Sunday, November 13, 2011

Second Essays: Observation and Encouragement

Now that I’ve provided specific comments on your essays, I wanted to offer a few general observations. Despite the merely modest numerical improvement many of you experienced on your rubric, I thought that most of your essays represented marked improvement in terms of their prose styling. They were much more interestingly and compellingly written. You’re pulling yourselves out of the dungheap of typical (boring!) college essay writing. Bravo! 

There are other dungheaps to escape, however. The first and most important is that of skimpy, poor, or partial argument and evidence. In a thesis essay, you cannot merely assert controversial claims. You must provide appropriate evidence. In some cases, this might merely be a citation; but for many substantive claims, you will need to provide an argument that not only someone sympathetic to your view would accept but that someone who was undecided or even against your view could feel swayed by. This requires getting out of your own head a little and asking yourself as you read over your essay “How could my opponent respond here? Am I being fair? Am I being charitable to the opposing views?” This is difficult. It requires creativity and ingenuity. But it’s essential for your efforts to be worthwhile. What would be the point of trying to convince only those who already agreed with you?

The second dungheap is related as a means to the above ends. Many of your papers seemed, well, lazy. Here I paint with a broad critical brush (there are exceptions among you); but it’s clear that many of your papers came into being as a rough draft and never developed past that (proofreading doesn’t count as an additional draft). That they were as good as they were shows that you all have some native talent for writing. But it’s not being optimized. Language remains vague, ambiguous, and sloppy in many spots. Discussions that might well be interesting but don’t really serve to further your point are not being cut. Theses are not being refined and focused. Obvious sources are not being cited (this was particularly stark in the case of the essays on Creationism and ID). 

As I said before: I’m not trying to be “harsh” — indeed, I don’t think I’m even being harsh — I’m just being honest. I’d ask you to be honest with yourselves too. Are you putting in as much effort as you could on these essays? If the answer is no, then you probably have the tools to crack the A- and B-range on the essays in my class. If the answer is yes, then let’s talk and zero in on the problem. Either way, I encourage you to come chat with me next week about your rewrites and your final papers. Remember: I’m holding extended office hours next week as follows: 
Monday: 9-2
Tuesday: 11-noon
Wednesday: 9-noon
Thursday: 11-noon, 1-5PM
And in the evenings/weekend as you can catch me via Skype.

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