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Cultural Analysis Essay Format

Gregory Eiselein

ENGL 655 Multicultural American Literature | Gregory Eiselein | Fall 2004

Essay 1: Cultural Analysis

Basic Assignment. This assignment asks you to write a critical essay that provides a cultural analysis of a multicultural American literary text written before World War I, something prior to literary modernism and on our syllabus.

Purpose. This assignment is built on the premise that understanding a particular culture will help us to better appreciate and comprehend that culture’s literary productions, just as a careful reading of a literary text may lead us to better understand the culture from which it emerged.  In this paper, you will practice and develop the skills associated with the second, third, and fourth of our five primary course goals.

Cultural Analysis. For the purposes of this assignment, "cultural analysis" means making connections between a text we've read and the cultural contexts in which that text emerged or circulated. It does not exclude the formal analysis of a text (indeed some of the very best cultural criticism uses analysis of form); but cultural analysis moves beyond the boundaries of the text itself to establish links among texts, values, institutions, groups, practices, and people.

 Here are some examples of the questions that a critic developing a cultural analysis might ask:

 •    What kinds of behavior does this text seem to encourage or enforce?

•    What are the social purposes or functions of this text?

•    Why might readers at different times and different places find this text compelling?

•    What are the differences between my values and the values implicit in the text?

•    Upon what social understanding does the text depend?

•    How might this text affect the freedom or movement of a person or groups of persons?

•    How is this text connected to larger social groups, beliefs, structures, issues, ideas, events, habits, customs, practices, or communications?

 These are just examples. The specific questions, form, and content of you paper should be tailored to your own talents and interests. In other words, you will develop your own topic for this paper. It also means that some of these papers may be deeply informed by cultural theory; others may not. Some will want to develop a very precise idea of what “cultural analysis” means; others will not. Some will use a great deal of historical research; others only a little. Some papers will use mostly primary documents to construct an understanding of an early American cultural context; others will rely on secondary sources; and others may use a mix of both. All these papers, however, must use documents and sources beyond the literary text itself.

Proposals. I will need a proposal from everyone sometime before September 24. I will accept three different kinds of proposals: 1) a paper conference with me; 2) a one-page, typed explanation of the option you’ve selected and a preliminary indication of what you would like to do with the topic; or 3) an e-mail version of #2.

What-I’m-Really-Looking-For. Just so you know, when I’m reading these papers, I’ll be asking myself the following questions:

•    Does the paper move beyond an analysis of a text in isolation, the text itself?

•    Does it focus on a multicultural American literary text written before World War I, something prior to literary modernism and on our syllabus?

•    Does it make links between the text and its culture (i.e., values, institutions, groups, practices, or people)?

•    Does the paper make specific and interesting claims about the text and culture examined?

•    Does it explain in a clear and persuasive manner its interpretation of the text and its cultural contexts?

•    Does it support that interpretation with judiciously chosen evidence, including most importantly appropriate, direct references to the text?

•    Is it organized in a way that makes clear (rather than detracts from) the argument’s major claims and emphases?

•    Does it acknowledge its primary and secondary sources using a bibliography and a clear and consistent style of documentation?

•    Would the paper be interesting to others in the class? Does it avoid saying the obvious?

Revisions. After I return your papers (on October 8th probably), please read my comments. If at that point, you would like to revise your paper, please do so. Revisions will be due one week after papers have been returned (October 15th). A revision does not automatically receive a better grade. The revision must be substantially improved. It must demonstrate significant change in ideas and focus, arrangement and organization, or evidence and development. Simply correcting typos or making editing corrections will not change the grade.

To submit a revision, please: 1) Write a summary explaining why and how you revised—for example, how and why you decided to change the focus and organization; why you deleted or added a certain part; why and how you rearranged information; and so on. 2) Hand-in your revision, your original paper, and my original comments along with your summary explaining the changes.

Due Date. Friday, October 1

Length. 5-8 typed, double-spaced pages

ENG101 -- English Composition I

Prof. Eileen Joy (Fall 2003)

Essay 2

Cultural Critique

In-Class Draft WorkshopWed., Oct. 29th
Final Draft DueWed., Nov. 5th
Format4-5 pages, double-spaced, 1"-margins

In this essay, you are going to practice your hand at cultural critique. By "culture," I mean "the artistic products of a society at any given moment in history," but that is also a broad definition. For your purposes in this essay, "culture" refers to contemporary youth culture and its ideas about style and "coolness," and also to advertising and marketing campaigns that revolve around the selling of products (clothing, food, cars, music, games, etc.) to American high school and college students. For the purposes of this essay, "culture" also refers to the different ways people on the inside and the outside of youth culture perceive its beliefs and values and modes of presentation. By "critique," I mean "a critical judgment or assessment." Therefore, in your "cultural critique" essay, you will demonstrate your abilities to thoughtfully analyze and critically comment upon one specific aspect of the marketing of youth culture.

