Essay #1 Tip Sheet

Essay #1: Reading Response

Begin by reading:

Your writing task:

Choose one of the essays above and write a four-page essay that gives a thoughtful, intelligent response to the author's ideas about language.


Language is one of the most basic and amazing abilities of the human mind. The ability to speak is so universal that the lack of speech shows that a person has some deep, serious problem. The ability to speak more than one language is even more amazing, because the polyglot (person who speaks more than one language) suddenly has access to more than one way of thinking. Taking it a step further, I can transfer my ideas to paper so that people whom I have never met (perhaps people who are alive decades after my death) can literally "read my mind." That fascination with language is what binds these two essays together.

The Frederick Douglass piece is one chapter from a book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, so some of your questions would have been answered in the rest of the book. This chapter discusses his boyhood life in Baltimore, Maryland, which is less than 40 miles from the Mason-Dixon line and freedom. Slave owners kept control, in part, by keeping the slaves from knowing about such ideas as "abolition" and even such basics as how to figure out which direction is north. (The old spiritual, "Follow the Drinking Gourd," is really about finding the Big Dipper constellation in the night sky—the handle points to the North Star.) There's a lot more going on in this chapter and in the interaction between Douglass and his owners than a simple assumption that slaves were mentally incapable of reading or that Douglass would waste his time with a newspaper when he could be doing his chores.

The Anzaldúa essay mixes a lot of Spanish with the English. Sometimes she translates, and sometimes not. Don't let this scare you away: Even if you do not read Spanish, blast your way through it and ask yourself why she is doing this. What point is she making, really? If you do not read Spanish, could you figure it out anyhow? Why did Anzaldúa throw in all that Spanish? Did she intend to shut you out? Was it because she didn't know much English? Or did she have a higher purpose?

Both of these essays are extended examples of "what it means to be me" writing, but both have a point which goes much deeper. Try to discover that deeper idea and respond to it.

Hints for success:

  1. The further you go in your college education, the less likely you are to get writing assignments which say "Do exactly this." An assignment such as this one works best when you can come up with a tightly-formulated central point (yes, I am talking about a thesis) and support that point. If this "thesis" language is unfamiliar to you, spend some time in A Writer's Reference §C1-c.
  2. Don't be superficial. If you had to look up a lot of words or if you were confused by the cultural references (after all, Douglass published his piece 170 years ago), that's not really the material for a critique. "It was too hard for me to read" is not a "thoughtful, intelligent response" to the author's ideas; it's just a whining complaint.

Danger point: The point of both essays is language, not race. If you really don't like people of other races, this is not the place to spew your hatred. That would not be responding to the content of the essay, and your effort would get a very poor grade. Write about the place of language in the author's life.

  1. All of the papers for this course will be submitted electronically, and all are expected to conform to the MLA page format. You would be wise to get a good word processing program with a decent spelling/grammar checker. One program which is available free to students is Microsoft Office 365 for Education. It has the right MLA template and does a good job with spelling and grammar. (I do not recommend Google Docs because its spelling/grammar checker is weak and because you must go through extra steps to prepare your essay for uploading to Blackboard.)

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Revised 1/5/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: