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Class Expectations

Overview, Paper Assignment, Davison, 400/500 level courses

The type of essay Professor Davison assigns in his 400 level courses at the mid-term, final, or both, is based on the model of a traditional literary analysis. As such, the assignments are rarely under ten pages in length, and often range from 10-15 pages. The assignment is based first and foremost on the idea that the student must make an argument about an interpretative or ambiguous element of the text in question that will require further research than that of classroom discussion or lecture.

Rather than only relying solely on his/her notes, the student is expected to decide what issues in the text are most compelling to him/her and then take the initial step of researching how those issues suggest their own contexts along the lines of aesthetic movements, biography, culture, politics, and critical discussions over the last 10 to 20 years. After compiling at least 5 sources from which to construct a contextual discussion along these lines, the student is expected to create an introduction of some length (perhaps 3 to 5 pages), that uses his/her newly acquired expertise on the writer, his works, and the issues at hand to create a cogent, specific discussion that clarifies connections between these contexts, and thus propels the reader toward an argumentative thesis statement. Quotation from these background sources should be included in this introduction.

The thesis need not be original, or polemic, or even pointed. Rather, the argument can simply agree with one or two of the extant critical discussions discovered through research, and using this as a jump-off point, explore this in the student’s own words and perhaps add a new insight or two into the already established interpretation. An enterprising student can of course attempt to make a more original interpretative argument, but not at the expense of what his/her research has suggested; that is, contexts and arguments should always have an obvious and intrinsic relation. It has been said that the art of criticism is an art of “yes, but . . .”

After the introduction and thesis, a student is expected to move through the subject text in an interpretative re-reading of the piece along the lines of the issue in question. The central skill to be exhibited here is an old-fashioned “close-reading,” which can be defined as an explanation of argument by way of a careful examination of the subject text’s key elements: language, character, symbol, form, etc., relevant to the genre in question. This examination should alternate between “macroscopic” elements (such as implied politics and plot movement) and “microscopic” elements (such as the ironies, figurative and symbolic language, etc. of a piece of monologue, dialogue, or poetry). Finally, the student should attempt during this examination to support her/his assertions—on occasion—by introducing (or reintroducing from introduction) relevant critical statements from other writers. There is no need to give, within the student’s sentences, the name of the publication in these supportive moments, but all summarized, paraphrased or directly quoted material of a critic’s original argument must be documented in a foot or endnote. Either MLA or Chicago citation/documentation are acceptable. The student’s close-reading should not be a mere stringing together of supportive quotes, but should be highly selective about how often and where such support is given. Four to five supporting quotes (after the introduction) in a ten page discussion is a nice average amount.

Essays must have reflective conclusions that return to pivotal aspects of the introductory contexts and, when appropriate, display the confidence to make larger statements about the argument’s import to history, aesthetics movements, politics, philosophy, religion, etc.

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