Exploratory Essay

5- to 7-page essay
draft due Wednesday, March 27
revision due Wednesday, April 3

For your third major assignment, you’ll formulate and research a question concerning how our experience of identity has been affected by the digital revolution—by technologies that alter the way we interact with and see others, the way they see us, and the way we see ourselves. You’ll synthesize what you’ve learned in an exploratory essay of 5-7 pages in which you present key information, describe different aspects of the issue, and explain various perspectives on it.

An “exploratory essay” is one that is question-driven rather than thesis-driven. It corresponds to an intellectual process that in principle should precede argument—the process of exploring ideas and evidence to gain understanding of an issue which you aren’t yet well equipped to argue about.

Step One: Find a Topic

To start, come up with a question to explore. I recommend choosing an issue you’re curious and genuinely uncertain about. The goal is to develop a deeper understanding by exploring different aspects of an issue and multiple perspectives on it, so it’s important to approach your inquiry with an open mind. If you already know a lot and have strong views about a topic, it’s probably not a good choice for your exploratory essay.

In defining your topic, go narrow rather than broad. So instead of asking about the impact of technology on identity, focus on a more specific issue, such as one of the subtopics we’ve discussed in class or another related subtopic you wish to explore in greater depth.

Your research question should be open-ended—typically a question asking how or why, not a question whose answer is either yes or no, or good or bad. As you research your topic, you may discover your question is more complicated that you’d at first thought. Feel free to revise your initial question or pose additional questions as your ideas evolve in the course of researching your topic.

Here are are a few ideas for questions to explore, but you’re welcome to formulate a different question to explore:
  1. How does the “context collapse” associated with digital communication influence the way people see and present themselves? Does context collapse promote or dampen authentic self-expression and social interactions?
  2. How do digital persistence and digital shadows affect self-understanding and individual identity?
  3. How do search personalization algorithms affect individual identity?
  4. How does the digital environment affect the way we forge friendships and relationships? How does virtual access to a vast pool of potential friends and dates affect people’s offline social lives? How do digital technologies such as dating apps affect the way people see each other? How do they affect people’s ability to achieve intimacy?
  5. How does the quest for publicity influence identity?
  6. How do search personalization algorithms affect the formation or maintenance of community identity?
  7. How does people’s awareness of digital tracking technologies and online surveillance affect self-expression and personal identity?
  8. How does the use of self-tracking and self-improvement apps affect people’s sense of self?

Step Two: Research

Once you’ve chosen a subtopic and framed a question, the next step is to gather information and familiarize yourself with existing research and arguments about the issue. Seek out a range of sources that will expose you to different perspectives—sources that approach your topic from various angles and consider different ways of interpreting it.

The strength of your essay will depend in large part on the research you do, so you’re encouraged to seek out high quality sources. In the course of this unit, you’ll be asked to read at least one academic source relevant to your question. But you need not cite an academic source in your essay (the reason being that academic articles are almost by definition highly specialized, so newcomers to a field are liable to find them difficult to follow). Whether or not you cite peer-reviewed or academic articles, be discriminating! Don’t settle for the low-hanging fruit—the first sources that pop up or the shortest or easiest ones to read or those that are minimally acceptable.

In the course of your essay, plan on discussing information and ideas from at least 5 high-quality secondary sources relevant to your question. You might find it helpful to read more than 5 articles, but you needn’t cite every source you read.

Step Three: Writing

In writing your essay, aim to share what you’ve learned by synthesizing and thoughtfully organizing information and ideas from the sources you’ve researched so as to introduce your reader to various facets of the issue and different perspectives on it.

Incorporate your discussion of sources into a narrative of exploration, discovery, and deepening insight. Avoid the temptation to structure your essay by source, so that it reads like an annotated bibliography—a series of source summaries. Instead, organize your essay to highlight the points you’re presenting, moving from one aspect of the issue or perspective on it to another, so that each paragraph or group of paragraphs builds on or complicates the prior one and adds new insight into the issue you’re exploring.

The goal of an exploratory essay is NOT to stake out a strong claim and rigorously support it That said, in the process of researching and writing the essay, you may well develop a tentative hypothesis about your topic. If so, you can, if you’d like, indicate your stance toward the end of the essay. But the guiding principle of the exploratory essay is to take your time deciding what you think, so try to resist settling too soon on an answer to the question. Make it your mission not to support a particular thesis but to investigate multiple perspectives on the issue and to deepen your appreciation of its complexity.


  • Sources
    • Cite at least 5 high quality secondary sources.
    • Use at least 3 sources listed on the course website, unless you speak with me ahead of time to propose otherwise.
    • Cite sources using MLA documentation style (parenthetical page references)
    • At the end of the essay, provide a list of works cited formatted in MLA style
  • Submit electronic copies of your drafts and revision through our canvas website
  • Hand in a hard copy of your revised essay in class