Category Archives: Grad Student Resources

What Matters in a Statement of Purpose

I’m seeing an awful lot of SOP/grad school flailing going on on my various social media platforms, so here are some highlights from the workshop I ran for our students a couple of weeks ago along with the handout I distributed. All materials are the property of the New Economic School Writing and Communications Center.

First, a few statistics:

  • Of all of the students who enter any kind of PhD program in the United States, only 50% actually finish (Cassuto).
  • In 2010, a study followed 583 students entering various university PhD programs in Economics beginning in 2002. After 8 years, 59% had earned the PhD, 37% had dropped out, and 4% were still writing their dissertations (Stock 176).
  • Of the 59% who finished, 45% took 5 years. The remaining 55% took 6 to 8 years.

What does this mean?

  • Graduate school is a long-term investment that requires considerable self-discipline, focus, and internal motivation as well as intelligence. Even very, very smart people do not finish. Indeed, many finish their coursework only to stall at the dissertation stage.
  • Admitting a PhD student also represents a significant investment of resources in terms of stipend money and advising and mentorship. The return graduate programs want from that investment is that you will finish and get a good job, thereby boosting their completion and placement numbers and conferring additional prestige. Those who make admissions decisions for graduate programs are looking for evidence that you will do this, which isn’t always easy to tell from your grades and GRE scores.
  • Your Personal Statement is the document where you make the argument for why you will be a good investment, demonstrating:
    • That you understand what advanced academic work in your field entails and that you have at least a general plan for getting through it.
    • That you have thought about your areas of interest and are able to describe the shape that your future research might take.
    • That you have done research on this specific program and understand how their specific strengths fit your goals.
    • That you have some idea of what you want to do with your degree (even though that may be a decade in the future).


  • Start writing early. Your personal statement will likely go through many drafts before you are ready to submit it.
  • If a school asks you to answer specific questions, be sure to do that. It’s crucial to show that you’re individualizing your application for each school and that you have thought seriously about their questions.
  • And even with a specific set of questions, you still must work to make your answers meaningful and unique.
  • Ask yourself the following sets of questions as you brainstorm.
    • The Field:
      • Why do you want to be a _____? Don’t think about why other people may choose this profession; why do you want that as your profession?
      • What are the benefits and drawbacks of the profession?
      • How and when did you learn about the field? Was it through a class, reading, work experience, or a professor? Is that story important to your story? What have you learned about it that has further stimulated your interest?
      • What particular path in the field interests you now? What are your career goals?
    • The Program:
      • Why do you want to get into this program? Don’t talk about Economics programs in general, but Harvard’s Economics Program or Stanford’s Economics Program. Maybe there’s a particular professor with whom you want to work. Maybe the school offers excellent research opportunities or teaching experience to graduate students. If you’re not sure, do more research about the school or talk with a professor or student.
    • Yourself:
      • What’s special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you and your story?
      • Are there details about your life that can help the committee understand you or that will make you stand out from other applicants?
      • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (i.e. economic, familial, physical)? Admissions committees are interested in unique personal narratives and evidence of having overcome adversity.
      • What personal skills or characteristics do you possess that would make you successful in the field? How can you show admissions committees that you have those?
      • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school and/or more successful in the field than other applicants?
      • What are the most important reasons the admissions committee should be interested in you?
      • Does your academic record have gaps or discrepancies you need to explain (i.e. excellent grades but poor GRE)

What Makes a Poor Personal Statement:

  • Isn’t specific or unique—relies on clichés “I have always wanted to be an economist” or “I have always dreamed of attending Harvard.”
  • Doesn’t indicate that you’ve researched the institution
  • Doesn’t indicate your past work that serves as evidence of your potential as a student
  • Rambles or includes irrelevant information

General Tips:

  • Tell a story—show what you want to say through concrete experience. Rather than “I have an adventurous spirit,” tell us about the service trip you went on with a group of strangers to India.
  • Find an angle—most people have “normal” stories, so a focus that makes yours interesting.
  • Be focused—if the application asks you to answer specific questions, answer them. If there are no specific questions, still maintain focus. Choose important qualities/characteristics and write only about those.
  • Be specific—do not make claims you cannot back up with experience.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Be coherent—the way you write indicates the kind of person you are. Someone who writes clearly is likely a sensible person.
  • Interpret material for your readers. Don’t repeat the material in your application—instead, explain how those experiences relate to the program for which you’re applying.
  • Don’t be afraid to be personal, as long as it’s appropriate.
  • Tell what you know about the field or profession. Share what you’ve already learned—refer to experience (work, research), classes, conversations you’ve had with people who work in the field, books you’ve read, seminars you’ve attended—and then show why you’re well suited to the profession.
  • Research the school.
  • If the school’s location provides a major geographical or cultural change, consider writing about that.
  • If there is a word limit, stay within it.

