TERM PAPER FOR E222 MW AMERICAN LITERATURE, CSU FULLERTON FALL 2014 (8/22/14)
PROMPTS AND INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE TERM PAPER
Topic/Argument Paragraph. Initially, a one-paragraph broad topic + specific argument description will be due by email on the date the syllabus page specifies. You can use this assignment to let me know what author/text you're interested in. Once I have that information, I can return-email you some feedback that will help you develop a specific, manageable essay topic. You can also submit a full rough draft if you want more detailed advice.
Final Draft of Full Paper. The final draft of the full paper will be due as specified at the bottom of the syllabus page. I require emailed attachments in Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx are both fine) or a similar program. Along with your attachment, paste an inline copy into your email's main body if you are worried that the attachment may not be readable by a computer using Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2010. See the syllabus for the paper requirement's value as a percentage of the course grade.
General Prompt. Choose one or (at most, and only if they're relatively brief) two assigned texts and, focusing on issues you find relevant and manageable, write a 5-7 page essay specific in its initial thesis, easy to follow in structure, and clear and consistent in style. Proofread your grammar and check your argument carefully for soundness when you get to the final-draft stage (see links below for guides that can help you in that task). The paper should deal with an assigned text or texts in terms of their specifics – language, structure, themes, etc. – it should not proceed by way of vague generalities or try to cover so much that developing ideas fully becomes impossible.
1a. American poets as "nature poets": It's common to talk about the British romantics as nature poets, but how about exploring that category with reference to one or two of the American poets on our syllabus? Choose one or at most two (i.e. for comparison/contrast purposes) such poets and explore what characterizes them as "nature poets." How do they represent the natural environments relevant to them and what role do those environments play in the meaning of the specific poems you want to write about? (You could also cover this topic on an author such as Jack London if you would rather deal with prose than poetry.)
1b. An alternative to the above poetry emphasis would be to choose one two poets on our syllabus who are NOT mainly concerned with representing and relating to the natural environment, and to investigate what replaces nature: in other words, if they concentrate on, say, the cityscape, city life, human relations generally, or language or poetry itself, what is their strategy of representation and what seems to be the value in such an emphasis for them and for you as a reader?
2. Some of the authors on our syllabus (London, James, and Hemingway come to mind) seem very interested in defining or counter-defining America and Americans from an outsider's perspective – whether European or from elsewhere. Choose one such author and explore the value of his or her emphasis on "Americanness" as seen and conceptualized from abroad: what insights, complications, etc. open up about America and Americans at a particular time period thanks to this emphasis?
3. In class I referred to Faulkner's modernist masterpiece As I Lay Dying as essentially comic, in the broad sense of "life-affirming" rather than tragic or entirely confined to the facts of suffering and death, important though those things are to the story. You might take that as your starting point and go on to explore some key passages in As I Lay Dying in this light. Of course, you might also take up a contrary view, which would be that the story is closer to tragedy in its manner and outcome than it is to dark comedy. Either way, the point would be to back up what you argue by means of discussing selected portions of the text carefully.
4. Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams craft sympathetic female characters in Edna Pointellier and Blanche DuBois, respectively, but of course the two characters differ markedly in their outlook and actions. Choose either Chopin or Tennessee Williams and explore the obstacles confronting the female protagonist as well as the key insights she arrives at or expresses in trying to come to terms with such obstacles. We know things don't end well – in the sense of "happily" – for either character, but to what extent might the one you write about be said to be at least partly successful in combating the powers arrayed against her? Alternately – if you limit your focus sufficiently, that is, and don't try to cover the entirety of both texts – you might write a comparison/contrast essay that addresses both texts.
5. Harlem Renaissance author Langston Hughes addresses many themes, but most of all he addresses the long-difficult issue of race in America (race relations past and present, definitions of race, and in general the struggle for civil rights). Explore his perspective and strategy as carefully as you can, in a manner that goes well beyond simply describing these things and pointing out that the author under discussion disapproves of racially based injustices. An option (if you don't mind reading Zora Neale Hurston's selections in the same Norton Anthology volume, though Hurston isn't assigned) would be to do a comparison/contrast essay in which you deal with Hughes and Hurston's points of agreement and disagreement.
I may add a few more potential topics if time permits.
Formatting. Follow MLA (Modern Language Association) style -- this means, mainly, that you must observe the following formatting rules:
1. Observe 1-inch margins (MS Word uses 1 1/2"; change with Word's file menu Page Setup feature).
2. Double-space text and indented quotations alike -- i.e. don't single-space quotations.
3. Avoid extra paragraphing spaces or extra spaces anywhere (after title, etc.). Therefore, tab-indent the first line of regular paragraphs 1/2 inch rather than block-styling them, which would require extra spaces.
4. Indent long quotations of more than four lines from the left; there's no need to indent from the right.
5. Number your essay's pages in header at top right -- use Word's insert menu Page Numbers feature to do that. Then input your last name with Word's view menu "header and footer" feature -- the command "control/letter r" will right-justify the header text you type.
6. Include at top left on separate double-spaced lines your name, the instructor's name, bare course title, and date. Then add your centered title. A typical paper would begin like this:
Professor Montgomery Burns
01 April 2010
Why Should I Study English if I'm Never Going to England?!
7. Introduce and cite sources properly within your essay. See my Grammar Guide for the relevant conventions.
8. Offer a "works cited" list on the last page of your document even if an anthology is your only text. Again, see Grammar Guide for the relevant conventions, or refer to a book every humanities major should have: The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th. edition. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: MLA, 2003.
