This page presents examples of student work.

First Writing Assignment: Negotiating Identities

Due in Ses #2

The reading and writing we will do for this class will invite you to consider how others write with and through a variety of identity categories as they offer to readers their perspectives and narrate their experiences in the world, and also for you yourselves to write from one or several of the identity categories to which you can lay claim. What identities are available to you as a writer (assuredly more than one)? Which of those seem particularly to call you as you think about the writing you will do for this class?

One of your identities is writer, so I would appreciate your telling me now something about your history, habits, and passions as a writer. What successes have you had with writing? What struggles or uncertainties have you had? What do you hope to accomplish in the writing you will do for this class?

Finally, is it important—or is it unavoidable—for writers to write from particular (and openly declared) identities? Why or why not?

Please bring your typewritten responses to this assignment with you to class on Tuesday next week. We'll talk about some excerpts from what you've written as a starting place for our writerly conversations this semester.

The Investigative Essay

One of the essays you submit this semester must be an investigative one—that is, an essay that depends for its effectiveness not only on your style and voice, but also on information you gather from sources outside your own experience in order to speak convincingly and with authority on the subject you have chosen to write about.

What the investigative essay is not is a "research paper" in the sense you may be used to thinking of that genre in school. It must be an essay: your voice, your perspective, your persona must be evident in the piece, and, as in the more strictly personal essay, your lived experience can be included in the piece, as appropriate or desirable. I will give you some examples of essays of the kind I am asking you to write here, and we will discuss the various strategies the different essayists have used in order to make their case, whatever it may be.

Sources that are appropriate will depend entirely on your subject. The kind of research you may already be familiar with—library or online research of books, newspapers, magazines, articles, visual information—is likely to be necessary but will almost certainly not be sufficient. Interviews, searching archival records, laboratory experiments, visits to appropriate places, careful observation, seeing films, listening to music, critically scrutinizing ads—all these may supplement (or in some cases even replace) the usual kinds of research that may be familiar to you from your school experience.

Finding a subject is your first challenge. Remember that your essay must be in some way related to the subject of our class, the ways people negotiate multiple identities, though your subject need not be narrowly focused on that. I'll be glad to talk further with you about your possible subject. You're welcome to have a look at the OCW archive for this class for inspiration. What have you wondered about lately and would like to know more about? What particular passions or interests do you have that you could make interesting to a reader? Where have you been, what have you done that might provide you a basis for further investigating and reporting? You need to be sure that your subject is one that you can inform yourself about adequately in the time you have, and you must give yourself plenty of time to do the reading, observing, checking out, thinking, interviewing, or whatever is necessary to support the claim you will make about your subject.

I hope you enjoy this essay into investigative journalism, and I look forward to reading what you write.

The Writing Workshop

The writing workshop, as another writing teacher has called it, is "a communal conversation" among the members of a writing class about a piece of writing-in-progress done by one of the writers in the group. I like the phrase "communal conversation," so I've borrowed it for our use. To describe the workshop in that way highlights that all of us participate actively in that conversation, stresses that each one of us is responsible for reading the text in question with an open mind, reading it carefully and with our full attention, and then for contributing our perceptions, insights, and visions of the piece, what we see as its strengths, where we think it is going or could go, and how we think the writer might engage further with it in order to make it more successful—all in a process of focused dialogue, or conversation, with the writer and other readers in the group.

The first step in preparing for the workshop is reading. In that way it has much in common with your other reading for the course, but with a significant difference: those published works are finished, so your reading is an exercise in discerning the operations of the text for your own purposes of learning from what it has to say and how the writer has managed to say it. When you read the writing of another member of our class community, though, your reading is aimed at assisting the writer to intervene in the text's production, to help the writer shape and hone and refine it.

In preparing for the workshop, you should read the text that is to be discussed once, and then read through it very carefully again. Try to locate the places in the text that seem to you to be in some way its centers of gravity, places where something happens which focuses the text and moves it in some particular direction. Then think about questions you have which the text does not answer—what do you still need or want to know? Finally, given what you understand of the writer's intentions for the piece, what suggestions would you give the writer for improving this piece? Write a brief note—a substantial paragraph to half a page—to the writer with your suggestions; you'll give your written response to the writer after the workshop conversation on his or her essay.

I don't mean that you prepare what you have to say about the piece, and then say it in the workshop, and you're done. It's nowhere near as cut-and-dried as that, and we don't want it to be. Instead, the communal conversation is dynamic: the talk stimulates new ideas, altered ways of seeing or thinking about the piece, and opens up possibilities that perhaps none of us foresaw before we began the conversation. That's what makes the workshop lively and valuable for everyone involved.

