English 220

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Possible Term Projects


Here are some suggestions for term projects. In selecting a topic, foremost in your consideration should be how interested you are in the topic and how much you will be able to learn from the research. Will you be able to use this project later in your academic career, or will it go into the round file at the end of the semester? The format is open; guidelines are few. The point of view may be personal or formal. If you use outside sources, you must document those sources using the MLA style of documentation. If you plagiarize, you fail the assignment. I suggest the project be ten to fifteen pages of prose, with one or two pages of documentation. Be careful of over-using the internet for sources. More reliable sources are peer-reviewed professional journals. Some of these journals are now available on the internet.  I will ask to see a one-page abstract of the project a few weeks before the paper is due. I will review the abstract and offer constructive criticism of your topic and projected thesis.

1.      If you are an English major, or if you enjoy doing interpretive or comparative studies, you may want to consider one of the following:

·        Several authors deal with the isolation of women (on the frontier or within the community). Choose two of these writers and discuss by means of comparison and contrast how they treat the theme of female isolation. What causes the isolation? How do women cope with isolation? What attitudes toward the isolation do you think the authors want their readers to have? Is isolation for men different from isolation for women? How so? In other words, this topic may be applied to male isolation as well as female isolation.

·        Look at two authors who use a personal voice to establish a particular image of himself or herself. What images do the authors project? What is the purpose of the images? What other images are generated that perhaps reinvent the authors? What does the “reinvention” reveal about cultural or historical myths? Realities?

·        New Historicists may criticize Franklin, but it is true that he perceived social problems and he did something effective about them. Can the same be said of Twain?  Evaluate how certain authors perceive a social issue and how they deal with it in their literature. Certainly slavery as a social issue comes to mind, but there are also gender issues, work issues, moral issues, Native American issues as well as environmental issues that could be explored.

·        Look at Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. What is her relationship between form and feeling? In what ways does she use self-disclosure as a challenge to Puritan theology? Or in another paper, look carefully at her imagery. How is it unusual if not radical? A similar project may be done by looking at Emily Dickinson’s poetry. What radical departures does she make in her poetry from conventional form and content?  Consider Robert Frost's contribution to American poetry--how does he reflect both a classic style and a modern style?  Click here for a poetry web site with good links.

2.      If you enjoy history or religious studies, you may want to try out one of the following:

·        Define some of the basic concepts of Puritan ideology (‘New World” consciousness, covenant theology, typology, innate depravity, and irresistible grace) and illustrate their significance in specific works of literature. Another paper may be written on the role Puritan thought played on the early colonists’ interaction with Native Americans, slaves, “witches,” and indentured servants.

·        Discuss the role Anne Hutchinson played in defining the American character.

·        Compare and contrast Puritan thought with deist thinking. Analyze specific literary works that illustrate these differences.

·        Read some of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lectures, addresses, and letters. Then compare and contrast The Declaration of Sentiments (1848) with its model, The Declaration of Independence. Analyze the nineteenth-century document with respect to style, imagery, concepts of nature and authority, and relative political effect.

·        Discuss the political and social ideas of Abigail Adams as revealed in her correspondence with her husband.

3.      Gender issues are always fun. If you are interested in feminist readings of literature, try re-reading Rip Van Winkle. Irving certainly casts the American woman as the cultural villain. Is this an indication of how women will be typed throughout American literature?   What gender issues are reflected in Mary Wilkins Freeman's work or any of the other contemporary writers in the 20th century?


4.      If you are an art major I would enjoy reading a paper on an early American artist, but especially an early American woman artist. Or perhaps you could explore how women are portrayed in early American art (before the Civil War). This same theme could be applied to African slaves or Native Americans. Another possibility is to prepare a slide presentation of American art—outlining the themes and changes from early American art to mid-nineteenth-century art. A slide presentation should be accompanied by a short explication (five to six pages) of the major tenets of the project. A final possibility is to create an original art piece that reflects your interpretation of a work of literature we read in class. This project too must be accompanied by a short explication of the process and theme of the work.


5.      The Romantic Period in American literature is also a period of great social reform. A nursing major or a sociology major may be interested in exploring what social reforms (aside from abolition) were the movements of the period. Certainly temperance comes to mind, but there were also serious advancements made toward attitudes concerning the insane, alcohol abuse, criminals, and even animals. Who were the reformers? What does the reform movement suggest about our view of the American identity?

6.      Walt Whitman served as a nurse during the Civil War (as did Louisa May Alcott). If you are interested in nursing, you may want to look at Whitman’s war poems (or Alcott’s Hospital Sketches) and respond on how they reflect his or her nursing character. Or you may want to do a paper on medical practices during the ante bellum period. You may want to narrow this subject considerably; for example, look only at how attitudes toward midwifes changed, why they changed, and what this change reveals about the human condition.


7.      Whitman was also a teacher for a while (until he was accused of being too fond of one of his students). But if you are an educator, I will certainly accept a well defined and well developed lesson plan on any author or period of history. For example, I can imagine a middle school teacher spending some time on the Salem witchcraft trials. If you do a lesson plan, I encourage you to include some of the literature (novels, sermons, poems) that could be used in the presentation.


8.      You may choose to do a personal narrative patterned after the narratives we read in class: Ben Franklin, Harriet Jacobs, Mary Rowlandson, Frederick Douglass. If you choose to write a narrative, you must consider how this narrative transcends the purely private voice to the public arena. In other words, Ben Franklin is not just writing a story about himself for his son to read. He had a specific agenda to fulfill. You must do the same. Your narrative should begin early in the semester (first week or two) and continue until the end of the term.


9.      Finally, and I am really going out on a limb on this one, you may do a performance project. For example, if you are a music major or a drama major, you may perform one of the works of this period for the class. I would expect you to provide along with the performance a short paper (perhaps five or six pages) on the artist, the work itself, the period, or the artistic movement that influenced the work.  Click here for a link to Civil War music.  Click here for a link to Stephen Foster.   Click here for a link to Negro spirituals.  Click here for a link to the Hudson River School of Painters.


10. You may want to write a paper on any of the periods of literature we studied this term: realism, regionalism, modernism, symbolism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism. 


As I said, the field of topics is really wide open. I do expect quality work from college students. Essays should be free of annoying writing errors. Proper documentation must be used. Creative and original thought should be evident. If this paper is being used for or with another class, then I expect you to indicate that to me. I will accept papers used for other classes, but I want to know that is the case before you begin the project. I will probably request that you incorporate in some way those issues and themes we have discussed in American literature in your research project if you are indeed “double dipping.”