A Semester Project: The Commonplace Book
Due Thursday, December 2
Throughout the semester, you will be keeping a commonplace book. Each time you do reading connected with the course, you will transcribe key lines and passages of your choice into your commonplace book. Your goal will be to select those quotations that best capture the key ideas of the text; you should also select those quotations that connect in a powerful way to the themes of our course. You can either arrange your quotations according to theme or arrange them by author and cross-reference them according to theme.
Be sure to bring your commonplace book with you to each class as we will sometimes use it as the starting point for class discussion and will also use it as the basis for in-class writings. Your commonplace book will also serve as your most valuable resource for the final examination.
Your completed commonplace book will count as twenty-five percent of your semester grade. Criteria for evaluating the commonplace books will include: quality and quantity of selections; the academic usefulness of the topical arrangement; and the quality of the reflective writings.
"Advice to Young Americans": An Exercise in Ghost-Writing
Due Thursday, Sept. 30
Americans love to give advice, and they often seek it out. Parents have often written letters of advice to their children to send to children who are away from home or to be read after the death of the parent. Both Anne Bradstreet and Benjamin Franklin did that, as we know. In the nineteenth century, young men often received a "conduct of life" book as a gift from a parent, uncle, or employer. Those books were intended to help set the young man on the path to a good life by helping him think of how to make the most of his opportunities and avoid mistakes. Conduct books were particularly popular as a gift to be given to young men leaving home for the first time to find careers in the city. We still use advice books and articles today, but they are likely to take different forms. Most magazines for young men or women talk about how you can find a good life for yourself, and countless books are willing to tell you what your goals should be and how you should accomplish them. But even if you don't read those magazines and don't buy those books, you are still scheduled to get a large dose of advice when you graduate from college. What are graduation speeches for, after all, if not to tell you what you should aim for and how you should get there?
Of all the people in the world, Americans are probably the world champions of advice-giving and advice-seeking. As the reading we have already done this semester suggests, we are a nation dedicated to the idea that we can and should have a good life, even if we can't always agree about what that means. This project is intended to give you the opportunity to reflect on the vision of the good life communicated by one or more American authors.
Planning Your Project:
1) You will need to decide whether you would like to focus on a particular author, on a group of author's with a shared perspective, or on two authors with contrasting perspectives.
2) You will need to choose a focus for your discussion. In order to do this, you'll need to think about what issues were considered most important by the author you are writing about. If s/he was giving advice, what topic or topics would that person want to talk about?
3) You will need to select a format for your presentation. You can choose to "ghost-write" a section of a conduct book or a "letter of advice to my children" on behalf of one or more of our authors. If you want to use a more familiar mode, you can ghost-write a graduation speech that one of these authors might deliver if asked to be the guest at this year's commencement at Assumption College. And, of course, if you would prefer to do a more traditional paper, you are free to write an essay analyzing an author's vision of a good life and of the conduct most likely to achieve that end.
4) You will need to find one more texts by your author to supplement those we have read in the course. You will find some options already provided in your textbook and as links on our on-line syllabus. You can also consult with the teacher to identify promising avenues of investigation.
- How accurately does the advice reflect the viewpoint of the author under discussion? (Is it fair?)
- How thorough and/or intellectually sophisticated is the representation of the views of the author or authors? (Does the conduct book simply reiterate obvious points or does it encourage us to develop a deep level of understanding of these authors? Does it go beyond what we have already established in class discussion? Is it effective in using texts other than those on the syllabus to expand our understanding of this author?)
- How clearly are the ideas explained?
- How effectively are the ideas supported by quotations from the author's writings?
- How effectively does the conduct book translate the philosophy of the author into practical guidelines for living and examples of behavior?
- Bonus point--Does the conduct book help us understand this author's vision of what it means to be an American? Does it reflect the beliefs and values of a particular period of American life, or does it reflect a continuing theme in American life?
A Note on Advice Books, 19th Century-Style
Advice books attempt to offer simple rules as a way of reducing some of life's confusions, yet often rules for conduct need to help us deal with genuinely complex problems. To deal with a particular situation we may need to convey a quality but only in a certain way or to a certain extent. Some situations even require us to call simultaneously upon qualities that seem to be the opposites of one another. At a job interview, for example, you will be expected to speak proudly of your accomplishments without bragging. You will be expected to be assertive without being pushy, and self-confident yet deferential to your prospective employer. In the course of the session, you will be trying to foster a kind of personal relationship with the interviewer without slipping into informality or betraying anything too personal about yourself. Life is complicated. Yet, this is exactly why conduct rules try to offer explanations that are simple and clear.
