• Essay 1 ( PDF )
  • Essay 2 ( PDF )
  • Essay 3 ( PDF )
  • Essay 4 ( PDF )

You will be submitting a weekly journal to be on the reading via email. Unless otherwise indicated on the syllabus, these will be due Monday by 10 p.m. These journals are not formal essays, but should be thoughtful responses to the reading (which may include questions, problems, puzzlement). The journals will help me to focus discussions in class; for you, they can also serve as a first step towards your essays. Both of the first two essays have provisions for revising and feedback. The first is an absolute prerequisite for anyone who cares about writing effectively, the second an extremely useful tool. Everyone should count on meeting with the course tutor at least three times: once each for essays #1 and #2, and once more at your discretion.

The four assigned essays may be of varying lengths, but must amount to a total of at least twenty pages. Please keep all of your essays in a dark-colored folder with the most recent work on top, and your name only on the inside back cover of the folder; when you hand in an essay for grading, it should be in the folder accompanied by a draft and any previous written work.

While some find it helpful to look at criticism (if only to discover what they don’t think) or at historical context, using secondary sources is not required; if used, they must be acknowledged and properly cited. This includes internet sources! (A useful guide to evaluating on-line sources can be found at .) Writing is almost always a collaborative process at some level, but failure to respect the intellectual property of others counts as plagiarism. Plagiarism–use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement–is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarise will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution see me, or consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center, and the MIT Website on Plagiarism located at .

MIT’s academic honesty policy can be found at the following link: .

Essays must be submitted by 3 p.m. on the due date. Late work will receive a lower grade; however, you can revise any essay for regrading if it has been submitted on time.

First Essay

You should begin to think about your first essay. This essay will have several parts, and also several stages. Please refer to the syllabus on the format for handing in your final draft.

  1. In the first part (you can make this your introduction), identify an interesting question or hypothesis from one of the books we’ve read: Ender’s Game, The Prince, The War of Conquest, with a brief explanation of where you find them. For example, thinking about the character Peter in Ender’s Game could lead you to the question of whether a bad man can be a good leader. (Your introduction might get a little more information about how the question comes up in Card’s novel).
  2. In the second part (this will be the body of your essay), take this question or hypothesis to a second book from the reading, and see what results you get by posing the question or applying the hypothesis. What answers does The Prince give to our question of whether bad man can be good leaders? Don’t be shy of discussing conflicting evidence in the text: your question is a heuristic tool, aimed at producing insights which may or may not boil down to a single answer. Do reread the text, rather than trusting your memory; to be persuasive, you will need to talk about specific moments in the text, but within a general sense of what the text is doing overall. Once you have written enough to have a sense of your argument, look over your text with the eye of a reader, and think about what questions a reader might have, what needs to be explained, on what points a reader might disagree and need additional convincing. To make this exercise work, put yourself in the position of the reader we all are most of the time: intelligent, familiar with the text, and reasonably well disposed to the writer and the subject, but rushed and easily distracted by other responsibilities and pleasures. Be clear, be concise, be persuasive, show a little flair.
  3. In the third part (this will be your conclusion), sum up what you’ve learned about the second book: if there are contradictions, can they be resolved? If the answer is obvious, is it important or trivial? Should another question be asked in addition, or instead? If time and space permit, return now to the first book from the perspective of the second: what would Machiavelli say about Card’s take on morals and leadership?

Your total writing for the class should add up to 20 pp. of final drafts; within these parameters, adjust the length of individual papers to your own taste. Please feel free to make appointments with the course tutor or me at any time it seems helpful to do so, over and above the meetings which are required.


Phase 1: Submit a draft to me, and schedule an appointment to discuss the draft with the course tutor. Draft due: a day prior to Class #8, 5 p.m.

Phase 2: Rewrite the paper, taking into account your conversation with the course tutor and comments you may also get from me by email or in class. Revision due: in Class #9.

Second Essay

On Voltaire’s Candide

Begin with a larger question about the novel which engages you, and which doesn’t have an immediately obvious answer. Pose the question in reference to a specified passage, to give the reader an example of why you have this question. Then find about three other substantive passages or moments to examine. Discuss them with your question in mind, but also see what else you can find to notice, whether it appears to bear on the question or not: for instance, in writing about a thematic question like Voltaire’s views on women, you might also notice something interesting about his style. Use, refine, and develop insights from your journals where they fit. In concluding, describe any further insights you’ve gotten on the original question, and what remains unanswered. You should view this essay as an experiment (the original meaning of the literary form “essay,” “essai” in French, was “trial”): your aim is not to produce necessarily a particular answer, but to describe exactly and clearly the results of your inquiry.

On Voltaire, Blake, Williams

What kinds of places, persons, or activities are represented as ideal in these works by Voltaire, Blake, and Williams? How do their representations of the ideal diverge from each other? What strikes you as important about the manner of their representations? Choose a couple of specific examples to look at; use the questions to direct an analysis of these examples. You need not cover all three writers, and should not unless the paper is longer (~6 pp.) and you write concisely.

On Blake

Choose two or three poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience; what counts as innocence and what counts as experience for Blake? Make sure you look at the images as well as the text. How do innocence and experience, text and image, reflect on each other? (NB: the “compare” button in the archive of Blake images lets you see all the different ways he colored the plates). Can you imagine how a poem from a third, resolving group might look? Where does this work connect to other readings, earlier questions? I’m not looking for global answers - again, these are thinking questions.

