21W.742 | Spring 2013 | Undergraduate

Writing About Race


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

Does race still matter, as Cornel West proclaimed in his 1994 book of that title, or do we now live, as others maintain, in a post-racial society? The very notion of what constitutes race remains a complex and evolving question in cultural terms. In this course we will engage this question head-on, reading and writing about issues involving the construction of race and racial identity as reflected from a number of vantage points and via a rich array of voices and genres. Readings will include literary works by such writers as Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Zadie Smith, and Sherman Alexie, as well as perspectives on film and popular culture from figures such as Malcolm Gladwell and Touré.

Course Objectives

This course is designed to provide students with the opportunity to think and write critically and to communicate more effectively about issues involving racial identity formation and how race and ethnicity are constructed and represented in contemporary culture. In accordance with HASS-D and CI requirements, students will be required to write and revise essays of varying lengths totaling a minimum of 20 pages and to present a topic of their choice in a formal class presentation.


There are no prerequsites for this course.

Readings and Screenings

In addition to reading assignments, this course requires outside independent viewing of assigned films (except where indicated “In Class”). A close reading of written assigned materials, including peers’ writing, as well as a fresh viewing of required films by the due date are indispensable to class discussions and to successfully completing the course.

Class Participation and Presentations

Informed participation in class discussions and workshops is required of each student for successful completion of the course. Each student is required to select a topic of interest for ongoing individual research, which will form the basis of the final written project as well as the oral presentation.

Written Assignments

The writing assignments appear on the syllabus under the heading “Due.” Each week students will write a 2-page response to the films, readings, and accompanying discussions. You should bring your writing to class, as it is the basis of in-class discussions. In addition, these responses are collected and handed in as a journal at the end of semester. Longer, ongoing projects consist of a two-page descriptive essay; a three-page exploratory essay; a five-page analytical essay; and a ten-page researched essay on an approved topic of the student’s choice.


Class attendance, including active participation in discussions and workshops, is mandatory. Missing three classes may result in a grade deduction; five unexcused absences will result in a withdrawal from the course.


Using someone else’s language or ideas without proper attribution is academically dishonest. As members of this class and the larger scholarly community, you are expected to abide by the norms of academic honesty. While collaboration is encouraged in and out of class, failing to acknowledge sources or willfully misrepresenting the work of others as your own will not be tolerated. Everything you submit must be your own work, written specifically for this class. The booklet Academic Integrity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A Handbook for Students (PDF) explains these issues in detail, and you are responsible for understanding its contents. We will discuss citing sources in class and discuss ways to acknowledge them properly. Plagiarism can result in withdrawal from the course with a grade of F, suspension, or expulsion from the Institute.


As with many writing courses, this course is graded portfolio style. The portfolio collects all of the writing you have accumulated for the course over the entire semester, including journal responses, first versions, corrected versions, revisions and final versions. While your grade for this course depends primarily on your portfolio, which must be complete and handed in on time, there are other components to satisfactorily completing this course.

Descriptive essay: 2 pages  5%
Exploratory essay: 3 pages  5%
Midterm Analytical essay: 5 pages  20%
Final Researched essay: 10 pages  25%
Readings/Screenings (with Talking Points or Response Journal)  40%
Oral Presentation  5%



Introduction: Does Race (Still) Matter?

Case Study: Cornell West, Race Matters


Journal: First day’s readings, person reflection (2 pp/500 words)

Using the prologue to Race Matters as a model, please write a 250-500 word reflection on some aspect of your own awareness of your racial or ethnic identity.


Race and Childhood

Case Study: Jean de Brunhoff, The Story of Babar

Talking Points: Respond to Kohl article “Should We Burn Babar?” (2pp/500 words)
4 Rework personal reflection (3 pp)

“Reading Against the Grain”

Case Study: To Kill a Mockingbird, dir. Mulligan (1962)

Journal: Response to film

White Rescue and Black Helplessness

Case Study: Malcolm Gladwell, “The Courthouse Ring” (2009)

Journal: Op-ed on Gladwell and To Kill a Mockingbird
7 Writing Workshop: Talking points on peer op-eds

That Difficult Intersection: Race and Gender

Case Study: Toni Morisson, Jazz (1992)

Talking Points: Jazz

Essay Notes: “On Representation”

10 Writing as Improv Talking Points: Jazz
11 Midterm Essay: Juxtaposing Sources

Entre Familia/Switching Codes and Interpreting Cultural Tropes

Case Study: Real Women Have Curves, dir. Cardoso (2002)

Talking Points: Real Women Have Curves
13 “Stereotypes and Recollections” (Personal Reflection II- 2 pp/500 words)

Race/Raza and Kinship Ties

Case Study: Junot Díaz, The Brief  Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

Talking Points: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (1 p/250 words)
15 Journal: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (3 pp/750 words)

Longing and Belonging

Case Study: Rabbit-Proof Fence, dir. Noyce (2002)

Op-ed: Novel Review Brainstorming writing projects
17 Talking Points: Rabbit-Proof Fence

Race in the Global Context

Case Study: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (1997)

Talking Points: The God of Small Things
19 Talking Points: The God of Small Things

Journal: The God of Small Things

Proposal for final project (250 words)


Popular Culture and Race

Case Study: The Wire (Season 4, Episode 10) and The Sopranos (Season 4, Episode 3)

Journal: Misgivings and “Should Harvard Teach The Wire?” (2 pp/500 words)
22 Talking Points: The Sopranos and “whiteness” as a construct

“Post-Racial” Race Relations

Case Study: Crash, dir. Haggis (2004)

Talking Points: Crash

The Bird is in Your Hand

Case Study: Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture (1993)

Student presentations
26 Student presentations

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments