What’s your first move when you’re given an essay assignment? Do you check the due date, ask about the word count, consider possible topics, or, perhaps, wonder how you’ll ever find the time to write, let alone a topic to write about? Do you wonder if you’re up to the task? I know I routinely ask such questions about anything I write. These questions are part of the work of writing, which involves a careful consideration of a specific rhetorical context: purpose (why we’re writing), topic (what we’re writing about), and audience (who we’re writing for).
With this in mind, I want to suggest another set of first moves: Look for examples of what other writers have done when given the same (or similar) task. Review their work with an eye to figuring out what you’ll be working toward: structure, organization, tone, subject matter, voice, beginnings, endings, and middles. These of course are features you might discuss in class, but without seeing what those features look like in real writing, it’s hard to get going.
Writing samples, further, can help make you more aware of rhetorical contexts. In reading them you can begin to discover what audiences expect (and don’t expect) from you and from your work, which in turn helps shape and inform how you write. You can begin to work out possibilities for topics and approaches. In reviewing the work of other writers, you can begin to sense their motivations and purposes for writing, which can help you discover your own purposes.
In this essay collection, the distance between you and ‘other writers’ has been kept to a minimum. That is to say, all essays in this section of Wavelength have been written by students who’ve recently taken EN 101, 102, and 103 at the University of Alabama. These writers have negotiated the same rhetorical contexts you’ll be negotiating, so I hope you will see their work as aspirational. Teachers and students alike have generously shared these examples, and all work has been published by permission.
Scroll down to find a brief overview of each genre represented in this collection, a precis of each writer’s work, questions that you may (or may not!) wish to use to use to place your learning into a meaningful, relevant context. and I hope you will make this collection a key part of your learning. Feel free to engage, question, critique, extend, imitate! I’ve provided some additional resources for you to check out, and your instructor can share more. Happy writing!
–Luke Niiler, Director, First-Year Writing
Overview: In memoir, we balance ‘situation and inner story’: what we experience, and what we make of that experience, so that we tell a personal story that resonates far beyond ourselves. This can be accomplished in myriad and often subtle ways. We see the compelling shift from first to second person in Amy Undieme’s ‘Blueberry Pancakes,’ in which the personal details of the aftermath of a divorce suddenly become universal. In ‘One of the Boys,’ Delaney Dunn recounts an afternoon spent whizzing around the desert on motorbikes with her brothers, which, in her telling, becomes a moment of identification and acceptance. And Tiaya Hubbard (in the first of four pieces in this collection) conveys unspeakable heartbreak through an emoji in ‘Hide and Seek.’
Questions: What specific events are recounted in the memoir you’ve read? What principles and / or assumptions seem to guide the author in choosing those events? How does the author develop the events, or make them come to life? How do the authors ascribe meaning/significance to these events? What moments seem most true, most authentic, in these essays? How do you know? Can you know? At what point did you find yourself connecting with the author’s story? Why? Based on these readings, what might you conclude about how to organize a memoir?
Brief and bullet-pointed, this guide emphasizes key moves (show don’t tell, theme, etc.) and audience awareness. Links to various professionally written memoirs are included.
Sure, it promotes a self-publishing school, but also neatly lays out some excellent tips for process: among them, ‘write your memoir truthfully’ and ‘write a memoir you want to read.’
‘Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays’ is a compelling overview of the challenge of writing strong memoir.
Overview: We see a creative dynamic akin to memoir in literacy narratives, in which writers recount foundational experiences with language that speak to the work language does. Cami Chamorro (‘A Bilingual Journey’) takes her learning of Spanish as an opportunity to discuss how language enables deep and complex family relationships; Tiaya Hubbard (‘My Life Be Like’) recounts her struggle with a racist teacher; and Matthew Oakley (‘Baseball In Me’) shares how he learned the value of signs in baseball.
Questions for students: How does language shape and inform the authors’ life experiences? What is the role of language in personal growth? Does the way the narrators experience language differ from the way others experience it? What are the implications and consequences of this? How does language connect us? Isolate us? What conclusions might we draw about the connections between language and identity?
Resources: Be sure to check out the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives.
This is a wide-ranging, expansive and inclusive public archive, curated by Georgia State and Ohio State, and it’s quite possibly the best place to begin developing a literacy narrative unit.
Overview: With profile, we begin a move away from the subject-as-meaningful self to the subject-as-meaningful other. Profiles convey a single dominant impression of a subject, and as such verge much more closely to literary journalism than purely academic work. And they require some keen writerly sensibilities: the ability to convey an angle, share a personality, and animate a human subject so that it lives and breathes.
Trinity Barnett’s ‘Wresting: A Sport with Much to Offer’ explains, teaches, and reveals a world of athletics that many of us (especially here in the South) may not know anything about. Celia Browne’s profile of swimmer Missy Franklin shows the role research can play in compiling a profile. Caitlin Garnett’s ‘Jack and Raif’ positions the author as a co-subject, and by doing so suggests that profiles can be focused on other people yet still retain qualities inherent to an author. ‘To Be Both the Leader and the Teacher,’ Trey-Lee Orndorff’s profile of Fred Rogers, conveys Mr. Rogers’ widely shared gifts of humility and kindness. Amy Undieme’s ‘Devastation Struck Home’ focuses on mass shootings in general, and the Pulse nightclub in particular: and there is a haunting power to the author’s choice to end the piece, not conclude it. If you find yourself rooting for Manny in Tiaya Hubbard’s ‘Mr. New York,’ you are not alone. Reading the piece, it’s as if he’s walking right beside you. And we read two events framed by family in Elizabeth Winsor’s ‘New Life’ and Daniel Flores-Zelaya’s ‘Politics of a Civil War’: Winsor relates a personal account of a devastating loss, and Flores-Zelaya relates a personal account of a civil war in El Salvador.
