The past, present and future of Los Angeles

Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is the model for this first paper.  Write a paper that is a combination of an essay and a set of interviews that will involve you in an exploration of the character of Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of a range of people.  At the heart of the paper should be a collection of five interviews with people about their opinions, impressions, experiences, and reflections about this city.  One of the interviewees must be a classmate in your discussion section in English 176 (preferably a student you didn’t know before the class began).  The other interviews should be drawn from a diverse range of people (with diversity understood to include age, ethnicity, class, gender, and occupation).


The essay should begin with a 2 page Preface in which you set forth your own impressions of Los Angeles and your own initial thoughts about the topic for your interviews.  This Preface should also include a brief commentary on at least two readings for the class.   The Preface should thus measure your own thoughts about Los Angeles in comparison and contrast to other perspectives drawn from the assignments for the course.  Invoke other voices from the readings to help frame and set forth your own reflections about this city.  There is no need for a formal “work cited” reference to the texts you quote, but please make sure you include the title as well as the author of the text in your reference to the two readings.


The paper should conclude with 2-3 page Afterword in which you carefully compare and contrast the responses you received.   Offer critical analysis about how and why people responded to the same questions differently or suggest reasons for similar responses.  Examine the evidence and suggest how such factors as class status and profession or ethnicity or the location of their residence in LA may affect how they view the city.  You should also describe in this conclusion your response to doing the paper or explain what you learned or saw differently from conducting the interviews.


The Preface and Afterword should be double-spaced.


You have a choice of 4 sets of questions for the interviews.  But you do not have to confine yourself to asking the questions in any one of these four sets.  You can create your own set of questions from the questions listed in all four groups, and you can add your own questions to the ones I’ve listed.  Whatever set of questions you select or supplement with your own questions, be sure to ask questions that invite or require people to speak both in positive and critical ways about the city.   It’s also best to begin the interview with a more of a softball question.  Try to ask a question that makes it inviting and not intrusive to do the interview.  For instance, I strongly recommend that you ask every person you interview at the beginning to select one word to describe Los Angeles and one place they would chose to show people for them to understand Los Angeles.



The interviews should be presented in the same format that Smith uses in Twilight with a brief description of the interviewee, a title for each interview, and a direct rendering of the interview in a “free verse” style.  Each interview should be at least one page in length (single spaced), so the interview section as a whole should be at least 5 pages in length.  There is no maximum limit for the length of the interviews, but length alone will not impress.


The transcription of the interviews should be single-spaced.


Once the interview project is completed, we will set aside some time in class for each student to “perform” (or read) one of the interviews that you completed.  The performance can be a straight reading of the interview or, preferably, it can imitate the method of Smith who acted out each interview on stage.  Before and perhaps after the interview project is completed, time will also be set aside for students in each group of four to share their reflections on the interview project and to engage themselves in conversation about the topics of the interview.


The success of your paper will depend significantly on your efforts to obtain interviews from a diverse set of people.  One of the challenges of this assignment is just finding people willing to give you the time for an interview with more than one or two questions.


Give careful thought to where and when you can find people willing to be interviewed.  To find interview subjects, you should consider the resources available on this campus and in the neighborhood.  You could interview faculty (e.g. make an arrangement to meet with a professor during his or her office hours) or staff associated with various departments or services on parts of campus (e.g., the housekeeping, parking or dining hall staff, the staff of the department of your major, the staff for Student Affairs, DPS, Athletics, or in the Alumni Office or JEP.  A very convenient place to find a mix of people with some time of their hands would be the DMV at 37th and Grand and lunch hour or evening customers at Chipotle or Starbucks or Ahi Poke Bowl.  You could also try talking to people in Exposition Park or staff associated with one of the museums nearby to the campus.  I also highly recommend conducting interviews at the Mercado La Paloma (a marketplace of restaurants and stores located across from the DMV at 37th & Grand) or take a DASH bus ride to downtown and conduct interviews at the LA Public Library (5th & Flower) or visit a religious institution neighboring campus or talk to people sitting down in the Rose Garden or find a teacher at one of the neighboring schools after classes are ended


Only one interview should be conducted with a USC student (and that student should be from your discussion section).  I make this a requirement as I believe it’s best to begin practicing your interview technique with a student and compare notes with the student about what worked and did not work so well during the interview.  The other four interviews should be with people you did not know before the class began.  In particular, you should not interview family members, and I strongly prefer you not to interview friends of family, but I do encourage you to try practice interviews with such people.  If one of the practice interviews is particularly compelling, I invite you to include it as a sixth interview.


