As an undergraduate, my first writing assignment in Jim Faulconer’s philosophy of religion course changed me. More specifically, it was the feedback on my first paper. The combination of what I thought an abysmally low grade and margins drenched in the red of electronic comments felt as though academic open season had been declared on me personally. I was devastated. Following a period of self-indulgent mourning I forced myself to read through Faulconer’s comments and realized that he had undermined the possibility of consoling myself by blaming him. Overall, I experienced a genuine aporia and ultimately took advantage of the opportunity to re-write my paper.
This has remained with me, and to the degree possible within the specific constraints of each class, I make revision, feedback, personal interaction, and the opportunity to rewrite central to class assignments. The attempt is to allow the student, wherever they are in their progression as a writer, to improve, and especially to improve in their ability to narrow in on and articulate a well-supported argument.
One of the real challenges then, is to offer feedback for students at very different levels. In order to see my efforts at work, I’ve copied below actual feedback that I’ve given—two on papers I considered “A” quality, one on a paper that I considered well below average, and additional, general feedback given to an entire class after grading their papers. When grading student papers I make in-margin comments throughout and then articulate my overall feedback at the bottom. Additionally, I compose a document with general feedback for the entire class based on positive and negative trends in the papers submitted. You’ll notice in the examples below that my attempt is always to state concretely what’s working well and specific ways in which both this particular draft and also their writing more generally might be improved. In doing so, I try to impart to my students that their work, whatever its quality, is always a work in progress.
From superior papers:
You have a clever argument. Importantly, you build in very plausible objections to your claims and then seek to respond to those objections. Your three points of criticism build very well on each other, and you end with a satisfying resolution. As noted throughout, the biggest weakness of the paper is the occasional lack of clarity. I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the difficulties of writing in a second language. I encourage you to avail yourself of the writing center. Also, as noted, your opening needs to be more clear. Don’t worry about giving away your main point upfront – in philosophy that’s a good thing. Finally, it’s significant that you overlook Sen’s comments on comparing in the absence of an ideal standard.
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I’m impressed with your ability to write concisely. Not only did you fulfill the assignment, you also wrote a long-ish intro and answered questions that went beyond the prompt. Doing so within the word limit and doing it well deserves recognition. One result is that outside of the opening paragraph the entire essay is focused exclusively on the arguments –there’s no excess fat in this essay. Given the nature of the assignment, that’s great. As noted throughout, however, some of your specific arguments need developed –your paper would’ve been better served had you eliminated one of the arguments in order to better develop the others along the lines mentioned in my comments above. Overall, it’s clear that you understand each of the philosophers you address and you present interesting ideas.
From an inadequate paper:
The following was written in response to a student in a first year writing class. Both the nature of the class and its small size facilitated more substantive feedback than is always possible. My comments below, however, are indicative of the tone and approach I take toward papers I consider to be significantly inadequate.
As noted above, you do well “synthesizing”several insights from multiple studies as you make different points, rather than flatly summarizing one study at a time. I’ve tried to make clear in my comments the things that I think you can do to strengthen this paper and your writing in general. Specifically, I want to emphasize the following:
- Argument. This is critical. Your paper is almost exclusively a report of various points of consensus among the authors you cite. This does not meet the specifications of the assignment. What’s needed is to utilize this ability –the ability to extract important and overlapping ideas from the literature –in the service of your own independent argument. A clear and specific thesis sentence stated up top will help you to organize and tie together the various parts of your paper. The conclusion section should also help to do the same thing. Your conclusion here is a bookend, bringing up the same (or at least a similar) point as the one you began with concerning the different kinds of attraction that exist. More than just a bookend, however, you want your conclusion to be in the service of your argument. It should both summarize and highlight the most important points you’ve tried to establish in the body of your paper and state how these points support your thesis. At each stage, however, ask yourself –how does this support my argument? Is this fact clear to my reader?
- Structure. Some of the different sections and points you’re making in the paper are clearly flagged for the reader with transition words. Remember, however, that the paper is not just a list of points. This is closely related to my comment on argument. At any given point in the paper it should not only be clear to the reader what you’re saying but also why you’re saying it. Transition language needs to be accompanied by explicitly tying together or explaining the relationship between the different sections of the paper. Doing so is an important way to highlight your overall argument and make the paper cohere.
- Counterargument. As discussed in the assignment, a critical part of your argument is exploring a counterargument. Either in making specific claims to support your thesis or after articulating your argument, consider countervailing evidence or interpretive frameworks or objections to your reasons and conclusions. Doing so will strengthen your case. This is not just true when attempting to make your own argument, but is also an important element of explicating the academic dialogue for your reader. If all of the authors you cite were locked in a room would they all agree on the question you’re exploring? Help your reader to understand the tensions, contradictions and questions that are left in the wake of their studies. Then argue for why –given these tensions, contradictions and questions –your reader ought to side with your own claims.