Your first step as a reader is to read each essay carefully, and then write a response to each writer. Your response should be concise: what you liked about the essay, and any questions or suggestions that occurred to you after careful reading. You will elaborate on those written comments in the class workshop, and you'll give your written responses to the writer at the conclusion of the workshop on her or his piece.

When we begin our discussion of the text in question, the writer will open the workshop by asking questions of us and waiting for our responses. The writer's most important role in the workshop is to listen. Sometimes, out of nervousness perhaps, writers do too much talking about their own work, and the important opportunity to hear how others read it is lost. I'll help with trying to avoid that pitfall.

The basic workshop format will be the writer asking these questions:

  1. What strengths do you see in what I've written?
  2. What seems to you to be my idea or point here?
  3. What questions remain for you after reading?
  4. What suggestions do you have for me in thinking about ways to make this better?

It is also appropriate, when time permits, for readers to ask at the end of the workshop for the writer's assessment of how useful our comments have been and what the writer's plans are for continuing to work on the piece.

The format I've outlined here is not fixed by any means, but will change as our focus of attention changes for particular pieces of writing. For instance, I might ask you during the workshop to think in a particular way about the text we are discussing, or to address particular questions about the text which I think could help every writer in the class or the group in thinking about her or his own work. Likewise, the writer whose work is being discussed might have specific questions about the piece and so might ask for our response to particular areas or issues regarding the work.

The process of the workshop, then—the specific ways we focus our attention on the texts at hand—will alter to meet our changing needs. Sometimes the whole class will focus on the work of one writer at a time; at other times you will work together in small groups and I will circulate to offer assistance and guidance. There are some things that must not change about the workshop, though:

  • The atmosphere must always be a safe and supportive one for writers whose work-in-progress is up for discussion;
  • The workshop must be encouraging at the same time that we strive to develop a serious critique of the work under scrutiny (and remember that a critique does not imply just negative criticism, but is the result of reading with critical insight—including recognizing what works well, how the writer has succeeded in realizing his or her intentions);
  • The "communal conversation" of the workshop should produce new insights and possibilities for the work under discussion; should, that is, provide the writer an incentive for further engagement with the text and some concrete ideas for how to begin revising;
  • No one should usurp all the linguistic space in the workshop; everyone should have equal time and opportunity to express her or his responses;

At the conclusion of a workshop on something you have written, you as a writer should be more conscious of how a reading audience responds to your work, should feel renewed interest and energy for returning to the piece and engaging further with it, and should have some specific ideas about how to begin the process of revision to achieve your purposes and aspirations for what you are writing.

The workshop has something to offer you when you serve as a reader too: an opportunity to learn how other writers approach a task, to acquire and practice using a critical vocabulary applicable not only to your own and your classmates' writing but to any text you read, and to hone your skills as a textual critic.

My hopes for our class workshops are that they will be focused, serious, energetic, and productive, and I will try to lead them in such a way as to ensure that they are a rich source of learning for everyone. I count on each of you to help me in that effort.

Preparing Your Portfolio for Submission

Our semester together is drawing to a close, and it is time for you to begin the process of review, reflection, and re-vision necessary to prepare your portfolio of your work of the semester to submit to me so that I can assign you a grade for the course. The following guidelines are to help you to make sure your portfolio is complete and arranged in a way that will facilitate my review of your work.

Here is what your portfolio must contain, and in this order:

  • Your profile of yourself as a writer and reader negotiating the identities to which you lay claim, assigned on the first day of class, with my responses.
  • Your four essays, in the order that you wrote them: for each, first submitted version (with my responses), revision (with my responses), and subsequent revision(s), if any.

Note: Substantive re-visions of your work are welcome and encouraged and, if genuinely successful, could raise your grade somewhat. Revisions will not in any case lower your grade, so you risk nothing in choosing to re-write, and grades aside, you stand to learn more from the revision process—always the real reason to do it. If you decide to do additional revisions, they should be inserted after the earlier revised and responded-to version. Even if you decide not to do any substantive revisions, you must go through the last version of each essay and correct any editing problems (my responses and the check marks in the margins will be your guide).

  • Your Reader's Notebook: Responses to all assigned reading (with my responses, as applicable), arranged in chronological order as assigned, with full bibliographic entry as heading for each and with pages numbered, plus your review/response to the readings, lectures, or other relevant event(s) you attended. You can make sure your Notebook is complete by checking the assignment schedule for the semester.

