Philip Nel > Courses > English 710: Dr. Seuss (Spring 2012) > Paper Assignment

Paper Assignment

Philip Nel's English 710: Dr. Seuss

ABSTRACT DUE: In class, 13 Apr. 2012.
PAPER DUE: In class, 27 Apr. 2012.
PAPER LENGTH: 10 pages.

Assignment | Guidelines: Abstract & Paper | Resources


        Your paper should offer a persuasive argument on a topic or issue derived from this course. You might choose one or two of the works on the syllabus. You may pursue something not on the syllabus, but you need to clear such a choice with me first. Some non-syllabus items may include works by Seuss: book, story, film, cartoon, advertisement, painting, sculpture, magazine illustration. Or you might decide to develop your "Sighting Seuss" paper into a full-length essay. A fruitful way to think about paper topics in terms of questions. What critical questions does a work or works raise? What puzzles you? Fortunately for you, I've structured the syllabus around questions. Sometimes, I've stated the question directly (in the name of the section), and other times, I've left it more implicit. Roughly speaking, these are the questions:

    1. The Child: How do Seuss's works conceive of the child? With which understanding of childhood would you link his children? In his works, what sort of power do children have? And which children get that power? How is Seuss's work influenced by his own childhood, including what he read?
    2. Seuss and Nonsense: What kind of poet is Seuss? How does his poetry work? And what sort of work does nonsense do? Is it as oppositional or subversive as some claim?
    3. Activism, Part 1: How do Seuss's politics play out in his own works? Are there ideological inconsistencies between his stated goals and other messages that the books may convey? What makes an activist children's book persuasive to its readers?
    4. Cartoons, Camp, & Surrealism. What kind of artist is Dr. Seuss? How do cartoons inform his aesthetic? How do artistic movements inform his aesthetic? Beyond The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., does camp play a role in his aesthetic? Indeed, what is the Seuss aesthetic? How does his art work?
    5. Reading Teacher. The Beginner Books are supposed to teach reading. Do they? How do they work? How, for instance, do they differ from the Dick and Jane books? And how do they not differ from Dick and Jane? In looking at Random House's Beginner Books and Harper's I Can Read Books, does each series adopt a similar approach to teaching children to read? Or not? Where do they overlap and where do they differ? What do Seuss's choices as editor tell you about his definition of "good children's book"?
    6. Race. In Racial Innocence (2011), Robin Bernstein writes, "Because the culture of childhood so often retains and repurposes that which has elsewhere become abject or abandoned, the study of childhood radically challenges many established historical periodizations. Sentimentalism or minstrelsy may have peaked in the lives of adults in the nineteenth century, but the popular cultures of childhood ... delivers, in fragmented and distorted forms, the images, practices, and ideologies of sentimentalism and minstrelsy well into the twentieth century" (7). Apply that statement to Seuss's work. What vestiges of earlier cultural motifs does it retain (especially as regards race)? And how do you read the ways in which Seuss's visual imagination interacts with his (mostly) progressive political views?
    7. Gender. The most blunt way to ask this question is this: Was (or is) Dr. Seuss sexist? More subtle ways to ask the question might include: In what ways do Seuss's books participate in gender stereotypes? In what ways do they resist gender stereotypes? What role, if any, should Seuss's biography play in your answer to these questions?
    8. Seuss vs. Sendak. This unit places Seuss in conversation with the other major American creator of picture books, Maurice Sendak. So, in one sense, the questions we might ask of Sendak are those (or variants of those) we've asked of Seuss. How do our answers differ and where do they overlap? Which works provide better answers to the questions? The larger question here is what makes a Seuss book a Seuss book, and what makes a Sendak book a Sendak book? Large aesthetic and political questions, I know.
    9. Activism, Part 2: Same questions as Activism, Part 1, but also add a few. How do Seuss's later activist works compare to his earlier ones? I'm thinking, in particular, of how the later works go about making their arguments. Which works are more propagandistic, the earlier activist books or the later ones? Or are they equally polemical? And which books are more persuasive? For that matter, which style of political writing is more likely to persuade — the more blunt, more didactic one, or the more subtle, nuanced one?
    10. Marketing: There's debate among those who study Seuss, and in the wider public discourse about Seuss. On the one hand, there are those who argue that much of the posthumous merchandising (Grinch selling breakfast cereal, etc.) violates Seuss's wishes: his work had a moral and aesthetic value, not merely a commercial one. On the other hand, there are those who will point out that Seuss was a successful advertising man (until the publication of The Cat in the Hat, his primary source of income was advertising), and in fact entered into merchandising agreements during his life. Wade into this debate about art and commerce. Which side is more correct? Or is there a different set of questions we should be asking?
    11. Adaptation: Drawing upon your reading of Linda Hutcheon, what makes a successful adaptation? What makes a weak one? And, of the posthumous Seuss films (that is, works made after his death), which one is the most aesthetically successful? Why?
    12. Legacy & Influence: Several related subjects here, one of which is a version of "Sighting Seuss": what do appropriations (parodies, invocations, etc.) of Seuss tell you about how the appropriator (parodist, etc.) understands Seuss? To what end does this particular item use Seuss? Another subject: Which artists and writers today are the heirs to Dr. Seuss? How do you know? What "Seussisms" do they share? And what don't they have in common with Seuss? A third subject: What features of "Seuss-ness" do the winners of the Geisel Award share? What do they lack? Another way of asking this last question is: how do those on the Geisel Award committee define "Dr. Seuss"?

