Over the past two years a number of troubling issues have risen to the surface. Many of these controversial issues are now represented by a name, an acronym, or hashtag: Ferguson, Charlottesville, the 99%, DACA, #MeToo, to name just a few of the headlines. Part of what has been upsetting about these conflicts is that many thought these issues were settled. As a nation we believed we had moved beyond discrimination to a more inclusive society, or, at the very least, we would work together to make the the country more inclusive. "Isn't that what the election of president Obama meant?" some ask. Turns out that Obama's election only turned up the heat on these problems that never really went away. The 2016 presidential campaign and the first year of the Trump presidency have caused tensions to boil and burn themselves into our discourse. Issues of race, gender, sexuality, and economic disparity are once again front and center in our national conversation.

This current situation and its challenges got me to thinking back to how writers addressed these controversial issues 25 or more years ago. Would some of the essays that were popular in first-year writing classrooms back then hold up or have anything to say to our present situation? The four essays I selected for this project were all widely anthologized throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which means they were published in tens of thousands of composition readers; they are well written and tackle what were challenging subjects to address when they were first written. For the most part, they have been retired now and newer composition readers have replaced them with more current essays written within the last 15 years. All of these classics have two important elements in common: first, each was written by someone who has been subjected to discrimination first-hand. and second, the writer uses his or her experience as a central element in the essay. The personal stories serve to humanize the writer and help readers relate to and empathize with the writer and the challenge he or she faced.

Judy Brady's "Why I Want a Wife" was originally published in the premiere issue of Ms Magazine and is a tongue-in-cheek satire where she makes a case for having a wife of her own so that she can get everything done. Brady's story takes the position that women and women's work is hard and is never done, and that is the case in large part because men take so little responsibility and help out so little. Brady's essay has the humorous effect of surprising the reader, because she was the one who wanted a wife. Decades before gay marriage, there was only one person who had a wife - a privileged male husband. Brady's essay also hints at the vast gap between women's economic situation when compared with mens.

"The Meanings of a Word" by Gloria Naylor originally had a more incendiary title: "Nigger." While controversial, the original title seems appropriate as the essay focuses on what the word means in different contexts. Naylor's essay has been inspirational for many others whose identity is often disparaged and who have been called Spic, Beaner, Queer, Chink, etc. In her essay, Naylor examines a word of hatred that is meant to heap scorn on and disgrace people. But that same word could also be used without harmful intentions and instead, can be a term of endearment between the people who the word was created for. In addition to looking at race, Naylor also has economic and gender themes running throughout her essay.

When Richard Rodriguez wrote "Quarreling Over Family Values" gay marriage was a long way from being lawful and gays and lesbians were seen as destroyers of family values, not participants in building families. The discussion of family values and Vice President Dan Quayle referenced in the article's sub title refers to a debate that was taking place about a television program, Murphy Brown, whose unmarried, middle-aged central character chose to have a child without getting married. The Vice President at the time, Dan Quayle, mounted a campaign against the television program, accusing it of undermining American values with the decision to allow the character to have a child and remain unmarried. The same sorts of thinking was applied to gays and lesbians. They were seen as a group as people who were undermining family values; Rodriguez disputes that point of view. Rodriguez's story also touches on issues of ethnicity, poverty, and gender as he complicates the term family values.

Brent Staples' "Just Walk on By" brings the reader into the action quickly. Staples shows us what it is like to be a black man in America walking the city streets in the evening and how those he encounters respond to him. While documenting his experience, Staples' essay is a meditation on race and gender, as well as considering the ways in which economic class affect these positions. As we read the essay, Staples surprises us as we try to figure out who is the victim in this situation, and it causes us to think more deeply about our own reactions toward someone's skin color. Staples helps us see that our reactions to a situation are conditioned by the beliefs we hold, even when we may not be conscious of those beliefs.

Another common theme of these essays is their focus on words and language and how these take on deeper significance. Terms such as wife, female, nigger, gay, family, black, male are at the heart of these essays and what the writers are attempting to interrogate. In our current era, some suggest that these terms of identity are no longer important, while others stake their lives and political beliefs on fighting for their identity. This leads me back to the question I posed earlier: Would these popular essays from many years ago hold up or have anything to say to us now? Do they speak to our current times? I look forward to what you will tell me about their value now.


After you have read and considered the four classic essays, determine an issue (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) discussed in at least two of the four essays. Then compose your own essay where you discuss the value and relevance of the classic readings to the issue you selected. How effective are these classic essays in speaking to our current times? What, if anything, needs to be done to update these classic essays or are they merely historical relics? You may make use of your own or other's personal experience to help support your position. You must use at least two additional sources beyond the classic essays that you find on your own to help you explain concepts or to bolster your argument. You are welcome to use pictures, images, and links in your document to strengthen your position.


  • Platform: Drafts must be submitted in CIDocs.
  • Pictures/Images: Any borrowed images should be cited in a caption or in an Images Cited section following the Works Cited. See professor for assistance
  • Sources: Four+ sources required. At least 2 of the project readings must be cited in the essay. The remaining 2+ sources are of your choosing.
  • Sources referenced must be cited in-text and in a Works Cited section. See professor for assistance.
  • Word count: 1,000+ or 4 full pages, double-spaced, 12 pt. font, 1" margins.

