UWS and COMP Essays: The Lens Essay

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Lens argumentation depends on close reading…

While lens essays consist of more than close reading, they can’t function without it! In fact, in lens analysis you will perform two different, but related, forms of close reading:

  1. Primary text – Observing tone, diction, characters, plot, style, structure, themes, etc.
  2. Lens text – Identifying key terms, argument’s structure, how it uses evidence, etc.

In the lens essay, you will draw connections between your observations about textual details and a larger claim about the text as a whole (like you did with your close reading paper), but the lens will restrict your vision to ideas relevant to the lens.

… and it is also a precursor to research writing.

Lens argumentation helps you build skills necessary to research writing, including:

How to read your (presumably abstract/theoretical) lens text

Types of lens theses

Dos and do-nots


Do not:

Example: Introduction paragraph from a successful student lens essay

For the United States, and especially in New York, the middle of the 19th century meant an increase in immigration, which lead to a more diverse society and a huge rise in the population of cities. Consequently, a belief that prostitution was growing became widespread throughout society. Though prostitution was not officially illegal and most public officials tolerated the practice, many were still very opposed to the idea and thought prostitution was a shameful line of work. Moreover, prostitutes, especially those who were less affluent, could still get into trouble for disorderly conduct. In 1836, Helen Jewett, a somewhat “high-class” prostitute who worked in a brothel owned by Rosina Townsend, was found dead in her room. A frequent visitor to the brothel, Richard P. Robinson, alias Frank Rivers, was suspected of the murder and put on trial. From the beginning, the Jewett murder trial was well publicized and quickly became a contested issue throughout the area. However, when communications theorist Robert Hariman’s theories of “social knowledge” and “performance” are applied to the Jewett case, it becomes clear that the trial was not really about reaching a verdict, but rather about dramatizing, emotionalizing and over sexualizing the women of the brothel in a performance that addressed various societal assumptions about prostitutes and the female gender in general. The discrepancy between how female characters were portrayed throughout the Robinson trial reveals the inconsistencies in how women were perceived and treated within mid-nineteenth century society, a social tension that stemmed from multiple, competing ideas of gender.

Credit: The Brandeis University Writing Center, 2020.