Home > Unit 3: Introduction > Essay 4 Assignment

Essay 4 Description and Options

couple with trailerDescription:

For this 4th major writing assignment (minimum length 1500 words), you will be writing a research paper/travel essay. Use any of the prompts below to help develop your specific topic & thesis. No matter which option you choose, you will need to make sure that your essay meets the criteria listed at the bottom of this page.


Option 1: A Bay Area Travel Narrative

Go to a local tourist destination like Oakland's Jack London Square, Chinatown in San Francisco, the Petaluma Historic District, etc. Or go farther out to Columbia Historic District, Fort Ross, or San Juan Bautista. Don't go to anyplace you are already super familiar with because your goal is to experience a new place as a travel writer. Bring your family or friends if you like, but be sure to spend plenty of time in this locale. Keep your notebook and your camera or video camera in hand and record everything. Pay special attention to your first impressions, and to the sensory details (the smell of the ocean, sourdough bread, hot peppers, rosemary, dust, or automobile exhaust). Consider coming prepared with a list of questions to ask local workers or tourists (What do you like/dislike most about this area? What social problems are particular to this area? Has the experience here changed much in the last decade? What's the wierdest thing that you ever saw here?), but if talking with strangers makes you nervous, just make really thoughtful observations of what you see. When you get home, reflect on your experience, then gather more information about your spot through research (history, demographics, etc). Make sure your essay has a clear point (thesis) and that readers will understand your point by reading your story. Weave in historical or cultural information to develop your main idea.

Option 2: Strange and Wonderful Events

Discuss the appeal of an event such as a comic book convention, a music festival, a dog show, a sports tournament, or any other event that draws a large crowd and has its own culture. Include a discussion of the history of the event, the particular community it supports, the event's organization and structure, commerce, etc. The introduction to an essay about Comic-Con written for The Guardian by Erin McCann is copied below to give you an idea of the kind of essay I'm thinking of for this topic:

It's once again time for Comic-Con, that annual festival which draws geek-minded people by the thousands to the San Diego convention center, where their numbers are matched by an army of entertainment executives and creators peddling their latest wares.

"Movies! Get your next hit movies here!" you can hear them shout thunderously from Hall H, as droves of fans rush to get a glimpse of just that. "Two-for-one special on sci-fi TV series. Step right this way."

It's like Barnum's circus, a wild west boom town and that strange, splashy dystopia foreseen in Blade Runner, all under one roof.

Option 3: The Tourist Predicament

If you liked the Dean Maccannell essay about tourists and tourism (and the videos, etc. on Las Vegas), then you may like this option. . . Instead of being a tourist, go out and observe tourists at a local spot. Write an essay about what it is you think tourists are taking away from destinations like Fisherman's Wharf, The Golden Gate Bridge, or Ghiradelli Square. What are they missing? Or, conversely, what do they see that locals fail to see or have become immune to?

There is a wonderful (but cynical) essay by Walker Percy called "The Loss of the Creature," that you may want to look at for another perspective on tourist behavior. In this essay, Percy suggests that one might get a better connection to and understanding of a tourist destination if one watches the tourists watching the scene:

[A]fter a lifetime of avoiding the beaten track and guided tours, a man may deliberately seek out the most beaten track of all, the most commonplace tour imaginable: he may visit the canyon by a Greyhound tour in the company of a party from Terre Haute—just as a man who has lived in New York all his life may visit the Statue of Liberty . . . . The [experience] is recovered from familiarity by means of an exercise in familiarity. Our complex friend stands behind his fellow tourists at the Bright Angel Lodge and sees the [Grand C]anyon through them and their predicament, their picture taking and busy disregard.

So go on a guided tour to Alcatraz, or walk around Fisherman's Wharf and watch what the tourists are doing. What do they see? What do they miss? And then tell your readers what you learned about tourism today, and about what there is to see around us. You should plan to include historical background on the local spot and what makes it touristic, as well as information about tourism, more generally.

Option 4: Remembered Travels Revisited

Totem Pole MotelIf your schedule is just too packed for a new travel experience, however local, you may choose to write about a place you have visited in the past. But, if you choose this option, be sure you have strong feelings about this travel experience. Were you puzzled by this place? Upset in some way by the experience? Moved by the people? Startled by events? You will need to do research to dig deeper into what makes this place the way it is (again, consider history, local politics, encounters with individuals who live there, statistics on population, income, etc.). You must have a strong and clear point to make. In other words, before you write, make sure you decide what your visit to this place can teach us about human beings and the world.

Option 5: A visit to the past

In “Fat Girls in Des Moines” Bryson manages to create “otherness” about the place where he grew up and the people that he knew as a child, and yet he still gives the sense that he somehow belongs there. Think about the place that you come from. Write an essay about your own childhood home using Bryson's essay as a model. Be careful that your essay is about the place, however, and not about you (at least not as the primary focus). Your reader should come away from your essay with a strong sense of what this place is really like. Only write this essay is you have clear and concrete memories of the place and people. And consider revisiting this place to get more information for your essay. If you do visit, carry a notebook and a camera or video camera and take lots of notes. Interview locals (if you are feeling bold) and collect information from the local city hall, historical society, Better Business Bureau, or library to add depth to your argument. You might expand your search to industries that provide most local jobs in the town, or on important historical events that impacted the town.


1. Your essay should NOT be a travel guide. Travel guides tell readers where to go, where to eat, where to sleep, and what to do in a particular locale. They may even provide a bit of history or interesting facts, but they lack the personal voice and insight of the author. So essays with titles like "A Collection of San Francisco Highlights You Can Squeeze into 3 Days," "Kid-Friendly Miami," or "Paris Off the Beaten Path" that focus on helping the tourist map out a great vacation are off limits!

2. Your essay should include description and narrative, but your purpose in this essay is not to entertain or simply inform your reader about a locale. Instead, your purpose should be to show your reader what being in this locale taught you — about human beings and / or about the world, and what readers might learn about the world, as well, through reading your essay. In other words, readers should gain some insight through your narrative and your research. Use the essays by Paul Theroux and Leila-Anne as models (in terms of how both writers weave together personal storytelling, description, AND great research).

3. Your essay should include historical and cultural information about your chosen locale (note the way Theroux, Leila-Anne, and Bryson weave in information about history, culture, and geography into their narratives). You will need to provide citations for all of your sources in MLA format. And you must have at least 4 scholarly sources (from peer-reviewed journals, reputable newspapers, websites by experts). Beyond these sources, you may also chooes to include material from unconventional sources; for example, consider incorporating interviews, brochures, or data from the local Better Business Bureau or historical society (Wikipedia does not count).

4. I encourage you to include photographs, video, or other media in your essay to illustrate and enhance your ideas (Note that if you include images, you will need to upload your essay as a .pdf file. Most other formats will not upload properly, even if your document looks fine on your home screen).

5. Finishing touches: Length: 1500-1800 words. Double space throughout the essay — No extra lines between paragraphs!! Please provide a thoughtful title for your essay. Also, your introduction and conclusion are very important in a travel essay. Be sure and think carefully about best ways to begin and end your essay. 200 points possible for this essay (as stated in the syllabus).



EasyBib Guide to Doing Research

I hope you enjoy this assignment. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me!