More, including samples, here: Personal Statement Workshop Handout

On Writing Anxiety

cover art for Anne Lamott's Bird by BirdCommenters Notemily and Mightydougla both brought up the issue of writing anxiety and difficulty starting/completing writing projects.  I can sympathize, as being compelled to take something of a left turn in my current dissertation chapter has led to a rather nagging bout of writers block.  I know (basically) what I need to write, but I’m not yet sure how I want to structure this next section and recent attempts to just plow ahead have produced little more than meandering dreck and pages and pages of disorganized notes.

So yeah, it happens to the best of us, though that knowledge isn’t really all that helpful.  I am not, however, convinced that making the usual pronouncements about just sitting down and starting the damn project are all that helpful either.  As a rule, I tend to avoid the writing advice columns on the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed like the plague.  They tend to compound my anxiety by confirming what I already suspect:  I’m not productive enough, I’m not disciplined enough, my writing process is pathological.  I know that the schedules, journaling strategies, etc. probably work for some people, but they fill me with shame and make me feel like there are all these other things I’m supposed to be doing before I can even write.

This is why I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, because with incomparable grace and humor, she dispenses the most fundamental and essential wisdoms about writing–break the large project into smaller tasks, don’t be afraid to write shitty first drafts that no one is ever going to see, combat your inner critic, and just sit down and make yourself start somewhere already–while acknowledging that writing is a psychologically fraught activity.  We meet our best and worst selves in the midst of writing.  The chapter on the process that took one of Lamott’s novel’s from first draft to print is also a narrative about depression and a self destructive bender in New York City.  You don’t have to have perfect mental health in order to be a decent writer, but I do think that good writing requires a degree of self understanding as well as the willingness to look at oneself with compassion and a sense of humor.

If there is one overarching theme to that book, it is that believing we must be brilliant every time we sit down to begin a writing project is self-defeating.  It stops us before we even start.  Honestly, the best piece of advice I have ever heard about writing a dissertation is the following:  give yourself permission to write the trashiest dissertation ever floated under the nose of an unsuspecting committee.  Or, as one of my own committee members recently said, “a dissertation is a piece of paper with five signatures on it.”  In other words, the point is to finish, to produce something passable, not to write the next Of Grammatology.  If you’re faced with a class project, the point is to turn something in.  C’s are better than zeroes, after all.

And once you actually have something on paper, then you can use any extra time you have to make it good.  That’s why, when students come to me to talk about the early stages of a project, I usually insist that they bring something, anything in–an introductory paragraph, a page of notes, an outline, whatever.  You are always much better off if you have a document–even a really execrable one–to work with.  And within reason, I encourage students to bring me those execrable documents so that we can begin rehabilitating them (usually they aren’t as bad as the writers think).  If I don’t have time, I send them to the writing center.

So yeah, that’s my first big piece of advice:  lower your standards.  Lower them so that you can begin raising them again.  My second is:  know thyself.  Usually what we’re waiting for in the process of brainstorming, outlining, researching, and writing execrable drafts is the moment of inspiration, the epiphany that unlocks the whole project or even just a little piece of it.  Notorious Ph.D, in a wonderful blog post, recently called it the moment of Grace:

These moments are rare, and you can’t make them happen. That moment of inspiration is out of your hands. My job is simply to be there, doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing, so it knows where to find me when it arrives.

Part of becoming a productive writer is knowing what makes those moments happen and trying to create the conditions for it, or, at the very least, ensuring that you’re ready when it happens.  If it usually strikes once the deadline is upon you, make sure you have material to build around it.  If you require particular atmospheric conditions–music or silence, long uninterrupted periods of time–try to give that to yourself.  I have noticed recently that moments of inspiration often come when I give into instinct and let myself read that book that isn’t quite but sort of is tangentially related to this writing project but that sometimes sheds a whole new light on the problem or provides a bit of context that had previously been hidden from me or illuminated a way to bring conversations in two different fields together.

