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Coming to Terms with the Semester — The Final Reflective Essay

December 4, 2013

I thought I’d start this final entry for our class blog by circling back to something we’ve read in Joseph Harris’ Rewriting. In Chapter 5, he challenges the simple, linear way we typically think about revision. Here’s how he describes the way our thinking might change over the course of working on a draft:

I have no quarrel with the need to define a clear plan of work for an essay or  book. You want readers to know what your project is , to have a sense of where you’re headed in your thinking and what you see as at stake in your writing. [...] But you also want to develop a line of thinking in an essay, to explore its contradictions and stuck points and ambiguities, not simply to stake out a fixed position and defend it. You want to be able to say something at the end of an essay that you couldn’t say at its start, that your work in the previous pages has made possible.  (117)

As we near the end of the semester, I’ve asked that you revise one of the essays you’ve written during our class. But I also hope you’ll consider some of the ways that you might be revising your own thinking as a student and as a writer. The final reflective paper is an opportunity for you to look back over the past fourteen weeks and think about what you’ve been able to do with the concepts we’ve talked about in class. Have you found any of the ideas or readings we’ve discussed interesting or useful? Have you found yourself questioning, modifying, or flatly disagreeing with any of the sources we’ve talked about? Has anything you’ve encountered helped you to move forward as a writer and thinker? What, if anything, have you added to your own knowledge and ability as a writer this semester?

I can imagine a number of ways that you might focus your approach to this part of the assignment:

* You might focus on a particular concept – or several related concepts – that we’ve discussed in class and reflect on how your understanding of those concepts has evolved over the semester. What are the uses and limits of those concepts?

* You might focus on a particular assignment or project and describe how your thinking about that project changed or evolved as you worked on revising it.

* You might identify some of the choices you made in putting together the materials for the final portfolio (Why did you revise your essay as you did? What decisions did you make about your blog?) and explain how those choices connect to the ideas we’ve emphasized in class.

* You might identify a problem that you had with one of our readings or assignments and describe how you worked through that problem.

* You might describe the way you applied something we discussed in our class to an assignment or project you worked on in another one of your classes.

Of course, you may discover other options for approaching this assignment, so feel free to talk with me if you have another idea. As a starting point, however, I’d suggest that you revisit the Key Words page on this blog and remind yourself of the most important concepts we’ve talked about this semester. Also, please check the Writing Projects page for detailed information about the due date for the final portfolio (next Friday, December 13th, at 9:00am)  and submission details.

Good luck as you reflect on your progress this semester, and best wishes for the winter break!

Preparing for your Blog Presentation

November 18, 2013

During our last class meetings, you’ll  each have the opportunity to present some of the ideas you have for your final blog project. I’ve asked you all to rethink your blogs for two reasons: 1) I’m hoping that you’ll be able to connect the kind of academic thinking we’ve been doing this semester with some of your own personal interests. 2) I’d like you to consider some ways that you might make writing a consistent and deliberate part of your day-to-day life.

For your presentation, I’d suggest  that you think about the four questions I listed in the assignment description:

* What purpose will your blog serve? What will it help you to do?

* How will your blog offer a critical perspective on your topic or thematic focus? In other words, how will it help you to reflect on and question the idea or activity you’ve chosen to focus on? How will it help you to pay attention to your own thinking or development in the area you’re focusing on?

* What role does writing play in your blog concept? What rhetorical situation are you responding to? (Even if your blog is intended to be private — just for your own use — you should still be able to identify things like the exigence that motivates you and the constraints you are working within.)

* How have you taken advantage of the possibilities that a blog offers? What have you done with your blog that you wouldn’t be able to do with another form of expression?

Although you may not address each one of them in detail in your presentation, thinking about these questions will help you to organize your thoughts . The most important point, however, is for you to think about how the blog might help you to approach the activity or idea in question in a new way. How will it help you to take a critical perspective and to add to what you already know?

I’d also suggest one other thing for your presentation. Consider this an opportunity to practice speaking in front of other students. Your presentations can be informal, but they shouldn’t be unprepared. Think about how you are representing yourself to your peers, and plan accordingly. Don’t simply answer the questions I listed above mechanically and then end your presentation. Bring some of your own personality and energy to what you do.  There are plenty of guides to giving presentations online, like this one, so look there for some tips.

