This essay assignment is the keystone writing assignment built upon the twin pillars of history and community culture in the arch of a university composition course. This course at Kennesaw State University, grounded in the writing process, emphasizes primary and secondary research activities. Drawing from KCAC’s emphasis on authentic research, which includes site visits, interviews, and oral histories, this essay assignment begins with one of these primary research activities. The students adapt the assignment to their particular interests and backgrounds. They examine evidence of existing or ignored communities in their area through an actual observation or an interview. This essay assignment nudges students to discover the complex historical forces that create and sustain communities around them.
To identify, understand, and critique present communities and research their historical underpinnings from multidisciplinary perspectives.
Students are encouraged to read essays that analyze neighborhoods, that value the notion of observing the local to understand the global, and that examine how their “homeplace” shapes their lives. They view film clips, listen to audio tapes or radio briefs, and view professional and amateur photographs (mine). They generate possible topics drawn from the local, regional, and national newspapers. And then they “take to the streets” to explore. They visit sites and ask questions of local residents or family members.
An outline of this instructional sequence is included below:
I. Introductory reading/viewing/listening:
- Essays: “Homeplace” by Scott Russell Sanders; “No Place Like Home: On the Manicured Streets of a Master-Planned Community” by David Guterson; “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story” by Paul Auster
- Poetry: “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost; “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. AudenPhotography: “Photographs of 65 East 125th Street, Harlem” by Camilo Jose Vergara; and photographs of my neighborhood
- Film/TV: Smoke, American Beauty, Simpsons’ episodesAudio: NPR’s This American Life; Carmen Deedy’s Growing up Cuban in Decatur, Georgia
II. Generating TopicsNewspapers: Searching The Atlanta Journal- Constitution community news sectionsClass discussionsTaking photographs—digital camera
III. Primary ResearchSite Observations--handoutInterviews—(see Curious Researcher: double-entry journal)
IV. Secondary Research
- Library Resources
- Internet Searches
- The students’ writing develops through stages of the writing process, collaborating with peers in the classroom, and often newly-interested community members. They are asked to research secondary, expert (academic, peer-reviewed) sources from as many diverse disciplines as possible. And lastly, they are asked to reflect on the process, the product, and the opportunities for publication.
- The essay assignment I gave to my students reads as follows:“We are beginning to look around our ‘homeplace’ for evidence of existing or ignored communities to discover the complex historical forces that sustain or oppose them. Through extended observation and research of a chosen community, we will gather material to write a report that describes, explores, and critiques its features.
- Select a place (or person) that represents evidence of an existing community in your region, whether urban, rural, or suburban.
- Develop good questions for research.
- Conduct a site observation AND/OR an interview, taking careful notes.
- Begin drafting your paper and gathering secondary sources from a broad range of disciplines.
- Peer Conference with at least two classmates. Hone your questions.
- Revise, edit, and proofread your completed draft.
- Include images/illustrations (optional)—photographs, drawings, cartoons, advertising, brochures.
- Write a reflection on the writing/research process.
- Present your paper during class; identify possibilities for publication.
- Five to eight pages. MLA Documentation. Works cited page.
The following is an excerpt from one student’s thirteen-page researched manuscript:
There are many obstacles the 1.5 generation1 has to overcome. I have had to ask myself many times, “Who am I?” Growing up in this unknown subculture was very confusing at times. Since ignorant children and adults taunted and teased us, it caused us to hate our self-image. We were called “slanted eyes”; “ching chong Chinese” and they even made physical gestures pulling their own eyes apart from the sides to make them slanted. So isn’t it natural for a child to want to fit in? I wanted folds on my eyelids like the American people had. In order to get those folds on the lid, I used to take a sharp object and draw the line on my lid and hope that I could make it fold.
My best friend in the fourth grade in PS 71 in Ridgewood, New York, was Japanese-American. Her name was Miyuki Saito. She was beautiful. She was tall, thin, had straight black hair, and her eyes, they were beautiful. They had perfect folds on them. I asked her how she got her eyes that way and she said her mother did them with an eye surgery kit she had at home. When I went over to her house in Elmhurst, New York, her mother offered to do my eyes. I was too scared, too scared of the knife, too scared of my mother, and most of all too scared of my father. Some of us even put tape on the lid or glue to get the lid to fold. This may sound strange to non-Asians, but this is a known fact that the majority of us have spent countless hours obsessing about that damn fold on the eyelid!