To prepare for the interviews, you should be read carefully Smith’s “Introduction” to Twilight, especially pp. xxii-xxiv wherein Smith explains how her project evolved as a result of previews before different audiences and from her collaboration with Dorinne Kondo (Japanese- American, and now a professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at USC), Hector Tobar (Guatemalan-American, and an LA Times reporter), and Elizabeth Alexander (African American, and a poet and professor).





  1. Conduct interviews on the subject of the past, present and future of Los Angeles. Ask the person to describe the most important event in the history of Los Angeles.  Or ask them to describe the place in Los Angeles where history or the past comes alive to them or speaks to them.  Ask them to describe their vision of the future of Los Angeles.  Will Los Angeles be a better or worse place to live fifty years from now?  What are their hopes for the future of Los Angeles?  What are their fears?  Ask them to describe their current opinion about the “state of the union” of Los Angeles at the present moment?  Do they feel a sense of community?  If so, what unites the people.  Is the city fragmented and divided in their view?  If so, what are the sources of division?


  1. Conduct interviews in which you explore opinions about the virtues and problems of Los Angeles (or the most positive and negative qualities associated with this city). Ask them to describe the character or personality of Los Angeles.  Or ask them to describe Los Angeles in one word and then ask them to explain their choice.  Ask them if they have a favorite song, film, or book about Los Angeles/Hollywood.  Ask them what one street a visitor to Los Angeles should drive on to best understand this city?


  1. Conduct interviews on the subject of a person’s favorite place in Los Angeles and their biggest problems with the city or the place where they see the biggest problem. Ask them to explain why a certain place is their favorite place in terms of its features or what it represents to them. Ask them what problems they would call attention to the Mayor Eric Garcetti, and put at the top of his agenda if they were a key advisor to the mayor.  Or ask them how they would spend 1 billion dollars on the city if they were heirs of the Getty fortune.  This topic should allow you to explore opinions about the virtues and problems of Los Angeles (or the most positive and negative qualities associated with this city).




  1. Conduct interviews about people’s responses to and memories of the 1992 LA riot/uprising. Ask questions about people’s experience of this event and their attitude towards it.  Ask people if they feel Los Angeles learned anything from what happened or whether it has changed since 1992 as a result.  You could also ask them about the past and future:  Do they know of any other riots/civil unrest in the history of Los Angeles?  Do they see another such riot in the future of Los Angeles?  If so, what will cause it?   If a classmate has no memory or experience of the riot/uprising, then ask them about their response to reading Twilight and watching the movie version of the play.


Suggestions and Recommendations:


It’s best to audio record the interview and then transcribe it rather than taking down the interview by hand.  In the past, Leavey Library has had tape recorders available to borrow.


You will probably need to interview more than 5 people to obtain a valuable set of 5 interviews.  If the interviewee limits themselves to short, one sentence answers, then don’t use the interview and find someone more talkative.


To keep the interview flowing, you can ask follow up questions or additional questions to the questions listed in the four sets of questions.


If the interviewee requests to keep their name withheld, that is fine with me.  Just label them “Anonymous.”


You are welcome to edit the interview or exclude irrelevant talk.  There is no need to edit the interview to exclude profanity.


You can do practice interviews with a roommate or parent.  It may be best to do your first interview with the classmate from your discussion section or with any person with whom you have made an appointment to interview (e.g. a professor or a person in a staff position at USC).


If you want to ask people about the LA riot/uprising of 1992, do not ask them these questions cold or make it your first question in the interview.  This is a difficult topic for some people to discuss, so respect that.


No matter how long the interview is, you should present it in the “free verse” format that Smith uses in Twilight rather than in a paragraph format.


You can include the list of the questions you asked people during the interviews at the end of the preface


Please give a title to the Interview Project.  Don’t just label it Interview Project.


Please include the name of your TA on the title page.


Please staple the essay.  I prefer you to avoid using other forms of binding the paper together besides staples.