Answering any of those questions should lead you to a thesis.

        In the previous paragraph, I said "persuasive argument." What do I mean by that? A persuasive argument requires a thesis, supporting evidence from the text(s) (direct as well as indirect support), and explanation of that evidence. Your paper should have an introduction which states the thesis, body paragraphs providing the support and explanation of that support, a conclusion, and a "Works Cited" page. (Further guidelines are below.)

        Whatever argument you elect to advance, please situate your claims in context. Choose one or two contexts (historical, critical, biographical, etc.) that you feel are relevant and, in your opening paragraph, establish why they are relevant. You may use the same book(s) and same topic that you used for leading class discusison or that you addressed in a response paper, but you don't have to use that book or that topic. If you seek ideas for contexts, look at the criticism — both that in our class pack, and that which you discover via research (MLA database, etc).

        Situate your argument is in relation to critical discussions about the author's or authors' work. Plan to include at least two other critical voices alongside your own. If, as may be the case, there is no (or very little) critical discussion about the work(s) in question, then simply rely upon other contexts (see above paragraph). By "two other critical voices" I mean one (or more) of the following: a critical essay (or book chapter), the author's own comments, book reviews, or other media. Position your argument in relation to the others'. Perhaps you disagree with another critic; perhaps you agree; perhaps you agree with some ideas and disagree with others. Where are you intervening in this discussion? As I say on the syllabus, please don't feel shy about critiquing my work.

        You might decide, first, what you want to argue and then see what others have written. Then you can see where you'll be intervening in the discussion. Once you figure out with whom you disagree with and/or agree (and why in each case), you'll be able to sharpen your thesis accordingly. A word of advice about secondary sources: since the primary piece of evidence is the literary text or texts, remember to include examples from the work(s) of literature to support your claims.

Abstract Guidelines

        Write an abstract of no more than 500 words. In it, include the claims you plan to make about your selected text(s), outlining what questions you wish to pursue and the argument you plan to make. (Obviously, these claims may change as you write, but try to outline the direction of your thoughts.) Also include a bibliography of at least three sources you plan to read to assist the development of your ideas. For a model, I've provided you with a sample abstract of mine. The difference between your abstract and my abstract is only this: yours will include some sources, and mine doesn't.

