There there by Tommy Orange

Final Paper: Place and Identity

Assignment description:

The texts that we’ve discussed in this class have all been broadly themed around the intersection of place and cultural or personal identity. In your final essay, you will exploring how identity (cultural, political, personal, or any combination of these) is shaped by place–or how the experience of a place is shaped by identity–in at least one of the works that we’ve discussed this semester. This can be a novel, short story, poem, or movie.

You may write about a text that you’ve discussed in either your first or second essay, but not both. That is: 2/3 of your essays for this semester can be about the same text, but not all three.


  • Your first option is a close reading. Same drill as your first essay: pick a short passage or scene from a text, annotate that passage, and argue for what this passage reveals about the intersection of place and identity in the text.
  • Your second option is to compare two texts from a specific angle. One of those texts may be a work–movie, novel, etc.–that was not on the syllabus. If you choose to write about a work that we haven’t gone over together, you should email me first to get my go-ahead.
  • Your final option is to choose a significant locale in one of the texts that we’ve read and analyze its role within the narrative.

    Scope of the paper

    • An okay paper describes what is happening. A good paper makes an argument. A strong argument is one that is robustly supported by the text, but which a reader could reasonably argue against.
    • Avoid starting your paper off with a grand statement about the human condition or generalizations. It provides fodder for your skeptics to argue against. Better yet: avoid generalizations throughout.
    • Practice genre awareness: if you are writing a paper about literature, try and keep the claims that you’re making germane to the text. That’s not to say that social issues or history has no place in your paper. Stories and poems can and do comment on social issues. However, you should generally try and limit your argument to what the text is saying about a given topic, rather than discoursing broadly on the topic as a whole.
      • For example: a paper might focus on Octavia Butler’s representation of climate change in Parable of the Sower. That paper might even note (briefly!) in opening or closing that the book’s representation of natural disaster feels particularly prescient, given recent events. However, the bulk of the paper should be on Butler’s representation of climate change and how the idea of climate change works in the novel, not about the pressing importance of a Green New Deal.
    • Avoid generalizations about historical and social conditions in particular.
      • Outside research is not a requirement for these essays, but if you’re going to talk about how a passage/work reflects on the historical moment in which it was written, you absolutely MUST do the homework to talk in specific, accurate detail about that historical circumstance. Otherwise, you risk sounding ignorant (best case) or straight up racist.
      • Many of the books that we have read this semester deal with trauma or oppression in one way or another. This does not mean that that ultimate goal of each book is to show how Native Americans/Black people/women/queer people were/are oppressed and erased.

    Thesis statements

    • The thesis statement should provide a sense of the argument’s scope from the beginning of the paper. It should be detailed, precise, and make an argument.
      • Not so good: “In “Portrait in Georgia,” Jean Toomer uses description to develop his themes.”
        • Description of what? What are his themes? How does this description work to develop his themes? This thesis statement actually tells us next to nothing about what the writer is planning to argue and how they plan to go about making that argument.
      • Getting warmer: “In “Portrait in Georgia,” Jean Toomer uses his description of a beautiful woman to introduce his readers to the horrors of lynching.”
        • This thesis statement gives more details about what Toomer is describing and why. However, it doesn’t make the connection between these two seemingly disparate things clear to the reader.
      • Quite good: “Jean Toomer’s ”Portrait in Georgia” is written as a series of metaphors comparing a white woman’s features to images of Black men being lynched. By connecting the subject of his “Portrait” to these crimes, Toomer reminds his reader that the protection of white femininity has often been used as a justification for racist violence.”
        • This thesis statement tells us what Toomer is describing (a woman), how (through metaphors), what makes that remarkable (they are metaphors of violent lynching), and why that’s important (to emphasize that white women are as culpable in racist violence as white men).
    • An essay is not a mystery novel, you’re not trying to shock your reader with a twist when you reveal the truth at the end. Be upfront about what you’re arguing so that your reader can appropriately evaluate your claims.


    • Each of your paragraphs should have a topic sentence that signals to the reader what that paragraph is about. Like your thesis statement, that topic sentence should be specific and tell the reader not only what is going on, but why.
    • One paragraph should follow on logically from the next.
    • One idea=one paragraph. If you’re talking about metaphors in a passage or story, don’t include every metaphor in one paragraph


    • Make sure you back up your claims with specific evidence from the text (quotes or summary). Tailor your evidence to the point that you’re making. If you’re making an assertion about plot, character, setting, etc., you might paraphrase. If you’re talking about language, then you should include direct quotes as examples.
      • It’s especially important to use examples if you’re trying to make an argument about tone or describe the emotional effect of an author’s language choices.
    • Your observations and evidence should not be self-evident.
      • Saying that an author creates a “feeling of melancholy” by using words like “sad,” “tears” and “wept” isn’t an argument: those are words that are literally associated with sadness. Instead, you want to focus your argument around the unexpected, less obvious, and remarkable (which literally means: worthy of being remarked upon). An author describing a sad character as “sad” isn’t notable. An author using the word “sad” ten times in a single paragraph is notable.
    • Similarly, identifying a literary device also isn’t an argument. Saying that “Dusk is a leitmotif” is an observation that might kick off a close reading, but it isn’t sufficient as a claim. All that the reader is learning with that claim is that “dusk” is a repeated image throughout the text. Why is that important? What does it mean?
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