Judith Westley, Daniel Kelley, Nina Adel, Graham Harkness
Literature, Higher Education, Composition and Rhetoric, Reading Literature
Material Type:
Activity/Lab, Homework/Assignment, Lecture
Community College / Lower Division
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Composition 2
  • Discussion Activities
  • Discussion Board
  • English
  • First Day of Class
  • Intro
  • Tennessee Open Education
  • arts-and-humanities
  • composition-2
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    ENGL1020 Course Overview

    ENGL1020 Course Overview


    The materials in this resource are intended for first-week-of-class activities in a literature-based composition course, although "The Danger of a Single Story" would be appropriate for viewing and discussion at any time during the semester. The first section of this resource explains some reasons for taking a literature-based composition course. The remaining materials provide ice-breaker and introductory activites.

    The "Varieties of Why," the study questions, and the discussion board activity are licensed under CC BY-NC-SA. The "Danger of a Single Story" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is used under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

    Why You Need This Course

    Varieties of Why

    Welcome. By now, you have completed a semester or two of college. Or perhaps you are returning to school after a years-long absence. No matter your situation, feel proud that you’re taking this next step in your education. Before registering for this class, you probably met with your advisor. The two of you came up with an academic plan that required another semester of composition—a semester in which you focus on writing about literary works. “Why do I need this course?” you ask. Most likely, you are not an English major.

    Maybe you ask “why” with excitement because you love stories and poems and plays. Writing about them seems like fun, which makes you feel a bit guilty, because college is supposed to get you ready for the “real” world of adulthood and work.

    You could be asking “why” with exasperation. Plays are boring and poems are baffling to you. You would prefer to stick with reading material directly related to your major.

    Perhaps a gnawing lack of confidence has inspired you to ask “why?” You enjoy literary works well enough when you read them on your own; however, you can never figure out how people come up with their own interpretations. Interpreting a poem or a short story or a play seems incredibly difficult to you.

    Whatever motivates your “why,” the question is reasonable. Taken all together, the varieties of “why” say a lot about what students expect from college courses. You want an education that prepares you for life as you plan to live it. You want to read things that help you understand your life in everyday terms. You also want to enjoy yourself a little. At times, these expectations feel contradictory. Even if you believe reading literature is fun, you may harbor concerns that it’s impractical or disconnected from real life. Consider, then, the following scenarios.

    • Rita is at her family’s annual backyard barbecue on the fourth of July. Great Uncle Ted arrives at precisely 2:00pm. He’s wearing a crisp white linen suit he purchased at Brooks Brothers several decades ago. He calls this outfit his “ice cream suit.” Around his neck, he sports a red, white, and blue ascot about as big as a chihuahua’s head. Great Uncle Ted proceeds to make grand gestures as he pecks each of his nieces and nephews on their cheeks. Standing next to her, Rita’s dad mumbles, “What a character!”
    • On his break, Deshaun stands in front of the break room refrigerator. When he arrived at work that morning, he put a Hot Pocket in the freezer to save for lunch. Now his Hot Pocket has mysteriously gone missing. Scanning the break room eating area, Deshaun notices three coworkers casually seated at a table, each with shreds of a Hot Pocket wrapper on a grease-spattered paper plate in front of them. “The plot thickens,” Deshaun whispers to himself.
    • Easton is hiking with their cousin. At dusk, while watching the beautiful sunset, Easton spontaneously compares the sky to a field of flowers. Their cousin quips, “You’re a poet and you don’t know it, Easton.”

    The people in each scenario employ literary concepts and terms to describe common events. You may do the same thing without being aware of it. We naturally gravitate toward using images and stories to make sense of our lives. Far from being impractical and unconnected to reality, literature is a tool for identifying patterns and putting lived experiences into a meaningful order.

    As you study literature and learn to write about it, you grow more skilled at seeing the patterns. You interpret nuances of meaning more confidently. Your growing skills and confidence help you draw conclusions about the real-world implications raised in literary works. The evolution of this ability is one aspect of critical thinking. According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “a well-cultivated critical thinker . . . gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively.” Writing about literature is one of the best ways to hone this particular set of critical thinking skills.

    Cultivating these skills also forms a foundation for better communication at home and at work. Imagine that you’re a nurse working in an emergency room. A mother, father, and child come in. The child is obviously in pain but won't speak. The father is angry. The mother is weeping uncontrollably. None of them is able to communicate well. 

    What do you do? All the medical training in the world won't help you if you have no information to go on. Your ability to read and comprehend a literary text prepares you for this sort of a situation. You'll be used to looking at the surface, then examining what signs and clues lurk beneath the surface. You'll know how to interpret more than what they say or don't say. Most importantly, you'll realize that there are a variety of possibilities for what is truly wrong with the child. You'll have tools to figure out the problem, and to empathize with people who struggle to say what they mean.

    The Foundation for Critical Thinking notes that empathy is another important quality of well-cultivated critical thinkers. Scientists have actually documented that reading literature promotes the development of empathy. According to a study conducted by Mar et al. at the University of Toronto, “Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world . . .” (694). Writing about literature promotes different dimensions of thinking skills that are directly applicable to the world you live in.

