Friday, April 17, 2020

Final assignments

Your final assignment, should you choose to accept it, is a 5-7pp. personal critical essay on a topic of your choice. I’ve written this up as a shared set of directions for both of my seminars in case seeing the other class’s essay options helps you think of something you would like to write about. You are welcome to adapt or abandon the questions I’ve written as you see fit.

Reminder: I’d love to see something from you in the way of final writing, but you will receive credit for the class whether or not you hand something in to me.

You’ll upload your assignment to Courseworks and I’ll send you a short email with comments before the end of May. I’ve included these hard deadlines because I don’t want you to feel open-ended stress about writing something for which you may not have the wherewithal, and I intend to submit the roster of Pass grades on May 22, but I’d be delighted to read anything for you in summer months if you find yourself working on a writing project of any kind and would like some feedback.

The term “personal critical essay” is possibly coined by me. It overlaps with the category called “creative nonfiction” and can be found more often on literary websites than in academic journals. These are some of its traits:

- Less formal in tone than an academic essay

- May quote a passage or passages from the reading, but won’t depend on extended close reading work or a fully developed analytic argument

- Personal thoughts and observations are welcome

- Getting your self into your voice on the page is to be desired rather than avoided

- May be structured as associative “musings” and probably won’t include conventional argument transitions

I’m going to share a few examples, though these are all at a higher level of polish and sophistication than I imagine you should shoot for if it’s your first attempt in this mode.

The first one, a lovely short piece for Electric Literature, was actually adapted from the final essay a student wrote for me when I taught the Epic Histories class in Paris – based on specific conversations we’d had about Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” and the students’ own habits and preferences, I wrote an essay question about what it’s like to visit Sephora in Paris, and got this amazing set of reflections in response: Sarah Anjum Bari on visiting Sephora under the shadow of the Arcades Project (read it here).

And I’ll give you two more links to essays written and published by advanced PhD students in our department:

Liz Bowen’s New Inquiry review of the film A Quiet Place (read it here)

Carina dell Valle Schorske’s Lit Hub essay on Gwendolyn Brooks (read it here)

Finally, an essay that we’re going to read for and talk about during the final meeting of Clarissa: See-Young Chu’s “Woven: A Refuge for Jae-In Doe: Fugues in the Key of English Major,” published in Entropy. This is an upsetting one, and you should make sure you’re fortified for it before reading, especially if reading about sexual assault is triggering for you. You can find it here.

Epic Histories options

Original due date: Monday 5/11

New due date: Monday 5/18

1. Take one of Benjamin’s short chunks of text in the Arcades Project or elsewhere and use it as the epigraph for a personal essay about how we experience history in the time of covid-19.

2. We talked about several stumbling-blocks that made it difficult for Gibbon to write his own autobiography, the two chief ones being the challenge of how to represent a bad father given the bounds of decorum and the difficulty of retroactively defending a tendency towards religious skepticism that looked far more dangerous in the light of revolution in France. If you were going to set out to write your own autobiography, what would be the chief factor that would make it hard for you to tell an honest and fully represented story?

3. We switched from live to online meetings just before we moved on from Gibbon to Benjamin. How is reading the Benjamin of the Arcades Project different from reading Decline and Fall and/or Gibbon’s autobiographies? How is our online conversation different from the face-to-face ones we had for the first half of the semester?

Clarissa options

Original due date: Friday 5/8

New due date: Friday 5/15

1. Given that the novel Clarissa is so concerned with the problem of confinement, what was it like to read Richardson’s book in conditions of quarantine? Alternately, write a letter to a close friend in which you reflect on your current situation in a fashion that includes some thoughts about Richardson’s novel.

2. We talked about the “mad papers” and looked the typography Richardson the printer was able to use to supplement the textual meanings he created by way of words. Using a mix of visual and verbal methods (this might or might not be an essay!), create a single page layout, analog or digital, that integrates some bits of Clarissa and other texts you’re currently reading into a visual representation of your current state of mind.

3. How does a Columbia literature seminar create community? Is the physical classroom space essential, or do we find ourselves able to approximate many of its virtues on Zoom? If not, why not? How would you frame the virtuality of Zoom communication in terms of eighteenth-century epistolarity?


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