Assignment Specifications

Type: Written Paper

Style: Modern Language Association Format

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Length: 1,000 words or more

Description: Write a literary analysis of one of the readings we have engaged with thus far that utilizes one of the schools of literary criticism.

Be Sure to: Include a works cited page

First Critical Response Essay

Your first critical response essay for the course is (most likely) the most challenging graded item. Remember that this assignment is a literary analysis that you need not back up with sources. This means that you should approach this assignment by rereading the areas on the schools of literary criticism (re- posted below) and think deeply about our readings. You should find your favorite reading from the course thus far and consider why this reading appeals to you. For example, you might find that you enjoyed Hills Like White Elephants. If a class mate were to ask you why yo liked it you might answer, “I like stories about relationships.” We now have the seed of the paper’s thesis.

Relationships are often considered in the school of literary criticism known as “gender study.” So you are now writing a paper about Hemingway and Gender Study. 

Next we need a thesis. This is the main argument of the paper. This requires you to think even more deeply about the story. Why did this relationship interest you as a reader? Perhaps you feel that the woman in the story is being passive-aggressive and Hemingway is commenting on that? You are now ready to write your paper!

What is a “Critical Response Essay?”

Critical Response Essays are intended to demonstrate the student’s understanding of the assigned literary works and give the student the opportunity to reflect on his or her academic considerations of that work or author. To do this the student should use one of the schools of literary criticism that are studied in this class as a starting place. This seems complex and daunting at first, but it can be quite simple. To begin, a student should choose one of the readings that have been assigned and combine this with one of the schools of literary criticism we will consider to come up with an argumentative topic and thesis for his or her paper. For instance, a student might find that the play Hamlet is an engaging and interesting reading. At first he or she may not have a clear understanding of why it is interesting or how to use that interest to engage with criticism, but that will come easily enough later. The next question is why is this work interesting to you? The answer to that question will always lead a student to a school of literary criticism. 

Perhaps a reader feels that the play is interesting because Hamlet seems to be suffering from a mental illness; this would lead to a paper topic about the play as seen through the lens of psychoanalytical literary criticism (a school of criticism that applies modern psychology to literature). Maybe a reader finds the treatment of female characters in the play interesting; this is a paper that would consider the literary school of gender study.

Be certain to choose a reading that you find interesting and have given considerable amount of thought to. 

What should my topic be?

Your topic should be something of your own choosing that reflects our readings. Again, the critical response is your opportunity to consider an aspect of a work you find interesting and compose a paper exploring the aspects of the work that intrigue you by using literary criticism as your guide. In the past good papers have considered the psychological facets of characters, explored symbolism in the work, thought about the role of gender or class in the work, and a great many other topics.

The simplest method for determining a topic is something like a math equation. You can answer the question, “what did I read that was interesting? Why was this interesting?” When you have an idea of this answer it will lead you to the topic and school of literary criticism. Again, as an example, let us assume a reader found the play Hamlet most interesting among the course readings. Perhaps he or she found it interesting because Hamlet seems to mentally ill. The topic and thesis might arrive by use of the formula mentioned above (work of interest school of literary criticism = topic). In this case (Hamlet psychoanalytic criticism = a paper that diagnoses Hamlet’s mental illness).

Some topics that work well for this course might include:

  • What about the genders of the characters affects your reading? (Gender Study)
  • Do any of the events of the author’s life seem relevant to the work? (Biographic Criticism)
  • Do the characters seem to display behaviors that modern psychologist would find interesting? (Psychoanalytic Criticism)
  • Are any of the items in the text symbolic? (Semiotics)
  • How does class or level of wealth affect what the narrator or characters are acting on? (Marxist Criticism)
  • How do you think this particular reading assignment fits into its period of time? (Historical Literary Criticism)
  • How does the race of the characters or author come into the narrative? (African American Literary Criticism, Ethnic Criticism)
  • In what significant ways can we expect readers to react to this work? (Reader Response)

Remember that it all rests on an argument and your argument requires a thesis statement

The thesis sentence is, by far, the most important sentence in the paper. The goal of this sentence is to outline for the reader what the argument of the paper will be. It most often is found as the last sentence of the first paragraph and holds such an important place in your paper that you should expect that a poor thesis statement will lead to a poor grade. The thesis statement is a foundation for the argument and should attempt to succinctly and clearly let the reader know what the paper is going to be about. A good rule of thumb when writing either a critical response paper or a research paper is to make sure that every sentence in the paper is in some way continuing to prove the argument first established by the thesis.

The example topic above (Hamlet’s mental illness) would lend itself to an argumentative thesis quite well. For instance a simple but effective thesis for the topic considered above might be:

Hamlet’s irrational behavior in the play is proof that he is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) brought on by the death of his father.

After the above thesis statement has been offered a reader should expect the paper to work to prove the Hamlet has PTSD. This can be accomplished by simply outlining the symptoms of PTSD and then showing how Hamlet evidences these symptoms throughout the play.

What format and length should the essay be?

The essay should be no less than 1,000 words. It must be in Modern Language Association format which always includes a complete works cited page. This page should, at the very least, contain the primary source you use in the paper. 

Do I need secondary sources (like articles from academic journals) for a “Critical Response?”

Secondary sources are not required for this assignment but will be required for the research paper.

Additional Tips

  • Present a clear thesis statement in your Introduction that establishes your focus—it should be a claim that your essay will prove. Aim to select a thesis that is not utterly obvious; you may want to conceive of your thesis as a declarative statement that a sophisticated reader could find disagreeable. 
  • Titles of short stories and poems in quotation marks; titles of novels and longer works should be underlined or italicized.
  • Discuss literature in the historical present tense—not the past tense. Here are some examples: Twain portrays the Mississippi river and reveals the hypocrisy of Southern Christianity. Or, Jim teaches Huck a valuable lesson about friendship. 
  • When quoting, please include the page number from our anthology in parentheses. Note that the parentheses go before the period or comma. Here’s an example: According to the narrator, “There are things in that wallpaper that nobody knows about but me, or ever will” (436).
  • You should use block quotations for any poetry that runs more than three lines or prose that runs more than four lines.
  • If you quote less than 3 lines from a poem, be sure to use a forward slash (/) to indicate line breaks.
  • Be sure to proofread your paper to catch obvious surface errors.

GRADING: The responses will be graded. Consequently, aim to develop your ideas clearly and fully—don’t hesitate to take the space / time to explain your reaction, interpretation, and/or ideas. Also, make sure there is basic essay organization (i.e. Introduction/ Body Paragraphs/ Conclusion) and proofread your paper to remove grammatical errors or typos. The response should not be a summary of the reading. (If it is, it will receive a grade no higher than a “C-“.) It also should not be a regurgitation of class discussion (If it is, it will receive a grade no higher than a “C-“.) Finally, you should not consult any outside sources to develop your response (i.e. the Web). The only way you can fail a reading response is if you fail to write it, if you fail to submit it, or if you plagiarize it (see above Policy on Academic Honesty). In short, you have wasted an opportunity to think for yourself.    

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