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Textual Analysis Paper Guidelines 

For this assignment, you will write a 6-7 page analysis of a documentary film, demonstrating your mastery of the critical skills you are learning in this course.

The thesis is due at the beginning of class a few days from now; you must then participate in our mandatory in-class writing workshops to help shape your paper revisions. On your paper submission to me, if your paper earns an overall A then you do not need to revise again; otherwise, your final paper revisions--which are required to incorporate my comments, TA comments, and those of your workshop partner(s)--are due a couple of weeks later. If your paper earns a D or lower on any one criterion of grading (e.g., content, organization, grammar, etc.), then that paper submission cannot earn an overall grade higher than a D. If your final revised submission earns a D, you may not earn higher than a D in the course. (See schedule for dates and assignments for a breakdown of grades.)

See my Comments Guide for a key to understanding my comments on your papers and for suggestions and requirements on how to write your very best work.

Plagiarism Warning 1: Use no other guides than this and your own ingenuity to write this paper. This assignment is just you and the film text you are analyzing in light of our class readings--nothing else. Your borrowing from other critics will not fulfill the goal of this assignment, which is to demonstrate your fluency with our course themes and concepts. Do not consult, cite, or include works of criticism (books, magazines, reviews, etc.), Internet resources, term paper files, or paper writing services regarding your documentary. Even if you correctly cited them, you would be under suspicion of plagiarism. At minimum, plagiarism will result in a zero on the paper, a record of Academic Misconduct with Student Judicial Affairs, and an F in the course.

Plagiarism Warning 2: Also, note that this is NOT a group assignment; you must work ALONE while studying and writing your thesis, outline, and paper. No collaboration outside of the writing workshops is permitted and no one else may write for you; if you do collaborate outside of the assigned workshops apart from simply watching the film together, you risk prosecution, failure on the assignment, and failure of the course. (So donít do that.) At minimum, illegal collaboration will result in a zero on the paper, a record of Academic Misconduct with Student Judicial Affairs, and an F in the course.


How to Complete the Assignment in Three Steps


STEP ONE: Screen at least one of the following documentaries on your own.

20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013, 90 min.)
Streaming rental on Netflix or Amazon

Sound and Fury (Josh Aronson, 2000, 79 min.)
Streaming free on YouTube or rent from Netflix or Amazon

Sound and Fury: 6 Years Later (Josh Aronson, 2006, 28 min.)
Streaming free on YouTube

The Cove (Louie Psihoyos, 2009, 92 min.)
DVD rental on Netflix or streaming rental on Amazon or YouTube

Ideally, you should watch more than one of these films--not only because they're all good films, but also to give you the most options when you choose your paper topic. For your study of the films, use the hyperlinks above. Begin watching the films right away; you will need to watch the film you analyze 4 or 5 times this semester.

STEP TWO: Analyze the film.

1) Note the Motifs

Start by taking notes on the documentary's major motifs. What outstanding motifs emerge for the film's settings, informants, camerawork, editing, etc.? How does the film encourage us to feel about and understand its material?

2) Analyze the Rhetoric

Having noted these motifs, you should now analyze the rhetorical strategies of your documentary. Rhetoric is the study of the techniques/rules for using language effectively; it's the art of persuasion. How is your film trying to persuade you to agree with its implicit message and, even more interestingly, its subtextual ideological values?

These filmmakers chose to make a documentary about this subject matter because they care about the material and they want you to care about it too. A documentary is, after all, designed to teach us something. But of course, a documentary film is also a mediated argument, a commercial product designed by the filmmakers, who made many choices about its content. What did they leave in? What did they cut out? What have they paired together to compare or contrast ideas? How are they using voiceover, music, editing, etc. to selectively create and guide our opinions? Think through HOW and WHY the filmmakers made the choices they did.

3) Consider Our Class Readings

In order to support your paper's thesis, you must refer to readings from our course (also required). Draw upon and briefly cite class readings on race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, postcolonialism, capitalism, marketing, etc. as you craft your analysis (no long quotes). There is no need to refer to all of our readings; consider which readings resonate with your selected film, and then choose one or two that best support your arguments. Always refer to our readings to back up your points about the film's rhetoric and your thesis, citing the authors parenthetically within your text, and on your MLA formatted Works Cited page.

4) Formulate Your Thesis

Now formulate your ideas about the film's rhetorical strategies into a clear thesis, which should combine your interpretation of the film's message and its rhetoric condensed into one sentence that argues a definite opinion about the film's rhetorical strategies. Think in terms of "fortune cookie" brevity and stoicism here.

Your entire paper will revolve around your understanding of what you think the film is trying to say--the film's implicit message--and even more importantly, how and why it says it (rhetoric/symptomatic meaning). You're examining what you think the film betrays about its proffered ideologies, whether it is aware of these underlying messages or not (symptomatic meaning). Think critically here: don't cheerlead about what a great film it is or what an important issue it raises. Instead, critique the film's underlying messages about race, gender, class, sexuality, coloniality, capitalism, etc. using the support of our class readings.

Note that to say the film is "about" something is not enough for your thesis; that's the starting point. Then you must take that noun that the film is "about" and argue a point or opinion about it. For help formulating a solid thesis, see Dartmouth College's Developing Your Thesis; and for general advice for academic writing, see the Dartmouth College Writing Guidelines. All of your examples from the film and readings will then work to illustrate and prove your thesis about how the film's rhetoric conveys its implicit and, most importantly, its ideological meanings.

STEP THREE: Organize and write your essay.