- Proofreading. The host of punctuation and grammar errors, along with the frequently awkward phrasing of the paper makes it read like a first draft. This is very distracting and inhibits your ability to keep the attention of the reader or convince the reader of your point.
Again, the paper shows a good grasp of some of the basic points made in the literature, weaving together a number of overlapping ideas. I’m confident in your ability to improve.
The following is an example of the general feedback given in the wake of a recent “ordinary”paper assignment. Although given in response to a specific set of papers, it models the type of general feedback I give:
- Opening your essay: In philosophy you’re not expected to have charming, catchy openers (though these are not frowned on when done well; for example, Leopold’s use of Odysseus is terrific). Notice that authors like Taylor, Sandler, and Rolston start right off with a substantive description or statement concerning what they will argue. However, the principle to keep in mind is that the opening is the first opportunity to make an impression on your reader. Consequently, there are a couple things to keep in mind.
- First, make sure it’s free of errors—typographical, stylistic, or substantive. Poor grammar, misspelled words, and inaccurate statements are impression killers.
- Likewise, avoid trite opening lines—generic or obvious statements that usually say little more than “I don’t know how to begin my paper, but I have to say something.”For example, “Throughout history, people have argued about ethics,”or “Different people have different ideas about the value of the environment”are trite openers and should be avoided.
- In your opening, above everything else, you want to make it clear to your reader what your paper is going to be about. A clear, easy to pick out thesis sentence is crucial. Since the thesis sentence is the most important part of your opening, make sure it’s as polished and articulate a sentence as you can make it. The thesis ought to tell your reader exactly what you will be arguing in your paper. In addition, it ought to give the reader some hint about why you’re going to argue that way. Note the difference in the following thesis sentences from your peers: “In this paper, I will argue that religion provides a better basis for Leopold’s land ethic than the philosophers we studied;”and “Despite a sophisticated argument that successfully disarms many of the attacks typically used to support human superiority, Taylor’s biocentric theory of equality is simply too radical to adequately serve as a land ethic.”The first example states clearly what will be argued in the paper. The second example does so as well but also clues the reader in and sets the tone of and expectations for the paper. It gives the reader more specifics and serves as a better standard against which one can judge the success of the paper.
- Argumentation: I want to remind you to argue—that is, never just make claims, especially claims that either simply repeat or contradict the claims of the philosophers you’re writing about. Instead, give clear reasons to support your position; build a case for your reader. Make sure that your reasons really do support or lead to the conclusion you come to. Beyond this simple reminder, however, I have a few specifics that relate both to dealing with a philosopher’s argument and presenting your own:
- First, remember that (as noted in the assignment) you’re not simply giving me an argument in support of your thesis; you’re also dealing with the argument of a philosopher. A very common mistake made was to merely state a philosopher’s conclusion and then either argue against or in support of it. Remember, you must actually present the philosopher’s argument in favor of the thesis and then address THAT. And remember that there is an important difference between listing premises and explaining the argument.
- A common logical problem is to assume that if two positions or theories have a number of important, identifiable similarities, then they must be compatible or largely the same. Most theories we look at in this class will have plenty of readily identifiable, important similarities. This doesn’t mean either that they argue for the same thing or that they are compatible. For instance, if I focus only on things like belief in representative government, commitment to liberty, honoring the principles of America’s founding fathers, belief in transparency, fundamental desire to benefit the American people, and the like, I can give my audience the impression that U.S. President Barak Obama and his opponent Governor Mitt Romney have views that are perfectly compatible. This is a common strategy taken in polemical debates, and you see it used in popular media all the time (another, more entertaining/offensive example, is when people use this strategy to convince you that certain political figures are “just like”Hitler). But it certainly doesn’t prove anything. Once again, by giving the philosopher’s overall argument, you’re (more honestly) enabling your reader to judge and evaluate your own argument.
- Many of your papers would be improved by narrowing in on one specific part of the philosopher’s argument—for example, you might highlight and attack or defend a key premise. Many of you made very high-altitude and general criticisms but struggled (especially given the space constraints) to grapple with specific aspects of an argument.
- A number of papers were tempted to take something of a broadside approach: that is, they gave a list of every specific claim that they could pick out that the philosopher makes and then attacked it. This is a sort of hail-Mary approach, a desperate hope that something on your laundry-list of criticisms will stick and give merit to your paper. Sometimes this is the best you can do in the circumstances, but it is almost always less effective. A broadside is good in the brainstorming stage; but then pick out the one or two points that you think are most relevant or promising, and then develop them as best you can. Narrow in on something specific and do your best to develop your evaluation or critique (i.e., your answering of the assigned question).
