ASSIGNMENT: Short Reports
Due Date: December 11, 2020
Points Possible: 200
PURPOSE: The purpose of the Short Report assignment is to give students the chance to read literature not simply for the pleasure of reading (though that may be involved!), nor for exposure to important American literary works of the 19th century (though that is also desirable!), nor to have a literary analysis of the works (though that is definitely useful!); rather, it is to give students the opportunity to see how in all works of art in a given culture–but particularly in the literary arts–the concerns of the historical period of the culture in which it was written “come through” in the writing in various ways. The written and spoken language of nineteenth-century Americans differs from that of the eighteenth century or the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and this is important to understand; but, the concerns of the period, the ideas that were prevalent culturally, the ways in which American authors viewed the past (both in America and elsewhere), interpreted their historical present, and envisioned their possible futures are entirely based in the historical realities of their own times. References to technological advancements, historical events, and so forth may be present in direct ways, but oftentimes historical referents are more subtle than this. Reading these great works of literature with these things in mind will prove fruitful to students, not only in terms of sharpening their critical historical evaluation and reading skills, but also in then understanding the nature of any literary work’s basis in the historical time and place of its composition, from the earliest writings of ancient human civilizations down to the present and the commonplaces used in communication on social media.
SKILLS: Close readings of a text with an eye for historical details, ideas, and concerns–usually with some background research into the life and times of the author–will be utilized in this assignment. Evaluation of how history is reflected in the work will then be necessary. Further, an assessment of how (if at all–this will not apply to many of the authors or texts read for this course) this particular piece of writing might have had a larger impact on history (beyond the “history of literature” or its various genres: e.g. Edgar Allan Poe was one of the first gothic horror writers and was an important contributor to this genre, but what impact might his works have had on the larger culture of the United States in the 1800s?) will also be necessary in the case of particular assigned works. Being able to communicate these things clearly in written form will then be essential in bringing these insights to the wider notice of one’s classmates and to the professor for grading purposes.
KNOWLEDGE: By completing this assignment, students will come to a better understanding of: a) the life of a particular author and how the circumstances involved in it may have influenced their writings; b) the contents, scope, and details of a particular piece of writing (or writings) by that author; and c) via the use of secondary source studies and further research, how historical information comes through in that author’s writing, and/or how their writing may have had a larger impact on nineteenth-century (and possibly later!) American culture.
1. Find the author and work which you were assigned in week one of the course (on the “Assignment of Short Reports” page on Canvas).
2. Obtain copies of the writing assigned, whether online or from the library (and often, the latter is better!), or from a bookstore (many major bookstores will have copies of some of these books easily available and in-stock, while all of them can be ordered online as well if you wish to invest in such volumes!).
3. Read the works required, taking notes of potential important historical information, statements, or details as you read.
4. Locate information about the author’s life, whether in short introductions to editions of their work or in anthologies, in actual biographies of the author, or elsewhere. DO NOT USE WIKIPEDIA, nor any sites like Biography.com for this information! Read these and take notes on the most relevant information.
5. Also, do further research and find one or more articles that are studies of this particular piece of literature, especially if the historical circumstances of its writing are discussed in the particular study. DO NOT USE SPARKNOTES AND OTHER SUCH SOURCES for this part of the assignment! Read these and take notes on the most relevant information.
6. After thinking of all you’ve read, and going over your notes, begin to organize your writing in an outline which includes three sections: a) a brief biographical profile of the author; b) a brief summary of the work (even something like Moby Dick can be summarized in five to six sentences!); c) a discussion of its historical relevance, whether in how history and nineteenth-century American culture is reflected in the writing (which applies to ALL the assigned authors and works), or how this work might have influenced the course of nineteenth-century (and potentially later) American history and culture.
7. Write your first paragraph with the biographical information contained in it–probably no more than six to eight sentences, but no fewer than five.
8. Write your second paragraph with the summary of the works you read detailed in it–probably no more than six to eight sentences, but no fewer than five.
[At this point, you should have the first page of your two-page paper written with the two paragraphs indicated above!]
9. Write your third paragraph with your analysis of the historical information that comes through in the work elaborated upon within it, and likely cite both passages in the text you read as well as secondary sources that are studies of the text. It would be best to use at least two examples of the overall historical event, theme, or cultural set of ideas that you have identified in this work; if it is a “larger” single theme or idea, at least two examples of it should be present, but if it is two (or more) “smaller” themes, single examples of each can be used. This entire analysis should be at least four sentences, and probably no more than six or seven, but regardless should take up at least half a page in length.
10. If this applies to your particular work, write a fourth paragraph about how this particular work was “received” in the culture and history of the nineteenth-century United States of America, if indeed it did have a significant historical impact on that period and its overarching historical, political, or cultural events.
11. Write a short paragraph of two to three sentences to conclude your Short Report, which can include any of the following as you see fit: a) your own evaluation of the work, including its aesthetics or parts of it that you found particular interesting, boring, or confounding (but you must always support such opinions with direct evidence, and not let them stand on their own!); b) a note on the later reception of the work in literary history, or its evaluation by contemporary and later critics or major historical persons (e.g. Presidents, famous politicians and leaders, actors, other authors, etc.), or its place in the academic curriculum (if indeed it has one!); c) comparisons between this work and contemporary, earlier, or later works, especially if the later ones drew directly on it, if the earlier ones in some way inspired it, or if the contemporary works were by authors that personally knew and interacted with one another.
12. Make sure that you have at least two citations in your paper (but probably more!), that are complete and in the correct formats, and that each has a full bibliographic reference (also in the correct format!) given at the end of your Short Report.
13. Grammar-check your work thoroughly, read it over for clarity, and if possible have someone else read it to make sure they understood it!
14. Copy it into the text box for the assignment.
15. If you have time: read other students’ Short Reports, and comment (usefully and substantively!) on them, ask questions, make comparisons, and in other ways demonstrate that you are able to discuss literature from a historical perspective in an informed and mature fashion…and for doing so, you may get extra credit!
CRITERIA FOR SUCCESS: Good results on this Short Report will depend upon four things: a) the ability of each student to communicate clearly and effectively in writing; b) the succinctness with which each summary includes all relevant (and correct!) information related to the author and the works read; c) use of valid sources in further researching the author’s work; d) making the connection between wider American history and culture and the work of this particular author. Note that for some, it may be possible to successfully accomplish points a, b, and c, but utterly miss d entirely. Do not mistake matters of literary history, or simple “firsts” (e.g. Poe as the first American gothic horror writer), for important matters in wider American cultural, political, and wider histories.
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