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.


How Bibliographies Can Work in the Classroom: A Revolutionary Research Project for Students in Introductory Courses

library stacks
Library Stacks at the University of Oklahoma (Wikimedia Commons)

The First-Semester Student and the Topic-Driven Seminar
This semester I’m teaching a seminar in Case Western’s SAGES program for first-semester students entitled “Age of Revolutions: Political, Social, and Scientific Disruption in Britain and America, 1770-1820.” Like other SAGES seminars, the first-semester version, or First Seminar, aims to cultivate students’ abilities in critical thinking, research, and writing. Many instructors focus their energies on the writing process and the mechanics of writing in the First Seminar in order to prepare students for the sophomore-level University Seminars that require a 10-12 page research paper, but I decided to do the opposite and foregrounded critical thinking and research.

I took this approach because in teaching those sophomore-level SAGES seminars, I had seen the students struggle to find, evaluate, and integrate evidence into their papers. While topic-driven core courses have a lot of value, they do present a challenge if you are asking students to do research. It takes time to learn the landscape of scholarship in a field, and students are limited in the work they produce because of that. Again and again, I found myself frustrated by (and saw my colleagues frustrated by) papers that never really managed to have both good arguments supported by strong evidence and good mechanics and style. I began to suspect that communicating their ideas was taking a backseat as students grappled with the challenging content presented in these topic-driven seminars. If that were the case, then how could I lower the hurdle for my students and make the course material and topic more accessible to them in a 15-week semester? And, how could I do that without sacrificing rigor in my writing instruction?

age of revolutions banner
Age of Revolutions: A HistorioBLOG

Using The Age of Revolutions Bibliographies
As I anticipated, in the final papers, the mechanics, style, and organization of the students’ writing was not as sophisticated and polished as their previous work though the papers were clear and meaning was never impeded by the writing. And this makes sense, I think: working from the bibliographies meant that the students were having to make sense of the most important scholarly works in the field as they adjusted to expectations for college-level thinking and writing. Topic-driven first-semester seminars provide an answer our students’ desire to learn deeply but, like upper division seminars in the major, such courses also demand that students attend to inquiry, research, and writing all at once. While we as instructors might not expect students to attempt to master all three skills at once, our students often do not realize (or trust) that, even when we think we have communicated it to them.

Yet, even as it seemed strange to set aside the means of communicating the argument–the writing itself–for the time being, there were moments that reinforced that decision. For example, when the students began their individual projects later in the semester, I observed in their writing and in their contributions to class discussions that they had begun to pick up on the landscape of early American scholarship. For example, students began to cite articles from the William and Mary Quarterly and made reference to materials from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. I’m not sure how aware they are of their growing familiarity with the field, but it is certainly there, and stands in stark contrast to other seminars I’m working with as a writing consultant in which students continue to struggle to find and use topic-specific evidence appropriate to academic discourse.

Thinking Ahead to Next Time: Making the Learning Visible
While I have been encouraged by the results of this experiment, I have to admit that shifting my emphasis from communicating ideas to critical thinking and research has been uncomfortable and continues to be so. To teach writing, don’t you have to be a stickler for topic sentences and transitions and concise language? Don’t you have to model and lead students through the writing process in its entirety? After a decade working with undergraduate writers, I know that good writing is more than mechanics and that it starts with good thinking, but moving away from time spent drafting and revising 3 or 4 essays in a semester still feels strange. In sum, taking this approach has encouraged me to revisit my understanding of the writing process itself; in the course of doing that, one thing that I’ve come to realize is that in my teaching I need to acknowledge better the parts of the writing process that don’t involve writing at all.

I plan to assign this project when I teach the class again but between now and then the challenge is how to make this learning visible to the students. The mid-semester feedback I received from my students indicated that they didn’t realize just how much they had accomplished. Several of them indicated that they felt like, in comparison to some of their peers, they had not done as much writing. Yet, in the course of this project they had each written nearly 10 pages–and in all 10 pages, they had been wrestling with materials that advanced sophisticated and nuanced arguments on very specific topics in a field to which they had just been introduced. I’m not sure yet how to make that work more visible to my students though I did initially plan to have them present this work using Scalar, an open-access web publishing platform. However, I underestimated the time that I would need to introduce my students to the technology and abandoned that idea early in the semester. Perhaps some form of digital publication could be part of the answer though.

While I don’t have a solution to the visibility problem in this class, I do know that in the future I will be crafting course bibliographies to give the students a good starting point for their research. Becoming familiar with the foundational studies and top presses in a field just takes time–time that is hard enough to come by in upper division seminars and nearly impossible in introductory level core courses. Bibliographies help to orient students. The alternative to using such tools tends to be simply requiring a certain number of sources and maybe a brief introduction to available library resources. For students, that can too easily devolve into an Easter egg hunt or academic game of whack-a-mole in which they either look only for evidence that confirms their claims or work their way blindly and haphazardly through a list of search results. Bibliographies can keep students from treading water like that, so to speak, and allow them to focus their energies on engaging with the material.

A final note: many thanks to the editors of and contributors to the Age of Revolutions blog for the work they have done in compiling these bibliographies and providing access to the vibrant and constantly evolving conversation surrounding revolution in all of its forms and meanings. Scholars are often hesitant (and often for good reason) to share their work but sharing bibliographies is one way that we can cultivate the conversation and community in our fields, opening them up to wider audiences that includes our students.

So, how do you use bibliographies? What bibliographies would you find useful to your teaching?  Leave us a comment or let us know on Twitter or Facebook!