Take-home exam due April 16 by 4:00pm

The take-home exam, is due in my inbox by 4:00pm on Monday April 16th. That is a hard deadline; late submissions will not be graded.

The topics, as well as a fictional sample answer written by me, are posted here.

Read my instructions carefully. If you’re still not sure what’s required, ask sooner rather than later.




On the Essay and the Last Lecture

The Take-Home Exam. I’ll distribute the topics for the take-home in class on April 5.

The Essay. Remember the final essay, worth 25% of the total grade, is due in class, typed on paper, on April 5. If you want your copy back with my comments, please submit your essay in a self-addressed stamped envelope. If you do, I will mail you back your essay when the course is over.

Here, as promised, is the model of an essay’s first paragraph, as shown in class on March 29. The thesis is in bold. I acknowledge that it’s a bit on the longish side (but I don’t think it’s too long), but I really wanted it to model the crucial qualities of a thesis statement, especially specificity (its focus is pretty narrow, looking at a single pair of terms, dark and light) and disputability (it is possible to argue against it).

The opposition between light and darkness is not neutral. Because it is associated with other oppositions, it implies certain values and hierarchies. Light, for example, is often associated with knowledge and goodness, while darkness is associated with ignorance and evil. For an African-American writer like bell hooks, the light/dark binary also raises the issue of race and racial inequality because it parallels the white/black binary that underlies “institutionalized racism” (hooks 165). In order to challenge these parallels in her essays on writing, hooks dismantles the light/dark binary by making both light and darkness crucial to her understanding of self-expression, race and authorship. She disrupts the opposition between light and dark because writing and being black “is not an either/or issue” (hooks 57). Darkness is not the opposite of light: indeed, for hooks “there is light in darkness, you just have to find it” (3). By dissolving the light/dark binary, hooks disputes the notion of writing as a path from darkness to enlightenment—which is also symbolically the path from disenfranchised blackness to white “class privilege” (102). By mixing light with darkness,she also breaks apart the related binaries that serve to suppress black women’s voices, such as knowledge/ignorance, white/black, and male/female.

Work cited

hooks, bell. Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work (Holt: 1999).

This thesis can be divided into the WHAT, HOW and SO WHAT parts of a thesis:

WHAT am I arguing? hooks disputes the notion of writing as a path from darkness to enlightenment—which is also symbolically the path from disenfranchised blackness to white “class privilege” (102).

HOW will I support this argument? By examining where hooks addresses the light/dark binary, as noted in “By dissolving the light/dark binary” and “By mixing light with darkness.” By reading this part of the thesis, a reader has a pretty good idea of what kind of evidence the essay will be using to support and demonstrate its point (the many places where bell hooks uses and/or complicates the light/dark binary).

SO WHAT? How does this argument help us understand hooks’ larger concerns? Why does it matter? Why is it interesting?  In this case, I suggest that the way hooks uses the simple light/dark binary is not just interesting in itself–it also connects with and participates in her larger political concerns with race, gender and class. Analysing this binary is thus also a way to see how hooks challenges related binaries that serve to suppress black women’s voices, such as knowledge/ignorance, white/black, and male/female.

We can also look at a simplified version of the same thesis by plugging it into Erik Simpson’s “Magic Thesis Sentence”:

By looking at _____, we can see _____, which most readers don’t see; this is important because _____.

(Note that these blanks correspond to HOW, WHAT and SO WHAT.)

By looking at hooks’ use of the light/dark binary, we can see that she complicates traditional associations between the writing life and racial identity, which most readers don’t see; this is important because it reveals the hidden political dimensions of the creative process.

Note that the Magic Thesis Sentence is a tool for making sure your thesis has all the necessary parts. You definitely don’t have to (and probably should not) keep the exact structure of the MTS in your final draft.  Indeed, you can improve the thesis by removing explicit aspects of the MTS:

Hooks’ use of the light/dark binary allows her to complicate traditional associations between the writing life and racial identity, and thus she reveals the hidden political dimensions of the creative process.

For March 29

Deadline: March 29 is the deadline for the last installment of the Writing Journal. You must email me your revised entry before midnight on this day (please include the entry in the body of the email–do not submit it as an attachment). At the start of your entry, please indicate which of the five entries you’re submitting, then your name (or pseudonym) followed by © 2018–like this:

Final revision of Entry # 3

Janet Basthingtwaitte © 2018

This assignment is worth quite a lot (15%) but entails relatively little work: you must simply revise your chosen entry based on my comments and the comments of your peers (from peer-review sessions). Make sure the entry is error-free.

Bonus points for thesis: March 29 at 10pm is the latest you can send me your working thesis statement for potential bonus points. There are absolutely no exceptions on this deadline. Don’t send me a full introduction, just the thesis (but you may, and maybe should, also send the thesis broken down into its three parts: WHAT, HOW and WHY–see “Writing Tips” page for details).

Peer-review: I strongly recommend you participate in the peer-review session on March 29. For this one, bring in TWO printouts of your essay’s introduction (ending with your thesis statement), so that you can peer-review in groups of three.

Readings: Next week’s lecture is about Writing as Politics, but the main focus will be on essay writing. For this reason, I’m radically reducing the amount of reading. See the “Schedule” page for the updated list.

