Presidential Biography Through Stories

“What’s the best part of history?”  Studying history can be tons of fun.  Perhaps the most entertaining aspect is the stories involved.  Everyone loves a good story, one that is well told and offers insight into the people and events of the past.  Your mission (“should you choose to accept it,” to borrow the old Mission Impossible line) is to write a biography of a president who served from 1789 to 1877 (George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant)—but not just an ordinary biography.  You will assemble anecdotes about your subject and offer insights into his life and presidency by telling a series of stories about him. 

The First Step.  You are to select a substantive biography of the president and use it as a source.  You may use more than one biography, but one is the required minimum.  That is your first task in this term paper.  The book’s text (i.e., excluding notes, bibliography, and index) must be at least 190 pages long, and you must obtain my approval.  Please choose your book by Wednesday, September 22.  The distribution among subject choices should be broad and diverse among students in the class, so I may have to impose limits and close off certain popular picks (e.g., if half the class gravitates toward Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or other well-known presidents, I will direct the rest of you to pick one of the less well known chief executives).  To enhance your chances of securing your first choice, make your decision quickly—and let me know via e-mail as soon as possible

Good books versus poor books.  Be judicious in choosing your monograph.  Get a recent biography (i.e., published within the past 50 years).  Select a book that is scholarly in nature, written by an authority on the topic and replete with endnotes or footnotes that reflect diligent research.  Certain books present little scholarly value because the authors have written simple reference works, using few primary sources, if any.  These include the presidential biography series published by:

–Times Books (Henry Holt)

–Library of American Biography. 

Please avoid these series for this assignment. 

          Where Can You Get Your Biography?  Amazon is a salient choice, but you have numerous options.  You can visit the Barnes & Noble in Melbourne, and Books-A-Million has two stores in Brevard County (one in Melbourne, another on Merritt Island).  You may investigate used bookstores like NU2U Books and Patrick Paperbacks.  Brevard County Public Library has numerous branches, including the MLK Jr. branch on University Avenue, and you can order any book in the county system through interlibrary loan.  Plus, FIT’s Library has interlibrary loan!  You can also order any book in the country through FIT’s interlibrary loan, so you have a vast catalog at your disposal. 

          Reference works:  absolutely forbidden.  These include Wikipedia, the Miller Center website, UCSB presidency project website, other presidential websites, encyclopedia articles, textbooks, time lines, general reference works (including those on the presidency or presidential elections), and websites of dubious scholarly merit (e.g., with no authors listed).  You are to glean your information from your chosen book.   

          This paper is not a standard biography, nor a condensed version of the book you read.  This paper is not an encyclopedia-like thumbnail biography.  If you write a narrative that just summarizes the president’s life or career—birth to death—you will receive zero credit.  You must follow the directions carefully.    

Your Task:  How To Write This Paper.  For this paper, you will be writing approximately 7-9 anecdotes, depending on how long each one is.  You will sweep through the president’s life, from childhood to the presidency and perhaps beyond.  The lion’s share of your stories should be from the presidency—after all, that is your subject’s claim to fame—but you should have two or three stories covering the president’s youth and pre-presidential career, and perhaps one story treating post-presidential life.  Thus, your formula will look as follows:

2-3 stories from childhood, school, early career

4-5 stories from the presidency

0-1 story from the post-presidency

You will have narrative control over this paper, which means you will make the decisions on which events you think are significant or entertaining and which you want to include.  Trawl through your book, find good tales, and paraphrase them (put them into your own words).  As much as possible, give a year or time frame for your story, and arrange your paper in a chronological order.  Each story should be 150-450 words long (1-3 paragraphs), so you will have flexibility in the length of each.  Give each story a title, and supply at least one footnote for each story

How To Pick Your Stories?  Try to pick stories that give insight into your subject’s presidency, character, or personality.  You may focus on a significant achievement during the presidency, or the chief executive’s personal life, such as his relationship with family members or friends.  Your story could represent a turning point or at least an inflection point in the president’s life, and you can illustrate why it had such an impact.  You may also pick a story for its sheer entertainment value—something unusual, funny, bizarre or noteworthy. 