But do remember that creating these conditions takes some time, discipline, and planning.  At some point in college, I realized that I needed about a month of short daily sessions to produce decent final papers.  By short daily sessions, I mean that on writing days, I would focus on completing a single paragraph and not really worry about its quality or whether it would even be staying in the final draft.  I don’t always write final copy on the days I do dissertation work.  Sometimes, my little assignment is to read and take notes on 100 pages from a book and transcribe potential quotes (transcribing those quotes is really satisfying, because you can think of them as actually contributing to the final bulk of the chapter).  The whole point is just to end the day with something, anything on paper, and I can rest in the assurance that no one even has to see it unless I want them to.

Using PBworks for Paperless Classrooms: A How-to Guide

PBworks HomepageThe benefits of running a paperless classroom are many and obvious:  reduced environmental impact, lighter bags, no students running in late on the day a paper is due because the lab printer was down, etc.  While many instructors are comfortable using institutionally based software like Blackboard for this purpose, I’ve come to prefer the free wiki site called PBworks due to its simplicity, intuitive interface, and friendliness to collaboration.

PBworks runs on a wiki software, which means that each page can be edited by anyone approved by the site administrator.  This makes it ideal for group projects, peer review, sign-up sheets, and generating things like collaborative vocabulary or source lists.  While not terribly fancy, you can effectively store and organize all of your class materials on it and use it as your class home page if you so desire.  On student evaluations, students consistently cite the wiki as one of their favorite things about my class.

Getting Started: When you first visit the site, you’ll want to select “For Education” and “Sign Up Now.”  You’ll then be given three options at varying costs.  Our department has its own paid-for account, but most people will want to simply choose the free “Basic” option.  You’ll then be prompted to name your site.  Pick something like “”  Keep in mind that you can create as many unique workspaces as you want, so you can have “,” etc. in the future.  I usually elect to keep my class sites private.

A newly created wiki This is what your wiki will look like when you first create it (click to embiggen any of these screenshots).  Note the four tabs at the top left of the page and the two tabs underneath.  Each page in your wiki will have a “View” and an “Edit” tab.  Remind your students that you have to be in “Edit” to change anything.  They will inevitably forget and get frustrated.  The first thing you will probably want to do is change your front page.  I usually put my vital course and instructor info in there.  Just for reference, here is a screenshot of my latest wiki (with my personal information blacked out).

The front page of my latest course siteThere are two fields on the right that you’ll want to make note of:  The Pages and Folder list and the Sidebar.  You can edit the Sidebar like any other page just by clicking “Edit the Sidebar” at the bottom.  The edit interface features all of the standard items in a MS Word, Blogger, or WordPress interface.  You can add hypertext links, images, and video.  You can also provide links to documents that you’ve uploaded to the site.  I use my sidebar for links to important class documents like the grading policy and reading schedule.

Next, you’ll want to look at the file management system.  There are shortcuts to all of your files and folders on the right hand side of every page, but you can also look at everything on your wiki by clicking “Pages and Files” on the top left.  This interface will allow you to upload files and create folders for each of your students (or they can create the folders themselves).  Here’s a view of one student’s folder, with the folder list on the side (last names have been erased for privacy purposes).

Paperless Submissions: Students can either upload assignments as Word files or cut and paste text into the standard page fields.  Both methods offer different advantages, which I’ll discuss in a moment.  You’ll want to make sure, however, that in any case, students give their documents and pages unique names that designate their name, the assignment, and the current draft.  Files that are uploaded with duplicate names will overwrite one another, and having unique names makes it easier to find an assignment that hasn’t been put in the proper folder.  You’ll note that each page/file is also time stamped, which is handy if you are a stickler about enforcing deadlines.

Recent Activity page

If you return to the main page, you’ll notice a field called “Recent Activity” at the very bottom.  It’s a short list of the last several things that were done on the site.  If you click “More Activity,” you can see every action performed on the site in order.  This is part of what makes my oddball late policy doable.  This feature allows me to grade papers in the order in which they were received and save papers that did not meet the deadline for my next grading period. (Note:  the fact that the site rigorously tracks changes and who makes them is a bit of insurance against any shenanigans.)

Add Users pageOnce you have your site organized the way you want it, you can start inviting your students.  If you go up to the Users tab on the top left, you’ll see a button that allows you to add more users.  Simply enter the email addresses of the people you wish to add.  They will be sent a link and prompted to create a PBworks account.  Alternatively, you can send your students the link to your site and allow them to request access.

