Reader Response Journal to Thoreau's Walden

From Princeton University

What is a journal?

Your journal is a set of personal responses to reading chapters of Thoreau's Walden. Each entry is a minimum of 500 words, up to a maximum of 1,000 words. You will read the following chapters:

What is it for?

Your journal is an opportunity for you to think and write about what these readings mean to you. Thoreau kept a journal to develop his thoughts and powers of expression. The best part of writing a journal is that it sustains your personal growth.

When do I write the entries?

Before, during and after class.

May I write the entries just before the final deadline?

Very strongly not recommended! The whole point of a journal is to write it on a regular basis, so that you experience steady growth in ideas and style. If you write the entries during an all-nighter before deadline, that will be evident to me and you will receive a mediocre (or worse) grade. The deadline is the same as the final exam. Do not procrastinate.

What does a journal entry contain?

You are expected to show your grasp of the reading, both in large concepts and specific details, and you should provide a point of view that reflects your independent thought. Don't ramble or blather. Keep your focus on the reading, but use personal experiences if you can make them relevant. You are trying to turn a mix of facts, ideas, and opinions into a coherent statement. Journal entries are a series of snapshots of what you are thinking and learning.

Could I see some sample entries?

Yes. Here is a file in Word and PDF that contains sample entries, with my comments.

Does the writing have to be perfect?

Your entries need not be a polished final product. The prose should be informal but clear. It's OK to write in the first person, to use contractions, and to invoke images to describe ideas. The writing does not need to be "creative," just the level you might expect in a good letter or memo. It should be writing, not "talk" because speech is often slangy, disconnected, and simplistic in vocabulary.

How are journal entries graded?

You are graded on effort, clarity, and originality. On a scale of good to bad, here are some terms I use to evaluate journal entries:

thoughtful, wide-ranging
full of good evidence
sound reasoning
clear, direct writing
lively, quirky, spunky
sharp particulars that help to picture and frame ideas
concrete specifics that anchor ideas, stir inward vision
vague, undetailed, generalized
slapdash, casual
thin, sparse, flat

How may I improve my journal grade?

Make the journal a regular habit. Write in it often throughout the week. Re-read what you wrote in previous weeks. Look for recurring or changing ideas, images, and expressive phrases and ask yourself, why are they recurring or changing? In other words, read the journal as critically as you read the assigned texts. It helps if you make an index of the entries, so you can review them easily.

A good journal has a sense of movement. Each entry is a journey in which you discover and explore the landscape of a text, attend to what its writer is saying and then to how you respond to that. Use passages, images, scenes, and characters to give a reading. Don't over-generalize or totalize (none of that stuff about "man" and "society"). Pay thoughtful attention to particulars and what you see or feel in them.

Remember that the path of learning in a journal is inductive. In deduction, you announce a thesis and prove it with evidence--as in a classic 5-page paper. In induction, you observe, question, analyze, and then at the end, generalize. It's a process of discussion that is organic, growing by accumulation and accretion, and rather like the mind itself.