From Anna Deavere Smith, Talk To Me: Listening Between the Lines (2000):


To me, the most important doorway into the soul of a person is her or his words, or any other external communication device.  I am a student of words.  The theater gave me Shakespeare, Moliere, Adrienne Kennedy, Sam Shepard.  Life would give me other kinds of characters, nestled in the speakings and misspeakings of the people I met in all walks of life.  I supposed the words could also be the doorway into the soul of a culture.


I set out across America, on a search for American character.  My search was specifically to find America in its language.  I interview people and communities about the events of our time, in the hope that I will be able to absorb America…. This is a country of many tongues, even if we stick to English.  Placing myself in other people’s words, as in placing myself in other people’s shoes, has given me the opportunity to get below the surface—to get “real.”




Grading Rubric for Interview Project


17 points total:  3 points Preface, 10 points Interviews, 4 points Conclusion


A Grade


The Preface combines intriguing personal reflection about Los Angeles with thoughtful commentary on some of the readings about Los Angeles/Southern California.  The student gives thoughtful self-reflection to his or her own relationship to the city and also recognizes how the city has been viewed by others (including two authors of other texts  about LA assigned for this course).  The Preface should be, in effect, the student’s own response to a set of interview questions.


The Interviews are drawn from an intriguing mix of people who are diverse in terms of age and occupation and social class as well as race/ethnicity.  The set of interviews should include interviews of people unknown to the student (except for the classmate from discussion and in rare cases a grandparent or family friend).   The interviews should reveal an effort to find a wide spectrum of people for the interviews, and they should reveal an effort to ask a set of questions or have the interviewee respond to more than one question.  The student makes an engaging effort to present the interviews in the style that Smith uses in Twilight with a title for each interview, a description of the person and location of the interview, and a “free verse’ format.  No more than two interviews should be conducted with students from USC, and the interviews should be diverse in terms of age and career.


The Conclusion offers compelling, thoughtful critical analysis of the set of interviews.  The analysis should offer comparisons and contrasts and provide suggestions or speculations about how and why people responded to the same set of questions in similar and different ways.   Here attention should be paid to various factors—social class, age, occupation, location in city, ethnicity, gender—that may affect how people responded to the questions.   You can speculate about such factors.  Conclusion should also discuss what students learned from conducting the interviews and/or offer some summary thoughts about Los Angeles.


B Grade


Preface offers mildly interesting and predictable personal reflection about Los Angeles (e.g., noting a contrast between the image of LA/Hollywood and its ‘reality.’  It shows thought and diligence.  Little mention is made of any other commentary on Los Angeles.


The interviews are from a good mix of people but most of them are on the short side (one page or less) and it does not seem as if the student asked follow-up questions or had the interviewee respond to more than one or two questions.


Conclusion notes either similarities or differences among the interviews but not a strong combination of both.   Some attempt is made to speculate about the factors why people gave various types of answers to the questions, but this is done in a simple way or is limited to a comparison or contrast of two voices.  The analysis remains rather predictable and the student offers little comment about his or her own response to conducting the interviews.


C grade


Preface seems a first draft personal commentary on Los Angeles that does not go beyond easy celebration or criticism of the city.   No mention is made of any other views of the city besides those of the student.   The student’s opinion is not placed in any relationship to other perspectives on the city.   The Preface is less than two pages long.  It’s perfunctory or sloppy.


Little or no effort is given to create an interesting mix of interviews.  The interviews are largely drawn from people of a similar age and occupation (e.g., other students) and almost all of them are short (a ½ page or less).   The interviews are not presented in any way resembling Smith’s format.


The Conclusion makes little or no attempt at comparative critical analysis of the responses.  It just offers a description or paraphrase of the interviews.   The Conclusion contains no significant or telling personal voice.


No Credit


The requirements for the paper have not been met or have been met in such a minimal way, with so little effort given, that it would be better to give a No Credit—and require a revision—than to assign a grade lower than C.  The student will have to revise the paper in order to gain credit for the paper, and without credit for the paper, the student will fail the course.


Grading Scale:


17 A+

16 A

15 A-

14 A-

13 A-/B+

  • B+

11  B

10  B-

9   C+

8   C

7   C-

6 and below: No Credit  Rewrite Required



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