Creative Reading

Essay Assignments

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Essay #1: Close Reading: Formalist reading of Heart of Darkness


Assignment: approximately 3 page essay, digital and double-spaced.

Your task is to offer a formal, close reading of some aspect of Heart of Darkness that you feel is of significance. Your reading will be informed by the formalist and/or structuralist approach we have been exploring in class and in readings—most especially by the focus on close reading of text and language. Your essay need not (and most likely should not) deal with the whole of the novella; rather, pick a fragment (a particular passage or section or recurring trait/motif of the text) that, in your view, represents a larger significance in the story and unlocks a deeper or less apparent meaning of the text as a whole.  For this assignment, keep your eye (as formalists and New Critics and would do) closely focused on the text—you will not be quoting from secondary sources, only the primary text.


Helpful Suggestions: I have emphasized that a formal approach (or any critical approach) to a literary text is not a review or summary of that text. This means that you need a thesis that focuses on some aspect of the text (and its formal properties—how the text works rather than what it is about) that you, as a creative reader, argue is significant. This is also important since you do not have a lot of space and time to set things up—need to get to your focus and stay with it. Also, recall a key interest of the formalist approach—understanding how a paradox or apparent contradiction in a literary text can be understood and resolved, and how that resolution opens up a deeper, artistic significance of the text.


Supporting Process: Reading logs, class discussion, writing experiment and revision workshop


Evaluation: See Rubric below.


Essay #2: Deconstructing/Reconstructing Heart of Darkness


Assignment: approximately 3 page essay, digital and double-spaced.

This essay invites you to return to Heart of Darkness and try out a different critical lens, one of the two we have recently explored: deconstruction or reader response. This turn to a deconstructive or a reader response approach might mean you change slightly or change completely your initial thesis—you can stay with your original focus or come up with a completely new topic and section of the text to focus on. What will be different is your approach: consider how ideas from deconstruction or reader response can help you strengthen your overall reading of the text. What does your new approach help you illuminate in Heart of Darkness? You can think of your thesis as answering a questions such as this: based on your understanding of the critical approach (deconstruction or reader response) and the particular aspects of the text you will focus on, what is at the ‘heart’ of Heart of Darkness?


Another change: This time, I want you to make at least one direct connection to one of the critical readings we have done regarding deconstruction or reader response: at least one citation (to either Reading Lessons, the Bedford Glossary, or one of the critical articles on Heart of Darkness) where you begin to put to work one of the critical resources to help you elaborate and justify your approach. Use the citation to help you explain and elaborate your critical approach. 


Suggestion: We will be working in class and workshop on how to integrate the critical connection you make and use it effectively. Think of it this way: which of the ideas from our readings (about either deconstruction or reader response) do you think are particularly insightful as a way to approach the text? Put that insight to work for you in your essay.


Evaluation: See rubric below.


Essay #3: How to Tell the Truth: Cultural/Psychoanalytic/Gender reading of The Things They Carried


Assignment: 3 page essay, digital and double-spaced.

Your task is to offer a reading of The Things They Carried that explores that text either through a cultural studies or a psychoanalytic or a gender studies approach (or perhaps some version of them all). What aspects of the text you focus on is your choice: it might be a single story, a series of stories, a particular image used throughout the stories, a connection to another war text (print or film) you want to make, a connection to a particular issue from the culture, a particular issue from psychoanalytic theory or psychology, a particular aspect of gender you see at work in the text.


Helpful Suggestion: In this assignment, your focus is on showing how a cultural or psychoanalytic or gender approach to O’Brien’s text offers insight—a key to unlocking something you feel is significant in this text. Though you will still be doing close reading (as with the first essay), you will also be making a connection to something outside of the text: something from the history or culture that the book reflects; perhaps something from psychoanalytic theory or psychology or gender studies that you feel the text represents (repression, ptsd, guilt, etc); perhaps a definition of feminist criticism from one of the Bedford books relevant to your focus. As such, for this essay you will need to make a minimum of 1-2 connections to a secondary source (a direct or indirect quotation) and thus have a works cited page of  the primary text (Things) and at least one other critical source. One focus this time during revision will be the effective use of a source. It will be your task to determine where you need an outside source to help elaborate/explain/justify the reading your are doing. Another focus this time will be to work on developing your thesis and introduction.


Supporting Process: Reading logs, class discussion, writing experiment, revision workshop.


Evaluation: See Rubric.



Essay #4: Luminous Allusion: Research Essay


Assignment: 4-5 pages, digital and double-spaced. This essay will be included in the portfolio you will set up (final project); you will also be presenting your research to the class in our literary conference. Your task is to develop a research essay that focuses in depth on one or more of our texts from the term: Heart of Darkness, “Hollow Men,” Apocalypse Now, The Things They Carried, or another text you want to propose to me. The guidelines are: to pursue a creative reading of a text or author of interest to you, informed by one or more of the critical approaches we have studied, and incorporating research (minimum 2-3 secondary citations and an annotated bibliography required). You can go back to one of our texts and go further with it or try a different approach: a psychoanalytic reading of Heart of Darkness; a formalist reading of Things. You might put two or more texts together: read Things in relation to Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness, etc. I am also open to ideas, should you want to connect one of the course texts to another film or print text that we did not read in class. Whatever you choose to focus on, something new or something already begun, your task is to use your research and insight from further readings to offer your strongest and most refined creative reading yet. 


Helpful Suggestion: Our goal as creative readers of literary texts, whatever approach we take and whatever our interests in such texts, is luminous allusion (to return to Emerson): making the page of whatever book we read come alive. In that sense, your objective is to make your chosen text (or texts—I would suggest no more than 2-3) luminous to other readers by way of the approach you take and the issues you focus on in your reading. Consider how and why your particular critical approach (or approaches) illuminates the text and show that illumination to your reader.  A final thought (while on this image of illumination): this essay will become a key exhibit in your final portfolio, which is (or can be) multimedia in nature since it is digital; consider ways you might further make your essay ‘luminous’ to a reader by taking advantage of the multi-media aspects of digital writing. You will also be presenting your research to class—so it might make sense to bring in to the presentation of your essay some of what you will present to the class. We will continue to consider how you might ‘remediate’ or hypertextualize your essay and prepare for the class presentation.


Supporting Process: Reading logs, class discussion, writing experiment, library research, proposal, annotated bibliography, revision workshop.


Evaluation: See Rubric.




Evaluation Rubric

Each of your essays will be scored on a 100 point scale. I will focus on 4 aspects of your creative reading, as reflected in the essay.

[1]Your vision [25 points]

Your idea for how and why your read the text; its originality and creativity; the clarity of your vision; in other words, the strength of your thesis

[2]Your application [25 points]

Strength of your application of readings and ideas from our texts, our discussions—variety of secondary resources that inform and elaborate your vision; in the case of the research essay, the strength of your research.

[3]Your evidence [25 points]

The quality and strength of the primary text reading that you offer—the passages that support and organize your vision, your use of the text in your writing.

[4]Your presentation [25 points]

The style in which you present your reading (think back to the Emerson quote: labor and invention) as well as its mechanics; how well it reads as a piece of writing (not just an idea).


For each of these four aspects of your essay, the 25 points will be scored using the following rubric.

            Excellent: 23-25

            Strong: 20-22

            Sufficient: 18-20

            Weak: 15-17

            Insufficient: below 15


Note: A key purpose in providing this rubric is for you to use it in advance—not just at the end. As we discuss readings (and essays by other critics) and as we work on your own readings/essays in progress—bring this rubric into the discussion and into your work: explore ways to strengthen your vision, application, evidence, and presentation.

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