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Assignment for “Honed To Perfection”

21W.022.01 Spring 2015: Writing and Experience: Reading and Writing Autobiography

Louise Harrison Lepera


 II. Personal Investigative Essay

In the first assignment, you generated raw material for autobiographical writing and then shaped it through a rigorous revision process into a polished memoir essay. In the second assignment you will follow a similar creative process, but with the added element of working with sources to provide more context and deeper insight into your life experience.

You will begin by identifying an aspect of your life or the life of your family that you want to investigate; then, you will pose a research question that will give you a focus; next, you will devote a proportion of your writing process to locating and using primary and secondary source materials to help you answer it; and finally, you will use your revision skills to hone your investigation so that it becomes a lively, illuminating, and authoritative essay.

As well as analyzing some autobiographical writing that has similar aims, we will spend some time in class discussing how to identify promising research questions and how to use those questions to find your sources.  On Monday 3/16 we will host Mark Szarko, an MIT reference librarian, who will advise you on how to best mine the MIT Libraries for this assignment. After you settle on your research question, you will meet with a reference librarian in the field you are investigating for some specialist research advice. We will also devote some class time to talking about good practices in summarizing, synthesizing, citing, quoting, and paraphrasing source texts so that you can integrate your research effectively into your essay.


Required readings:

Steve Almond, from Candy Freak

Jonathan Franzen, “My Father’s Brain”

Gretel Ehrlich, “Darkness Visible” from This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland

Roxane Gay, “I Was Once Miss America”


Student essays:

Xunjie Li “1927”

Noah Caplan, “Squeeze Chairs”


Further reading:

Jenevieve Ting, “Seeing Myself in Fresh off the Boat

Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Last Trial”

David Foster Wallace, “Shipping Out” (longer version is titled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”)

Roxane Gay, “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically”


Monday, 3/16: Library Research class with Reference Librarian, Mark Szarko.

No preparation required, but if you wish you may bring to class some notes on the topics you’d like to research.


Wednesday, 3/18: Pre-Draft #1 (2 pages)

(Due in class. Bring three copies).

Summarize three memories or ideas that would form starting points for an investigative essay.

For each of these proposals, formulate the question that you would hope your research would answer. Here are some examples that illustrate how some memoir ideas from the first assignment could be developed by researching primary and secondary sources:


Eg. Why and how was the canal system developed in south Florida where Nikko played as a   child? Or, what kind of eco-system has developed around the canals in this part of  South Florida?

What is the current state of political relations between Cambodia and Thailand (or between   the US and one of those) that forms the context of Sebastian’s nerve-wracking border crossing?

What is the history of Swedish universities’ “Nations” and how do they compare to the Greek system at MIT?


Wednesday, 3/18-Friday 3/20: Meet with a reference librarian

You will want to schedule this in advance for this week, so that the librarian can help you locate the sources that you will include in your annotated bibliography (see below).


Monday, 3/30: Pre-draft #2 (3 pages).

(Due in class)

Plan also to bring at least one of your sources to class for an in-class writing activity.


This pre-draft assignment has two parts:

1. Explain the question you plan to answer through your research (About 200 words)

2. Provide an annotated bibliography for your investigative essay, in which you briefly summarize each source you plan to use and explain how each source you have identified will contribute to your project. (Links for resources on annotated bibliographies are provided at the Stellar site).


Monday 4/6: Personal Investigative Essay, First Draft

(Due at 11:59PM via email)

Note: change to class schedule: discussing Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics instead of class workshop


Wednesday, 4/8  Class Workshop on Personal Investigative Essay first drafts


Thursday-Friday 4/9-4/10 First drafts returned in conferences


Friday 4/10 – Tuesday 4/14: Meet with writers’ review groups (pods) to discuss revisions and respond to drafts. (Pod groupings TBA)

Instructions: Sharing feedback and discussing your writing with thoughtful fellow writers is an essential part of the writing process. Not only that, but giving effective feedback in a supportive, collaborative way is also a crucial professional skill, as is working in groups.

Therefore, after you receive your first drafts back from me, plan to hold a pod meeting outside of class time. I will give you a questionnaire to guide these mini-workshops, but you are free to meet where and when you wish as an independent, collaborative group. Your responses to each other will form a vital part of your revision process and you’ll be submitting the written responses you receive as part of your complete assignment package on 4/15

If you experience any difficulties (eg. with contacting a podmate, or with the group process) don’t hesitate to contact me.


Wednesday, 4/15: Personal Investigative Essay Revision

(Due in class)

Instructions: To complete this final stage of the Personal Investigative Essay assignment, you will revise your first draft, using responses from your pod, my comments, and the revision strategies we will have discussed in class to guide your work.


To receive your grade you will need to submit the following in a two-pocket folder:

[    ]  Pre-drafts 1 and 2 with my comments

[    ]   The first draft with my comments

[    ]   The responses you received from your pod

[    ]   Your polished revision, presented attractively

[    ]  A letter to me (250-300 words)  in which you describe and reflect on the process of writing this essay. Be sure to explain which of the responses and comments and which essays and memoirs you read (published or by classmates) influenced the ways in which you revised and reimagined your memoir essay.  Assess, if you can, its strengths and weaknesses and indicate what skills or aspects of writing autobiography you would like to focus on strengthening next.