One option for your project is to write a short section for an "Advice Book for Young Americans" based on the philosophies of one or more of the writers we have studied. Offer one or more rules for behavior, and follow each rule with a short explanation of how the person should behave and why that behavior is correct. Since you are essentially "ghost-writing" this conduct book on behalf of a particular American author, you should use appropriate quotations for his/her writing to illustrate your points. Be sure not to oversimplify the viewpoints of your author(s). For example, Benjamin Franklin believed in honesty but . . . .
Some Examples of Possible Projects
- A chapter for a book entitled Advice for Young Puritan Americans, based on the writings (and including quotations from the texts of) one or more of the following:
- Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," and/or The Journal of John Winthrop, p. 118;
Bradstreet's "To My Dear Children," (p. 144) or any of her poetry (beginning on p. 128;
Jonathan Edwards "Personal Narrative,"(p. 176) or other writings;
Sermons and essays by Cotton Mather (which can be found on the web, including at The Cotton Mather Page.
- A chapter for a book entitled Advice for Young Revolutionary Americans, based on the writings (and including quotations from) one or more of the following:
- Thomas Paine;
- Thomas Jefferson;
- The Letters of Abigail and John Adams ("Remember the Ladies").
- A letter of advice written from Henry David Thoreau to a friend working in Boston or in the mills of Lowell.
- A graduation speech delivered at Assumption's 2000 graduation by Anne Bradstreet.
- A review of a contemporary self-help book (such as What Color is Your Parachute or Chicken Soup for the Soul) written by any one of our writers.
- An advice column in the Provocateur in which one of our writers responds to typical questions from Assumption students about how they should solve the problems in their lives.
- An episode of Oprah or Ricky Lake in which a panel of American authors agree or disagree about how they feel about the lives of 20th century Americans (and perhaps answer a few questions from the audience).
Feel free to propose some alternative way of meeting the goal of this assignment. You are encouraged to exercise your imagination--but be sure to exercise your analytical faculties at the same time.
Finding an American Voice to Claim an American Identity
Draft due on disk Thursday, November 11; final draft due Tuesday, November 16.
In the centuries after the first Europeans began to settle in America, the idea that civilization must always triumph was frequently used to excuse the treatment of the Indians, slaves, and sometimes other minority groups as well. In a short essay approximately three to five pages in length, discuss the way in which one writer or a group of writers we have read this semester deals with that concept. Does that idea help explain the tone, imagery, or themes of the writing?
Richard Rodriguez claims that it was only possible for him to become an American by acquiring an American identity by acquiring an American way of speaking. Presumably, it is Rodriguez's "American" voice that he uses in his essay. On the other hand, in his essay Rodriguez also attempts to convey a sense of the hispanic voice and identity he lost in the course of his education. It could be argued that Rodriguez employs both of these voices in a strategic fashion in his essay to show both the value of acquiring a public voice as a critical step in becoming accepted as a "real" American, and to show the loss involved in giving up the "other" voice that represents one's connection to family and their culture of origin.
Do any of the other writers we have read this semester seem to share Rodriguez's belief in the existence and importance of a distinctively American voice? Do any other writers seem to employ a formally "American" voice as a strategy for insisting on their inclusion in the culture? Do any other writers seem to introduce some "other" voice to make a different kind of point?
Write an essay in which you use the work of one writer we have studied this semester to explore some of these questions. Discuss the way in which that writer employs a recognizably American voice to convey his or her ideas, and whether the use of such a voice seems to be an effective strategy for reinforcing the authority or appeal of the ideas. If at any point the writer employs a voice that seems to be distinctively "other" in some way, discuss the characteristics of that voice and what strategy you believe might explain the introduction of such a voice.
In order to complete this assignment, you will need to think about how the writer presents his/her material, so you can consider such such things as his/her vocabulary, level of diction (formal or informal), tone of voice (for example, calm or angry, etc.), style of self-presentation, allusions, references to literary or cultural conventions, and shared assumptions or concepts. You will also need to think about the connections between style and content.
Ongoing Class Projects:
Discussion at the Speakeasy Cafe
Collaboration on an On-Line Commonplace Book
Semester grades will be calculated as follows:
Essay on "American Voice"=25%
Commonplace Book and other Informal Writing/Discussion=25% (evaluated for quality and quantity of selections, usefulness of arrangement, and quality of reflective writings.)