophe--an address to a "you" or reader that is representative in some way or form of a larger group--from the dramatic monologues among the poetry we read to the slave narratives of Douglass and Jacobs. Compare and contrast how and to what ends two different authors construct different addressees for their speakers. Your job for this option is to craft an argument about what's at stake in the creation of representative "you"s, drawing on evidence from your analysis of the relations between the two works.
- Consider the relations between the pre-1921 and post-1921 uses of the vernacular in the fiction and poetry we have read thus far in the semester--between poems and stories written before Johnson's famous preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry and those written after it. Choose two writers--from different time periods--and analyze their uses of dialect in light of Johnson's arguments or in light of the tensions and overlaps between his view of the vernacular and Hurston's. How is the later writer using dialect differently from the earlier writer, and to what ends? You may instead choose to contrast a specific use of dialect with a poem or story that does not draw explicitly on the vernacular, so long as your main argument about the significance or stakes of the contrasts you observe is truly argue-able (non-obvious, non-trivial, yet not impossible to support, either).
- Consider the representations of rural life in Douglass's or Jacobs's slave narrative and Larsen's, Ellison's, and Hopkinson's novel. Note similarities and differences in their perspectives on the current impact and/or long-term influence of slavery on the people of the South. Your job for this option is to generate an argument that analyzes what's at stake in similarities and differences between one antebellum slave narrator's and one postbellum novelist's conceptions of the impact and legacy of rural slavery on Southern people and culture.
- Consider the anti-slavery literature we have read thus far in the semester--Douglass's and Jacobs's slave narratives, Wheatley's poetry, and other works available in the Norton anthology. Your job if you choose this option is to craft an argument about the significance of the similarities and differences you note between any two works. You might choose to focus your argument on (a) the authors' intentions and goals, (b) the likely effect on the audience at the time of the works' publication, or (c) the effectiveness of the literary devices or narrative strategies for helping the authors achieve their goals.
- Choose at least one of the various anti-lynching poems, stories, or essays we read in this unit and analyze its structure, its imagery, its sound, the way it addresses the reader, the kind of reading experience(s) it offers, and so on. Then craft an argument that uses evidence from your close reading to support a claim about either (a) the author's intentions and goals, (b) the likely effect on the audience at the time of the work's publication, or (c) the effectiveness of the literary devices for helping the author achieve his or her goals. If you choose more than one work, then your job is to craft an argument about the significance of the formal/structural similarities and differences you note between the poems that draws on one of the above three modes of analysis.
- Consider the various motivations for migration presented in the literature we have read thus far in the course--Douglass's and Jacobs's slave narratives, Brown's migration-themed poems, the anti-lynching poems, Larsen's, Ellison's novels, and Hopkinson's novels and others. Your job for this option is to choose any two works and craft an argument about the significance of the similarities and differences you note between them in terms of the understanding they each provide of the reasons for migration. What is at stake in different explanations for migration?
- Consider the various visions of country life for African Americans by male and female writers that we've encountered in this unit. Choose one male and one female writer whose visions of the country intersect or parallel each other in interesting ways and write an essay in which you make an argument about the stakes and significance of the relation between their visions of the country.
- Consider the central ambivalence toward the country in African American literature: on the one hand, it is often represented as the key repository of tradition, culture, and community, while on the other hand it is often represented as a site of intense violence, exploitation, and oppression (or as stagnant, primitive, and isolated). What are we to make of this ambivalence toward the country in African American literature and culture? View one of the following films (available either through the Black Student Union, the English Department, the History Department, or a commercial provider like Red Box or Netflix): Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1992, 113 min.); Black Is...Black Ain't (Marlon Riggs, 1995, 87 min.); Beloved (Jonathan Demme, 1998, 178 min.); Down in the Delta (Maya Angelou, 1998, 111 min.). As you watch the film, compare its representation of the country or of rural life with one of the literary works we've read in the "country" unit, compare how the film and the literary work comment on, subvert, or transform stereotypical images of or narratives about country life, and compare how the film and the literary work reflect upon the relation of the country to the city, the nation, or the world. In sum, your job when brainstorming for this option is to compare and contrast how the film and the literary work negotiate the ambivalence toward the country in African American culture. Your task for the paper itself is to generate an argument about the significance of the similarities and differences you note between the film and the literary work's ways of dealing with this ambivalence. For instance, you might argue that a given film is trying to correct an overly negative view of country life provided by an earlier literary work, or that a particular literary work presents a useful corrective to an overly romanticized view of the country in a recent African American film, or that taken together a work and a film do valuable work in bringing out complexities that simplified, stereotypical narratives flatten out. The possibilities are endless, so long as your main argument is truly argue-able (non-obvious, non-trivial, yet not impossible to support, either).
City (due 1 April 2013)
- Invent your own option [open only to those who have already done one critical essay]: formulate a paper topic of your own and email me a brief proposal for why you should be allowed to do it, along with an explanation of why you want to write on that topic. You must run your idea by me before we meet in class on Monday, 25 March, to allow time for feedback, revision, and brainstorming, drafting, and revising of the actual essay. Do not assume that I will approve your suggested topic--run it by me as early as possible!
