Short, Informal Writing Assignments in a Literature Course

Sherry Reames
Professor Sherry Reames offers a great mix of activities and assignments that teach invaluable skills to students learning how to write about literature.

Because there were nearly 200 students in the class this spring, Professor Reames broke students into two groups, each of which were required to turn in responses on different days (usually Wed and Fri of the same week). The assignments served the purposes of getting the students to read carefully and think about the texts before the lectures, giving her and her TAs some feedback on how well students were understanding the course material, and prompting them to give special attention to details of poetic style, including versification.

The following assignments are all about 1-2 typed, double-spaced pages. Students received grades of either check, check plus, check minus, or no credit/do it over, with a focus primarily on content, though clear, effective expression was also valued.

The informal assignments, lecture attendance, and final exam together comprised 25% of the course grade. Students who did consistently well on the assignments and came very regularly to lectures were excused from taking the final.

In addition to the following assignments, students completed three formal papers, written in draft stages.

Topic 1 (students were given their choice among these three questions)

(a) Compare the General Prologue portrait of the Parson with that of the Friar. What do you see as the most important differences between the two?

(b) Among all the church professionals described in the General Prologue, which seems to be the worst, and why? (Be sure to define what you mean by "worst." Most wicked? Most dangerous? etc.)

(c) Why do you think Chaucer included the idealized portraits of the Parson and Plowman among the other pilgrims? What is the effect of these portraits? What do they add (either to the surrounding portraits or to the General Prologue as a whole)?

Topic 2

(for Wednesday): What do you make of the story that Fradubio tells the Red Cross Knight in canto 2? What is Spenser suggesting about the relationship between Fradubio and Fraelissa? (Consider their names as well as the account of what happened to them.) In what ways does Fradubio's experience parallel that of RC himself so far? What keeps RC from putting two and two together after he hears this story?

(for Friday): What do you make of the strange episode involving Abessa, Corceca, and Kirkrapine (Faerie Queene, Book I, canto 3, lines 87-221)? What is Spenser suggesting about these three characters and the relationship(s) between them? What does this episode show us about the lion? About Una herself?

Topic 3

(for Wednesday): (a) Scan 6-8 lines of a Sidney sonnet that was not discussed in lecture, marking stressed and unstressed syllables, metrical feet, caesuras, and other significant pauses. Use footnotes to discuss any cases where the stress pattern was hard to be sure about. (b) Then briefly comment on how the versification of the lines [that is, the metrical variations you found, major and minor pauses within the line, end-stopping or enjambment at the end of the line, and rhyme scheme] contributes to the effect of what the lines are saying.

(for Friday) Same assignment, but in place of Sidney you can choose to write on one of the Shakespeare sonnets that was not discussed in lecture OR in your discussion section.