The two papers assigned for EH 228 correspond to two major focuses of the course. Paper one is designed to emphasize that each of us will have a different response to a text based in part on our individual experiences, background, and value system. Paper two is designed to emphasize the similarities and differences between lived experience and literature, culminating in iyour taking a stand on an issue of gender, race, or class. Taken together, these papers are practical exercises in making connections between literature and life, and they form the backbone of the course.
Please find a description of your first paper assignment below. Please follow the links to a sample paper for your first paper, and to a description of and a sample of your second paper by clicking on the highlighted phrases.
This first paper could be called the "what, how, and why essay" because it answers those three questions about your personal and individual response to a work of literature from our anthology. Notice that the topic of this paper is not an analysis of a work of literature but, instead, an analysis of one reader's response to that work of literature. Since you are that one reader, you are an expert on the topic, and you should use first-person pronouns to help explain your response.
Your essay should have three parts. The first part, which will consist of a sentence or two in the first paragraph, is the "what" part. Choose a specific response to the work, and one that you can explain clearly using evidence. For example, you might say, "I disliked the main character of the story," or "I was fascinated by the controlling metaphor of the poem." You might even say, "I was frustrated because I didn't understand what the playwright was trying to say to the reader."
The second part, which will consist of a few paragraphs, is the "how" part of the essay. In this section, you must gather and organize evidence from the text to explain how the author evoked your response. If you disliked the main character of a story, then in this section of the essay you will cite specific examples of the character's value system or use of language or whatever else that could help explain your dislike. If you liked the controlling metaphor of a poem, then in this section of the essay you will explain how that metaphor appears throughout the poem. If you were frustrated with a playwright's message, in this section of your essay you will cite specific passages in the play that were unclear to you.
The third part, which will consist of another few paragraphs, is the "why" part of the essay. In this section, you must gather and organize evidence about yourself to explain why you responded the way you did. No two readers are alike. Each of us brings something different to the works of literature we read. What in your background, your experience, your education, and your value system helped shape your response? Did the character you disliked resemble someone you knew in high school? If you were frustrated with the author's message, could that be because you have been taught that writers always put hidden messages in their works or that literature is like a riddle to be solved? If you liked a particular metaphor, can you account for how that metaphor has appeared in your life experiences?
This essay may not be easy to write. Part three, the "why" part, involves an activity that you may not have had to practice much in your previous literature courses. Part three asks you to examine yourself and to account for the part you play in your response to a text. Part three asks you to dig below the surface of your response. Just saying that you enjoyed a poem because you like nature images, or saying that you were irritated with a character in a short story because he was an immoral person--these statements are not enough. They are the beginning of what you must do in part three. Why do you like nature images? What are your moral standards and where did you get them?
As with all college-level essays, begin your assignment early enough that you have a chance to think, plan, and generate material before you begin writing. Revise your essay at least once, paying attention to matters of paragraph structure and the development and clarity of your ideas. Then be sure to proofread your essay before you print it. Remember--spellcheck will not catch everything that you might want to correct before submitting an essay. Remember, too, that even if you cite only one poem, you must attach a "work cited" page to the end of your essay.
Note: this essay's greatest strength is its use of details, both from the writer's life experiences and from the short story. It is also organized with the reader in mind. In order to provide a clear context for the details to come, the writer begins the paper with a short summary of the story. She then goes on to use her thesis statement and clear topic sentences to guide the reader from point to point and keep the essay flowing. The essay is five pages long, double-spaced, using 12-point type.
Arlene is not my Momma
Viramontes' short story, "Miss Clairol," takes the reader through a day in the life of Arlene, a single Hispanic mother, and her daughter, Champ. They begin their day at K-Mart in search for just the right beauty products for Arlene because she is going on a date that evening. After leaving without paying, they spend the day at home. Arlene prepares for the date while Champ assists her, watches television, and fixes herself dinner. Once Arlene is sufficiently fixed, she leaves for the date, ignoring Champ as she yells goodbye. Although I had to read "Miss Clairol" all the way through several times in order to develop a full understanding of the story and its purpose, I needed no extra reading to understand Arlene and my feelings about her. From the beginning of the story, my gut reaction to Arlene was disgust, and as I continued to read, my distaste only enlarged. Although I do not feel that Viramontes' sole purpose was to disturb the reader by her characterization of this single mother, that was what kept my attention from the moment she was introduced.