Questions: How would you distinguish between a profile and a bibliography? Other than this collection, where else have you previously encountered a profile? What skills do you need to develop in order to write a strong profile? What resources will help you? How would you say the process of composing a profile differs from the process of composing a literacy narrative or memoir? Why do profiles matter?
The graphics are outdated, but the emphasis on profile as a story that requires research and interviewing is just what students need to know.
Overview: Evaluations and textual analysis can function as a kind of bridge to more formal research, as they bring those two important critical thinking skills to bear on a wide range of subjects. Kate Killean’s appreciation of Beyonce’s ‘Pretty Hurts’ invokes, as per Killean’s title, ‘The Harsh Impact of Beauty’s Standards on Women.’ Kendrick Lamar’s seminal album To Pimp a Butterfly is the subject of Franklin Nwokoye’s ‘The Blacker the Berry,’ in which Nwokoye links his experiences with racism to the artist’s. Olivia Van Fleet’s ‘Shop ‘til You Drop’ unpacks the economic critique of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. And Mackie Aladjem and Sarah Morrow take an HBO series (‘Euphoria’) and a Tuscaloosa restaurant (‘Taco Casa: The Superior Tex-Mex Restaurant in Tuscaloosa’), respectively, as the subjects of their reviews.
Questions: What criteria do these writers use to craft their evaluations and analyses? How convincing is the evidence they use to support their claims? Where do you see the writers’ own opinions and judgments come into play? Identify each writer’s thesis statement. How are these thesis statements supported? Comment on each writer’s ethos (credibility), pathos (appeals to emotion), and logos (use of evidence/facts). How do these writers achieve credibility and use pathos/logos to develop their claims?
Consult the Purdue OWL for a presentation on writing literary analysis. (Important: If you use this or any other Purdue OWL resource, you must attribute the source).
Overview: Writers and writing teachers alike may find it easy to want to look past annotated bibliography, as so often these can feel dry, formal, a box to check, and not at all as lively as the more personal writing generally assigned in EN 101. But look at little closer at the work of Creel Richardson, Molly Schulz, Bobby Wells, Savannah Grasmick, and Tiaya Hubbard. In it you’ll see authors beginning to grapple with their sources even as they are beginning to articulate their own ideas about their sources. You’ll see studies and statistics, yes, but you’ll also see writers working through how they might reconfigure their initial assumptions or hypotheses in light of that research. You’ll see writers bring their own backgrounds and interests to the table and reflect on how their research mirrors and extends those. You’ll even see writers work to place separate pieces of research in conversation with one another—and by so doing come to understand that the process of composing research is deeply akin to the process of entering a conversation. You do it slowly at first, and then your confidence grows. Finally, you’ll see writers openly acknowledge the role peer and instructor review plays in their drafting process.
Questions: You should be able to find research papers from most of the authors listed in this section. Comment on the relationship between each writer’s annotated bibliography and their finished research paper. What features do they share? How do they differ? How might you begin to account for these differences? Based on your reading of both annotated bibliographies and research papers, what is the role of the annotated bibliography in the research process? In their annotated bibliographies, what strategies do these writers use to work with their research?
Consult the Purdue OWL for information on annotated bibliographies.
Overview: In this section you’ll see authors keenly engaged with the world in a rich variety of ways. Some take literary works as their focus. In ‘The Exeter Book’ Sam Mabry draws upon historical and critical resources to flesh out his reading of one of the few remaining examples of Old English verse. ‘The Titles We Claim’ features Abigail Perkinson’s close reading of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, a chronicle of Nigerian women immigrating to the United States. Alexa Mayfield (‘Historical Representations of Indigenous Peoples’) digs deeply into cultural studies and local histories to argue for a richer representation of Native voices on a Tuscaloosa landmark. Other authors use their research to better educate their audiences about social concerns. Caden Harris considers the consequences of social media use among adolescents in ‘Social Obsession or Social Exception,’ and Tiaya Hubbard documents the lack of nutrition education in minority communities in ‘Greasy Hands on Fresh Apples.’
Still other authors use research to speculate and advocate. In ‘The Validity of a Pathologized Absence,’ Robert Niemira discusses asexuality, one of the best treatments of this identity that you will ever read. Creel Richardson looks to a future of electric vehicles in ‘Electric Vehicles are the Future’; Micah Simpson advocates for paying college athletes in ‘Should College Athletes Be Paid?’; Logan Sparkman considers the implications of closer US-Cuba ties for Major League Baseball in ‘MLB Relations with Cuba’; and in ‘Mental Health During COVID-19,’ Bobby Wells helps us think through the impact of the pandemic on young people. Katelyn Perkins debunks myths of athletic stardom in ‘You Can Dream It, But Can You Achieve It?’.
Questions: What does ‘doing research’ mean to you? What has your previous experience of doing research been like? Do you enjoy doing it, avoid doing it, etc., and why? What kind of research do you do/have you done? What kind of research would you like to do more of? What forms can research take? What are the advantages/disadvantages of these methods? How do the writers in this collection use research? That is, what function does research perform in their writing?
Consult the Purdue OWL for information on research writing.