biographical sketch essay

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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ESSAY ASSIGNMENT

Our course readings include several biographical works, some of which are listed below.
Garber’s “The Revision of Steve Jobs”
Heilbrun’s “Gloria Steinem: The Transforming Interlude” (excerpt from Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem)
Kingston’s “No Name Woman: My Aunt” (excerpt from The Woman Warrior, Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts)
Peyser’s “Leonard Bernstein: Beginnings for a Musical Genius” (excerpt from Bernstein: A Biography)
Smith’s “Stevie Wonder: Music Is His Life”
Wagstaff’s “Was Mother Teresa Actually Sort of a Jerk?”
Walker’s “Zora Neale Hurston: Before Her Time” (foreword to Hemenway’s Zora Neale Hurston)
All of these selections serve to detail specific life experiences within explicit and original contexts. And, by doing so, each of these readings presents an argument.

While none of these works are directly about any of the writers’ lives, all provide vivid descriptions about the lives and experiences of others. And, yet, through the process of sharing intimate and persuasive stories about their chosen subjects, the writers also share intimate versions of themselves. In these ways, the biographical writer connects the self, the other, and the world with creativity and power.

Overview

Now it’s your turn. For this assignment, you will choose a public figure–an artist, a politician, an activist, an actor, an Olympic bowler–and develop an ambitious and thought provoking argument about an aspect of their life. Be sure to choose an individual who interests you in some capacity, an individual who you can write about in innovative, insightful, and vivid ways.

Some Guidelines

Purpose and Argument. For this essay, your aim extends beyond a simple presentation of information. Instead, effective biography is more than facts, more than a simple chronicle of another’s life–no matter how focused or specific that chronicle. Rather, effective biography serves as an interpretation of facts, an interpretation of a life. While one writing expert notes that “a biographer often writes in order to correct or expand the views of a previous biographer or biographies by choosing a different perspective” (Horner 215), a biographer’s task may not be as cut and dried. Rather, some writers wish to use the facts of a life as a means of formulating an argument about a time period or a historical event or other related phenomenon.

Support. Your essay should reveal the considerable engagement with the research that you conducted and collected via the proposal and annotated bibliography you completed earlier this term. Your essay should therefore provide evidence that you have not only located appropriate sources but that you have also critically considered how and what these sources contribute to your own argument.

Audience. Imagine your essay as to be published in a popular yet credible American magazine like Time, GQ, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Slate, or even Rolling Stone. Your readers will expect you to integrate your research and source materials in explicit yet streamlined capacities. You can do this by naming your sources within signal phrases and thus reducing most parenthetical citations to mere page numbers.

Organization. Most readers expect to understand the purpose (argument) of a work within or soon after the first paragraph. For an essay such as this, it makes sense to present your persuasive claim within a thesis statement soon after presenting a brief overview of your chosen subject’s life as a whole. This will provide your reader with a context for your argument.

Point of View and Tone. Effective biographies convey a variety of tones via narration. For example, think about the biographical works we’ve read thus far. All of the writers strove to present a unique and persuasive perspective about the individual they chose to write about and, in doing so, they revealed themselves. What they chose to argue, what facts they chose to share, what details they chose to describe, even the way in which they structured their works all served to do two things: hook their readers and build their arguments. Ultimately, the strength of your own essay may hinge upon whether you are able to provide a credible and authoritative argument of your own.

Some Requirements Specific to this Essay Assignment

Aim for eight to ten pages in length. Aim for nine pages of essay text and follow that with however many additional pages you may need for your Works Cited list.

Integrate and cite at least eight appropriate sources. At minimum, four of these sources should be scholarly or academic in nature.

Some Requirements Specific to All Essay Assignments

Whether explicit or implicit, your essay must present a thought-provoking and ambitious thesis that is (1) evident to your readers, (2) appropriately focused, and (3) debatable.

All readers need and appreciate:
Original titles
Clear transitions between ideas and also paragraphs
Signal phrases that link your ideas to the researched information you provide to support those ideas
Conclusions that offer more than mere restatement

Follow the formatting and citation rules of MLA style.

Abide by the due dates for first and second drafts as outlined in the course schedule.

Some Research-Related Suggestions Specific to this Essay Assignment

AU Library’s Web Page of Biographical Resources
This Web page provides a variety of links to credible Websites that provide biographical information.

Biography and Genealogy Master Index
This database is described by the AU Library’s Web page as: “Contains more than 15 million citations covering nearly 5 million people. Contains names, birth/death dates and bibliographic references.”

New York Times — Historical
This database is described by the AU Library’s Web page as: “Access to the New York Times from 1851 through 2006.”

Some Research-Related Suggestions for All Essay Assignments

Choose and use sources with critical thought and care. The considerations and guidelines below may help you to do this.
You are most likely to find appropriate sources via the AU library databases — and yet “credible” and “academic” are not the same.
Appropriate sources may also be found via the Internet — and yet many Web sites are geared toward popular rather than academic or professional audiences. In addition, most Web sites do not have systems in place to verify accuracy, such as peer-reviewed panels or a journalistic codes of ethics.
Ultimately, the best sources are not only credible, they are also appropriate within the contexts of your argument and your audience.

Grading Information

The first and second drafts of your essay will be evaluated and graded by your course professor. The grading rubrics for each assignment (first and second draft) are posted to our Blackboard classroom. Please note that students often receive C-level grades when their work satisfactorily meets the requirements of the assignment. If you are interested in earning a higher grade, you will need to challenge yourself, take risks, opt for the difficult choices, and push your thinking.

Some Final Considerations

What your essay attempts to explore and reveal is up to you, but an argument–a persuasive claim–must lie at its center; this argument must serve as the purpose of your essay. Below are some examples to consider. You are not limited to these examples.
Depending upon your chosen subject, you may wish to share an aspect of or period within your subject’s life as a means of sharing something new about the person you choose to write about. Of course, this new information should serve to prove something important and thought-provoking within the context of what your reader may already know.
Another approach could involve “setting the record straight” with regard to your chosen subject’s involvement in a historical or political matter. Should you take this approach, you will need to not only set the record straight but also tackle how or why you believe the record has been wrong.
You could introduce your readers to someone they don’t know much or even anything about but, in your opinion, should. Should you take this approach, your argument should also include some claims about how or why it is that your chosen individual (or people like them) is relatively unknown.

In many ways, this assignment is a longer version of your previous essay assignment (the reflective rant). The topic is different, and so is the audience, but the type of moves you’ll make with regard to purpose and argument may be similar. For instance, if a reader finishes your essay and says, “Wow, I would have never thought about that person in that way,” then you have achieved some success. To that end, it may help to think of your selected person as an example of a larger problem, situation, or phenomenon. Your argument, then, becomes your purposeful investigation of this larger element. Or you could think of your selected person as a rhetorical device–a tool you are using to begin a different (but related) conversation that is larger and perhaps more sophisticated.

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biographical sketch essay

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