Models.  “Say, what??!!!  I still don’t get it.  How should I write this paper???!”  If you’re still at sea about what this paper requires, I will direct you to two models.  I have written a biography-by-stories paper focusing on Jimmy Carter, and I will post the complete work on Blackboard.  I will go over a few stories from this paper in class.  I have drafted this paper so that it meets all the requirements—length, number and quality of stories, footnotes, titles  .  I strongly urge you to read this paper in full.  You may also refer to the bestseller Presidential Anecdotes, by Paul Boller—although you MUST NOT crib any of the stories you find there.  Your stories must be original—i.e., your own creations—from your own reading.

          How Should You Read Your Book?  How Long Should This Project Take?  Some of you may select an extremely long book—more than 300 pages.  Great!  I applaud your ambition, and the more comprehensive a book you select, the larger the potential trove of stories you can mine.  Here’s the good news:  you do not need read a voluminous book cover-to-cover and stagger under its weight.  You should skim the book—which is a crucial skill to develop—cruising through it with an eye for good stories that you can retell.  This paper, therefore, should not take you weeks or months to write—although you will be submitting a thoughtful, well-written finished product.

          Paper Length2,000-2,500 words (8-10 pages).  You may spill over the limit, but not by more than 100 words. 

          How Should You Pace Your Work—Especially Given the Unusual Semester in This Course?  You should be able to complete this assignment within a relatively short period—it is not a semester-long project.  But you are receiving it on the fourth week of the term, so you have a compressed time frame.  You must act speedily.  Do not procrastinate.  Do it now! 

          How Will I Be Graded?  The grade you earn on this term paper will reflect the following:  quality of your stories (which includes a linear historical narrative, evidence of effective searching through your chosen book, insights into your subject), writing mechanics, writing process (at least one rough draft), footnotes, bibliography. 

Do it now!  Please mark three deadlines on your calendar: 

          Wednesday, September 22.  You MUST email me the choice of your book by this day—and try to do it sooner.  Please remember that I may have to exercise the right to impose limits on certain popular book choices or presidential subjects—so move fast with your selections!   

          Oct. 18-29 (last two weeks of the month).  Academic Support Center Review of Rough Draft (required, explained below).

          Friday, Nov. 5.  Your paper is due.  

Advertisement Page.  Be proud of your work.  This assignment is no occasion to be modest.  When you are done, you will have written a well researched paper full of surprising and important information.  You should tout your paper’s merits, and you should make it enticing—a historical work that someone will want to read.  To dangle a lure before your reader, please include an advertising page that hooks anyone who picks up your paper, functioning like a book jacket.  After your title (cover) page and before you begin your paper itself, please have a page with three bulleted items to catch attention (it will not count toward your paper’s page limit).  For the model paper on Jimmy Carter that I am posting on Blackboard, you could write:

          “Did you know that President Jimmy Carter:

          -performed what amounted to a painful medical procedure on himself when he was a boy

          -watched a visiting foreign leader break down and sob uncontrollably just before a major public event

          -had a pulse rate while he was president that was probably lower than yours or anybody whom you know?

          Carter also signed one of the most controversial diplomatic treaties in modern history—one that remains controversial to this day.  To learn more,  please read on!”

          Warning:  Please do not use the Advertisement Page as a trivia dump (“Ronald Reagan liked jelly beans,” “Reagan made 57 films during his acting career”).  It should function as a preview of your paper. 

          Writing counts!  Your writing is important—for this paper, your other classes, and your career.  Take it seriously.  I will pay close attention not only to your argument but also to your paper’s mechanics (spelling, grammar, and punctuation).  In formulating your grade, I will consider all.

          The most important part of writing:  rewriting.  Your paper should be a carefully honed and polished work—the “finished product” of your endeavors.  It should not be a rough draft.  You must proofread your paper to vet it for typographical errors, misspellings, and mistakes in punctuation and grammar.  Your paper should be free of such errors.  Careless errors will reduce your grade.  As you find mistakes and correct them, and as you develop better ways of expressing your thoughts, you will rewrite your paper.  Expect to go through this process–the most critical but rewarding aspect of writing–at least a few times before you develop a final version to submit to me.  

          Bibliography.  Your paper must include a bibliography (works cited page) in correct form.  

          What about quotations?  While your paper should contain some direct quotations to buttress your argument, do not overdo it.  Excessive quotations will mar the quality of your work and defeat a primary objective of this assignment, to wit, exercising your own writing skills.  As a rule, try to limit quotations to no more than two per paragraph (or less than ten percent of the total writing in your paper).  Two precepts to follow:  1)  Rely on paraphrases (which must also be cited) instead of quotations.  2)  When you do quote, sprinkle rather than saturate. 