- Consider all the works we've read in the "city" unit that deal with migration, not from the perspective of the point of departure, but instead from the perspective of the place of arrival. Then choose one or two works that focus on one of the following subjects and analyze how they engage that subject: (a) how recent migrants from the rural South react or respond to urban Northern life, (b) how those who have lived in a Northern city for longer react or respond to recent migrants from the rural South, or (c) how migration has changed the city itself. Then develop and support an argument that addresses the stakes or significance of your writer's (or writers') mode of engaging that subject or draws on evidence from your analysis of the relations between any two works.
- Consider the various debates that interested black intellectuals so much in the first half of the twentieth century: over how to survive segregation and bring it to an end; over how best to counter white supremacist ideologies and/or images of, narratives about, or expectations for black people and culture; over the existence and value of the "New Negro Renaissance"; over the freedom and responsibility of black artists; over the content and function of black art; over the role and value of white patronage of and/or interest in black art and artists; over the question of heritage and the relevance of Africa and/or African pasts to black writers in the U.S.; over the meaning of the 1935 and 1943 Harlem riots; over the significance of established and emerging class, gender, and generational differences among African Americans--to name just a few. Choose one such debate and two or three writers whose positions relate in interesting ways, and craft and support an argument that either (a) defends one of the positions against the others, (b) articulates your own perspective on the issue the writers are debating that is different from any of the positions taken at the time, or (c) identifies an assumption shared by those with opposing viewpoints and shows the value of questioning that assumption.
- Consider the various visions of urban life for African Americans by male and female writers that we've encountered in this unit. Choose one male and one female writer whose visions of the city intersect or parallel each other in interesting ways and write an essay in which you make an argument about the stakes and significance of the relation between their visions of the city.
- Consider the various takes on the new possibilities and dangers opened up by urban life for African Americans that we've encountered in this unit. Which do you find most compelling and why? Make a case for the work that you believe offers the most compelling analysis of these possibilities and dangers by contrasting it with other assessments that you find less compelling.
- Consider how the vision of and perspective on urban life offered by one of the following movies relates to at least one of the works we've read in the "city" unit: Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989, 120 min.); Boyz in the Hood (John Singleton, 1991, 112 min.); New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991, 101 min.); Deep Cover (Bill Duke, 1992, 107 min.); Menace II Society (Allen and Albert Hughes, 1993, 104 min.); Slam (Marc Levin, 1998, 100 min.). Then craft and support an argument that addresses the stakes or significance of the most telling differences and similarities between Harlem Renaissance-era or Civil Rights Movement-era literary and more recent filmic representations of the city and urban life.
Nation (due 3 May 2013)
- Invent your own option [open only to those who have already done one critical essay]: formulate a paper topic of your own and email me a brief proposal for why you should be allowed to do it, along with an explanation of why you want to write on that topic. You must run your idea by me before we meet in class on Tuesday, 30 April, to allow time for feedback, revision, and brainstorming, drafting, and revising of the actual essay. Do not assume that I will approve your suggested topic--run it by me as early as possible!
- Consider the relation between Ellison's conception of America and of American nationalism and those of other African American writers from earlier or later periods. Choose one writer to compare to Ellison in terms of either (a) how and to what ends Ellison in Invisible Man responds to that earlier writer's ideas about America or (b) how and to what ends that later writer responds to Ellison's ideas about America in Invisible Man.
- Stage a debate (in script or screenplay form) between proponents of American nationalism and black nationalism that we read in the "nation" unit in such a way that your own views on the subject are put forward persuasively (either by writing a critical essay comparing and contrasting one figure from each "camp," or by writing a Wallace Thurman-esque scene [in fiction or in drama] in which the key ideas of the unit are debated by figures of your own invention who are based on, or composites of, actual writers and intellectuals from the period).
- Craft an argument about what is at stake in the relation between the arguments or art of two writers from different time periods on a similar topic, issue, or question relating to the "nation" and nationalism (for instance, how and to what ends does a Black Arts Movement essayist respond to a Harlem Renaissance-era essayist?).
- Consider the relation between a specific manifesto or set of ideas about "the black aesthetic" and a particular work of art written during the period in which the manifesto was written. How is the writer responding to the critic/theorist, and to what ends? What is at stake in or significant about the writer's response? Or consider the same questions in relation to a documentary film like Black Is... Black Ain't (Marlon Riggs, 1995, 87 min.) or a blaxploitation film like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971, 97 min.)--how does your filmmaker respond to or take part in the Black Arts Movement, and to what ends?
- Consider the ways in which Barack Obama's March 2008 or January 2013 speech on race in America signifies on African American literary and oratorical traditions and develop an argument in which you analyze what's at stake in his rearticulation of specific predecessors from the course.
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 or texts you are analyzing. 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 poem(s) and/or 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, Spring 2013
Created: 2/20/13 6:36 pm
Last modified: 4/30/13 8:58 am
See http://www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/itaalc5/ for the Fall 2008 version of this course, http://www.fredonia.edu/department/english/simon/engl240s05/ for the Spring 2005 version, 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.