Portfolio Assignments

Cover letter

Cover letter sample

Your final assignment for this semester will be the cover letter that will introduce the pieces in your portfolio and allow you to reflect on your development as a writer over the course of this semester. This letter should be typed as a single-spaced letter in block format (paragraphs aligned at the left margin, with an extra line between paragraphs) that is addressed to the members of the Portfolio Committee who will be reading your portfolio.

You may want to begin the essay with an introduction to who you were as a writer as you came into this class, maybe something brief about your background and how you assessed your strengths and weaknesses, maybe something about what your assumptions had been about the class or about college writing in general.

The body of your letter should discuss the three essays you’ve included in the portfolio (the logical way to set this up would be one paragraph per essay). Explain why you chose each essay and how each illustrates your abilities as a writer. In essence, the letter should at least in part be an argument that you’ve achieved the course objectives of English 101. (You may want to check the syllabus here.) Be sure to consider and discuss the applicable criteria of focus, development, organization, mechanics, and research skills that the committee will be evaluating. Be sure to refer to specific parts/places in each essay. For at least one of the essays (perhaps the one that gave you the most difficulties), trace the essay’s evolution through the stages of generating topic and details, drafting, revision, and proofreading.

Your conclusion (a final attempt to sway your readers) might include any recognitions you’ve made about yourself as a writer and any changes you’ve made (or plan to make) in your writing process.

An important reminder: Your letter itself should also serve as evidence of your writing competence in its focus, development, and organization.

Length guidelines: I expect that a well-developed letter would be at least 500 words or so.

Essay 1: Memoir about Home 

Target length: 750–1000 wds

As its name implies, the memoir is rooted in the writer’s own experience, memories and observations. Some memoirs, or personal essays, focus on focus on a significant event in the writer’s life, a meaningful relationship, an important object or place, or some pattern, thread, or theme that weaves through his or her life. For this particular memoir you will be writing about something that connects to your experience, thoughts, and memories of “home.” By doing this you will be practicing one of the essential skills of the writer: namely, to connect the specific to the general, in this case the details of your own lived experience with some more universal theme that will connect (at least potentially) to your readers’ own lives.

Brainstorm. Spend a good deal of time meditating on a germ, kernel, core for this essay. Remember that the large, dramatic events in one’s life are not the only possibilities for writing material; often the important lessons one learns, the images that have particular emotional resonance are much smaller. What images come to mind when you think about home? What are the objects that make you feel at home, and why these particular objects? How many places have you lived, and did all of these places equally feel like home? What are the important lessons you’ve learned about home, and who has taught you and how? Have you had the experience of leaving home, making a new home, or returning to an old home? Have you lived in some way split between two homes, and how could you capture that experience? Look at some old photographs. As you consider different possible writing topics, make some lists, do some free-writing, draw some pictures, talk things over with your friends and family.

You have two goals in writing a memoir: to evoke your own experience clearly and to say something interesting, entertaining, or engaging. By telling something about your own life, you often invite your reader to consider his/her own experience. In order to do that, you may need to narrow your focus in terms of either (or both) time or place. You will also need to think about the big picture (what you’re trying to say) and to try to avoid too-easy clichés such as “home is where the heart is.”

Draft. In your rough draft, concentrate on getting down the details of the experience (or person, place, thing, idea). Your task is much like a fiction writer’s: to capture lived experience in concrete detail, so that your reader feels almost as if he or she is living it as well. Describe setting, and develop character (dialogue is often a particularly good way to do this). Write not a hazy, hasty pencil sketch of an idea, but rather fill in your picture with detail and color. You may want to use either the beginning of the essay or the conclusion as a place to reflect on the significance of the “chunk” of experience you share.

Focus. As you are writing (maybe before or after as well) think about the “point” of this essay. Think about your reader. How does your experience connect to something more universal, to something your reader may have experienced or care about. What are you finally trying to say about this hacked-off corner of your experience? You may not have a neat little lesson to impart, but your sense of the meaning of the experience should have clarified at least a little in the writing.

Revise. As I comment on rough drafts, I’ll give you some individualized reading suggestions for info to help with your own revision issues.

Grading criteria. I will evaluate your essays on the basis of

  • the sharpness of the details you use to evoke experience
  • the thoughtfulness with which you reflect on the experience
  • the grace of your language
  • the mechanical correctness of your prose (for this essay focus in particular on avoiding sentence boundary errors).

Essay 2: Annotated Bib and Short Report

Academic research is a complex activity that includes formulating a research question, finding and evaluating sources, using those sources in your own writing, and citing them appropriately. In this assignment you’ll walk through the steps of that process to investigate a current housing trend, construct an annotated bibliography, and write a short report to describe and analyze your chosen trend.