- Another common (and related) approach was to give a paragraph by paragraph regurgitation of the text. This strategy, besides being stylistically awkward, hints to the reader that you’re really not sure what the argument is, or which parts are more important, and so you’re just going to try and say everything exactly how the philosopher did. You don’t have time in a short paper for much summary. Rather than a point by point regurgitation, be judicious in what you include. You’re attempting to explicate not summarize the argument. As already mentioned, you do want to give an overview, you want to articulate the argument. But this doesn’t mean you’ll make all of the same points or use all of the same examples in the very same way. The point of articulating the philosopher’s argument is to help you in writing your paper and arguing your ideas. Highlight or emphasize the parts that are more important or relevant to your own thesis. Cut out the fluff, unimportant illustrations, or side tangents. Reorder things for your benefit. Say what needs to be said to inform your reader and set him up for your own argument.
- You don’t have to completely destroy or defend an argument. Perhaps you think that a philosopher is largely correct in her views, but that she’s a little off on an important issue. You can argue that she needs a slight modification to her position. Or perhaps you’re comparing two philosophers –you don’t have to argue that one of them is completely right and the other entirely wrong. You can argue that they both have some things right and some things wrong, and then argue for a hybrid position.
- Finally, on argumentation, I want to make a suggestion that has more to do with how you word your claims than anything else. It is highly unlikely that any of you will “prove”anything one way or the other. Philosophers use the word ‘prove’in a technical way, and are rather reserved about it. More often than not when they use it they at least qualify it in some way (e.g.. “I will attempt to prove…”). I suggest avoiding the word all together when writing philosophy—at least for now.
- Structure: Again, I’m not against creativity, and not married to rigid and explicit structures, but your reader ought to be able to tell exactly where he is in your argument. Whether or not you use meta-language, you need to give your reader signals and have a clear structure that is easy to follow. Avoid rambling or tangents, and clearly mark transitions.
- Superfluous stuff: Part of maintaining a good structure and writing a strong, clear paper is cutting out all of the superfluous material. Especially on short papers like this, just get rid of anything extra or anything that doesn’t directly contribute to the point of the paper (of course, you can keep your creative stuff if you’re writing in that kind of style). Also, make sure you’ve got the right sort of balance or proportion. If the point of your paper is to defend Katz theocentric approach to environmental ethics, but you feel the need to give context (often a good idea), don’t spend a full page of pre- and post-argument context, with only a quarter page of actual argument. Instead, write a sentence or two of pre- and a sentence or two of post-argument context, and take a page to carefully, explicitly set out the argument.
- Sexist Language: This is almost always a problem with undergraduate papers. Don’t let the sexist language of the older philosophers we’re reading (like Leopold) or that of your own culture lull you into thinking you can write this way. The point is not primarily about equality or the like. Using sexist language is simply unprofessional and stylistically immature. It’s at least as much of an eyesore as bad grammar or misspelled words. Specifically, don’t simply use “man”to represent humanity or “he”every time you need a neutral pronoun. You can almost always avoid a gendered pronoun (e.g., use “human”or “one”). Sometimes this is very difficult or would sound very awkward. In such cases, it’s fine to use either “she”or “he,”but you should rotate between the one and the other (e.g., in one paragraph or section of the paper use “she”and in the next paragraph or section use “he;”but again, avoid either whenever you can do so naturally). Sometimes you can write “she or he,”though this too can be awkward. Finally, don’t use “s/he”as a neutral pronoun. I recommend consulting a style guide for more details.
- Citations: Quoting is something of an art form that gets developed over time. Some papers were too quote-heavy, relying too much on the text of the philosopher. This is stylistically poor and doesn’t show the reader that you actually understand the philosopher (as opposed to being able to just parrot her). More common was a dearth of quotes, and more common still, a dearth of citations. Perhaps the most common mistake was to attribute specific claims to an author without citing the text. Citing is not just good academic etiquette or helpful to the reader, but it keeps you honest, holds you accountable to the text. It is extremely common for students to attribute claims to an author that she hasn’t actually made, or summarize one of her claims in a way that is either substantively or technically inaccurate (i.e., make the author out to say things she hasn’t said). Citing each claim will help keep you from making this mistake, especially since we all remember passages a little differently than they were actually written.
- Never let quotes stand on their own—explain them. There is one skill for picking out relevant quotes from a text, and another skill involved in understanding what it says. Again, see a style guide for details.
I hope this is helpful to you as you begin work on your next papers.