    So, as you embark upon this course, get ready to have fun and gain some valuable life skills! 

    Works Cited:

    Mar, Raymond A. et al. “Bookworms Versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction Versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds.” Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 40, no. 5, 2006, pp. 694-712,

    “Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking.” The Foundation for Critical Thinking, Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2019, Accessed 1 May 2021.

    Literature and the Story of You

    For your first assignment, read or view “The Danger of Single Story” by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The text is provided on the pages that follow. "The Danger of a Single Story" was first published as a TED Talk, which you can view by clicking on the hyperlinked text.

    In her talk, Adichie describes different ways that literature has influenced her personally. She also considers, more broadly, how story-telling shapes our perceptions of other people in real life.

    As you read or view the talk, ponder the study questions listed below. You are not required to submit answers to these questions for a grade. These questions are provided to stimulate your critical thinking as you view or read the talk.


    • What kinds of stories did Adichie read when she was a child? How did these stories influence her when she began to write her own stories?
    • Describe Adichie’s family. What did her parents do for a living?
    • Describe how Adichie’s understanding of Fide’s family changed. What event(s) led to this change?
    • How old was Adichie when she first traveled to the United States? What were some events that prompted her to begin identifying as “African?”


    • How would you describe the thesis or main point of this talk to someone else? Is the thesis explicitly stated, or is it implied?
    • Find at least one example of logos (appeal to logic), pathos (appeal to emotion), ethos (appeal to authority) in Adichie’s talk.
    • Adichie structures this essay more-or-less chronologically, beginning with her childhood, then moving through her early education to her adult years as a writer. What are the benefits of this structure? What are the disadvantages?


    • What is the “danger of single story?”
    • Did Adichie’s reference “American Psycho” surprise you? Why do you think she includes this reference?
    • Adichie asserts that the “single story” indicates who has power. Can you find an example of this in her talk? Do you agree with her? Support your position with an example from your own experience.

    Text of "Danger of a Single Story" from 88 Open Essays

    This lesson examines the TED talk “Danger of a Single Story” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. You can use this lesson as an introduction to your entire ENGL1020 course, to a unit on non-fiction essays, or even to a unit on fiction. Adichie’s talk discusses her evolution as a reader and a writer; she provides poignant anecdotes illustrating the impact that reading has on the imagination. The concept of the “single story” is similar to a stereotype. Adichie asserts that the stories we read have the power to reinforce stereotypes, or to demolish stereotypes.

    This resource includes study questions to discuss during an in-person class, and an discussion board assignment for an online class.

    Begin the lesson by briefly describing Adichie’s background. Then, assign students to watch the TED Talk “Danger of a Single Story.” If you are holding class in person, then it’s a good idea to watch the video together. If you are conducting class via Zoom, then students can watch the video outside of class.  It is possible to stream a video during a Zoom session, but some students may not have reliable internet, which may diminish the quality of the viewing experience.

    Here is a link to the video on YouTube:


    The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    I'm a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call "the danger of the single story." I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children's books. 

    I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. 

    Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to. 

    My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. 

    And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story. 

    What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren't many of them available, and they weren't quite as easy to find as the foreign books. 

    But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized. 

    Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are. 

    I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn't finish my dinner, my mother would say, "Finish your food! Don't you know? People like Fide's family have nothing." So I felt enormous pity for Fide's family. 

    Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them. 

    Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. 

    She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. 

    What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals. 

    I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn't consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up, people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in "India, Africa and other countries." 

    So, after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate's response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner. I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide's family. 

    This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Lok, who sailed to west Africa in 1561 and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as "beasts who have no houses," he writes, "They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts." 

    Now, I've laughed every time I've read this. And one must admire the imagination of John Lok. But what is important about his writing is that it

    represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West: A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet Rudyard Kipling, are "half devil, half child." 

    And so, I began to realize that my American roommate must have throughout her life seen and heard different versions of this single story, as had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not "authentically African." Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African. 

    But I must quickly add that I too am just as guilty in the question of the single story. A few years ago, I visited Mexico from the U.S. The political climate in the U.S. at the time was tense, and there were debates going on about immigration. And, as often happens in America, immigration became synonymous with Mexicans. There were endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border, that sort of thing. 

    I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara, watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then, I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself. 

    So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. 

    It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. 

    Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story. 

    I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called "American Psycho" -- 

    -- and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers. 

    Now, obviously I said this in a fit of mild irritation. 

    But it would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. This is not because I am a better person than that student, but because of America's cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America. 

    When I learned, some years ago, that writers were expected to have had really unhappy childhoods to be successful, I began to think about how I could invent horrible things my parents had done to me. 

    But the truth is that I had a very happy childhood, full of laughter and love, in a very close-knit family.

    But I also had grandfathers who died in refugee camps. My cousin Polle died because he could not get adequate healthcare. One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane crash because our fire trucks did not have water. I grew up under repressive military governments that devalued education, so that sometimes, my parents were not paid their salaries. And so, as a child, I saw jam disappear from the breakfast table, then margarine disappeared, then bread became too expensive, then milk became rationed. And most of all, a kind of normalized political fear invaded our lives. 

