Investigative Essay

Key Dates

Proposal due in SES #11

First Draft and Oral Presentation due in SES #17 or SES #18

Revisions due in SES #22 or SES #23

Assignment Description

The essay you will submit in SES #17 or SES #18 will be an investigative one—that is, an essay that depends for its effectiveness not only on your style and voice, which you will have been cultivating for weeks, 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. We will read 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, 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 previous school experience.

Finding a subject is your first challenge. What have you wondered about lately and would like to know more about? What thoughts has your reading for this class stimulated in your head? 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? Look around you to find possibilities; border crossings, you know, are everywhere. 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. We'll do some brainstorming in class for possible subjects.


To help you get an early start, you must submit a proposal to me in SES #11, consisting of two parts: first, a typed half-page or more describing what you will write about and what point you want to make in the essay, and second, an annotated bibliography of all the sources you have found or plan to use to support your claim and to give you sufficient authority to make the piece convincing. (Including something in your proposal bibliography does not commit you to including that source in what you will eventually write; likewise, you are not limited to using only those things you list in your annotated bibliography.) Having to annotate all your sources will prevent your generating a list of titles at the last minute; when your proposal comes in, you must know your sources already—you must have read any print sources (or the relevant portions), have decided which people you will interview, which places you will visit for purposes of observation, which films or music you will include, and so on. When your proposal comes in, then, you will be well on your way to producing a strong essay by knowing your subject well, and you will need only to find the language that best accomplishes your purpose in writing the essay. I will be available to meet with you individually after the proposals come in to talk with you about your plans for your essay.

First Draft and Oral Presentation

Your first version is due in class in SES #17 or SES #18. In order to get the class' feedback, you will make your oral presentation on your subject in this and the next session.

Oral Presentation Guidelines

The presentations are to be based on your investigative essays, so you should be able to speak authoritatively on your subject. You will do your oral presentation on the same day you submit your investigative essay, so they will of necessity be more informal than most oral presentations. Here are some guidelines for your presentation:

  • You should be prepared to speak for 5 minutes. I will time the presentations and stop you at 6 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 clip, the time the video takes must be part of your 5 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 2-3 minutes for questions and comments from the audience. Be prepared to handle questions in a professional, authoritative manner. You may certainly invite comments on particular aspects of your essay.

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 you won't exceed your time limit.

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, 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 prepared. Be lively; be interesting; be informative.

Revisions and Final Draft

We will have a class workshop in SES #19 and SES #22, to help you think of ways to revise the essay. Your revisions are due in SES #22 or SES #23, depending on which submission dates you chose for this assignment. As always, there is no firm length requirement—the essay should be as long as it needs to be to accomplish what you want to accomplish with the essay, and no longer. Somewhere around 7-10 pages will probably be about right.