American Studies 201, Section 2: Essay Assignments

Spring 1998
Philip Nel
You'll write two essays this semester. Each essay should follow standard rules of composition and be typed or word-processed with standard double-spacing, 1-inch margins, and either 10- or 12-point typeface. Logical argumentation with close attention to supporting details is crucial, and an essay without a carefully articulated argument will receive no higher than a C. Because this is not an English class, errors in grammar and spelling often will be marked but will not be factors in the grading of a paper unless the mistakes are so numerous or egregious as to distract from the argument. That said, I do teach English, and it would be in your best interests to minimize such errors -- so, remember to proofread thoroughly. Essays are due at the time that the class meets on the day assigned. Late papers will be marked down one grade for each day late (so, a B+ paper would become a C+).

1. Paper # 1: Privilege in America
Length: 3-5 pages.
DUE Friday, January 16, 1998.
Jefferson wrote, "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights"; yet, as others have pointed out, the words "all Men" do not apply equally to "all Humankind."
By listing "conditions of daily experience which [she] once took for granted, as neutral, normal, and available to everybody," Peggy McIntosh's essay reveals some of the unspoken assumptions of Jefferson's claim (10). She writes that, in recognizing these heretofore invisible "privileges," she has had to give up "the myth of meritocracy" that underwrites the idea of America (9).
Your first paper is a personal essay (3-5 pp.) in which you reflect upon what it means to be privileged in America. The purpose of this assignment is to encourage you to think analytically about how privilege makes differences in the ways in which we relate to school, work, goals, family, friendships, intimate relationships, and/or life choices.
As you construct your response, keep in mind our discussions from the first week of class:


In particular, be careful to distinguish between positive advantages and negative advantages (defined by McIntosh on pages 13-14). Is the privilege in question something which you would wish to spread across America? Or would greater incidence of such privilege be inevitably harmful to your fellow citizens?


Also, consider the relationship between privilege and merit. How does privilege interact with merit? To what degree are these ideas aligned? To what degree are they at odds?

2. Paper # 2: Writing American History.
To see the class' completed papers, click here.

Length of paper: 6 pages + list of Works Cited.
Paper itself is DUE March 27, 1998.
Length of proposal: 1 page + list of Works Cited.
Proposal is DUE no later than February 25, 1998.
Think of this as a creative research paper. First, choose any event, idea, or person of 1997-1998. Next, write a 1-page historiography (explained below) and a 5-page history of what (or whom) you have chosen. Include a "Works Cited" page, too.
Some questions you'll consider: What should we remember about the recent past? What would you want people years from now to know about the late 1990s? What should future students learn? What primary sources would you want future students to see?
When looking for a topic, here's a recommendation: if you don't already keep up with the news, start by reading the New York Times -- subscription forms are available opposite the Hustler's office in Sarratt, or you can read it on-line at You have to register to use the Times' web page, but it's free (once you've registered, write down your password). Once you have a topic, search the Times for your topic: you can search on-line or by using the indexes in the reference room of the library. Photocopy, print out, or save relevant articles (remembering, of course, to make note of the exact location of your source). And, as you read or see any media during this term, take note of what you think should be included in a history of this time period, again remembering to include your source.
Your essay should be 6 pages in length. The first part of your paper (about 1 page) must address the method of historiography your history will follow. That is, identify for your reader the guidelines you have chosen for the writing of your history. As you explain both your method and the reason(s) you have chosen that method, you should refer to any relevant writers we have read, and must make use of James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me -- see especially chapters 10 through 12. The second part of your essay (5 pages) will present your history, according to the method you believe to be most effective.
Use The New York Times and one publication from each of the following lists (available in the Central Library):
list #1
The American Spectator
The National Review
The Wall Street Journal
The Washington Times
list #2
U.S.A. Today
U.S. News
list #3
Mother Jones
The Nation
The Progressive
In These Times
list #4
The Economist
The Times (London)
(In addition to these lists, you may select periodicals according to the narrative that your history follows.)
Finally, look beyond the media described above and bring in at least 2 "cultural" sources. Such sources include but are not limited to television shows, songs, photographs, films, novels, commercials, and other cultural phenomena. Make reference to these sources in your history, and -- if possible -- hand them in.
As you research, you might ask yourself, for any given day, in any given publication: in your view, which are the most important stories? Are the front-page (or front-cover) stories the most important ones? Or, which main stories seem most important? Why do the editors choose to place the stories where they do? When you're reading an article, to what degree are you satisfied with the information provided and to what degree do questions remain? Ask these questions when you encounter an advertisement, film, television show, (etc., etc.) too. What does the work in question emphasize? Do you agree with its emphasis?
To encourage you to start early on this project and to ensure that you're crafting a manageable task for yourself, I'm asking that you turn in a proposal before March break. This proposal must include the title of your history (subject to change, of course), the topic of your history, a brief sketch of your method of historiography, and a "Works Cited" page in which you list the articles and other cultural phenomena on which your project will draw. You may of course add to this list as your research progresses.

Interested in what the class wrote? Click here for a catalogue of completed histories.

Return to Phil Nel's syllabus for American Studies 201, Spring 1998.

Last updated on 5 April 1998.