Workshop Guidelines

First, read the essay and number the following elements when they appear:

1. Reflect an intriguing connection between at least two texts.

2. Demonstrate a strong sense of the voice and preoccupations of the writer you imitate.

3. Include a reason the writer you imitate wants to communicate with the other writer.

4. Quote and reflect on at least two texts.

5. Include intellectual and emotional responses you think the writer would have in response to the works, life, or reputation of the one addressed.

6. Comment on questions about literary history, the influence of texts on each other, and the relationship between writers and very specific cultural or historical events, institutions, or attitudes.

7. Some attention to literary form—either in theoretical terms or focused on formal strategies of particular works.

Next, read your favorite moment or sentence out loud.

Next, read a sentence that needs work or doesn’t feel right out loud. Have a conversation about how it might be improved.

Next, discuss moments where deft stitching or orienting could improve the letter.

Next, talk about the opening and closing salutations. What language would this writer use?

Are there places where the writer might actually borrow some language from a text and integrate it directly?

Finally: Name a couple of insights about literary history that emerge from the letter. Are these handled effectively? Are they clear enough without hitting anybody over the head?


Quotations from Spellman’s “The Heady Political Life of Compassion”

Compassion, like so many of our other complex emotions, has a heady political life. Invoking compassion is an important means of trying to direct social, political, and economic resources in one’s direction (indeed, compassion is one of those resources). Existing inequalities between persons may be exacerbated rather than reduced through the expression of compassion. Interpretive battles over the significance of a person’s or group’s suffering reflect larger political battles over the right to legislate meaning. The political stakes in the definition, evaluation, and distribution of compassion are very high. (364)

So while Harriet Jacobs was in part hoping to arouse compassion and concern in an apathetic and neglectful white audience . . . she was aware that appeals for compassion could be politically problematic. Incidents in a political text not simply because it is meant to get its audience to challenge existing institutions but also because it constitutes an ex-slave’s struggle against readings of her experiences of slavery that would reflect and reinforce the master-slave relationship. Indeed, we cannot adequately understand the plea for compassion in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl unless we look at Jacobs’s ongoing attempts throughout the text to assert and maintain authority over the meaning of her suffering. (354)

In many ways Incidents is a lesson in how to assert your status as a moral agent, and maintain authorship of your experiences, even as you urge your audience to focus on he devastating suffering to which you have been subjected against your will. Brent is well aware that in the process of getting her audience to feel for her and other slaves as crushed victims of an evil institution supported by cruel people, she may simply provoke hostile disapproval of her actions and character, or an anemic kindness, mistakenly understood by those who feel it to be proof of their Christian virtue. So care she takes great care instructing her audience about what they are to think and feel: she alerts the member of her audience to the kinds of misreadings and misunderstandings to which they are likely to be subject; she tries to establish herself as a moral agent and political commentator and not simply a victim; and she encourages her audience to feel not only compassion but outrage in response to slavery. (357)

Clarity and Directness

Hi everybody. As you’re revising, aim for clear, direct prose. Make your writing feel readable and engaging. Say what you mean. Don’t worry about trying to achieve an academic or overly formal style.

Here’s an example of a clear, direct thesis that says what it means with precision:

Legault’s translations of Dickinson’s poetry reveal a playfulness sometimes overlooked in her work.

Here’s an example of a complicated–or convoluted–thesis that aims to sound and feel academic and formal:

Through his translations of Dickinson’s poems, Legault creates an unusual intertextual relationship, distilling the complexity of her voice into a playfulness that leads the reader to detect as much in the originals. 

Speech Act Theory

Speech Act theory explores language used to change reality in various ways. For example, marriage vows create a new relationship, recognized by the state or by religious institutions. With the the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln declared American slaves “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” See if you can think of other examples of speech or language that makes material or social change happen.

The Stanford Encyplopedia of Philosophy offers some context for speech act theories, which originate in the field of Linguistics:

We are attuned in everyday conversation not primarily to the sentences we utter to one another, but to the speech acts that those utterances are used to perform: requests, warnings, invitations, promises, apologies, predictions, and the like. Such acts are staples of communicative life, but only became a topic of sustained investigation, at least in the English-speaking world, in the middle of the Twentieth Century.[1] Since that time “speech act theory” has become influential not only within philosophy, but also in linguistics, psychology, legal theory, artificial intelligence, literary theory, and feminist thought among other scholarly disciplines.[2] Recognition of the significance of speech acts has illuminated the ability of language to do other things than describe reality.

In class, we’ll think about how speech act theory might help us understand slave narratives as a genre and Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in particular.

The Stanford Encyclopedia‘s discussion of speech act theory is pretty long and dense. YouTube to the rescue. Videos by Anna Hockler and Matthew Ross  offer some helpful explanations and definitions.


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