The Retrospective Essay

The Assignment

When I introduce my literature course’s Final Essay – a reflective writing assignment – I ask students to consider the meaning of “reflection.” A reflection is a pause: it involves turning to look back, and to reconsider something thought or done in the past from the perspective of the present.

‘Maintenance III (Self Portrait)’ by William Anastasi (1967).

The Final Essay assignment asks students to integrate scene and reflection to demonstrate their most important learning from the semester. Students must address two distinct areas of thought: content knowledge and self-knowledge. Our class theme is “Human, Animal, Humanimal,” so in the area of content knowledge, I expect students to (1) consider something they’ve learned about the major questions driving human/animal discourse, or (2) discuss an insight about issues of representation in a particular work. In the area of self-knowledge, I invite students to surprise me. I remind them that because our course incorporates several student-led projects, they may choose to reflect on realizations they’ve reached either in collaboration with peers or in public speaking roles. However, I also invite students to reach outside of class: perhaps a class conversation strangely found its way into Thanksgiving dinner? If so, what did they learn about themselves while translating a topic from school to family?

The last detail of this assignment is form: I spend the semester coaching literature students in close reading skills and in the writerly moves they can (and must!) use to convey analysis. But in this Final Essay, I want them to write differently. Why? So that they also take a stab at thinking differently.

Because this is not a course in creative writing, they have only two class periods in which to learn, experiment, and practice a small handful of creative techniques of craft. However, even minimal instruction in active scene writing can be eye-opening. I try to be transparent to students about the purpose to formal variation with declarations like this one: “your brain will think differently when you are writing in a formal academic voice – than when you are writing in a spunky, edgy voice – than when you are writing in a dramatic, voluptuous voice.”

The language from the assignment sheet is fairly simple:

In my own writing, moments in which I am compelled to turn something over in my mind are my most generative. These instances of pause lead me to make unexpected connections. Reflection is a space for strange insights to emerge, and for persistent questions to grow all the more slippery. Anecdotes from my own creative writing process come in handy when students feel lost with the assignment, or are getting knotted up trying to figure out what I “want.” Illustrating some of my own exploratory surprises gives them permission to experiment as well.

Lesson Sequence

  • Helen Macdonald essay & Backward Outline exercise

Helen Macdonald’s essay, “What Animals Taught Me About Being Human” provides students with a formal model. They read the essay first as literary critics, analyzing the essay’s literary representation of animals by applying tools they’ve honed over the course of the semester.

Students read the essay secondly as writers investigating structure – something with which they have far less experience, and for which I thus provide more guidance. In a Backward Outline exercise, students create a color-codedstructural map of the essay’s components in its margins. They identify “scene” and “reflection” in contrasting colors, describing patterns in the ratio of scene to reflection and in the frequency of each. They also summarize the “nugget of insight” or the “kernel of truth” revealed in each reflective passage. The Final Essay assignment asks students to mimic Macdonald’s structure – that is, to integrate important moments from class or collaboration outside of class, important textual excerpts (since this is a literature course), and reflection from the perspective of the present looking back to meditate on the weight of those turning points.

  • Brainstorm Goulash

Following a series of in-class, memory-sparking fastwrites (Lynda Barry’s Kitchen Table exercise described in this conversation is a favorite), students take home a series of six short prompts designed to get them thinking back in lively ways about class experiences.

  • Reflection Activity

While the Brainstorm Goulash prepares students to write about specific experiences, the in-class reflection activity is key in preparing them to mimic Macdonald’s mixture of scene and reflection. Students have a series of brief, structured conversations with different partners. The question sequence is designed to open from the easy, most apparent narrative, and reveal another layer of insight.

  • Peer Review Workshop

Students exchange essays in small groups on a Friday and reconvene for discussion the following Monday, guided by Bill Hart-Davidson’s “Describe, Evaluate, Suggest” feedback heuristic. As in a traditional writer’s workshop, they write their group members a feedback letter responding to specific questions I supply ahead of time.

Two Example Student Approaches

One student is polishing an essay bookended by two – very different – trips he took to the zoo, and is honing in on the realization that content from the critical articles we’ve studied is reconfiguring his relationship with his mother. This is an example of an especially personal and vulnerable Final Essay.

One student is polishing an essay that grapples with the ramifications of a single comment made by a classmate, “Marjane Satrapi is an unreliable narrator.” Invested in critiquing that perspective, this student is doubling down on her analysis of The Complete Persepolis and interrogating her own motivations as a journalism major. This is an example of a more argumentative and philosophic Final Essay.


Writing this post has clarified for me a principle of my own pedagogy. Early in the semester, I foster a burst of exploration and experimentation. Then I want students to buckle down: class expectations are strict, consistent, and build on one another – exams I and II are the major benchmarks, here. Then, at the end of the semester, I want students to shake off the formal strictures we’ve used to gain a progression of skills. I want them to return to exploration and experimentation, find unexpected uses for the work they’ve done, and in doing so, teach me how the study of literature fits into a life.

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