Select a trend. Choose from the list below. You may want to do a quick bit of research to make sure you can find enough good information.

smart homes tent cities
McMansions tiny houses
modular home construction Big Bathrooms (and lots of ‘em)
home theaters boomerang kids
multi-generational living alternate energy sources (solar, geothermal, etc.–could be a survey or focus on one)
net zero homes open floor plans
outdoor living spaces rent vs. own (changes in stats/attitudes?)
“wacky” home design (houses repurposed from other buildings or using unconventional materials) DIY “movement”
green building assisted living facilities (where do Old People live?)
houseboats (is this a trend? see what you can find about stats) keeping chickens

Additional approved topics: mobile home living (not sure if it’s a trend, but try researching); condos; home security systems, log homes

Find sources. Use strategies discussed in class (not just google!) to find five or six good-quality sources. Use a variety of search strategies, and aim for a variety of types of sources (e.g., book, newspaper article, journal article, credible website). Look for sources sufficient to give you information for your short report, but also include several “hefty” sources that would be useful to a reader interested in investigating the topic further.

Post these as hyperlinks on your blog. For database sources, look for a permalink to use; if not, I’d suggest printing out the source; on the blog write down author, title, database searched. For book sources, you may want to link to the Amazon page for the book, particularly if it enables you to search inside the book.

Construct Works Cited entries. Use information from the Writing Center’s handout, the Purdue OWL, or Diana Hacker’s research site to construct MLA-formatted bibliographic entries for your chosen sources. You may also use EasyBib or Citation machine if you wish, but be sure to check against models and edit as necessary. Post these on your blog, with the title set as a hyperlink if the source is electronic. As you do this with each entry, delete the original hyperlink to clean up the post.

Annotate sources. Skim the sources as necessary to write a short paragraph (three or four sentences) summarizing what information can be found in the source and explaining why the source is a credible one.

Take notes. Read or skim your sources for information to use in your report, selecting short quotes and paraphrasing or summarizing material. Be sure to label your notes with the source from which the material is taken. Click here for some more detailed info on possible methods.

Organize your paragraphs. Even if you’re not a fan of formal outlining, I suggest making a bullet-point list to plan out the main point of each paragraph. This will help you to make sure paragraphs are focused and unified. If your notes are in electronic form, you can then copy-and-paste source information into groups that match those paragraphs. This will take some time, but will result in stronger writing because you will be able to concentrate on the writing itself and ensure that sentences are connected in a logical fashion.

Draft a short report. Write a one- to two-page report on the housing trend that includes

  • info (statistics or quotes) to prove that this is indeed a trend
  • a description of the trend
  • some analysis of the trend (its importance, causes, effects–whatever seems pertinent)

Be sure to include in-text citations to label where you obtained each bit of information.

Finish up. Organize your final project with short essay followed by annotated bibliography. Post this on your blog, and also copy it into a Word document to print out for me (or email as an attached file to turn in the assignment). The annotated bib should begin a new page with citations formatted to follow MLA guidelines (alphabetized and double-spaced with hanging indent).

Criteria for grading.

  • the quality of your sources
  • the accuracy and care with which you follow MLA citation guidelines (both in annotated bib and in-text citations)
  • the accuracy and usefulness of your annotations
  • the unity and coherence of your paragraphs (be sure to use strong topic sentences and transitional devices, consider the order of information in your paragraph, and make sure there are logical links between each pair of adjoining sentences)

Essay 3: Shopping Ethnography

In this essay you will be studying and reporting on the behavior of shoppers in a particular retail establishment (that is, some place that sells some sort of product). This is an observation-based assignment: you will be collecting a variety of details including a physical description of the store and its atmosphere, who its customers are and how they behave, and how the customers and sales staff interact. As a framework for your observations and report, we will read an article by Malcolm Gladwell about the principles stores use to maximize sales. You will be an anthropologist for this assignment, going out into the world to observe your chosen fieldsite, writing down your observations, trying to see patterns in the details and then connect them to Gladwell’s essay, and then writing up your study.

Read “The Science of Shopping.

In class or online, you will have read and summarized one section of the article, identifying the different aspects of “shopping-science” that Gladwell explores. Read over the annotated version of the entire article as posted on the course blog, and make a list of the types of things you should/could look for in your observation.

Decide on a subject.

Spend some time brainstorming a list of stores that might be possibilities. Include not just stores you’re familiar with but also stores you may be curious about and especially stores that have a well-defined customer base (Hot Topic is the store that always seems to come to mind). Consider specialty stores like ski shoppes and videogame stores, exclusive boutiques and antique stores, florists and fishmarkets, cosmetics stores and toy shops, independent booksellers and …whatever else you can think of. Think about the practical aspect of whether you’ll be able to ”hang around” for a while without drawing too much attention to yourself; another option might be to pick a store that’s close by so you can drop in several times for short observation sessions (it’s probably a good idea in any case to visit the place more than once.) I think that the assignment will be more interesting and enjoyable if you pick a store (or customers) that seem(s) “colorful” in some way, full of lively details. Remember, though, that it’s the writer’s interest that makes subjects interesting to others. (In other words, it’s possible to write a great essay about Stop & Shop, but a crunchy-granola natural foods store seems at first glance to offer richer possibilities.)

Your main research question:

How well do the theories and observations of Paco Underhill (as reported by Gladwell) match what you observe in your own retail fieldsite?

Observe and take field notes.