My dislike for Arlene began with the mere description of her physical appearance . When Arlene is first presented, she is depicted wearing "bell bottom jeans two sizes too small" and "a pink strapless tube top" (78). Not only do her clothes fit improperly, but "her stomach spills over the hip hugger jeans" as well (78). I next realized Arlene is accompanied by her young daughter, Champ. I was caught off guard by her blatant use of profanity in front of Champ. For example, she responds to Champ's question about which Miss Clairol box to grab saying, "Shit, mija, I dunno," and after dropping a gum wrapper on the ground, the simple comment, "Fuck it," expresses her nonchalant attitude about leaving her trash for someone else to clean (78).
Having been dissuaded by Arlene's appearance as well as her use of language before even reaching the end of the first page, it was easy to be disturbed by Arlene's desperate need to obtain approval on her physical appearance from her daughter. Every time Arlene has to make a decision on anything, including hair style, eye shadow color, and hair color, she asks Champ her opinion on the decision, always expecting positive feedback. The majority of the dialogue between Arlene and Champ consists of questions such as, "Will this color go good with Pancha's blue dress?" and "Should I wear my hair up?" (79). She needs someone to tell her that she looks good so that she will feel good about herself, and she chooses Champ to do the job. Her obvious dependency on verbal reassurance is frustrating enough, but the fact that she lets her daughter fill that gap in her life is infuriating.
After painting this vivid picture of a classless mother, Viramontes goes so far as to classify Arlene as romantic (80). The romance that Arlene is associated with, however, is entirely based on sex. Directly following the comment "Arlene is romantic" is the glamorized version of Arlene's first experience making love that she plans to share with Champ later in life. This experience took place when Arlene was merely eleven years old; therefore, all she has ever known about love since very early in her life involved sex. Furthermore, her entire process of getting ready for the date evolves around the sex that will accompany it. She reflects on how good it will feel when "he will unsnap her nylons," and she applies her perfume in such a way that will "permit them to grind their bodies together until she can feel a bulge in his pants and knows she's in for the night" (80). For Arlene, the whole concept of romance is directly associated with sex, and that increased my dislike for her to an ultimate high.
Although any average reader could probably find some reason to dislike Arlene in the beginning of the story, I found it strange that my contempt for her was only amplified as I continued to read the story. Even when I found that Viramontes was trying to blame society for Arlene's flaws and issues, I could not muster feelings of sympathy for her. I think this stems from the fact that I am so obviously unfamiliar with her parenting style and because I resent her offensive definition of romance.
Having grown up in a home extremely opposite of Arlene's, I am made uncomfortable by the drastic differences in her lifestyle and mine. In my household, and in any household I visited as a child, mothers dressed in what I believe to be the traditional style of mothers. Most of their clothes fit them properly, and even those whose clothes might have been a little too loose were at least modest. I have never seen my mother in a tube top, and I imagine she would be horrified to be seen in one. I associate the traditional, modest way of dressing with good parenting and, therefore, this immodest style with irresponsible parenting. Beyond the physical differences of my mother and Arlene, there are more deep seeded issues like language and level of self acceptance.
When I was in the seventh grade, I distinctly remember getting into serious trouble for my language. At the time, the twelve-year-olds from other schools around my area were beginning to slide by with casual uses of "shit" or "I don't give a damn," but that was not the case in my family. I once let the word "crap" slip in frustration for missing a shot in a game of backyard basketball, and one would have thought I had announced my intention to murder. Soon after, I mentioned that "having homework sucks," and similar looks of shocked disapproval were plastered on my parents' faces. Clearly, bad language was not acceptable in my household, and my parents would never dream of using profanity in front of me at such a young age. Because I was raised thinking this was the correct way to raise children, I was disturbed by Arlene's flippant use of bad language while talking to her daughter.
For the majority of my life there has been a serious emphasis on finding my identity within myself, instead of relying on other people to define me. After going to a very small, private, Christian school for all of my schooling through eighth grade, I transferred to a huge public school closer to home. Having been burned by fake Christians that swarm the private schools in Murfreesboro for eight years, I was desperate to find "real" people. The result was joining your typical "weird kid status" group of the high school realm because they were the only people I was certain acted the way they did because that was who they were, not because society told them to be that way. This need for self acceptance over social acceptance never faded, which caused my strong reaction to Arlene's need for constant reassurance on her physical appearance. Her plea for approval disgusts me because I associate her lack of self acceptance with the fake kids that turned me off so many years ago.
