Essay Assignments, English 14

Shelley Reid, Austin College

Essay #1: Observing

Choose a person, group of people, place, object or event that you can observe at least twice in the next week. Do not write about something you only remember. Take detailed notes during your observation sessions, and decide on an organizing strategy that makes sense. Choose an audience and purpose for your essay, and a main idea or central thesis that you want to communicate to your reader.

Remember: you may choose to reason inductivelyÑlooking at or writing about all the details of your subject and then deciding what general principle they all "add up to"Ñor deductivelyÑchoosing a main impression of your subject and then looking for and/or writing about all the details that relate to itÑbut your essay must have both specific details and a clear principle, theme, or central idea.

Then draft a 3-4 page essay ("one page" = approximately 250 words) in time for the draft workshop. (Draft essays should be typed/computer printed.)

Essays #2, #3, & #4: Explaining, Evaluating, and Arguing

At least one of the following essays must address some part of the topic for your team's problem-solving essay. At least one must address a topic that is separate from your team's topic. And at least one must use a source beyond your own knowledge: book, article, interview, survey, etc. Each essay should be 3-5 pages unless noted otherwise.

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Essay #2: Explaining (see note on #2, #3, and #4, above)

Choose a topic/person/thing/event you already know about or are familiar with. Imagine an audience who might be interested, but would need to know more about it. Think carefully about your audience's knowledge-level, interests, and what you expect him/her/them to be able to do with the information you provide. (If you write for a know-nothing audience, you'll provide different details than for a know-something audience that is ready for more advanced or specialized information.)

Draft a 3-5 page essay in which you explain . . .

If you are working on your problem-solving topic, you might explain just what this problem is or how it affects people; you could define and/or describe terms, tools, procedures, or groups that have a bearing on this problem; or you can provide instructions for a part of your solution: the "how to's" of gathering information, running a product or solution trial, organizing support, or building the "better mousetrap."

You might think of yourself as a teacher or coach, an instruction-manual writer, an "expert" being interviewed for a tv news story, a helpful friend or adviser. You may decide to explain only part of the topic in depth (choosing a fishing rod) or a broader overview (having a successful first day fishing). It may be helpful to focus on one specific (but hypothetical) instance, rather than trying to explain all the possible ways to use an electric carving knife.

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Essay #3: Evaluating (see note on #2, #3, and #4, above)

Select a product, service, activity, place, person, group, or work of art/film/literature that you are familiar with and that a classmate or friend might choose to buy, use, participate in, visit, vote for, or join (or that they might not choose to buy, etc.). If you're writing on a topic related to your problem-solution essay, you might evaluate the reliability of a source of information on the topic, the seriousness of the problem you're considering, the effectiveness of a group, law, or tool that has been working on this problem, or the feasibility of one proposed or currently-used solution.

Decide what criteria are most important, from your point of view, in making that choice. If you think your readers might disagree or have other criteria, you'll need to explain the reasons why you chose the criteria you did, instead of the ones a reader might have chosen. Regardless, you'll be more convincing if you provide an evenhanded, specific discussion of this product (etc.) as it directly relates to these criteria, than if your reader thinks you're just complaining about everything or gushing praise indiscriminately, so chooseÑand explainÑyour criteria up front. (You may indeed give a wholly positive or wholly negative review; however, you should do so by explaining how the product stands up to specific criteria that you chose ahead of time.)

Using your observing and explaining skills, provide evidence to show how this product (service, etc.) meets or fails to meet each criterion you have set up. On the basis of these examinations (and not on your "general experience"), give your overall judgment of the product (etc.) and make a direct recommendation to your skeptical reader about how s/he should act in the future.

If you find it useful, you may compare two or three similar products (etc.), evaluating each using the same criteria, and giving a judgment of each.

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Essay 4: Arguing (see note on #2, #3, and #4, above)

Write a 4-6 page essay that uses logic and evidence to persuade a hostile, intelligent audience that your view about a topic is the most reasonable one. To be effective, your essay should address opposing arguments and evidence as well as those that you support. You should choose a topic that you already have some knowledge about and interest in; you will be a more convincing proponent if you are starting from a solid background in the subject. However, since you should offer coherent descriptions of opposition arguments as well as the best evidence in your favor, it is also likely that you will need to consult sources of information beyond your own brain.

