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Write a place that intrigues you

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Assignment Guide: Essay #1: Choosing a Site


  • 2 – 2.5 pages, double-spaced in Times New Roman, 1″ margins
  • Due: Saturday, December 21, by 11:59 p.m. (click here to submit)
  • Format: Word document or PDF file

What is my main objective?

The goal for this essay is to write about a place that intrigues you. This place (or “site”) can be anywhere that you can visit regularly in your everyday life. It should be contained within 4-8 square blocks (or whatever seems like the equivalent). The most important thing is to choose your site carefully, because you will be writing about it in different ways for the rest of the semester.

What is this assignment asking for, exactly?

This assignment is asking you to “close read” a specific location. Close reading is usually a term we use when reading a text. If you have ever analyzed a poem, for instance, you’ve done close reading before. In reading your site closely, you’ll be doing something similar: looking carefully at the details and specific elements in order to make some claims about what they might “mean,” or how they might contribute to your overall impression of the place.

Why must the site be 4-8 blocks in size?

These dimensions should provide enough variety and scope for your explorations in close reading without overwhelming you with detail. If the site is too small, you may not find enough to write about.

Should this paper have a thesis? If so, what would a good thesis look like?

This paper should not have a single thesis in the traditional sense. Instead, think about the details you want to focus on for your site and why they interest you. You will need to use these details to justify your choice of site in the paper. The site you choose is your paper’s topic. The shape you give that topic will come from the details you analyze at your site.

Read Grady Clay’s “How to Read a City” (posted in this Module). Consider his writing as a possible “how-to” guide for asking good questions about your site. Clay’s chapter gives us lots of new ways of seeing, which you can apply to your site.

What kinds of details should I try to observe about my site? What does it mean to “ask questions” about a place?

Places, like written texts, are not always what they seem after we take time to look at them more closely. Consider visiting your site several times, at different times of day. As you do, ask yourself about:

  • how the land is used at the site (for commercial businesses? residential houses? apartments? municipal buildings?)
  • the sense of any patterns, as you experience them, about the place
  • the sense of any patterns that might be seen from a bird’s-eye view (or google maps)
  • details that seem common or repeated within the site
  • details that seem to be out of place at the site
  • sensory details, such as particular smells, sounds, or physical sensations

How do I collect evidence for this assignment?

It might help to think of yourself as making field notes. Take a notebook with you and make notes on your observations, the same way you would if you were taking notes on a text.

  • consider taking pictures of elements of the site that intrigue you
  • find a place to sit for awhile at your site, and watch what happens there. What you don’t see is as important as what you do see. Take notes — and make journal entries — on both.
  • Consider different ways of taking notes: it can sometimes be helpful to write lists, sets of questions and answers, theories, or longer narrative descriptions.

How do I organize my observations?

  • You can try to organize your observations around specific questions you have about the site
  • What patterns, details, and surprises do you find? What is there? What isn’t there?
  • Re-read Grady Clay’s text (found in this Module). This time, look for the way his ideas apply to your site. Consider if a particular concept or way of looking helps you make sense of the details you’ve accumulated.

How should I structure my paper?

For this paper, you will want to include the following information:

    • Description of your site and your justification for choosing it: Where is your site? What are its boundaries, and why did you choose them? What elements of the site make it compelling as a place to study? The answer to these questions will be the “thesis” of the paper, so you’ll want to include them early on.
    • How is the land on your site being used? How is its land use significant? Be specific here: make note of street intersections, detailed descriptions of buildings, amount of grass versus concrete, etc.
    • Observe and describe the key aspects of your site: you will need to choose particular qualities and details that you’ve observed and explain why they interest you. Be specific and anchor your observations to specific streets, buildings, patterns, or contrasts.
    • Use terms and ideas from Grady Clay’s text to help you frame what is significant about your site. Remember: whenever using an idea or quote from an outside text, include a parenthetical citation with page number and a Works Cited list on a separate page at the end of the paper. See the MLA citation guide on Purdue’s website (Links to an external site.) for instructions.