However, even if Arlene dressed like my mother, talked like my mother, and did not reek of self deprecation, I would still have been significantly repulsed by her because of her association with romance. Romance is the reason for every bit of serious trouble I have ever gotten into in my life, and this romance that I fought for is nothing like the romance Arlene has grown up with. As a developing young woman, I was enamored by the concept of romance. Females in today's society are exposed to romance very early in their lives due to the number of movies and shows that focus on love stories. When I watched the Disney movies as a child about falling in love, like "Cinderella" and "Beauty and the Beast," I defined romance for the first time. I saw characters finding their true selves while falling in love, and I saw princes going to drastic lengths to find and claim their princesses. As I grew, the movies became more sophisticated but contained similar plot lines. The Notebook says romance is sacrificing and waiting for a lover even if it means suffering, and Titanic exemplifies passion against all odds. Though sex played a minor role in several of these stories, it was never the climax. The point was not to get the girl, so that you could sleep with her; the emphasis was on the selfless chase for togetherness. Arlene never expresses a desire to chase after love. She never entertains the idea of falling slowly into deep love; she wishes to make love and move forward. Her endless cycle of having sex and then changing herself for the next man is so far from romantic in the way I understand the concept, that it angers me to hear about it. Arlene's misunderstanding of romance epitomizes my serious dislike for her.
My experience with good parenting and romance is so opposite of Arlene's parenting and ideas of romance that I am repulsed by them. Because it is so easy to develop set ideas of what is right and wrong concerning these concepts at such a young age, it is difficult to rid myself of the biases now that I am a young adult. These cultural biases that created the lens through which I read this story strongly affected my perception of Arlene in a way that no one else can experience.
- Viramontes, Helena. "Miss Clairol." Literature and Gender: Thinking Critically through Fiction,
- Poetry, and Drama. Eds. Robyn Wiegman and Elena Glasberg. New York: Longman, 1999. 78-81. Print.
The second paper brings together a number of emphases in the class by requiring you to see a text in the context of other texts and of your lived experience in your service activity. The focus of your essay is to compare your lived experience, or those of the people you spent time with in your service activity, to the experiences of characters in a story, play, or poem and to the experiences of one or more characters in Shipler's book on the working poor in America or one or more of the characters from Pascoe's book on masculinity. The purpose of your essay is to show what you have learned about a particular issue of gender, race, or socio-economic class by using examples from your readings and from your experiences in service-learning this term. In addition to these in-class elements, this paper must also make use of on-line research you conduct on your own on the issue of gender, race, or class that the paper addresses. This will be a longer and more complex paper than the first one, and you should begin earlier than you did on the first one.
If you would like some support as you write this essay, you may make an appointment with one of the tutors in the Writing Center. The tutors can provide help at any stage of the writing process--planning, drafting, revising, and editing.
Note: The writer of this paper uses a first-person approach when discussing her service experience, but she switches to an objective approach when discussing the literature. In addition, she does not assume that her reader will be able to remember details from the literature or tap into her memory about her experiences. In fact, she does not write as if her paper is intended for her teacher. She provides a clear context in which any reader can understand the details that make up her point.
Teach Me How You Learn
Accidentally taking Gender, Race, and Class in Literature at Birmingham Southern College is one of the best mistakes I have made thus far. After failing to register for classes correctly on my first attempt, the struggle to find a mandatory explorations studies credit became crucial months later when I was warned that I had a matter of days to find one and all of them were full. Miscommunication after miscommunication ensued until I stumbled upon the only option that would fulfill the credit as well as fit in my class schedule--Gender, Race, and Class in Literature. Frantically trying to resolve the issue, I emailed the appropriate authorities to verify that it would work, and the response I received included the first mention of having to complete service hours in order to take the class. Although my schedule as a year around athlete does not leave ample free time for service, I agreed that I could do it without a second thought simply to resolve the dilemma. This seemingly mindless agreement was the first step to an outstanding adventure in which I was able to explore several different aspects of society as well as take an in depth look at the effects of poverty on school systems. The process as well as the results of this exploration taught me more than I ever could have imagined about what has happened to the school systems that are so unfairly stricken by poverty and more importantly about why they are the way they are.