Rough Drafts (Optional). If you give me a rough draft or some portion of one, I will read it carefully and offer substantive comments. With regard to stylistic matters, I have a detailed online Grammar Guide, portions of which I include as "autotexts" with the MS Word Track Changes feature as I go through a draft. I will not simply "fix" rough drafts since that discourages students from doing their own editing. Self-expression and the desire to say something important are good reasons to write, but they alone do not make a person a good writer -- that takes time and respect for the medium itself, including its formal conventions.
Research and "Works Cited" For undergraduates, research is optional -- the main thing is to attend closely to the assigned texts. If you like to do outside reading and work with theoretical approaches, that's good, but this assignment is not technically a research paper. Even if you don't incorporate outside research, you still need to include a separate Works Cited page at the end of the essay--that is because you will, of course, be citing at least one of the assigned texts. Use MLA guidelines for citing sources. As for graduates, your longer paper should incorporate at least some secondary material, but I leave the relative balance between primary and secondary material to your discretion. Libraries: Chapman, CSUF.
Additional Guides. I have written many guides to help students with composing, editing, and polishing their essays. Please look over some of this site's materials on writing -- see the Resources/Guides section of your course menu, and click on "Writing Guides" to view the list. Here are links to the main ones: MLA, Grammar, Deductive, Citing, Analyzing, and Editing.
Advance Draft Comments
Your essay doesn't need to offer exhaustive commentary about the work or author chosen, and it doesn't need to provide huge amounts of background information about history, the author's life, and so forth. Instead, examine your text/s on the specific things (problems, issues, themes, etc.) you want to write about, and be willing to grapple directly and in some detail with the actual language of your chosen work. Try to write a paper that leads your readers towards genuine insights based on a patient, well-structured analysis of particular passages (and flexible points of comparison, for comparative essays). If your essay makes a reader feel like re-reading all or some of the literary work in question, you will have done your job well.
1) Thesis presentation in your first paragraph
The paper should go well beyond summarizing, though a little summarizing may be necessary as context for quotations and (in your first paragraph) just to explain what kind of story you are dealing with. The last several sentences of your first paragraph should explain what specific, manageable section of the text you will write about and why you are going to write about it. The "why" part should be more specific than "I want to explore certain characters' actions and relationships, and later on I'll tell you what the point of doing that was." Your reader wants to know what you have already discovered and what you will, therefore, be explaining in detail later. That's deductive structure, as illustrated in the sample paper: here's my argument / now I'm citing and analyzing key passages to show how I arrived at it / now I am wrapping up the argument and reflecting on it.
Thesis Development. In the drafting stages of a deductive essay, the thesis in the first paragraph is often vague -- more like a general topic than a specific argument. In a deductive essay, one states claims at the outset and then explores them; however, insights tend to develop inductively. That is, what the writer wants to say emerges only gradually, and becomes sharpest towards the end of the paper. The most efficient way to sharpen your first paragraph is to look over what you write in the middle and conclusion of your essay, and tie it all together into a few sentences that will serve as your thesis. That way, you can turn an inductive rough draft into a deductive final draft, and avoid allowing initially vague claims to get the better of you: unless handled with care, ideas quickly become traps.
Avoiding Generalities. Do not begin your first paragraph with filler such as, "Throughout history, man has fallen in love and written poetry." That is an irrecoverable sign that the writer has little of substance to say. Also avoid literary appreciation filler such as "Ben Jonson's plays are immortal."
2) Argument structure and handling of quotations in the main essay
The aim here is to offer sustained analysis of substantive quotations for which you have provided adequate context, and a conclusion that develops logically from the middle section without simply repeating your thesis. Ideally, there should not be only extremely brief quotations; showcasing a few longer passages and staying with them improves emphasis and structure. In a comparative paper, it's usually best to deal with the texts in two solid blocks rather than to go back and forth between them several times.
3) Grammar and Style
Grammar and style. Key things are consistent verb tense use (present tense is usually best), active voice, and straightforward (not wordy or contorted) sentence structure. A Works Cited page should be included even if you only cite the assigned text/s, and MLA quotation formatting should be correct -- see the sample paper available in Writing Guides. Failure to proofread and edit carefully in the final stages is a major factor in poor grades.
More thoughts on style. Avoid vague introductory language or empty praise of the author in question. A statement like "Throughout history so-and-so has been considered a great author" is padding. Get rid of sentences that function only as warm-up for specific analysis, somewhat like filler. Read your paper out loud, and you will get rid of many filler phrases and awkward constructions. We make mistakes in everyday speech, but at least we don't say things like "objective consideration of contemporary phenomena necessitates the inevitable conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity."
GRADES FOR THE FINAL DRAFT
If you earn a B+, an A-, or an A, that's great. The A range grades mean that I really didn't see major problems in your thesis, your handling of quotations and organization of the essay, or your grammar and style. I found your paper sophisticated and well written. If you earn a B+ or A-, that generally means your thesis was good but that the grammar and style issues kept the paper from being an outright "A." I have marked up a few pages of your essay to indicate any problems with grammar and style, and possibly with minor thesis/content issues if I found any.
If you get a B, that's good, too. A "B" is solid work, with some room for improvement both in terms of content (i.e. thesis presentation and inclusion/handling of quotations), and style/grammar. The paper markup should indicate some areas in need of work.
If you earn a B- or C+, that's no catastrophe, but you can do better. Invariably this range of grades means that grammar/style problems slowed me down when I was reading your paper, even if they didn't keep me from understanding the basic argument. Often additional problems were that the thesis remained somewhat general and that the paper didn't make its case mainly through analysis of specific quotations.
If you do not get at least a C, the grade means that I saw some serious problems with both content/organization and with grammar/style, or that you simply didn't meet the requirements for the paper -- i.e. you turned in a one-pager with no textual analysis, or some such thing.
An F grade usually stems from plagiarized content, whether in part or in entirety, which is also grounds for failure in the course. Sources must always be documented.