Draft due to me, in Class #13; schedule an appointment to discuss the draft with the course tutor this week. Revision due to me, in Class #16.

Third Essay

You have two options for this essay:

  1. write on one of the topics suggested below (not all the questions have to be answered, but do think about them);
  2. if you’ve given or will have given a presentation, write your material up into an essay.

If you choose the second option, your essay should do these three general things:

  • give your sources;
  • suggest why you chose this material;
  • relate it to some specific bits of the reading and do some amount of textual analysis.

See me or the class tutor for specifics, as each essay will be different.

Essay Topics


  1. Where and how does violence appear in Stowe’s text? Who employs it, and to what end? Does the use of violence produce the desired effects? If and when it fails to do so, what are its effects? When characters talk about violence, what are their views? What kinds of alternatives does Stowe suggest – to using force, or to resisting injustice forcibly – and to what extent are they satisfying or convincing?
  2. How does violence appear in Whitman’s text, and do his poems and prose handle the subject differently? How does Whitman treat the subject of war as compared to earlier texts – for instance, The War of Conquest?

Principles and Practice

Let’s stipulate that for Stowe, or in her novel, it is a principle that slavery is wrong and should be abolished, because there is a universal right to freedom in which all share. (Of course, not all her characters share this belief). How do her characters imagine putting this principle into practice, if they do? What complications do they encounter? Does Stowe manage to envision a world after or beyond slavery? What does it look like? Does it have limitations, and if so, what are they?


Whitman’s Civil War poetry largely does not address the topics of race or of slavery, even these were precisely the issues on which the North and South went to war. Two exceptions are “Ethiopia Saluting the Colours” (from Drum Taps) and “I Sing the Body Electric” (from Leaves of Grass). Read the poems – what do they say and not say about race, slavery, and war? What else do they say? How do you evaluate them as works of art?


5 pages, double-spaced (block quotes single-spaced).

Due in Class #23

NOTE: Please include in your folder: copies of your two previous essays; a draft of the current essay. If you didn’t revise a draft of the second essay, you have two options:

  1. revise the second essay after reading my comments (I’ll return these essays the next day);
  2. go over a draft of the third essay either with the class tutor or me, and revise it accordingly.

Fourth Essay

Speaking for the Dead: as a Response to History

We’re ending the semester with three living writers, Walcott, Card, and Ondaatje - winners of the Nobel Prize for Poetry, the Booker Prize, the Kirimaya Pacific Rim Book Prize, and multiple Hugo and Nebula Prizes for science fiction – and Lowell, who was American poet laureate in addition to other honors. All (at least in what we’re reading) are concerned with how we come to terms with the past, and in particular a past of violence and conflict – between species, races, factions, communities of belief. Given this concern with the past, these texts also may serve as a point of departure for thinking about how they connect to the past of literature and history.

This last paper can be relatively informal, though more polished than a journal. Feel free to use the first person – the assignment concerns what you think and know. The paper should have three parts. You can connect them with transitional sentences or paragraphs, or simply draw a line.

Part one: how does one of the texts take up the question of reckoning with the past (see below; and consult me if you want to write about the poetry we’re reading).

Part two: where do you see the text you’ve chosen connecting with the rest of the syllabus? Does it take up earlier issues or problems, allude to earlier works, share views you’ve seen elsewhere?

Part three: what for you was the most memorable piece of the reading, as you finish the semester and look back?

If you’re presenting on Ondaatje or Lowell and Walcott, feel free to write up your presentation in lieu of parts one and two; if you presented (and have written) on Card, please choose one of the other texts

  1. Questions on Speaker: What does it mean to speak for the dead? Why has the institution of doing so become so compelling in Card’s universe, more compelling for some even than the Bible? What needs does it address? What problems does it solve or create? Some question Card’s assertion that Speaker can stand on its own as a novel; I would certainly agree that at least it becomes more meaningful and interesting in relation to Ender’s Game, as an evolution from or response to a very different kind of book. How does it respond to the earlier book? If we think of the two books as two parts of a single writing project, what kind of change has taken place between the first and second part, and what does that change mean? You may think of better questions to ask; if so, go ahead and address them.
  2. Questions on Anil’s Ghost: this book might almost carry the same title as Card’s science-fiction novel. In it, a Sri Lankan woman trained as a forensic anthropologist tries to exhume, reassemble, and identify one body among the casualties of her country’s civil war. She too is trying to speak for or bear witness to the dead. In what various ways do characters in the novel try to recover “hidden histories” (105)? What kinds of history do they uncover? What are the consequences of making visible what was hidden? Why do they seek to do so, and what if anything has been accomplished by the end of the book?

Please hand in all your completed essays along with this one in your folder.

Due in Class #26


This essay should complete 20 pp. of formal writing for the subject.

Oral Presentations

Once the class enrollment is stabilized, you’ll sign up as part of a small group (3-4 people). In the first part of the semester, you should be reading each other’s written work. In the second part of the semester, you’ll be working together on a group presentation related to the reading. We’ll talk about the presentations more in class, and each group will meet with me or the class tutor during the planning stages.

Presentation Instructions ( PDF )

Course Info

Learning Resource Types

assignment Written Assignments