Sample Assignment #1

Through the 2016-17 academic year, we—Phil and Lissa—were soliciting authors for our second, more international edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature, co-edited with Nina Christensen and slated for publication by New York University Press in 2019. With the parameters we had outlined for the established authors we solicited so clearly in our minds, we both set “keywords” assignments for our students in our respective master’s level classes. Lissa’s assignment was for students in the winter 2017 session of EDUC 5P01: Introduction to Social and Cultural Contexts of Education: Developing a Critical Language, Phil’s for English 703: Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature in Spring 2017. In pedagogical terms, we had both decided to give our students “problem-based learning” assignments, that is the tasks we assigned to our students closely resembled the ones we gave to established scholars. Phil and Lissa gave similar assignments to their students, though Lissa designated hers as keywords “for Education,” and Phil “for Children’s Literature.” To avoid repetition, we have reproduced an edited version of Phil’s assignment here and are granting permission to use with appropriate credit:


Write an entry for Keywords for Children’s Literature. Your entry cannot be a word that is already in the book. It needs to be a keyword that the book has failed to include.

Choosing a Word

Choose a word that is crucial to the discussion of children’s literature, but also that is contested or conflicted. As Raymond Williams wrote in his Keywords (1976, 1983), keywords “involve ideas and values,” get used in “interesting or difficult ways” — and in different ways by different people. So, if you find that, in critical conversations, a particular word is getting used in different ways by different people, then that’s a candidate for your keyword. If you’re stuck, take a second look at the introduction to Keywords for Children’s Literature.

Writing the Essay

Here is a version of the assignment Lissa Paul and I gave contributors to Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011). Adopting, modifying, and expanding criteria from Bennett, Grossberg and Morris’ New Keywords and Burgett and Hendler’s Keywords for American Cultural Studies, we developed the following guidelines:

  • Your definition should offer a scholarly account of the word’s origins, but should focus on a particular interpretation of the word’s significance for the study of children’s literature and culture.  Please look at the relevant entry or entries from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), [i]and (when possible) other relevant material — such as entries from Williams’ KeywordsNew KeywordsKeywords for American Cultural Studies, and/or other related critical works.  You can access the Oxford English Dictionaryon-line via the databases at the library.
  • In your very first paragraph, begin with a history of the keyword itself.  From there, move into the critical controversies in which this keyword is enmeshed.
  • To quote New Keywords’ editors, your entry “should offer concrete examples of usage.”  Those examples should come from children’s literature (primarily) but can certainly include children’s culture. Your mandate is to focus on traditions in English, but we invite you to include non-English traditions if or when you can.

Paul and Nel (2018)

[i] Please note that OED is used as the abbreviation for the Oxford English Dictionary (2017). Oxford: Oxford UP, throughout the special issue.