Monday, January 26, 2015

Essay 1: Locating Compelling Questions, Significant Ideas, and Convincing Textual Evidence

College writing is demanding. Before you even begin, you must formulate a narrowly defined and specific question, problem, or research agenda. You then must gather sources and research, and carefully mine these sources for choice quotations that clearly and succinctly support your points. Finally, in a few short pages, you must employ these resources to provide a specific, narrow, and refutable claim that responds to the dilemmas you have raised. 

Because this is a daunting task, we will start out by exploring the manner in which others have done this. This will lessen the burden of defining a question to write about, it will eliminate the need for extensive research, and it will minimize the original thinking you need to provide to formulate a claim. You will still, however, need to produce a claim or thesis--one that indicates why the problem you have uncovered is interesting and significant, and what the implications of the answer provided are. 

For this first essay, you will compose a short (2-3) page paper focused primarily on locating a central idea, tension, or problem in a text we have read and explaining its significance. What role does it play in responding to, clarifying, or even complicating the issues raised by the author? Doing this should not and will not require you to do significant research. We will focus on research beginning with the next paper. For now, we will simply practice developing a claim and using textual evidence to prove it. For this essay, you can write about almost anything that has something of a connection to our readings or to our class discussions. Here’s some general topics you might consider writing about:

1. Compare and contrast the ideas of two different theorists we have read, and develop a thesis that shows how they arrive at different conclusions regarding a similar topic or question. Focus on defining the boundaries of the debate as narrowly as possible, and indicating how subtle differences in assumptions, tone, focus, and approach lead to larger and more significant differences in outcomes. Don’t worry about explaining everything about their ideas. This isn’t a report, but rather a paper focused on developing your own argument that explores the implications of a debate between other thinkers. An easy way to approach this paper would be to pick a quote from each writer and focus your paper entirely on showing the important differences that develop from the ideas each writer expresses in those quotes.

2. Apply some of the ideas we have been discussing to current events. Pick an idea or two from a writer or two and attempt to explain what these show about a contemporary debate in current affairs. What would Hobbes say about the way we finance pharmaceutical research, for example. What would Mandeville think of restrictions on immigration? These are just a few examples of what you could write about. You could also combine this with option 1 and write about differences in how classical theorists might explain contemporary events. Again, your focus here will be on defining exactly how each author understands these issues, and the implications of these differences for their conclusions.

3. Pick a provocative quote from one writer we have read and explain why it is significant for his argument. Does it reveal something essential that we otherwise would easily overlook? If you had a strong reaction to something one of the writers we read claimed, try to formulate in a more formal, analytic language what that is and then explain the nature of your reaction. What larger implications does this quote present?

Whatever option you pick, or whether or not you pick one of the above options, try to avoid falling into the twin dangers of offering a book report or a harsh polemic. Avoid opinionated language like “I think,” “I believe,” “is wrong,” “is right,” “is good,” “is bad,” “contradicts him/herself,” etc. Also avoid summarizing or listing a series of facts without connecting them back to your thesis or explaining why they are important. The easiest way to do this is to present a clear thesis that empathetically approaches your subject matter without becoming either overly deferential toward it or totally hostile to it.

I’ll primarily be looking for three things: a clearly defined and argumentative thesis; formal, analytic language; and a detailed analysis of the thesis and its implications using specific textual evidence from your sources. For citations, use MLA style (a works cited list with in-text citations). Bring a rough draft of ~2 pages for 1/30 and 2/6. The final is due 2/13 by 12pm.

For more information on MLA, see here.

Basic summary of MLA: It consists of a Works Cited list starting on the top of a separate page at the end of the paper, which contains all the various sources you refer to in the body of the paper AND ONLY those sources that you refer to directly--don't include works that you have read but do not quote from, paraphrase, or cite as evidence. To cite paraphrases, just place the author's last name and the page number at the end of the sentence in parentheses, with the period outside the parentheses [example (Freud 8)]. For quotes, just add in quotation marks around the direct quotation and place the citation again in parentheses at the end of the sentence. If you refer to the author in the sentence and are not referencing a specific page, then you do not need an in-text citation beyond the mention of the name.

The basic rule-of-thumb for MLA is to give as much information in the Works Cited as needed so that a reader can find your source (author, title, publisher, date of publication, title of publication if the work appears in a journal or magazine or newspaper, translator, etc.); for the in-text citations, list only as much information as needed to find the source in the list at the end of the paper. The custom is to start with author's last name and page number, then add a shortened version of the title, and finally a first initial if there is still confusion.

So: (Freud 8), (Freud, Dreams 8), and (S. Freud, Dreams 8) would be how we would provide an in-text citation for the following entry in a works cited list:

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Ed. and Trans. by James Strachey.
New York: Avon, 1998.

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