Then, for your final writing assignment of the semester, I would like you to return to the scrutiny of yourself as a writer and reader negotiating identities with which we began the semester and to write another profile of yourself now, after this semester of work, learning, and practice. What identities have you addressed in your writing? How has your experience of the course and the writing you have done for it invited you to consider, or re-consider, your identities: as a woman or man, a person of a particular race or ethnicity or nationality, of a sexual identity or orientation, as a scientist, a reader, a person of faith (or not), a citizen of the twenty-first century? To prepare for your self-scrutiny, re-read the course syllabus, the handout on the Reader's Notebook, and the writing workshop guidelines you were given at the start of the semester as well as all the writing you've done this semester, as assembled above. With the course goals and processes and the work you've done fresh in your mind, ask yourself the following questions and address them in your profile: What sort of writer would you call yourself now? What have you learned about writing and reading essays this semester? What does "identity" mean to you now? What are you proud of as you look through your portfolio? What remains for future efforts? Your claims, of course, should be ones your portfolio can support and give evidence of, though you certainly can claim to have learned about some aspect or feature of writing which you believe you have not yet mastered. What aspects of writing do you think you still need to work on? And last, what do you foresee for yourself as a writer in the future? What would you like to accomplish in your writing, and how do you intend to go about accomplishing your writing goals? How do you expect to continue to draw on what you've learned in this course in the writing you will do in the future?

  • Finally, prepare a brief Introduction and Conclusion to your portfolio (your "Collected Works"!), number the pages of the portfolio sequentially throughout (numbering in ink by hand is okay), and then prepare a Table of Contents. Title your collection if you care to. Please be sure that everything in the portfolio is labeled (Essay I, Revised, etc.). And remember: no class notes, no handouts, no extraneous "stuff" is to be included in the portfolio. Place your portfolio securely in something that will hold it together-not in a manila file folder, in other words! Also be sure your name is clearly legible on the outside cover of the portfolio.

A word to the wise: preparing your portfolio for submission will take a lot more time than you probably imagine. Give yourself plenty of time to get it done!

In assessing your work and assigning grades, I will first check for completeness of your portfolio (all requirements must be met satisfactorily for a grade of C or better) and review your record of attendance in class, your preparedness for class (including workshops), your engagement and effort, active and interested participation, and timely submission of the portfolio and of all assignments, notebook, and other assigned work. The primary determinant of your grade will be the quality of your written work.

As always, I'm happy to answer any questions you may have. I hope you will enjoy the process of reflection, review, and re-vision which preparing your portfolio will entail, and I look forward to reading your work.

Oral Presentation Guidelines

In Ses #8 and Ses #9, all of you will make oral presentations to the group. The presentations are to be based on a subject of your choice; it should be one you should be easily able to speak authoritatively on. Here are some guidelines for your presentation:

  • You should be prepared to speak for between 7 and 8 minutes. I will time the presentations and stop you at 8 minutes.
  • You are welcome to use audio-visual tools, handouts, overheads, PowerPoint, or the blackboard as part of your presentation. If you choose to show a video, the time the video takes must be part of your 7-8 minutes. And (need I say this?) the video should not take up a lot of your presentation time!
  • After you have addressed the group, we will have 5 minutes for questions and comments. Be prepared to handle questions in a professional, authoritative manner.

In preparing, you should practice, practice, practice! At least 3 times: once alone, once before a mirror, and once for a friend or two.

Time your presentation with each practice so you know that you won't exceed your time limit. This is essential!

Introduce yourself to your audience at the beginning of your presentation. Look sharp. Remember to make eye contact with the audience, to avoid "fillers" (um, and, uh, like, and so on), to speak naturally but to project your voice so you are sure to be heard, and to do whatever you can to present yourself as authoritative, interested and thoroughly prepared. Be lively; be interesting; be informative.

At the end of each presentation, you will get feedback on your performance from everyone in the class.

Examples of student work appears courtesy of the authors listed below:

Natania Antler I Don't Care: Apathy, Rebellion and Beyond (PDF) (Courtesy of Natania Antler. Used with permission.)
Christina Yiwei Zhang (Don't) Color Me Yellow (PDF) (Courtesy of Christina Yiwei Zhang. Used with permission.)
MIT Student Remembering Bogalusa (PDF) (Courtesy of MIT Student. Used with permission.)