Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reading Papers for "What's Going On": Where's the Beef? Is it Horsemeat?

I have been reading student term papers. At this point, having seen earlier drafts and given my best advice, I am humbled. Whatever I say seems not to work for most students, at whatever point in their school careers.

0. Whatever you learned in composition classes gets in the way of writing effective scholarly work and surely in the way of policy memoranda. Bottom Line Up Front.

1. I want to know the main points by the end of page 2 if not page 1.  At the beginning of each section, the main point of that section should be the first sentence. See #2. What's the BIG IDEA or Ideas? Lots of introductory material often hides the big ideas.
2. I don't want to discover the point of the paper in the conclusion. It should be on page 1.
3. Executive summaries are not essays. They need to be short, assert the main points.
4. Early on it would be helpful to have a roadmap of what is to come.

5. I don't want an account of the research and reading experience. I want something that shows how it all holds together, or does not.

6. Sections need to be headed  by a paragraph that lays out the argument to follow.
7. Subheads and divisions of the paper: If you are double spacing, put the next section heading on the next double-spaced line, in the same font as the text but underlined. Don't use bold or italics. If the paper has bigger divisions, using roman numerals: I, II, III, ...

8. I want sentences that scan so that I can just read rather than decode.
9. Make lists explicit and obvious. If there are, say, seven features of a phenomenon, I expect each one's name to be in italics or maybe numbered.

9. References should be authoritative. I don't need references for minor points unless they are quite special. The references to the main sources are important. In any case, unless you are surveying a literature, where the various writers are prominent, it's best to leave their names and works to the notes and just present the various positions.
11. Copyedit, spellcheck, etc.
12. Don't right justify. Don't use colorful devices to set off sections of your papers. Simple and clear.

      Namely, I want to be able to read the paper and not get lost, wondering "Why am I here?" I want to be able to consider the argument or case, rather than worry about how it is put together in terms of sentences and paragraphs. (I feel that it is not fair to have students in a graduate course needing basic writing skills. I want is to engage them in their analysis and argument.)

      I have told students that once they have what they consider a decent draft, they should go back and write the first two pages or so to fulfil my #1. And each section needs an introductory paragraph (#6).

      What's wrong with me? I have never had a semester where these concerns about writing were not first and foremost. Maybe this problem has always been present, everywhere, at all institutions. I recall that Bill Leuchtenburg (Columbia and UNC-CH, American history) used to edit his students' dissertations. But I wonder how bad the writing was to start out with.

My job is to help you do better and I take you as you are, at whatever level you are. Still, it would be good to be a clear writer before you enter graduate school.

My colleague David Sloane wrote me a propos of what I said above:
       Personally I think students write better now than in the past, but that may be my selected set. As I grow more experienced (ie older), I do find that I have less patience with the types of things you point out -- but in reality I am different not them. They have always viewed papers as mystery novels where the most important point is revealed in the conclusion, and really have no idea why they should source one thing over another. I do believe that as you read more and more of these things, one forgets the students are actually at the same place they always were, we just aren't. I would be happier if they would somehow accept the learning I have gained, but I also know that they will not!
        I like your number 1, and I think you should emphasize it, but you would have to decide. Then, when you read a draft, and they don't do it, take off 5 to 20 points. I would guess they would do it the second time. But the struggle is long and hard.
         Last, I do think that one problem is that few of us ever see them twice. I once had the experience of teaching students I had had in a freshmen class a Dartmouth a senior class in history. I must say the difference was pretty spectacular, and a few of them were kind enough to suggest that I had a small part in that difference.

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