          Avoid block quotations!  Nobody enjoys seeing long, single-spaced, indented quotations.  Readers skip them.  So why include them?  Especially in a paper this short, leave out block quotations.

          Footnotes.  Your paper should be chock-full of footnotes, the standard citation device that historians employ.  You may use endnotes, although I prefer footnotes.  Do not use parenthetical citations!  You should cite the following:  quotations, paraphrases, ideas, thoughts, statistics, specific examples, and “uncommon knowledge.” In other words, you need to cite everything except your own original thinking!  Failure to do so constitutes plagiarism.  As a general rule, if you are unsure about whether to cite something—cite it. 

You should have at least one footnote (in correct form) per story.  You will be maintaining the intellectual integrity of your work and protecting yourself against plagiarism.  You must take this practice seriously, and your footnotes must be honest and accurate.  Because of footnotes’ importance, papers without footnotes/endnotes on every story will receive zero credit. 

          Title and subtitle.  Please give your paper a title that is catchy and a subtitle that captures the essence of your work (your spin on or interpretation of your subject).  Do not turn in a paper with a title such as “History Term Paper” or “Presidential Biography Through Stories.”

          Important details.

                     -Use a cover sheet and display your title and subtitle on it.

                     -Number your pages at the upper right-hand corner.         

-Lines should be double-spaced (not one-and-a-half spaced), and print should be standard 12-point font.  Side and bottom margins should be at least 1 1/4 inches; the top margin should be at least one inch. 

                     If your paper fails to meet these guidelines, I may not read it.

          For physical copies, please use paperclips rather than staples, and please print out single-sided.  A paper with loose pages is easier to read than a stapled one!

          Your own work.  This paper should assess your understanding of this topic and exercise your writing and analytical skills.  It is an individual assignment.  Undue collaboration, plagiarism, or other forms of academic dishonesty will result in failure for the course.

          Turnitin.  You must submit your paper to  I will give you instructions later in the course.  The electronic copy you submit MUST match the paper copy you turn in to me or you will receive no credit for the paper.  The deadline for submission to Turnitin will be forty-eight hours after the paper due date.  I will not begin to read your paper until it is placed in Turnitin. 

          Proofread, proofread, proofread.  Proofread your paper as you continue to rewrite it.  Because of my emphasis on writing mechanics and proofreading, I recommend that you give your paper to as many persons as possible to elicit criticism, comments, and corrections.  You must get used to this process!  Review from a trained eye will help your paper considerably.

          Rough draft required—reviewed by the FIT Academic Services Center.  Important!  You MUST turn in at least one typewritten (i.e., not handwritten) rough draft of your paper, which you have reviewed with a FIT writing tutor, along with the finished product.  This early version(s) will furnish evidence to me that you have proofread and revised your work and had an instructor review it.  Absolutely unacceptable is a “rough draft” that looks exactly like your final paper.  I will be reviewing each page of the rough draft, comparing it to the final version, and it should show tangible differences.  No rough draft means zero credit for the paper. 

          Term Paper Checklist.  I will distribute this guide during the Writing Workshop.  You must submit it with your paper—having all items checked off in good faith.  Please sign and date this document.  

          Late papers.  “DO IT NOW!”  This course should improve your work habits.  I would like you to meet deadlines and avoid a horrible human flaw—procrastination.  To help you to take this objective seriously, late papers will receive a 50 percent grade reduction within a 48-hour time window. (After 48 hours, I will accept no late papers.)  Should I give the entire class a due date extension, I will accept no late papers.  No exceptions! 

Back-up devices.  Please back up all your work on an electronic storage device!  Lost flash drives or computer/ printer malfunctions will never constitute valid excuses under any circumstances. 

No “rewrites.”  Because you should rewrite your paper as you work on it, going through a few drafts, no “rewrites” will be permitted.  Your final draft that you submit is precisely that—your final draft. 

          When should you begin this paper?  Today.  The time to begin any assignment is the day you receive it.  Please do not wait until the deadline becomes a massive reality. 

          DUE DATE. 

          A tip on meeting deadlines.

What should you turn in?

(1)  final draft

(2)  at least one rough draft, which you have reviewed at FIT’s ASC

A final word.  Please remember the following three rules for college term papers.  Your work will impress professors if they:

          1)  are well written

          2)  offer knowledge that is new and insightful to your reader (another reason to avoid general reference works as sources)

          3)  exhibit extensive research supported by abundant footnotes.

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