Little helps students see that the vitality of the first chapter of Thoreau's Walden inheres not in a suggestion that people live in the woods by subsistence farming and occasional wage labor, but rather in a challenge to readers to perform cost-benefit evaluations of their modes of living. Central to this effort is a writing assignment that asks students to (1) offer a research-based description of the economics of their postgraduation lives, assess on the basis of evidence drawn from Walden what Thoreau might think of their plans, then respond to Thoreau's probable views, or (2) explain and respond to what Thoreau might say about the U.S. Department of Labor's most recent table of average annual expenditures and characteristics from the Consumer Expenditure Survey. This assignment trades away one of the few opportunities that many students have to engage in literary criticism at a level beyond what is typical in freshman English, but an advantage is that students with a wide range of academic interests can produce competent discussions.

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