    All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

    Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them. 

    I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar. 

    So what if before my Mexican trip, I had followed the immigration debate from both sides, the U.S. and the Mexican? What if my mother had told us that Fide's family was poor and hardworking? What if we had an African television network that broadcast diverse African stories all over the world? What the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe calls "a balance of stories." 

    What if my roommate knew about my Nigerian publisher, Muhtar Bakare, a remarkable man who left his job in a bank to follow his dream and start a publishing house? Now, the conventional wisdom was that Nigerians don't read literature. He disagreed. He felt that people who could read, would read, if you made literature affordable and available to them. 

    Shortly after he published my first novel, I went to a TV station in Lagos to do an interview, and a woman who worked there as a messenger came up to me and said, "I really liked your novel. I didn't like the ending. Now, you must write a sequel, and this is what will happen ..." 

    And she went on to tell me what to write in the sequel. I was not only charmed, I was very moved. Here was a woman, part of the ordinary masses of Nigerians, who were not supposed to be readers. She had not only read the book, but she had taken ownership of it and felt justified in telling me what to write in the sequel. 

    Now, what if my roommate knew about my friend Funmi Iyanda, a fearless woman who hosts a TV show in Lagos, and is determined to tell the stories that we prefer to forget? What if my roommate knew about the heart procedure that was performed in the Lagos hospital last week? What if my roommate knew about contemporary Nigerian music, talented people singing in English and Pidgin, and Igbo and Yoruba and Ijo, mixing influences from Jay-Z to Fela to Bob Marley to their grandfathers. 

    What if my roommate knew about the female lawyer who recently went to court in Nigeria to challenge a ridiculous law that required women to get their husband's consent before renewing their passports? What if my roommate knew about Nollywood, full of innovative people making films despite great technical odds, films so popular that they really are the best example of Nigerians consuming what they produce? What if my roommate knew about my wonderfully ambitious hair braider, who has just started her own business selling hair extensions? Or about the millions of other Nigerians who start businesses and sometimes fail, but continue to nurse ambition? 

    Every time I am home I am confronted with the usual sources of irritation for most Nigerians: our failed infrastructure, our failed government, but also by the incredible resilience of people who thrive despite the government, rather than because of it. I teach writing workshops in Lagos every summer, and it is amazing to me how many people apply, how many people are eager to write, to tell stories. 

    My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a non-profit called Farafina Trust, and we have big dreams of building libraries and refurbishing libraries that already exist and providing books for state schools that don't have anything in their libraries, and also of organizing lots and lots of workshops, in reading and writing, for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories. 

    Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity. 

    The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives who had moved to the North. She introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they had left behind. "They sat around, reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained." 

    I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise. 

    Thank you. 

    Acknowledgements and Attributions

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria. She is the author of the novels Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun,and Americanah, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Top Ten Best Books of 2013. Her 2009 TED Talk, The Danger of A Single Story, is now one of the most-viewed TED Talks of all time. 

    “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND.

    This essay is excerpted from the collection 88 Open Essays, edited by Sarah Wangler and Tina Ulrich.

    88 Open Essays by Tina Ulrich & Sarah Wangler is licensed under CC BY-SA.

    "Introduce Yourself" Discussion Board Assignment for Online Course

    Introduce Yourself

    Use the "Danger of a Single Story" as inspiration to introduce yourself to your classmates in an original discussion post. After you have posted your introduction, respond to the introductory discussion posts of two classmates. Read through the items that follow for details on how to complete this discussion assignment.

    Required Reading/Watching: 

    Watch the video of the TED talk "Danger of a Single Story" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or read the text version provided in the course space. I strongly recommend that you view the video, because Adichie's delivery adds a great deal to the words of the talk.


    This discussion post serves three purposes. First, it is an icebreaker activity to help you get to know your classmates. Second, it prompts you to think about your own relationship to literature and to the course content. Third, it allows me assess how comfortable you are with MLA manuscript format.

    Learning Outcomes(s) Addressed:

    • Identify and explain different literary theories and terms related to short fictional works
    • Document Use of Sources in MLA Style


    This discussion post requires the following skills:

    • Writing in grammatically correct sentences of English
    • Constructing a focused paragraph
    • Comprehending the reading/watching assignment


    Writing this discussion post facilitates the cultivation of critical thinking.


    To complete this discussion assignment, you should:

    • Write a 250-word paragraph discussing your background and interests
    • Include some remarks about the influence of a particular literary work or works on your life or on your perceptions of other people
    • Include some remarks on your feelings about writing. Do you like it? Hate it? Struggle with it?
    • Lay out your paragraph using proper MLA-style manuscript format
    • Correctly cite any direct quotations or paraphrases you decide to use (these are optional, but if you use them they must be cited)
    • After completing and uploading your original post, respond to the paragraphs of two classmates. Responses should be approximately 100 words long