This is a more formal paper than your other assignments for our class. You should clearly organize and write your paper within your 6-7 page limit (strictly enforced), following these guidelines:

1) Introduction. State a thesis that offers your interpretation of the film's rhetorical strategies. Be very clear about your argument/thesis and how you will support it. Your paper's title must reflect your theme; feel free to be clever or witty with your title.

2) The Body of the Paper. Prove your thesis with examples from the film and readings to support your points. Always be sure that your examples clearly support your thesis.

Cautions and requirements for this section of your paper:

Avoid trying to discuss the film chronologically. An achronological, categorical, thematic organization will allow you to be more concise and to resist the temptation to simply provide a plot summary. NO PLOT SUMMARY is necessary for this assignment. Get right to your analysis and your interpretation of the film, referring to plot elements only to illustrate and/or situate your examples within the film.

Your primary task in this assignment is to demonstrate your sensitivity to the film's rhetorical strategies. How does the film use its formal techniques to try to convince you of its message, and what ideologies does the film proffer, even when it might not think it does? You must demonstrate your mastery of this material by thoroughly employing the Cultural Studies textual analysis skills we're learning in Media & Culture. Refer to our class readings to support your points, but only BRIEFLY. This is not a report on your documentary or on our class readings; it's your ANALYSIS of how they inflect each other.

Do not catalogue all of the techniques and features you noted as you watched the film. Discuss ONLY those techniques that are outstanding and contribute significantly to the meaning of the film. For example, if you find that the lighting in the film has no particular logic or pattern which makes it support your interpretation, then do not discuss it in your paper. Be sure to discuss it if it is important, though!

3) Conclusion. Use your final paragraph to bring to a close your analysis of the film's rhetoric. However, do NOT simply repeat your introduction. Rather, restate your thesis in a conclusive (as opposed to introductory) manner and discuss any broader ideological implications you find to be significant.

4) Works Cited. Use MLA format to cite your film and your selected articles and/or books from class. Note that this page falls OUTSIDE the assigned 6-7 pages for the content above.


* PACE YOURSELF: Get to work on this assignment as soon as you can. Watching a film 4-5 times plus the commentary & extras at the last minute will not yield as productive a film analysis nor, consequently, as high a grade.

* OUTLINE: Draft an outline of your paper within the week that you first watch the film. It should include your interpretation of the film's implicit and ideological meanings, the outstanding motifs you plan to emphasize, the class readings you find pertinent to your documentary, and the specific examples you will use to advance your argument. Don't worry about precision now; you can amend as you go.

* FORMAT: Submit this assignment on paper, but email all versions of your paper as Word attachments as well (not a substitute for turning in your paper copy). Be sure to number all pages, and to follow the course policies for format (12-point font, 1" margin, double-spaced, stapled, extra credit for double-sided papers, etc.). Do not artificially shrink or enlarge your paper length via font size, margins, etc.; you will lose points for page overages or shortages if you do. Follow this helpful guide for PCs or this guide for Macs for detailed instructions on how to format all papers for our course.

* STYLE: Write in active voice. Avoid passive voice and awkward constructions such as "we see," "we get," "this is done to show," etc. by using terms you learned in Intro to Film. Writing a persuasive, analytical essay like this one in passive voice undermines your argument's power; you're analyzing how and why the directors make the choices they do, so don't let them slip by with passive voice. You should demonstrate your comprehension of and fluency with the film terminology you learned in Intro to Film and with the readings for Media and Culture. For suggestions and correct phrasing, be sure to re-read both guides to writing about film and the online comments guide.

* WRITING HELP: I strongly encourage you to take a rough draft of your paper to The Writer's Studio in A&S 224 and to The Center for Academic Success in the Library, particularly if your assignments have frequently earned comments of "PV," "AWK," or other grammatical and organizational errors. These on-campus writing resources will help you write a more coherent, clear, and concise essay--really.

* COMMENTS: A first draft or a detailed outline + the thesis sentence of your paper is due soon (see the schedule for date). If you would like to discuss your draft in person after you have read through the TA, workshop partner, and/or my returned comments, please feel free to make an appointment with our Teaching Intern(s) first, and then me if you like, for office hours.


*Abbreviations and Consistency: it's a good idea to use official abbreviations like CU, POV, etc. throughout; even on the first mention these are okay. This will save you space and they're professionally recognized, standard abbreviations. But there shouldn't be much abbreviation beyond that. (Don't say "mise" for mise-en-scene, for example.) After first mention of character or director/personnel names, you should truncate the name a bit from there, but be sure to be consistent about your abbreviation. For example, Michael Moore can be truncated to Moore, but don't call him Moore in one place, then Michael in another, then Mike in another. Keep it consistent. The last name is usually appropriate, so unless you know him personally, use Moore, not Michael. In some cases the first name would be more correct (if people, animals, etc. are identified by their first names throughout the film this way, for example), but don't use characters' initials in a formal paper. Likewise, you can abbreviate the title of the film after the first mention. You could just say Penguins for March of the Penguins, for example, but only after your first mention of the full title. Keep this consistent throughout the paper too. Shorter titles should be spelled out in full; use your best judgment here.

*Definitions of Terms and Quotations: defining ideology (or anything else) would take up space that you need for your analysis of the film. No terms should be defined in your paper; instead, you should use them fluently and confidently in the course of your analysis. Beginning with an epigraph/quote from the film works only if it illustrates your meaning/thesis. If you can quote briefly to argue your meaning, thatís fine. Be careful not to quote too often or at length, though. You can use quotes sparingly but effectively as evidence from the film to support your meaning; this paper is too short for heavy quotation.

*Subheadings: there should be no sub-headings in your paper. While they can be useful in longer papers, this paper is too short for them. Shift from one section to the next via smoothly written transitions, not subheadings.