Our Keywords Writing Assignment

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Brigitte Fielder – English 1168.4 Cultural Studies: Examining Whiteness

Jonathan Senchyne – English 1158.2 American Literature and Culture: The Power of the Page

  • This assignment has been adapted from Glenn Hendler’s ‘Keyword Project’ assignment from American Studies (AMRU) 2000:001: Major Developments in American Culture, Fordham University, Spring 2008.


Keyword Project/Essay Assignment

Your work on the semester-long Keyword project will count toward your participation and preparation grades, and your final keyword essay will count as one formal essay grade, at the end of the semester. (See below for further explanation.)

This project gives you a thread to follow through all of your class’ readings and discussions, and an opportunity to engage with other students of American literature and culture in a collaborative project that requires you to enter into an academic conversation surrounding a particular term important to your studies. . The project continues throughout the semester, and it involves several distinct steps. However, there are two major elements:

1) Tracking a keyword through the readings, lectures and discussions every week.

2) Writing a collaborative keyword essay.

As you’ll see, these two elements are closely connected, and both take place in the Keyword Collaboratories online at [1]. Here are the first three steps in the process:

a) By the end of the first week of class each student should send her/his instructor an e-mail (bnf7@cornell.edu or jws65@cornell.edu) indicating which of the following keywords you are interested in following throughout the semester:

"America," "capitalism," "marriage," "race" or "slavery"

In case there are too many who choose a single keyword, please list three choices, in order of preference. We will then assign you to "keyword working groups," each comprised of members from both classes.

b) By the beginning of the second week of classes, read the entry on that keyword in Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Do this right away; don’t wait until the rest of your class is assigned to read your entry later in the semester.

c) Each group will get its own Keyword Collaboratory. In your collaboratory, you will find a “discussion” board and one blank “project page.”

i) You’ll be using “discussion” for tracking your keyword through the term, and for commenting on your keyword essay as it develops. ii) You’ll use “project page” for your collectively written keyword essay.

Tracking your keyword

From now on, after each reading and after every class, your task is to think about how your keyword was used, what it meant in that context, and how that usage and meaning connect (or fail to connect) with the entry in Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Have our readings and discussions served as illustrations for arguments made in the original entry? Have they raised issues and questions about the keyword that the original entry does not address? Have they contradicted or complicated points made in the original entry?

a) Use the “discussion” section of your collaboratory as a space to track your keyword. Each member of the group should write in the collaboratory at least once a week. Your contribution can be simply to archive your keyword’s appearances in the readings, lectures, and discussions (“‘marriage,’ is central to the plot of Pleasantville” or “appears repeatedly in the opening of Clotel, and Jane brought it up in class in the context of our discussion of “The Quadroons””) and/or as a place to raise and discuss questions about the meaning of the term in these contexts (“when David Roediger writes about race, he seems to have a different understanding of the term than William Blake does, but I’m not sure exactly what the difference is. Did anyone else notice this?” or “how is the idea of “America” used in our readings around the American Revolution adapted by the writers of the abolitionist press? What accounts for these differences or similarities?”)

b) There may be weeks when your keyword comes up in several readings and in each of our class discussions. There may be other weeks when it does not come up at all. Further, both classes will not read their corresponding keyword entries on the same weeks. Use your judgment about how often you need to log on to your collaboratory to keep up with your group's discussion. At an absolute minimum you should check in the evening before class, so that everyone in your working group is on the same page when you arrive in class the next day. But there may be weeks when you get involved in a lively discussion with others in your group and end up contributing several times over the course of the week.

Writing a keyword essay

By the last week of the semester, you will have a collectively written essay on your keyword. To be clear, you are not being asked to rewrite or improve upon the entry from Keywords for American Cultural Studies, but to write an entry on the same term that has a different scope, a different archive of materials. The original entry, after all, was a keyword entry for "American Cultural Studies" as a whole; your new entry will be a "Keyword for "Examining Whiteness" & "The Power of the Page."" You may find that your entry (or one of the other entries in the book) is a good formal model for the essay your group produces, even if the content is different. You will write this essay in the blank “project page” in your collaboratory. Each of you can generate new text, edit one another’s text, delete, add to it, and so on.

a) Your conversations in the “discussion” section of the collaboratory throughout the semester can serve as notes toward this essay, giving you an extra motivation to keep tracking your keyword continuously.

b) Be aware that each edit you make is recorded, with your name attached, in the “history” section of the collaboratory. For that reason, especially if you are revising someone else’s part of the text, you may want to explain your revision in the “comments” or “discussion” section of your collaborator.

c) Your keyword essay will be stronger if you start working on it fairly early in the semester. In fact, you should begin the end of the second week of the semester by working on the first paragraphs of this essay, while your initial reading of the keyword is fresh in your mind, and you have an initial “stub” article to revise and add to over the course of the semester, and contribute to this essay, in the form of addition and revision, at least once a week.

d) We will also use these essays-in-progress as working examples during class time to work on issues of editing, revision, style and the rhetorical strategies of They Say/I Say (also incorporated into your weekly Blackboard writing assignments) in these essays. We hope the incorporation of writing strategies in these collaborative projects will allow you to learn both in our classroom writing workshops and from each other’s editing practices in ways you can develop over the course of the semester, in both this project and in your regular essay assignments.


a) At the end of the term, your working group's comments on the original keyword entry will be graded. Though this is a collective enterprise, each member of the group will receive his or her own grade on this part, so everyone must contribute in order to do well. This part of the assignment will count toward your participation and preparation grade for the course.

b) Everyone in a working group will receive the same grade on the final keyword essay. Your final keyword essay will be graded as one regular essay, to be completed by the final exam period of the semester.

Also note

a) When you check in on your collaboratories, you may also want to look at other keyword collaboratories in this class. You’re welcome to read the discussion sections of other working groups, and to look at the keyword essays as they develop in the project pages. But only members of that working group should actually edit their project page.

b) I and the rest of the class will also view you and the other members of your keyword working group as "experts" on that keyword. At any point in the discussion, one of us may turn to you for insight on a reading or topic of discussion, with a question such as "how does this topic look when viewed through the lens of your keyword?" or "How does this author, or critic, or historian, use your keyword differently from other people who have used it?" Your responses to such questions will also factor into your participation and preparation grade.

c) The medium of this work effectively makes student writing available to a wide online public. Your enrollment in this course and participation in the collaboratory signals your consent to this public forum. Your work on this project will also be read and shared by members of the collaborating classes.

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