For those interested in George Orwell or the generally Orwellian news coming out about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and many other recent stories about surveillance and psychological manipulation, you may get a lot out of the Epilogue to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, “The Principles of Newspeak.” It’s short, but it does an excellent job of showing how language relates to political issues of freedom, individuality and resistance.

Guiding question for lecture on Writing as Politics: based on your readings, intuitions and experience, think about the many ways writing can be / is political. What are these ways? Which are more or less effective? Can writing really cause political change? If so, how? If not, is writing apolitical–or is it an impediment to political change?



For March 22: Read *Fun Home*

Your assignment for this week is to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. I’d advise giving yourself a bit more time with this book than you normally would for a graphic novel: it’s comics, but it’s also as dense and complex as any novel. See questions below.

In case you’re interested, my review of Guillaume Morissette’s most recent novel The Original Face is published in The Puritan. My response to Jason Guriel’s “The Case against Reading Everything” is here.

Consider the following questions as you read:

  • The memoir barely touches on Bechdel’s writing career, so why is it on the reading list for a course on the writing life?
  • In terms of narrative structure, Fun Home is not unlike Slaughterhouse-Five. Why might two so profoundly different narratives be doing something so similar? In what ways do the two books share concerns and themes? And how do they differ?
  • Another connection I made with other readings for this class is between Fun Home and Kureishi’s essay “Something Given.” What might we get from comparing these two works?
  • Probably the most obvious resemblance, though, is between Fun Home and bell hooks’ many essays on autobiography, self-writing and identity. Think about what hooks says about women (especially women in disenfranchised communities) and diary- or memoir-writing; how well (or not) do her insights illuminate what Bechdel is doing?
  • What does Bechdel’s exploration of the writing life add to our investigations of creativity, inspiration, the writing process, the role of writing, and the role of the writer?
  • Why does Fun Home engage so much with literature (F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Kate Millett, Colette, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde. even Roald Dahl, etc)?

Peer-review Session # 3

On March 22, we’ll do another peer-review. Bring a newly revised version of your final writing-journal entry for yet another revision (see the updated Prompts page for additions based on the March 15th lecture). Alternatively, bring a working introduction for your essay.

Terms we discussed in lecture (re: essay writing / critical writing)

7 things we do with texts in English class

Paraphrase: restating it in your own words

Summary condensing it down to major points / outlines

Analysis:  dividing into different parts (like disassembling a machine to find how its various bits work together)

In class, when we divided the word “analysis” into its two roots–“ana” (from the Greek “on” or “up) and “lysis” (also Greek, “to loosen, to untie”)–we were using a simple form of analysis in order to better understand what that term means: to take apart (a word, an idea, a passage, a poem, a dream) into its component parts so that we might figure out what the whole means.

Synthesis: amalgamating many parts together into one (or a few) points / insights.

When I argued in class that New Tab is a coming-of-age novel whose hero is stuck in a liminal, neither-this-nor-that space, I was synthesizing many different pieces of evidence, including Thomas’s neither old nor young age; his equivocal sense of language, half-Francophone, half-Anglophone; his status somewhere between employed and no-longer-employed; and so on.

Interpretation: uncovering hidden (or unobvious) meaning(s)

Critique: uncovering hidden agendas / implications/ biases

Evaluation: assessing or ranking quality based on some standard

When you write English essays, you are rarely being asked to evaluate a piece of literature, unless you’re being asked to write a book review. Evaluation is different from critique (though there is some overlap), so take care not to confuse whether you like a piece of literature with whether that piece of literature contains biases or politics you want to expose.

For March 15: Read *New Tab*!

That is basically it: read Guillaume Morissette’s New Tab. (See some questions about it below.)

Two more things:

  1. The essay topics have been posted on the website here. We’ll talk about these in class on March 15.
  2. Also on March 15, we’ll do another peer-review session. Choose the journal entry you think you’ll want to revise and submit for the final part of the Writing Journal assignment. Print one or two copies and bring them to class. Again, participating in it will contribute to your participation grade.

How to choose what entry to submit? Choose the entry you think has the most potential for further development and refinement.

Reading New Tab in two weeks should be no problem. It’s short and practically reads itself. Here are a few questions to consider along the way:

  • What genre would you call New Tab?
  • Why is it called New Tab? What is Morissette referencing? How does the idea of a new tab relate to the story? How does it relate to the novel’s themes?
  • Thomas repeatedly lies about his age, for no obvious reason. Why?
  • Thomas is a Francophone from Quebec City who now lives mainly as an Anglophone in Montreal. Why does the issue of language keep coming up in the novel?
  • What role do video games play in Thomas’s development as a person and an artist? How does Morissette use video games to tell his story?
  • What passages strike you as particularly funny? pathetic? “real”? depressing? Why?
  • How is New Tab different from other novels (stories, movies, etc) about a budding writer? What are the generic moves of that kind of narrative? How does New Tab use and/or depart from these moves?
  • How does the depiction of the writing life in New Tab differ from (or resemble) what we’ve seen in other readings (Vonnegut, Atwood, hooks, Kureishi, Hemingway, Heighton, Connelly, Smith, King)?

Finally, for those who like podcasts and nurture ambitions to write short fiction, you might check out this podcast by Chris Power. I haven’t listened to it, so I can’t attest to its quality or relevance.