English 262, American Literature II

Critical Essay Assignment

Spring 2010

Last updated April 20, 2010


Deadlines: see schedule.

Purpose and Instructions

This essay will give you the chance to explore in-depth a writer or topic of interest to you. Your essay should be a minimum of 4 double-spaced pages and must present an argument—some interesting, relevant, debatable, and original claim about the work of the writer or topic you choose. Take care that you don't produce a report or mere regurgitation of facts found in research. You want to analyze and interpret your material, then present the results of your analysis as a developed and supported argument.

As you narrow your focus and begin drafting, consider what kind of essay you are writing: Formalist? Feminist? Culturalist? Psychoanalytic? (We'll discuss these briefly in class.)

No matter what your focus may be, you'll need to do a little research. What have other writers said about the same subject and issues? Do you agree or disagree with those sources? Through what critical lenses has your topic been explored? Are there any issues or approaches which you believe have been neglected? What are some recent debates concerning your topic? How does early criticism on the topic differ from very recent criticism? This isn't a research assignment, strictly speaking, but any good essay nearly always involves at least a little exploration.

Author Approach

Your critical essay may be about any author and/or any work which appears in our Norton text—or which is approved by instructor.

Note: yes, you may certainly propose your own author, though you'll need to discuss your choice with me and present an argument as to why the writer is worth examining.

Topic Approach

Rather than focusing on a particular writer, you may wish to tackle a particular topic in American literary studies. A good place to start would be the many relevant information sections of the Norton, as well as the Norton website with its good study topics. Lots of possibilities here—and a chance also to do something innovative as well. Some obvious, very broad examples include The Canon, Definitions of American Literature, Pop Culture and Literature; Literature and Film; Empire and National Identity; etc. We'll brainstorm some ideas in class, and break some broad examples down into their many possible subtopics. We'll also go through several segments of "That Evening Sun," reading for essay ideas.


Imagine that your essay will appear in a casebook on a particular writer, genre, and/or topic in American literature. Your reader is any undergraduate college student and instructor interested in learning more about your chosen subject. This reader wants new ways of interpreting the subject, but is critical of any argument. That is, this reader is a tough sell and will question your claims, expecting ample supporting evidence and clear reasoning.

Evaluation Criteria

  • Your essay must be a minimum of 4 typed and double-spaced pages.
  • It should include a helpful and engaging title.
  • It must have a clear, debatable central point (thesis), supported and developed with plenty of detail, analysis, and research, as needed.
  • Your essay should show awareness of its audience's expectations and needs.
  • Your essay should be focused, unified, and well-organized, with appropriate paragraphing and transitions. Click here for helpful review.
  • Your essay should show virtually no spelling or grammatical errors, vagueness, or awkward sentence constructions. Click here for helpful review.
  • All sources should be documented and the manuscript formatted according to MLA guidelines. For manuscript formatting review, click here.
  • Click here for other helpful resources.

Explanation of Letter Grades

An "A" paper meets all of the stated criteria and follows all of the instructions above exceptionally well, with imagination, insight, clarity, polish, and detail. It is conspicuously better than most work turned in.

A "B" paper meets most of the stated criteria and instructions very well, or all of it moderately well. It may be excellent in many respects but unoriginal, or very original but only adequate in other key ways. It's terrific but does not especially stand out.

A "C" paper meets most of the stated criteria well enough, or a minor portion of it very well. It will likely be somewhat perfunctory, uninspired, or unoriginal, as well as insufficiently developed or convincing in spots. It will probably show no "stretch." Its flaws are noticeable and detracting, but not overwhelming.

A "D" paper meets few of the stated criteria, but performs minimally well in one or maybe two areas—enough to warrant passing. Glaring flaws make any strengths difficult to spot.

Grading Scale

Note: I first assign a letter grade based on the explanations above, then fine-tune that letter with points. You'll see both a letter grade and a score on your paper, though the points are the crucial thing, as they are tallied at semester's end to determine your final grade.


A = 27-30
B = 23-26
C = 19-22
D = 15-18


88-100 = A
75-87 = B
62-74 = C
49-61 = D

A Note to English Majors

During their senior year, English majors generally enroll in the English Capstone course (Engl 467), during which they assemble a portfolio containing representative written work from NDSU English courses. The English Department evaluates these portfolios to assess its undergraduate programs, analyzing how student work meets departmental outcomes. In order to facilitate the preparation of senior portfolios, English majors are encouraged to save copies of their written work (in electronic and hard copy) each semester.


How and When to Turn in Your Work

Essays should be posted electronically to Blackboard. Don't use Works, WordPerfect, or other nonstandard editing programs. Please just use Word.

If you run into technical glitches, you may alternately hand in a hardcopy to my SE 318 mailbox, slip it under my 318F office door, or leave it on my desk if my office is open. If you want this work returned, enclose it in a self-addressed and self-stamped envelope. Essays without an envelope will be discarded.

Deadline: see schedule.


We will keep a running list here as the semester progresses. Whenever you have an idea, share it/run it by the class. (One or two items below are from sources, though my citations and notes for these have been lost.)

  1. Neglected writers: make a case for their inclusion in the canon.
  2. Pampered writers: make a case for their exclusion from the canon.
  3. Early Norton selections vs. recent: how has the Norton changed and how would you assess those changes?
  4. Who determines what goes into the Norton? How do canons form? How can canons be changed?
  5. Contemporary assessments of Regionalism, Realism, Transcendentalism, Existentialism, Modernism.
  6. Critical reception of a particular writer over time.
  7. The influence of a particular writer on other writers, old and new. Ways in which a writer has influenced contemporary culture.
  8. Two poems or prose works: comparison and contrast.
  9. A formalist, feminist, culturalist, Marxist, deconstructionist, psychoanalytical, or reader-response analysis of a particular work.
  10. How __________________ is a Modernist writer.
  11. National identity as represented in American literature.
  12. Current trends in American Literary Studies.
  13. What is "American Literature"?
  14. American imperialism and literature.
  15. Enlightenment feminism vs. second- and third-wave feminism in American literature.
  16. Arguments for or against the "periods approach" to literary study.
  17. A Marxist reading of capitalist metaphors in Steven's poems.
  18. A culturalist reading of Gwendolyn Brooks, comparing her work to Rap.
  19. A psychoanalytic reading of Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire.
  20. Social justice and American literature.
  21. Modernist writers and Fascism.
  22. The women behind canonized male writers.
  23. How digital media are changing our study of American literature.
  24. Song of Myself in/as hypertext.



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