If you are writing on your problem-solving topic, you might consider trying to persuade an audience that there is indeed a serious problem, that the problem needs solving now, that a current solution is not working, that a proposed solution will work, and/or that a proposed solution is feasible in regards to time, money, tools, and/or personpower.

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*** You will choose two of these four essays to revise for your Portfolio. ***

Essay #5: Collaborative Problem Solving

Your ultimate goal this semester is to develop the skills and knowledge you will need to complete the final essay assignment. Writing to create change is a complex and intricate task, since people/groups/institutions are generally resistant to even the smallest changes. However, it is also one of the most powerful kinds of writing. Crafting a piece of writing that analyzes a problem in the current state of affairs and proposes one or more solutions to that problem will require skill and perseverance.

The Problem/Solution essay will require close observation of the current situation, evaluation of solutions that have been recommended or tried before, explanation of how your proposed solution(s) will work, and arguments about the need for the changes you recommend. Thus, you will be encouraged to use the earlier essay assignments to hone your skills and arguments for the final essay.

It will also require you to know a fair amount of background and to anticipate a wide variety of audience reactions. For this reason, and because solutions today are almost always created by teamwork and compromise, you will be assigned to a team of classmates who share your interest in the topic for the duration of this assignment.

The assignment:

Working with your team, write an essay that identifies a problem and proposes at least one viable solution to it. You may choose a problem that affects individuals like you, a group you're involved with, the AC college community, a community group or constituency, a town/county/state, or a larger group of people. Remember that you'll be better off if you can write about something that you're already familiar with and directly affected by; it's easier to show what you already know. Be aware that if you choose a problem that has stumped human beings for generations Ñ how to help terminally ill people die comfortably, whether to enforce a death-penalty, how to stop world terrorism, how women should cope with unwanted pregnancies, etc. Ñ you may have a difficult time making a solid case in just a few pages. Narrow a broad topic down by location, age group, time frame, etc.

In addition to describing and defining the problem (observing, explaining), you must give some serious consideration to one or more possible solution(s). You may evaluate currently available solutions and recommend one or two; you may describe and evaluate the feasibility of several steps to one solution; and/or you can propose your own solution(s) and explain why it is (or they are) the best choice. This will be the heart of your essay and the focus of your work: remember that even the "best" solutions have drawbacks that need to be overcome, since if solving the problem were easy, it wouldn't be a problem. Anticipate the costs (financial and otherwise) and limitations of your proposals; anticipate the objections that the People In Power will most likely come up with; and try to convince that audience that your proposal is necessary and feasible.

The requirements:

The collaborative process:

This project will involve a balance of individual and team work. As a team, you may delegate parts of this assignment to individual members: completing parts of the research, writing pieces of the annotated bibliography, answering specific questions, developing ideas in Essays #2-#4, drafting sections of the essay, etc. At the beginning of the project, when you are deciding on the focus and scope of your essay, and at the end of the project, as you organize and fit pieces smoothly together, you will need to work more closely as a group. Each member must be involved at each stageÑtopic choice, research, drafting, revisionÑfor the project to succeed, though levels and aspects of involvement may vary somewhat according to the strengths and preferences of team members.

Team members have serious responsibilities to their team; any breach of these responsibilities will have equally serious consequences. Each individual is responsible for doing his/her share of the work, and for letting other team members do their own share. Individuals are responsible for contributing high-quality work, and for making other members feel that their contributions are also valuable. In the context of this class, an "imperfect" final product that represents the contributions of all team members will earn more respect and credit than a "perfect" final product which has erased or severely curtailed one or more team members' contributions.


As part of the final portfolio grade, each team member will receive two letter-grade evaluations. The first letter grade will provide a judgment of the final project's overall quality as an American Academic Essay. The second grade will be an evaluation of the individual team member's contributions to the project. In most cases, the two grades will be the same. However, any team member who contributes significantly less to the overall project or overtly obstructs his/her group's progress toward completion will receive a lower individual grade. In the same vein, any team member who contributed significantly more than average to the project or was instrumental in its completion, without restricting other team members' contributions, may receive a higher individual grade. Both grades will be considered in the overall portfolio evaluation.

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