Visit your retail location with notebook in hand (and maybe a camera, if it seems OK to use one there). Consider the store’s location and its exterior, and then the space itself. Map out the space. How does traffic flow? What’s the general atmosphere? What details create that atmosphere? What’s the lighting like? The floor? The furniture? Pictures on the wall? Of what? Remember that you have five senses. What do you smell, hear, taste, touch?

Then look at whatever is being sold and observe how it’s displayed and how it’s arranged. Can you connect any of this to what you read in Gladwell’s essay? How?

Now pay attention to the customers. What are their ages, genders, clothing? Follow a few of them around discretely, or observe from a not-too-far-away distance. How do they interact? Record specific bits of conversation. Are they using any insider language, any unfamiliar words? Make sure to record objective, concrete details. Look for patterns. Ask questions, if you’re comfortable doing so. Watch the sale staff as well and how they interact with customers. Record specific interactions, with dialogue if possible.

The target length of your essay is 3 or 4 pages. Remember that the best writing is done from a sense of abundance, a big messy heaping pile of details. If you think your pile is not deep or rich enough, go back to your fieldsite to collect some more data. Even if you are comfortable with the amount of information you have collected, it is often helpful to visit the site more than once.

Try to pull everything together.

In your draft, try to organize details into paragraph chunks. Use the list of main topics from Gladwell’s essay to help with this. Or you may wish to organize by subtopics or some other logical division. If you have a great deal of information to get down on paper, just try in the first draft to get it down on the page. The bulk of the content of your writing for this essay should be observed details. However, you must also connect those observations to Gladwell’s essay, using at least three quotes or paraphrases from the article in your own essay. The essay, therefore, will require a Works cited page and in-text citation, which we will talk about in class.


In revision, work at sharpening both your specific details and your focus. You do not need to match everything in Gladwell’s essay with the observations you’ve made of your particular store. You may choose, for example, to focus on a more limited consideration, such as the different ways that men and women behave in this store. Frame your research question as specifically as possible, and try to articulate the answer you’ve arrived at in a clear sentence or two.

Criteria for grading.

  • How well you establish the focus on connecting your observations to the Gladwell article
  • The specificity of the details you collect
  • Your success in ordering those details into focused paragraphs controlled by topic sentences
  • Your effective integration of material from Gladwell’s essay

 Essay 4: Community Proposal

For this essay you will propose some change or addition to your community that would make it a better place to live; this may involve identifying a problem in your community order to propose a solution, or suggesting something that might be added to make your community more livable. In order to strengthen your argument, you will use some research.

Brainstorm: A great movie that I highly recommend you watch to help you get started with this essay is called Urbanized. It is available on Netflix, and I will put my copy on reserve in the library on Wednesday. This film covers many issues related to cities around the world, but many can also be adapted to apply to smaller communities as well: : housing, public safety, communal spaces (could include playgrounds), walkability/bikeability, public transportation, communal spaces, public art, beautification, suburban sprawl, revitalization of downtown areas, re-purposing of post0industrial artifacts (for Fall River, this might mean what to do with mill buildings), using technology to improve community. For my town of Rehoboth, for example, possible issues might include dealing with roadside litter, addressing the loss of farmland to cookie-cutter McMansion sub-developments, and the lack of a town center. To find your own issues, look around you town town or city, read local newspapers to see what people are complaining about, talk to friends and family. If you find it difficult to find anything to write about in the community you live in currently, you may choose another community where you have previously lived or another community that you know well.

Find some sources: Look for information you could use to support your proposal (or to get ideas for what proposal you wish to offer, if you’re not quite sure the best way to solve a problem you’ve identified). Your sources may do the following:

  • establish that the problem exists in your community (e.g., local crime statistics)
  • provide info about a community that successfully addressed this problem and could serve as a model for your community
  • give evidence of how this sort of initiative would provide better living conditions (more convincingly than just your assertion!)

Remembering to rely not just on search engines but also the library’s databases and book collection. You will need at least three credible sources; at least two of these must either be in print or have originally appeared in print. (You cannot use three websites, no matter how credible they appear. Note that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for college-level research.)

You may also want to use photographs as “evidence” to support your claim of the seriousness of the problem (e.g., I could use some pictures of roadside litter).

Compile a tentative Works Cited page: List your sources in MLA format. Be sure to consider the credibility of the sources you choose to use. How can you tell it’s reliable info? Look at where and when the source was published, the credentials of the author, the objectivity of the organization involved. Look for sources that are “meaty,” with lots of useful information.

Organize your proposal: The core of this project will be your proposal essay. Once you’ve digested the information in your sources, decide on your position on the issue. Free-write or bullet point the reasons you hold this position. What details could you use to support or develop or explain those reasons? Write a tentative thesis statement that gives your claim along with the strongest several reasons you have come up with. Make sure that your claim is specific and realistic (you probably want to include cost considerations and/or suggested sources of funding, if your proposal would require financing).

Draft: The target length of your essay should be about three pages (or 1000 words). Focus on a clear structure, and make sure your reasons are supported by evidence from your sources, cited according to MLA guidelines.

Criteria for grading:

  • a strong thesis statement makes an arguable claim
  • focused, unified, and coherent paragraphs that give a logical framework for your argument
  • use of specific details to provide evidence for your reasons
  • proper MLA documentation

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