Below are all assignments from the course, along with links to a number of student samples.

Assignment 1

Response Essay: On "Illness as Metaphor"

Write a brief essay of about two pages discussing some aspect of Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor. It should not be hard to find something to agree or disagree with or to otherwise discuss, since Sontag takes strong positions on a number of issues. In the very limited space available to you, try to make a fairly coherent argument about Sontag's claims.

Due in class on Lecture 2, no exceptions.

Assignment 2

Trope Quick-pick

Collect a set of tropes concerned with one or two subjects. Give five examples each of metaphor, metonym, and synecdoche. (1 page)

Due on Lecture 6.

Assignment 3

Essay With Rewrite

Write an essay (approximately 4 pages, maximum of 5, double-spaced, normal font) on some aspect of the anthropological study of symbolism. In the essay, you can encompass a large topic or focus in on one narrow but significant point. Use examples from the readings to illustrate your argument. You may zero in on one or a few of the readings, but only if you use them to illustrate some larger discussion of a theoretical issue.

The two major areas from readings and class discussions so far available are of course tropes and the raw materials of symbolism. You can do a general essay on the importance of tropes, but you may find it more stimulating to take one question or a couple of questions in the theory of tropes. Similarly, you could contrast two or more domains of symbolism or examine one of them, or you could consider some question that was raised in discussions of animals and the human body. I am glad to consult on possible topics.

Whichever subject you choose, strive to write an essay that mixes generalities and particulars/examples, without letting your paper become either too abstract or too caught up in messy detail. Cite readings and other class material explicitly, and as much as possible discuss them critically. We will go over your essays in individual meetings, and then you will rewrite them. Do not, however, treat the first version as merely a draft.

Due before Lecture 14.

Consultations will be individually scheduled.
Rewrite due by end of term.

Student Sample (PDF) (Courtesy of Shen Qu. Used with permission.)

Assignment 4

Tropes Field Assignment

Take some field of symbolism in our own society and explore its content and structure. What metaphors/metonyms/synecdoches/symbols of other kinds do you find? How are they related to each other? How do they influence people, if they do? How do they make sense of something, if they do? How do they structure thought, if they do? What kinds of themes/ideas/emotions do they convey?

There are thousands of possibilities, some suggested by our readings:

  • tropes about disease and illness, or pain, or medical treatment—Sontag by no means exhausted the subject.
  • tropes in a branch of science, or in the laboratory.
  • tropes in one religion.
  • advertising—beer ads, car ads, etc. etc.
  • children's books (with animals acting like humans etc.).
  • movies.
  • different kinds of divination (astrology, the I Ching, feng shui, etc. etc.).
  • hunting, animal rights, Disney movies with animal characters, other animal tropes.
  • tropes about or based on Native Americans or other ethnic groups.
  • historical analogies other than the ones we discussed in class.
  • political rhetoric.
  • euphemisms.

The ethnic groups are almost always a good place to look. If you grew up speaking another language or if you come from a foreign nationality or an ethnic with a distinct culture, feel free to draw on your experiences. The tropes you discuss may be recognized by their users or they may be hidden or unconscious. If you are unsure how suitable or revealing a topic is, feel free to check in with me. The only areas to avoid are myth and ritual, since we will have assignments focusing on those forms later in the term.

Obviously, you will need to show work and energy in gathering material, but the most important aspects of the paper will be creativity, perceptive analysis, and clear, persuasive argument. As much as possible, use ideas from the course in your analysis. Write three to four pages (no less, not much more), double-spaced, normal margins and font size.

Due on Lecture 17.

Assignment 5

Second Field Assignment

Find and analyze an example from your own society or another you know well of either a ritual; a symbolic classification; or another symbolic complex (e.g. concerning food, animals, color, or the human body). Choose your subject to maximize your ability to analyze it in terms of approaches and ideas from the course as well as its inherent interest. If in doubt about a topic or analytical approach, check with me. Write three to four double-spaced pages.

Due on Lecture 20.

Student Sample (PDF) (Courtesy of Orlando Jaquez (MIT student). Used with permission.)

Assignment 6

Essay on Narrative

Write a brief essay on an issue or issues concerning narrative and life based on readings, class sessions, and your own ideas. Three pages.

Due on Lecture 22.

Assignment 7

Proppian Analysis Of Narrative

The form of analysis developed by Vladimir Propp and modified in the assigned reading by Benjamin Colby is applicable to any genre of narratives that follow a repetitive pattern or patterns. Take some genre of narrative you know in which it intuitively feels as if there is a pattern even if you aren't sure what it is. Possibilities include television sitcoms or weekly dramas, the soaps, murder mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, comics, Anime. Take a small corpus of stories and try to analyze them according to standard plots in the general approach set out in the readings by Propp and Colby. Show how two or more story plots fit the structure you set out. I prefer that you chose a kind of narrative other than folktales, but if you are drawn to folktales, the Humanities Library has a number of good collections. Write approximately three pages.

Due on Lecture 24.

Student Sample 1 (PDF) (Courtesy of Corinne Packard (student). Used with permission.)

Student Sample 2 (PDF) (Courtesy of Orlando Jaquez (MIT student). Used with permission.)

Assignment 8

Structural Myth Analysis Sketch

Do a short sketch of a structural analysis of a myth, either one of the myths in the class handout or another of your choosing. Space will not allow you to do anything like a complete analysis, so take one or two dimensions or episodes of the myth and indicate what seem to be a few of the key relations in them. You do not of course have information on the cultures from which the myths derive to do anything like a definitive analysis — the point is to show your understanding of the method and its application to one example. Two pages, including a chart or diagram if you wish to use one.

Due on Lecture 26.