The concern with schools and their need for improvement is not a new concept. It has, however, been a prominent issue within the last twenty years. Before the presidential election of 2000, surveyed voters reported that the most important policy issue to them was improving schools. They ranked it over other important issues such as encouraging traditional moral values and standards and protecting social security (Lyons). I began my investigation of the issue by choosing tutoring at Bush Hills Academy as my service learning venue for the class. I was assigned a teacher to help and was told to show up to the school at random, and the teacher would provide me with instructions. However, entering this foreign culture for the first time was less than comfortable. It reminded me of the short story "The Lesson" in which a young girl by the name of Sylvia is taken to an expensive toy store for the first time. While there she begins to make the realization that there is a world out there that is very different from her own. There is a world out there where people spend one thousand one hundred ninety five dollars on a toy sail boat--an amount that would feed Sylvia's family for a year (Bambara) . Bambara's use of the common plot involving a quest where the character leaves, discovers something new, and returns enlightened seemed to parallel my journey to Bush Hills. In entering Bush Hills for the first time I discovered a school system that was very different from any I had seen before. This was a school system where yelling is frequent, chaos is the norm, and education is overshadowed by social and societal difficulties. Intrigued by the difference in this school and those I had been familiar with, I began the search for reasoning. I attempted to discover why this school system varies so drastically from my own. What I discovered from the four kids I worked with biweekly is what appears to be a chain of events starting from treatment in the home and ending with an unsuccessful school system.
The event that jump starts this chain reaction is the parenting in the homes of these students, many of which struggle to survive under the poverty line. Though it would be unfair to generalize that every student at Bush Hills experiences the same issues as the four first graders I work with, I cannot help but wonder if this is not the source of the school's problems as a whole. Amongst the chaotic chatter at the beginning of each session when I sit down to talk with Keionte, Cedric, Shanteryl, and Precious about the past days' events I hear stories no parent wishes to be shared. Fortunately for my curiosity, seven-year-olds do not have much of a filter and, therefore, I heard stories of every kind. Cedric showed me scratches on his arms from the day he got a "woopin" because he misbehaved. He explained it nonchalantly as if that was an everyday activity. Shanteryl, the most loving of the four, resorted to using the word "hate" several times in explaining her home life. She spoke of moving out of her auntie's house to go live with her mother because, "She hit my brother. I hate that." And she told me she no longer likes her biological father because "He had a baby. I hate that." Her retelling of the struggles of constantly changing households made me wonder if they were related to her struggles in school. Like Mrs. L said in The Working Poor, "If you don't have a roof over your head, you don't know who you're living with--I wouldn't care about English either" (Shipler 239). But the parenting problems that I am suggesting start the downward spiral for the school system are not limited to these obvious flaws. In the chapter, "Sins of our Fathers," Shipler talks about videos that the Baltimore Malnutrition clinic kept documenting how low-income parents interact with their children. Many were observed to simply be ignorant on how to interact with them correctly. They would do things like mock their child's abilities and steal toy blocks to make their own towers (Shipler 163). Whether it be from ignorance or intentional neglect many of these children are not living a healthy childhood due to the treatment they are receiving.
Though faulty parenting can be found at any socio-economic level, the effects seem to be more drastic at the lower levels. Shipler defends his argument about the power of parenting saying, "This does not mean that poor people are automatically worse parents than rich. It means that neglectful parenting can have more damaging results in poverty" (161). Amidst their complicated home life, these young students continue to go unnoticed. They do not get the attention they need. If they were receiving their required attention, they would not reach for my hand the moment they met me because they recognized the concept of me as automatic attention. They would not need the affirmation that these kids ask for as displayed in the note Precious drew for me saying, "You are the bist. You lak pretty. but will you come bak? i love you but do you love me?" Eventually these kids stop trying to get the attention at home much like Champ in Viramontes' "Miss Clairol." "Miss Clairol" carries the reader through a day in the life of an American-Hispanic woman and her daughter, Champ. Treating her daughter as more of a friend than daughter, she makes Champ compliment her and help her prepare for a date. Once she is ready, she leaves for her date ignoring Champ as she calls goodbye. Champ is clearly used by her mother to boost her self esteem and does not receive the proper attention. However, she no longer fights for it and merely prepares her own dinner and entertains herself. Similarly, the Bush Hills students have given up trying to get the attention at home. They have found they can get it elsewhere--the classroom.
Kids will do almost anything to get this attention that they have not gotten at home but so desperately need. Gwen, a professor and director at a family support clinic, acknowledged this attention as necessary saying, "When parents complain, 'Oh, they're just trying to get attention,' that's because it's attention that they need. When they grow up, people will pay $100 an hour just to get attention that they need" (Shipler 165). Once, when Keionte was not allowed to join us for a tutoring session, Shanterly told me he had taken his shoes and socks off during class after being told not to do so. Other classic examples of fighting for attention include laying down in the floor instead of working and talking over other students. Trying to handle these senseless actions and rebellions starts to obviously affect how well a classroom, or in my case a tutoring session, runs. While we were taking turns reading, Cedric would just lay down on the floor, so that I would have to interrupt whoever was reading in order to get him to pay attention. They would constantly interrupt each other with random facts like, "I got a girlfren," and "You look like a breadstick." In their minds anything is fair game for them to use as long as the end result is my full attention on them.