It is important here to understand that when you undertake a "cultural critique," you are not commenting upon something only to determine whether or not you "like" or "dislike" it--that is critical writing at its most simplistic, and is similar to what a movie or music reviewer does. However, even a "reviewer" has to make some kind of value judgment based upon certain criteria--in other words, the writer has to make an evaluation ("good" vs. "bad" or "entertaining" vs. "boring") and also provide the reasoning behind that evaluation, and the same thing has to happen in your cultural critique. So, yes, a "cultural critique" involves evaluation and judgment, but it is first and foremost an "analysis": a "taking apart" and "explaining" how, for example, the Abercrombie & Fitch website actually "works"--how is it presented to us (image-wise, text-wise, audio- and video-wise, the arrangement of all the elements, etc.), what signals and messages does it convey, what kind of "brand essence" does it present, what "world" or group does it invoke, what kind of response is it trying to trigger, how is it trying to "connect" with your needs and desires on a psychological or social level? Further, what does the website look like on the surface, and what lurks underneath--what messages are overt (obvious), and what messages are implied (hidden)? And so on and so forth. And after commenting on how the website actually "works" to display/convey itself to its niche market--high school and college students--you could evaluate and judge it on any number of levels. For example, is the advertising racist? Is it sexist? Is it successful? Is it truthful (and on what level or levels)? Is it socially harmful in any way? Is it immoral? Does it matter if it's immoral or socially harmful? Does it, as O'Neill might argue, "reflect the values and motivations of the real world?" And for the purposes of THIS assignment, the question is: does the website reflect the values and motivations of your generation?

But here's what you really want to know about how to get started:

  1. First, you begin with a debatable question: does the website of [fill in company's name here] reflect the values and motivations of my generation?
  2. Second, analyze the website itself (how, exactly, does the advertising actually "work," in the ways I have outlined above, in order to connect with your age group?).
  3. Third, articulate, with a full and detailed explanation of your reasoning, how you ultimately answer the question.

And here is how an outline of the essay might look:

  1. An introduction providing some basic information about the company and website you will be analyzing and what the debatable question is--this is what we call the THESIS QUESTION approach, because you are going to withhold your answer to the question until the conclusion; also, I want you to spend some time in your introduction (which can be more than one paragraph) describing what you think your generation's core values, motivations, and ambitions are (granted, this is mainly your opinion related to your own beliefs and what you see around you every day, and I know you are not a social scientist with all sorts of statistics to draw upon, but I still expect to see you take a thoughtful stab at this, and you might want to even interview your friends and fellow students, who you can then quote in your paper). You might also address the issue of what you and your friends consider to be the essential "cool" products to have.
  2. Some background information (we call this CONTEXT) about how companies go about targeting and attempting to connect with "youth culture" (this is where the Frontline documentary, "The Merchants of Cool," plus the interviews on the website syllabus and the links under "Resources for Students" will be most useful to you)
  3. The analysis of the website itself, with paragraphs built around specific points you want to make about what different aspects of the website are actually saying/doing; keep in mind that even though your analysis needs to be objective (on one level, you're simply reporting what you see), it is also ARGUMENTATIVE, because you ultimately want to make a value judgment (which you will get to in conclusion) about what the advertising is doing on a deeper level, and therefore, your analysis should focus upon those aspects of the advertising most relevant to your main issue--please refer to Chapter 10, "Analyzing Images," in your Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing (pp. 218-34), for assistance with this part of the essay
  4. A conclusion that indicates to your reader how you ultimately answer the question you first posed in your introduction--please refer to pages 541-543 in your Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing for some assistance with crafting your conclusion

NOTE: I obviously expect to see you utilize the information you learn about how different companies market and advertise to young adults to aid you with your thinking and the writing of the essay itself, and you will want to quote directly from the website links provided on the syllabus as well as under the "Resources for Students" webpage. Because this is not a fully-fledged research paper, I will not be asking you to formally cite your research resources (that will happen in Essay #3), but I do expect to see you use quotation and paraphrase of sources, and I do want you to introduce, in the body of your paper, where your quotations are coming from, and to enclose them with quotation marks. For example: According to Sharon Lee of Look-Look Company, in an interview on PBS's Frontline show, "We live in an adult-centered view of the world." And if you paraphrase information from one or more of the website links (in other words, you get information from a website and put it in your own words), please indicate where you got your information from in the body of your paper. For example: According to the About Face website, which is dedicated to combating negative images of women in advertising, about one out of every eleven advertisements has some kind of message about beauty.

For assistance with how to integrate quotations from outside sources into your writing, please refer to the following link: The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing: Effective Quoting.

Website Options (if there is a company you are more interested in, that you also think has an interesting and multi-faceted website, let me know in advance and I'll review and approve it)

Abercrombie & Fitch

Adidas

Apple Computer

Coca-Cola

dELiAs*cOm

Diesel

FUBU

Levi's

Nike

Sean John

SoBe

SKYY Vodka

Sprite

Volkswagen