Finally, you might get some ideas for your blog by looking at what others have done. If you go to the Washington College home page and search for “blogs,” you’ll see a variety of examples from students and academic centers. You can also find a list of the”25 Best Bloggers” of 2013 by Time online at

Above all, be creative and think of how your blog might be useful to you. Good luck!

Schedule of presentations

Tuesday, November 26th:

Steve Frank

Danielle Huston Hakey

Jessie Lichtenstein

Michael Mann

Kaitlyn Wright


Tuesday, December 3rd:

Allison Billmire

Daysia Bush

Tom Griffin

Julia Jakus

Kelsie Pappadia

G.T. Svanikier


Thursday, December 5th:

Alyx Cash

Kelsey Larrimore

Bryan Shapiro

Mason Sheen

Doing Feedback: Essay 3

November 12, 2013

This Thursday, we’ll be working in groups again to review the drafts of our third essay. Like last time, you’ll need to prepare: post a beginning draft of your own essay to your blog by noon on this Wednesday, and then check the blogs of your other group members to read through their drafts. Check below to see the group that you’re in and further instructions for Thursday.


Before class on Thursday, please be sure to visit the blogs of the other members of your group and read the drafts they’ve posted there. Below, I’ll suggest a few questions you might consider as you read the drafts of your other group members. These are things you should all have in mind for your own essays as well. Please come to class prepared for discussion with your group members.

1) How effectively have the writers in your group used Morrison’s text in their drafts? Have they targeted specific scenes, images, and quotations to help make their point? Have they incorporated quotations into their text effectively? For each essay in your group, you might try to identify one or two examples where the writer has used sources well – or where you have questions.

2) Have the writers in your group drawn from the Foreword to the The Bluest Eye to make a point or critical observation about the novel?  Does that point help to explain or reveal something about the characters involved? In other words, can you find a thesis or a claim that does more than simply echo the events of the novel?

3) What could the writers in your group do to improve their drafts? Are you left with any unanswered questions? Can you see ways that the writers could deepen their response to Morrison’s writing? What do you think the writers should do to develop and focus their drafts from here?

For class on Thursday, please bring a laptop or iPad to access the drafts of your group members. If you don’t have any means of viewing the drafts in class, bring printed copies of your group members’ drafts with you, or check with me beforehand about getting copies. You’ll be responsible for offering specific feedback to your group members on their essays, so come prepared!



Group 1

Danielle Huston Hakey, Alyx Cash, Thomas Griffin, Allison Billmire

Group 2

Kelsey Larrimore, Bryan Shapiro, Kelsie Pappadia, Steven Frank

Group 3

Daysia Bush, Michael Mann, Kaitlyn Wright, Julia Jakus

Group 4

G.T. Svanikier, Mason Sheen, Jessie Lichtenstein

The Limits of “Beauty” in The Bluest Eye

November 7, 2013

In our last class session, we began thinking about the ways that Morrison’s focus on “ugliness” in The Bluest Eye might have been a way of responding to — or even investigating — the phrase “Black is Beautiful.” Certainly, her attempt isn’t to deny or resist the sentiment behind those words. Instead, we might say that she’s trying to uncover some of the values that are implicit in the assertion of “beauty” and to consider both the uses and the limits involved in making such a claim. Here’s how another literary scholar, Agnes Suranyi, puts it:

The Bluest Eye  is concerned with racial self-loathing, the loss of identity, and shame. Even though the setting for the story is 1940-41 – the beginning of World War II for the United States – it is also ‘presentist’ in concept, ideologically grounded in the 1960′s  when “Black is Beautiful” entered into the popular, if more militant, discourse. Setting out to write a story that she herself wanted to read, Morrison worried that this slogan of racial pride would be unable to dispel the long-term psychic effects of prejudices rooted in racialism and sexism. (11)

As our final task in considering the novel, I’d like us to consider some of the “psychic effects” that we see at work in the characters. In particular, how do we explain the behavior that leads up to final and tragic events of the novel?

Suranyi, Agnes. “The Bluest Eye and Sula: black female experience from childhood to womanhood.” The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. Ed. Justine Tally. Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.