If I learned nothing else from these experiences at Bush Hills, I learned to sympathize with the teachers that work there. They have been entrusted with a nearly impossible job of dealing with these attention deprived students. It is so easy to judge the teachers from a distance and blame them for the problems with the school system until you spend a little time in their shoes. After trying to control my four seven-year-olds for only an hour at a time, I leave the school utterly exhausted. Often teachers in schools strongly affected by poverty are blamed for being lazy or simply never having the desire for their students to succeed. However, after experiencing the stress and chaos involved in working with them, I have started to comprehend some of the reasoning behind their actions. Working with students who are not set up for success by their families can seem like a hopeless cause. No work gets done outside the classroom and inside the classroom everyone is fighting for attention. Mr. I explained it best in The Working Poor when he described teaching as always working against "a general feeling of dysfunction and chaos" (Shipler 240). Attempting to contain a classroom of twenty first graders is physically as well as mentally draining. Therefore, teachers rely on the only discipline that seems to work.
A seven-year-old of any socio-economic class is going to react most effectively to the discipline style they receive most commonly at home. The discipline that the students at Bush Hills are accustomed to is incredibly different from the style with which I grew up. In fact, I imagine my parents would not stand for me to be treated the way these children are treated. The most common form of discipline I saw at Bush Hills was harsh, sometimes insulting, yelling. When Keionte would jump up and get to the other side of the library before I could call him back, another adult would stop him saying, "Whatchoo doin, boy? Why you so bad?" This technique does, in fact, stop them in their tracks, but it creates a less than effective learning environment. The classroom becomes a place of restriction and chaos, rather than education and peace. Fighting the chaos becomes a priority over educating children. It does not function this way by choice, but because the chain of events leading up to it inevitably leads to this result.
I felt accomplished having discovered this chain of events involving insufficient parenting leading to a lack of attention in children which leads to a desire to get the needed attention at school. This need, in turn, leads to unruly and disruptive behavior, which leads to frustrated and hopeless teachers which finally results in an ineffective classroom environment. I never would have imagined that I would have made such discoveries from struggling to control four sweet but wild seven year olds for a couple hours each week. Hearing them explain it from their own perspectives made me strongly doubt that they knew their lives were any different than mine. I do not think their young, sheltered eyes have yet discovered that the school and situations they have been uncontrollably put in have made success not impossible but significantly more challenging. It reminded me of someone who was able to defy the odds and obtain success from similarly disadvantaged circumstances. When Rick Bragg made it out of poverty he was able to look back at his childhood and reminisce some of the things he had to do with his family out of desperation like search through the city dump for toys. When describing that point in his life in his book All Over but the Shoutin' he said, " It would be years before I was old enough to realize that the way we lived was somehow less than the way of other people" (42). Though poverty might not impact these students so drastically, I think they are blinded by the same childhood innocence that Bragg describes.
Besides simply enlightening me on the many different aspects involved in working at underprivileged schools, my experiences at Bush Hills demolished some of the undeserved prejudices I had against the system. Though it does not justify its flaws, obtaining a better understanding of what causes the flaws of the system makes it easier to understand and sympathize with those involved. The things I learned from this adventure have permanently changed the ways I view the way poverty can affect a school system and the way I will understand people who have the strength to work in these underprivileged schools.
- Bambara, Toni. "The Lesson." Literature and Gender: Thinking Critically through Fiction, Poetry,
- and Drama. Eds, Elana Glasberg and Robyn Wiegman. New York: Longman, 1999. 31-36. Print.
- Bragg, Rick. All Over But the Shoutin'. New York: Pantheon, 1997. Print.
- Lyons, Robert. "The Influence of Socioeconomic Factors on Kentucky's Public School Accountability
- System: Does Poverty Impact School Effectiveness?" Education Policy Analysis Archives. 12. 37 (2004): 3. Web.
- Shipler, David. The Working Poor: Invisible in America. New York: Random, 2005. Print.
- Viramontes, Helena. "Miss Clairol." Literature and Gender: Thinking Critically through Fiction,
- Poetry, and Drama. Eds, Elana Glasberg and Robyn Wiegman. New York: Longman, 1999. 78-81. Print.