Exploratory essays investigate a topic, question, or issue in order to discover a deeper and more complete understanding of it. Unlike an argument essay which takes a position, an exploratory essay does not start out with a thesis. Too often people rush to form an opinion or try to make an argument by looking for evidence that supports a preformulated (and sometimes biased) claim. This first essay really requires that you NOT do that.
Instead your exploratory essay should openly and objectively explore a topic, question, or issue and the different viewpoints surrounding it. The goal is to take an intellectual journey by seeking credible information from varied sources and notice how your thinking is impacted, even if your search for answers raises additional questions.
As author Matthew Parfitt explains in his book Writing to Respond, another way to think about an exploratory essay is that it’s like playing with an interesting knot–”anything that’s puzzling or unclear or even mysterious . . .” (95). As you untie the knot, you follow the threads to see where they lead you.
Please focus your exploration on some aspect of identity that you are genuinely curious about. Like any good journey, the act of exploring should lead to some surprises along the way. Be willing to be open-minded–embrace those surprises and see what happens to your thinking!
Identity Topics to Explore (Choose ONE)
1. Public Personality: Think of someone–a celebrity, athlete, or someone featured in the news–who has been profiled in the media in recent weeks/months/years and makes us think about identity in some new, different, or even controversial ways. Examples: Caitlyn Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, Laverne Cox, Colin Kaepernick, etc.
2. Identity and Social Media: Consider an issue related to online or virtual identities (including the alteration or manipulation of those identities). Examples: “Selfitis,” “catfishing,” “blackfishing,” etc.
3. A Social Identity Group: Think of a complex, compelling, or perhaps misunderstood identity group you want to investigate. You may select a social identity group to which you belong, or you might try to stretch beyond your own experience and frame of reference and choose a group that you do NOT belong to. Strive to be open-minded and learn something new. Examples: undocumented immigrants, introverts, Dreamers, hipsters, Muxes, college athletes, Native American women, conservatives, etc.
4. An Identity Term: Explore a term related to identity that you’ve seen in our course readings/handouts or heard in class and want to understand better. Examples: passing, third gender, dominant culture, conformity, sexism, diversity, etc.
5. Literary Option: You may also focus your exploration on Nella Larsen’s novella Passing, posing one or more significant questions about identity/passing raised for you during your reading experience. Investigating a variety of scholarly sources about the story may prompt you to ask additional questions as well as lead you to insights and emerging answers to the question(s) you raise.
6. Do you have another idea for an identity topic you’d like to explore? For example, maybe you’re interested in exploring how our lives, our identities, have been impacted by Covid 19? How has this virus, and our “social distancing” caused us to rethink what we value and how we socially connect with others? If you see your identities tied to participation in competitive sports or other extracurricular activities, how has the “stay home, and stay safe” mandate affected you personally?
Perhaps you are interested in exploring cosmetic surgery as a means to alter appearance, a visible aspect of identity. (There are some extreme cases in the media–a woman in Britain who has had successive surgeries to make herself look like Barbie or a man who has altered his appearance to look like Ken!) Or perhaps you’re interested in the issues and tensions surrounding gender inclusive restrooms. Feel free to discuss your idea with me. You must receive approval on any alternative topic before you start exploring writing!
➔ Note: Remember that the goal of an exploratory essay is to examine a topic/question/issue with an open attitude. Avoid making sweeping generalizations or invoking stereotypes in your essay.
Formulate a Question about Your Topic
To give your exploration a purpose beyond simply looking up definitions of words or biographical information about a public personality, formulate a central question about the topic that you will use to guide your exploration.
Identity Topic Sample Exploratory Question
Rachel Dolezal Who is Rachel Dolezal and why did she pretend to be black?
Third Gender What cultures go beyond the gender binary and consider a third gender to be “normal”?
Passing What is passing? Who passes and why?
Masks Why do people sometimes hide their true selves? (And is this the same thing as passing?)
American What does it mean to be an American, and who gets to decide?
Conduct Some Research
Find 6 credible sources related to your topic. Read/view/listen to them carefully, and seek out various perspectives and information on the identity topic you select in order to come to an informed understanding. Sources should be varied and may include both class texts and independent research such as journal/magazine articles, scholarly articles, books, personal interviews, published interviews, newspaper stories, websites, TED talks, and documentaries. We will review research strategies in class as well as how to determine if a source is “credible.”
Among your six sources, one must be a personal interview and one must be a chapter from Brooke Kroeger’s book. (Even if the subject of the chapter you select is not directly related to your topic, there may be a perspective that informs your thinking in some tangential way. Besides, it’s good to stretch yourself!). I’ve added some links to a variety of resources in Canvas, as well, which may stimulate your thinking.
Organize Your Essay
Introduction: Begin by reflecting on your current understanding of the topic/issue (before researching it) and what has shaped that understanding (prior knowledge, experiences, values, beliefs). Is there an anecdote you can share with your audience that helps us see why you are interested in this topic/issue, why you think the topic is important, or what has led you to the topic and question you want to explore?
Body: Share the journey of researching and discovering ideas. Order paragraphs by research episodes–key stages of your exploration where you summarize, describe, or explain each source you encountered and how it affected or changed your thinking. For each “episode,” introduce the source and why you chose to use it in your exploration, explain the important information found in the source and why the information is significant and credible in relation to your topic, and finally offer some reflection about how the source impacted your thinking, whether it led you to think differently about the topic or turned you toward a new direction in your research. In this way, you tell the chronological story of each source you read/reviewed and its impact on you.
➔ Note: Include summarized ideas, paraphrases, and quotes from your research in the body of your essay. Try to mostly summarize or paraphrase ideas from sources in your own words, and only use quotations that are especially striking or memorable.
Conclusion: Bring readers up to date on your thinking about the topic/question. Focus on the new awareness you gained, what has been clarified in your thinking, or what you now understand that you didn’t before. You could also end by explaining what you want to argue about (and why) in your next essay now that you have a broader or more comprehensive understanding of the topic/issue. If you aren’t sure what you think, it’s okay to say that. You could end by identifying all the questions you are still left with or by explaining what you believe are the most important points to consider, and invite your readers to decide.
● MLA format, minimum 4 – 5 pages in length
● Include attributed references to no fewer than six credible sources (all information should be attributed and/or cited)
● Various perspectives on the selected aspect of identity
● Include a works cited page of all sources used in developing this exploratory essay
➔ Optional: You may want to include a few visuals in your essay. Any images you use must be purposeful, well formatted (not merely used as decoration or filler), and cited.
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