        Where should you look for critical resources? Try databases such as the MLA Bibliography (scholarly articles in journals and books), Project Muse (houses many on-line journals), the Hale library catalog (scholarly books), InfoTrack (some scholarly articles and book reviews), or Lexis-Nexis (book reviews since 1985 in British and American periodicals), and any other resources. You may use websites, but only alongside of other resources.

        If you do use websites, be especially careful to evaluate your sources: not all websites are equal. For example, consider the following: an article from the New York Times Book Review, "Customer Comments" at, a corporate website, an educational website, or a site representing a particular interest (say, the Tea Party or the Green Party). To evaluate each website, ask yourself: whose interests does this site serve? For example, is it a .edu (education), .org (organization), .com (commercial), .gov (government), etc.? Who wrote it? What are the author's credentials? Is she an expert in her field? Or is he not identified?

        I will read over the prospectus and offer comments and suggestions, but please feel free to meet with me before or after you've written your prospectus.

Paper Guidelines

Getting Started.

1. Read and Reread; formulate a provisional thesis. Read and reread the work or works you've decided to write about, with a mind to the topic you have chosen. Take careful notes, making note of all relevant words, phrases, images, and illustrations. Formulate a provisional thesis.

2. Consider the context(s). Consider the work in light of the context or contexts you have chosen. How does a particular context prove useful in understanding the book in question? What are the limitations of using this context? Decide how you will be using context (or contexts) to interpret the work.

3. Evaluate your secondary sources. What are the scholars' arguments? Read and reread the literary work or works in question, with a mind to the scholar's claims, your claims, and evidence (or lack thereof) for both you and the scholar. On what sort of evidence does the scholar's article rely? Is it persuasive? What about your evidence? How does the literary text support your position? How might the work's historical, cultural, or social context influence your thinking?

Writing the Paper.

1. The introduction:
a. Where does your paper fit into this discussion? Where do your secondary sources' arguments intersect with your own? Plan to devote your introductory paragraph to positioning your thesis in relation to others'. If you're opening up a new area of scholarship, then begin by noting the shortcomings of your predecessors' arguments. If, on the other hand, your work seems in accord with that of others, begin by indicating how your thesis supports or extends their arguments. And if you find that some arguments support yours and others do not, then you'll be doing a mix of the above. Whatever the case may be, conclude your introductory paragraph with a statement of your own thesis.

b. State your thesis. Make sure your thesis is specific enough to be covered adequately in the space of your discussion. Remember: merely noting a difference or similarity does not constitute a thesis. Refer to the handout titled "Thesis vs. Topic."

2. Each paragraph should begin with a claim. Just as a thesis claim guides the paper as a whole, a paragraph's claim (often referred to as a "topic sentence") guides a paragraph. So, at or near the beginning of each paragraph, include a topic sentence that states your paragraph's central argument. The topic sentence serves as a bridge between thesis and paragraph by making an interpretive claim that indicates how the paragraph will support your thesis.

3. Provide support. To persuade your readers to your position, you will need to provide some evidence in support of your claims. Quotations or illustrations from the picturebook should be used as evidence to prove your assertions.

4. Analysis and explanation of evidence. Be sure to analyze the quotation or illustration and discuss its significance. Explain for your reader how your evidence supports your claims.

5. Conclusion. Your last paragraph should synthesize, not summarize. You should resolve -- and not merely repeat -- your argument. Think of a conclusion this way: it both reminds your reader of where you've been and suggests new areas to explore.

And, after you finish your draft...

1. Revise and edit. Read your paper out loud to yourself. Often your ears will hear what your eyes miss.

2. Grammar and structure are important. To help yourself proofread and revise with both of these ideas in mind, please see the handout titled "Keys to Structure and Style."

3. When in doubt, get help. My office hours are on the syllabus, and by appointment. My email address is Also, please make use of a grammar handbook and of the handouts linked to this paper assignment: "Imagery and Figurative Language," "Thesis vs. Topic," and "Keys to Structure and Style."


for English 710-B: Dr. Seuss


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