One summer in the late 70s, my mother went back to
Koreato visit her family. When she came back, she looked different. Her eyes were swollen. She didn’t look like my mother anymore. She had folds on her eyes. “Are you my Ahmmah? (mom)” I asked her, while touching her new eyes. Years later, I came to understand that it was my father who wanted my mother to get the eye surgery so she looked more American. He naturally has small folds on his eyes so he already “fit in.” His hair is also slightly wavy and he already knew the essential curses to be an American.
The eye was not the only physical trait we try to change. We also want our hair to be brown or even blond. As I am writing this, I am still struggling with this desire. I write this paper with brown, auburn and blond highlights in my hair. We also want curly hair. We didn’t want the pin-straight hair. I must have curled, body-waved, and spiral-permed my hair two dozen times. I still remember my first perm. I was thirteen and my girlfriend gave me a home perm. I loved it! It was so new and different. I felt free and refreshed. I literally walked around showing my hair off and puffing up at the ends with my hands as you see in the movies. I thought I was in! But that was an excited misconception. No matter what I do with my physical looks I will always look like an immigrant Asian.
“I thoroughly enjoyed doing research and writing my paper on the 1.5 generation subculture. I was amazed how all we 1.5ers have gone through similar struggles and in the process became the people we are today. It was also great connecting with my family to discuss our childhood. We mentioned our individual problems in the past but never really connected with the fact that it was mostly due to our complex cultural identity.
I have learned to understand what has happened to me, and to make my children’s lives easier, by helping them deal with closed-minded people. I also want to help them embrace all three of their heritages [Korean, Hungarian, and American]. I will make definite plans to learn my Korean language and learn about our history and culture. It has become my desire.”
Eun Hee’s essay, her enthusiasm for the writing and research, and the personal and cultural connections she made, all underscore how relevant this essay assignment can be. She was able to research her immigrant experience through interviews with family and friends, drawing upon her own memories and recasting them within broader historical and cultural contexts. She began to see her immigrant experience in relation to other Korean Americans. She also began to develop her definition of what it means to be an American. Through her writing and research she developed a growing understanding of individual experience within a larger community. Her work represented authentic learning in the classroom.
Eun Hee’s work captivated her classmates when she presented it, for many of them were unfamiliar with her experiences. Of course, her honesty and willingness to share these experiences were at the center of her writing, but the essay assignment allowed her to explore and document her immigrant experience, thus validating its importance as subject matter. Her experience evokes so many questions for all students to consider—What does it mean to be an American? How do we try to “fit in” physically and emotionally? How do we value one culture while adapting to another?
This essay assignment has the breadth and scope to accommodate all these questions and more.
What I particularly like about this assignment is how it begins with a primary research activity, thus creating a valid or authentic experience for the writer/researcher. When students move to secondary, expert sources, they begin to see their topic in a fuller context—framed against historical or community-related issues. In short, they begin to see culture at work in their personal lives. This transformation is suggested in Eun Hee’s reflection when she considers that she and her family had discussed individual concerns but never “really connected with the fact that it was mostly due to our complex cultural identity.” I consider that growth and new understanding a significant step in this student’s education.
-- This project could be narrowed in focus to examine different cultures that inhabit either a school building or the surrounding community. Class members might begin by interviewing other students, which process could also allow the interviewed students to become more aware of their own cultural identity and to delve into their family history and customs. See “American Immigration Project.”
-- This project could also be a school-wide interdisciplinary effort.
■ Science students research a particular area of environmental concern in their community
■ Social Studies students research different significant historical events of the community
■ Fine arts students research local cultural artifacts
■ English students research language development, i.e. dialectical usage
■ Technology students might help design multi-media presentations of the collated information
-- See Deborah Mitchell and Traci Blanchard’s “Critical Reading, Imaginative Reading, and the Me Montage” for further research suggestions.
-- See “Thematic Content” link, “Shifting Landscapes, Converging Peoples” section at http://kcac.kennesaw.edu for PowerPoint presentation of local suburban research.
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