Mini-Course Assignment for Advanced Students

The following is an assignment that I’ve used as a final project in my graduate-level Intro to Literary Criticism courses. I think it could be a useful template for upper-division undergraduates as well, since it not only prepares students for later teaching experiences, but also provides a new angle for students to research and explore a topic. 

I generally give my grad students the choice between the mini-course assignment below and writing a traditional research paper for their final project; I’ve been surprised to find that an overwhelming majority of my students choose this option.

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Rhetoric Recap: What is ethos?

With our 21st century penchant for planned obsolescence, you start to feel like anything that’s more than a couple years old is past its prime and headed for oblivion. But before you toss out your Blackberry, recycle all your CDs, and delete your MySpace page, consider this: pretty much everything we now know (or believe) about communication is derived from some ideas written down over 2000 years ago. Continue reading

Echoes of Snow White in Straparola’s “Biancabella and the Snake”

The Norton volume of fairy tales, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, edited by Jack Zipes, includes two tales under the thematic heading “Virtuous Queens.” They are two variants of a story sometimes referred to as “The Girl without Hands,” or “The Armless Maiden” – a tale of a girl who is attacked and disfigured, but whose worth is proven by her body’s mystical ability to cause precious objects to appear.  The two versions collected here, however, are united not only by parallel plot structures, but also by the appellation of our maimed but magical heroine: Straparola’s “Biancabella and the Snake” and Jean de Mailly’s “Blanche Belle” both feature a maiden who takes her name from her fair features; in de Mailly’s tale, she is explicitly noted to have been named for her very white skin.

At the time I encountered this volume, I was prepping a class on Fables and Tales, and had been on the lookout for variants of the classic tale of Snow White, so the names of these stories caught my eye. Continue reading

Resources for teaching… Zombies (A Beginner’s Guide)

In my course on Fables and Tales, a large lecture class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University, I include a unit on horror tropes in folklore (and their interpretation in literature, film, and other cultural production). It’s an introductory survey course, so I try to give students a smorgasbord of materials – a little taste of a lot of different things – and we only have time to scratch the surface of these tales of terror. But I have the chance to give students a brief introduction to the folkloric roots of vampires and zombies, and some examples of how we have adapted those ancient figures to reflect our own cultural concerns.

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Student’s Guide to Communication | E-mail Basics

A while back, I published a post on best practices for e-mail communication with instructors and advisors; that post was primarily aimed at grad students, and though it would be useful for all students, it focused on the finer points of maintaining a collegial and professional tone in e-mail. Recently, I’ve been reminded that many students (even grad students) could benefit from some nuts-and-bolts advice for communicating effectively via e-mail, so I thought I’d tackle some of the most common issues I encounter in e-mail correspondence with my students in a series of posts. 

To start things off, here are the four fundamental things you need to do when e-mailing your professors.

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Who are our students’ heroes?

I recently gave a midterm in my section of Myths of the World, a large lecture class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University.

I have been extremely proud, and more than a little shocked, that since introducing this version of the midterm in my classes, several students have told me that they actually had “fun” answering the essay question.

The essay asks students to make comparisons between texts we have read by considering the question:

What makes a hero?

In class, as we read each text, I have challenged them to think about several issues related to this topic:

  • By what means does the author establish for us that the character is heroic? What details of his/her representation make it clear that we are meant to valorize a certain character? What do these choices help us understand about what it means to be heroic in the context of the story?
  • How does the depiction of heroic figures help us to understand the beliefs, attitudes, and values of the society that produced them? If a hero is represented as an ideal, an object of admiration and aspiration, what does this show us about the traits and behaviors that were valorized in a particular culture?
  • How might stories of heroic figures inspire but also constrain real individuals in a society as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to be?
  • Would we, now, consider this figure heroic? Why or why not?  How does this help us understand our own sociocultural beliefs, attitudes, and values?

The exam asks them to consider these questions in relation to two of the texts we have read and discussed in class so far, but it also adds an unexpected element:

Then, for your final paragraph, choose a heroic figure from our own contemporary culture. This doesn’t necessarily need to be your own personal hero – it should be someone you feel is admired by a large number of people in our society. This could be a fictional character (like a superhero, or action hero), or a real person who is considered a hero by a significant portion of society. Discuss what this heroic figure reveals about our own cultural values, AND, whether this represents a change from the values of the ancient cultures you discussed, or remains consistent with those ancient values.

This is the part my students really like. Making connections between the stories we have read and their own experience and frame of reference helps make the texts we have read together seem more meaningful to them. And they love having the opportunity to talk about stories and characters that they feel strongly about, and comment on aspects of their own culture and society.

The first time I gave students this question, I was fascinated to see which figures my students picked, so this time around I decided to catalog their responses.

Here is an overview of my students’ choice of heroes.

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Fallacies, Episode II: The Use and Abuse of Evidence

In episode I, you learned about logical fallacies that represent mistakes in moving from our premises to our conclusions, due to bad logical form. But even if we’re careful to support our conclusions with reasoning and evidence, we can often run into problems with the evidence itself. “Facts” are supposed to be objective — but facts need to be interpreted, and this process is often subjective.


For that reason, evidence can often mislead and confuse. Have we interpreted it correctly? Do we have enough context to understand what it really indicates?

As consumers of media, we need to be aware of how frequently the supposed “evidence” that supports a claim can be misinterpreted and misused.

As thinkers and writers, we must make sure that we always consider source and context to ensure that we are using evidence appropriately.

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Logical Fallacies Exposed

Logical fallacies are examples of fallacious, or faulty, arguments. At best, they represent flawed reasoning—making claims that are not supported by reasons or warrants, or drawing conclusions that don’t match up to the information you have. At worst, they can be deliberate attempts to mislead or confuse someone, to persuade through providing misinformation, usually to serve some hidden agenda. Many of the logical fallacies we will examine are common mistakes we all make, but some of them are established propaganda techniques.


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Best Life Hack | Logical Reasoning

Reasoning, in its most fundamental sense, is the process by which we take bits of information and knowledge that we already have, and compare or combine them to generate new knowledge. It describes our ability to move from what we know to what we don’t know.

We do this by drawing conclusions from a set of premises – things we already know (or believe) to be true. The way we combine the premises to produce a conclusion is called an argument. The goal is to construct a sound argument so that we draw conclusions in such a way that they are guaranteed – or at least very likely – to be true. We want to come to the right conclusions, but this can be tricky.

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