Reading with Dick and Jane

November 4, 2013

Toni Morrison begins The Bluest Eye with what might be an unfamiliar reference. The first page of the novel starts with the following abrupt sentences: “Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house.” Those lines – and others like them – reappear from time to time, often at the beginning of major sections of the book. With each repetition, the words become increasingly garbled and indistinct.


The lines are meant to echo a series of children’s books that was popular during the 1940s and50s. The books were primers, intended to help young children learn to read, and they featured a “typical” family – a mother, a father, and three children. Because they reflected the wholesome values of mid-century, mainstream America, the adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally were a common feature of early education for many students.

Given the nature of the images here, it probably isn’t difficult to see how Morrison, an African-American author, is working against some of the assumptions about American life that are evident in the Dick and Jane readers. I think it’s useful, though, to consider how we might read The Bluest Eye in light of – or in response to – these children’s books. How does Pecola’s narrative problematize the version of reality we get in “The World of Dick and Jane,” and what is the result when those problems go unacknowledged?

You can read more about the Dick and Jane books here at the Wikipedia page:

Or here, at the web site for a rare books exhibit at the University of Virginia:


Rewriting “Beauty” and “Ugliness”

October 30, 2013

To continue our discussion of The Bluest Eye this week, I’d like us to consider two of the terms at the heart of the novel: Beauty and Ugliness. The children in the MacTeer and Breedlove families, in particular, seem baffled by the way that grownups use these words, and their confusion leads them into distinctly different kinds of behavior. We’ll spend some time figuring out what’s happening for these characters, but I’d also like us to consider what Morrison herself might be up to in crafting this narrative.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read Morrison’s “Foreword” to the novel (this should be at the front of your edition, pages ix-xiii), and consider what her reflection on the novel reveals. You might blackisbeautifulnotice, especially, that her language there at times echoes the language of Joseph Harris in Rewriting. She attempts to define her project as a writer and identifies some of the motivating problems she was trying to address.

In her Foreword, Morrison also makes a subtle reference to a cultural movement that had gained popularity in the years leading up to the novel’s publication. The phrase “Black is Beautiful” became a slogan or unifying declaration for many in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, and in some ways, we might see Morrison’s novel as a response to that phrase. We’ll talk about the implications of this in class, but for now, you might do a bit of internet research about the historical context that Morrison was working in (for instance, here’s one brief summary of the Black Power movement, with a reference to the phrase “Black is Beautiful” toward the bottom).

With this bit of historical perspective, I’d like us to consider what questions or problems Morrison is wrestling with in The Bluest Eye. If “Black is Beautiful,” for instance, then why did Morrison choose to write a novel about ugliness? What are the sources and effects of “beauty” and “ugliness” for these characters?

Reading The Bluest Eye

October 23, 2013

For the next few weeks of the semester, we’ll be spending some time with The Bluest Eye, a novel by the contemporary author Toni Morrison. If you’re familiar with Morrison’s writing at all, you might be more apt to recognize titles like BelovedSong of Solomon, or ParadiseThe Bluest Eye, however, is Morrison’s first novel, originally published in 1970. It recounts, as the first pages make clear, a devastating event in the life of a young African-American girl and the reaction of those around her. The subject matter is challenging, but Morrison’s approach in the novel is well worth our time.

tbeI’d like us to begin thinking about the novel by using some of the terms of academic discourse that we’ve picked up in our reading of Joseph Harris’s Rewriting. This may seem strange at first. A work of literature isn’t exactly an argument – at least not explicitly – and chances are we won’t see Morrison making the distinct conversational “moves” that many academic articles do. But I would like for us to think about how Morrison is working purposefully to respond to particular questions and problems that were relevant at the time she wrote the novel.  To put this another way, we need to consider the rhetorical situation at stake in Morrison’s composing process.

Here are a few questions to begin with:

* What is the problem at the heart of this novel, and how is Morrison articulating that problem? Or, in Harris’s terms, what is Morrison’s project here?

* How does Morrison make use of other texts in her novel? What specific moments of intertextuality exist in the first sections, and what purpose do they serve?

* How does Morrison choose to present this narrative? What choices has she made in organizing the story, and what difference does that make in the way we react to it?

For more information about Toni Morrison, you can start at the following websites:

The Wikipedia entry for Toni Morrison

The Toni Morrison Society website

Toni Morrison on the Nobel Foundation website


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