Deadlines and Important Dates

  • Week 4: Draft due
  • Week 15: Revision due
  • Week 6: Midterm Portfolio due

Due dates for drafts are 24 hours before 9 AM class meetings.

Further Details.png

Project Planning

  • What issue(s) will be the focus of your essay? Which two readings will you use in your essay? How does each address the issue you will discuss?
  • What do you already know about the issue (racism, sexism, gender and sexual discrimination, etc.) you are addressing? Are there readings, materials, class discussions from other classes that you can bring into this essay?
  • What quotes or paraphrases will you use in your essay from the two classic essays?
  • What examples from your life or the lives of others will be helpful and appropriate to support your position?
  • What examples from current events will be helpful and appropriate to support your position?
  • What sort of sources might help you strengthen your position with your audience?
  • How do you want your audience to think about you and your essay?

Writing the Essay

The assignment has given you a clear question to answer. This question is one that reasonable people could take different positions on, which means it calls for an argument. Argument essays require students to investigate and analyze a topic; collect, generate, and evaluate evidence; and establish a position that others could disagree with. Determining your position can be a challenge and may come at different stages of the writing process. Some will know immediately what their position will be; others will only figure out their position after they have researched and written some on the topic. Presenting your reasons for the position you hold is a central element to argument writing. In presenting your reasons, remember the goal for argument writing is not to win someone over to your side. Instead, you want the reader to see your position as a reasonable one that is worth considering, even if the reader does not entirely agree with you. This is a more modest goal, but also, more attainable.

Research is a particularly important element to the argument essay and this assignment. There are two types of research you will need to perform. First, as many of you may be thinking about issues of identity, such as race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and/or economic position, for first time, you will need to read broadly about the issues raised in the classic essays. For example, if you want to look at gender issues raised by Judy Brady and Gloria Naylor, you will need to further your understandings of the #metoo movement and the gender pay gap currently being reported on by major news outlets. By major news outlets, I am referring to organizations such as New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN, PBS, among others. Once you have gotten a better grasp of the overall issue, then you can move to the second type of research, locating sources to incorporate into your project.

Writing this essay will require you to address a number of different smaller writing tasks within the assignment, too; these tasks will build your writing skills. You will practice summarizing as you explain the assignment and the classic essays to your reader and share outside source material that bolsters your position in the essay. You will make progress in learning how to make general claims and add specifics to them so that the readers can understand your thinking. You will develop your abilities to write clearly and cohesively so that readers are not lost as they move from idea to idea and from sentence to sentence in your essay. You will gain skills in working with sources, developing your writer's voice, and revising your work not for a teacher, but for a community of readers.

Some of the features your argument essay should have are:

  • A clear main idea that is announced somewhere in the introduction and is found throughout the entire essay. The main idea and the discussion of it drive the essay forward
  • An introduction that sets the tone, defines the topic to be discussed, introduces the main idea, and is more than one paragraph long. It is a section, not a paragraph
  • The body of the essay should lay out your reasons and your thinking about your main idea. Your strongest reasons for your position should come early in the essay and your reasons should flow into one another, which can contradict the first point.
  • Conclusions should be meaningful, not just a summary of what you have already said. Many writers use the conclusion to look to the future in some way. You could explore what you will take away from this project experience.
  • Summary is an important element, but it must be done in service to getting across your main idea.
  • A strong personal voice.
  • Storytelling or narrative writing is an important component of this type of argument. Make use of what you learned last semester to help you create effective narrative sections for this essay.
  • These features perform rhetorical functions which influence your readers response to your writing; the strong personal voice and the organization of your reasons in support of your main idea deepens the reader's interest in the writer's argument. A carefully crafted introduction and conclusion bolsters the seriousness with which you have engaged with the task. Never forget you are writing to have impact, to get someone to think about your ideas!

The argument essay takes a number of drafts to get right as there are many aspects for you to master. Continuing to think and work on the draft will lead to greater understanding of the assignment and your own beliefs resulting in a more effective written product. Be patient with yourself, but remain determined. Writing is learning, not just a reflection of what you have already learned. Through the process of writing this project you will learn. Allow that to happen and let it influence how you revise the project to create the strongest essay you can.

Assignment Outcomes

1. Critical Thinking: Students will achieve the following:

  • an ability to analyze written work;
  • an ability to frame conclusions from a range of information;
  • an ability to predict outcomes based on known information.

2. Communication Skills: Students will achieve the following:

  • an ability to more clearly and more effectively write academic papers;
  • ability to design, conduct and defend a research project.
  • an ability to effectively and convincingly verbalize their ideas;
  • an ability to work collaboratively in group processes.

3. Research Skills: Students will gain the following:a familiarity with CI library resources;

  • a familiarity with major data bases;
  • a proficiency with basic computing skills;
  • an ability to discern valid research conclusions;

4. Self Development: Students will develop an ability to cogently reflect on roles of learning on personal and intellectual growth.


This essay is your Midterm essay. It is worth 20% of your final course grade.
Writing Criteria in the First-Year Writing Program at CI
will be the rubric used for the midterm portfolio assessment.


  • Contact the professor at
  • Come to office hours held Tuesday - Thursday from 8:30 - 9:00 AM in Broome 2680
  • Make an appointment to speak with the professor, if the office hour time does not work for your schedule.
  • Talk to the professor before or after class.
  • Visit the Multiliteracy Center for assignment assistance.
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