Prof. McMahand

English Composition

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere Writing Assignments

Choose one of the following prompts as a focus for your essay.  In your prewriting, jot down a working thesis, prospective topic sentences, and passages from the text that you think you may use in the rough draft.  I will NOT ACCEPT or grade a final draft that does not include ALL of the elements of the prewriting work as well as your rough draft with peer edits.

Remember that your claims and minor claims come from essential questions about character development, theme, symbolism, point-of-view, conflict, flashback, irony, and so on.  You may also refer to the story’s exposition, rising action, crisis, falling action, and dénouement: “In the story’s crisis…” or “The dénouement denies a complete resolution…”  Make time for proofing, editing, and rewriting.  As always, your language should be clear, grammatical, and formal, though not pompous, convoluted, or wordy. 

Basic Requirements: at least four pages (no more than six), one inch margins, 12 pt Times New Roman, MLA formatting, citation, and documentation. Include prewriting (as listed above), rough drafts with peer edits, and a final draft.  Place all of your work in a flat, no-ring folder.


1.      Explore the story’s theme of parroting or echoing.  How do both sets of brownies echo the world around them?  In what ways do some individuals in Laurel’s troop and Troop 909 break from mindless echoing and repetition?   How does ZZ Packer tie the theme of prejudice and reprisal with the black girls’ discovery of the white troops’ special needs?


2.      As a coming of age story, “Brownies” presents a significant shift in Laurel’s worldview—from unaware and innocent to sensitive and thoughtful.  What does Laurel discover about herself, her family, friends, etc.?  How do Laurel’s father and Daphne’s father (from her poem) exert vastly different influences on their daughters? 


3.      What’s in a name?  If Arnetta means “eagle ruler” and Octavia summons Octavius, the Roman ruler and father of emperors, how does Packer model these meanings in her characters?  Also, recall the Greek myth of Daphne and Laurel.  How do Daphne and Laurel in “Brownies” reenact the trope of shape-shifting?  Finally, what does the story’s use of naming suggest about power, leadership, and transformation?

“The Ant of the Self”    

1.      Discuss Packer’s pairing of a broken father-son relationship with the wider discord resounding within the black community.  Explain how the phrase “ant of the self” applies to the Marchers who accost Spurgeon as well as to Ray and Spurgeon?  To whom else in the story does it apply?  How does the March in D.C. inform and shape Spurgeon’s life journey—before and especially after the March?


2.      Examine Packer’s presentation of the father-son relationship in the story.  In what ways does the narrative indict Ray and Spurgeon for their contribution to their alienation, and how does the story reveal an Oedipal struggle for dominance?  How does Spurgeon’s sighting of the father and son at the Amtrak station compare with his relationship with his father?


3.      Like Odysseus or the Red Cross Knight, the quest hero embarks on a series of tropes, including his call to adventure, his initial refusal, his holding to a strict honor code, meeting friends and enemies, overcoming tests and ordeals, gaining reward and insight, and his return home.  How does Spurgeon’s quest/journey retain some of these tropes while altering others?  More importantly, what does the story’s break from tradition signal about its hero and possibly the vision of the author? 

“Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”

1.      Discuss how Dina’s antisocial attitude and behavior stem in part from her racial, economic, and possibly sexual otherness.  In other words, show how her Otherness at Yale and in Baltimore aggravate her antisocial behavior?  Draw connections between Dina’s difficulty in finding a stable identity and society’s alienation of the Other.


2.      Packer fuses Dina’s erratic point-of-view with indeterminate places in the text, moments without fixed meaning or definite resolution.  Look at specific passages that show these indeterminacies and relate them to Dina’s perspective and her inability to cope with demanding or traumatic situations.  What meanings can we make from these instances where the story refuses to surrender its secrets?


3.      If you read Dina as self-loathing and sexually closeted, locate scenes and passages in the story that support such notions.  You would do well to point to passages that demonstrate both a psychological and literal closet.  Most importantly, explain how Dina’s racial otherness, poverty, and home-life all factor in the formation of her closet and inability to accept her sexuality.


“Doris Is Coming”

1.      Trace the trajectory of Doris’s coming of age.  How does she transition from lacking awareness and confidence to gaining strengths in these areas?   Who initiates Doris’s turn toward maturity?  Who or what opposes her growth and budding confidence, and who nourishes her development?  Explain how these characters impact Dina.  Examine how and why political activism signifies her leap forward into personal independence.


2.      Explain how the story’s three prominent outcasts—Doris, Mr. Stutz, and Olivia/Livia—are connected through their marginal status.  Also look closely at what keeps these marginal figures from forming a fuller relationship with each other.  For example, what draws Dina away from Mr. Stutz, from Livia, and what attracts her to these outsiders?  How do Mr. Stutz and Olivia encourage and enable Doris?


3.      Explore Packer’s melding of the Christian Rapture and the Civil Rights Movement.  Note key passages in the story where these two events merge and analyze Doris’s individual conflict when this convergence happens.  How does the story’s last paragraph telegraph this twinning of the two events?  Between the Rapture and the Movement, where does Packer place her sympathy in her depiction of Doris’s search for change?


Comparative Studies

1.      “Brownies,” “The Ant of the Self,” and “Doris Is Coming” all contain coming of age experiences.  Choose two stories from these three and compare the processes by which the main characters transition toward awareness.  What is most similar about their development, about their character flaws, and about their instances of awareness or discovery?  What is important about how they differ?


2.      Much of the literature in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere concerns the placement of Others or outsiders in an unfamiliar or antagonistic mainstream.  “Brownies,” “Doris Is Coming,” and the collection’s title story provide three examples.  Choose two stories from this list and examine how the main characters similarly negotiate their own difference or that of other characters.  Create a tightly focused argument that specifies how Otherness figures in your analysis.