Questions I Ask about Papers

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Although the topic of the paper is open to student interest, I am expecting the paper to formulate a judgment that settles some issue which is interesting to think about and relevant to the studentís intellectual development. Following are questions that I commonly ask when evaluating student papers.

1) Whatís the issue? The paper should address a topic that is unsettled. There should be controversy or confusion in the air.

2) Is the issue dead or alive? Is it possible to reach other conclusions about the topic? Would it make a difference if we judged the matter differently? The writer should be able to answer yes to both questions.

3) Why is it important to settle the issue? Why is it important to the writer? Why should the reader care?

4) Whatís the conclusion? The paper should develop a clear position . Avoid disconnected points that do not add up to an argument. And avoid the questioning conclusion such as, "only time will tell." Stake out a claim and make it clear.

5) How is the conclusion developed? Does the writer make clear how logic, opinions, and evidence lead to the conclusion?

6) Has the writer considered other points of view? As you establish your own point of view, is it clear that you have considered other opinions that can be compared or contrasted? Especially when objections are likely to arise, have you made note of them? When you raise the other points, are they interesting or are they thoroughly predictable? Please keep in mind that I read hundreds of papers per year.

7) Does the composition of the paper reflect a considered development of thought? If you are making three points, how do you decide which order? How are they connected? Why do any of them have to be made in this paper? Do you know what a paragraph is?

8) Does the selection and treatment of material reflect a challenging approach? Some topics are commonplace and some opinions are widely shared. If this is a commonplace issue, has the writer demonstrated originality of approach? If the opinion of the writer is widely held, has that opinion been developed in an interesting way?

9) Are opinions supported? Here is a test. How many times have you written, "I believe"? Now, how many times have you written, "because"? A paper with lots of belief statements and few supporting arguments is indeed a revelation, but weak.

10) Is your scholarship presented with care and accuracy? In my opinion, all student writing should reflect some reading. I like to think of sources as companion texts. Do you make it clear what your sources are and how they are used? Specific sentences should be tagged with specific page numbers, and your bibliography should have complete citations.

11) Is this a report or an evaluation? A report accurately transmits facts and opinions from somewhere else. An evaluation establishes the writerís own point of view. News is fine, but I want commentary, too.

12) Is the subject matter too broad? A five page paper has obvious limits. A common mistake is to choose a broad topic and then superficially skim some obvious points. If you have drafted a paper like this, zoom in on one of your points and develop it with more texture.

13) Was this paper proof-read? It is irritating to look at typos which indicate that the author has not reviewed her own work. It is okay to make a few corrections with your pen as you rush from the printer to class. Spell check!

NOTE: This exercise is intended to encourage independent thought that is interesting, reasonable, and scholarly. It is expected that students will learn better how to wade into troubled waters and find their own way to the far shore.

REMINDER: All papers will be submitted for in-class evaluations.

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