Sample Peer Review ActivityPeer Review: One of the many activities PBworks allows you to, by virtue of the fact that anyone can edit any page, is virtual peer review.  If you don’t have a computer equipped classroom, this activity can be assigned as homework.  Have each student copy and paste their paper onto a new wiki page.  Then assign two students to read each paper.  Have the peer reviewers go in and enter their comments in a different color and identify their color at the bottom of the page.  Students can also use the comment feature at the bottom to make narrative comments and write into the page itself for line edits or specific comments.  Note the image on the left (from a rhetoric class two years ago).

Paperless Grading: Using the wiki for grading purposes is tricky due to FERPA restrictions.  While the wiki is technically private, it isn’t perfectly secure, so you should never ever post grades or any sort of evaluation on the wiki.  Here is what you can do though:  have students upload their final paper submissions as a Word document.  Download them and use the Word comments feature for marginalia.  Then type up a summary comment either at the top or bottom.  Then use a secure service like Blackboard to email the document to the student.  I don’t even put a grade on it, both out of paranoia and because I think it helps the student engage with the comments rather than worrying about the grade.  I post grades on Blackboard’s gradebook, and students know they can check for it there after they receive their paper.

Sample Sign-Up SheetPaperless Sign-ups: Here’s one more nifty thing.  I have various activities (presentations, one-on-one conferences) that usually require a sign-up sheet.  Not any more.  You can just create one on a wiki page and have students go in and enter their names.

So those are the basics.  There are many, many different ways that you can use this site, especially if you have a networked classroom.  Look here and here for a few assignments that use the wiki for collaborative assignments.

Your First Day of School

There is something perverse about the fact that public school teachers must undergo years of rigorous training, student teaching, and certification in order to take charge of their own classroom and individuals teaching at the college level for the first time are generally given a time, a room, and a roster and told to have at it.  If you are lucky, you will get a few days of orientation, an overview of university policy, and a round table discussion with experienced grad student instructors.  Hopefully, you’ll also get a faculty mentor, though I’ve heard of some faculty mentors (at other schools, of course) who say ridiculous crap like, “Pedagogy is for high school teachers.  I’ll teach you content.  You can figure out pedagogy for yourself.”  Uh huh.

I actually got pretty fantastic training, not only the summer before my first TA and solo teaching assignments but throughout the semester.  That said, I recall that the first couple of days of the August orientation week, in keeping with academic aversion to pragmatism, consisted mostly of high-minded discussions about the value of rhetoric and the philosophy of our writing program.  I remember sitting there feeling like I had swallowed a piece of granite thinking, “Fine, fine, fine, but what am I supposed to do NEXT WEDNESDAY?!?(The fall term starts on a Wednesday here.)  The fear of showing up on your first day with nothing to do or say can be overwhelming.  I remember how long 50 minutes used to feel, how I used to agonize about how I was going to fill them three times a week.  Now, I usually run out of time, so rest assured that that feeling eventually goes away, not that that knowledge really helps you right now.

So, what do you do that first day?  The good news is that no one really expects you to do much.  Remember the first day of class when you were in college?  You went around the table and said your name and major and your favorite food or some nonsense.  Basically you’re going to learn names, explain your course policies and reading schedule, demo your class website (if you have one), and just take care of business in general.  You are not required to give an inspiring speech unless you really feel moved to.  In fact, it’s advisable not to cover any real content on the first day.  The composition of your class is inevitably going to change over the next week, and you’ll save some time and trouble catching the new people up if you wait a day.

PRO TIP:  Mapping out a course schedule is very difficult until you get a feel how how a semester flows and how much time a class period really is.  You don’t necessarily have to pass out a complete schedule on the first day.  My first semester teaching on my own, I planned the amount of time we would spend on each unit and scheduled the due dates for major essays, but I handed out the detailed reading schedule and discussion topics at the beginning of each unit.  This gave me some flexibility without having too many schedule revisions out there confusing the class.

The first day of class is really about setting a tone, about letting your students know what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.  Go over your course policy statement in detail, and give your students a practical sense of how you will enforce them.  While this doesn’t have to be a “weed out” exercise, I recommend appearing stricter than you intend to be.  That way in you show grace later in the term, you appear benevolent and merciful.  If you appear easy to manipulate at the outset, your students will run all over you and resent you when you start enforcing.  By the same token, don’t assume that they will read the syllabus on their own.  I always give a pop quiz on the syllabus on Day 3 or 4.

You will naturally wind up doing most of the talking on this day, but if you expect to hold lively discussions in your class, it’s a good idea to get them talking too.  Do introductions but also consider bringing in some questions or ideas they can throw around.  For example, this past year I taught a class on Literature and Religion.  Knowing that religion is a sensitive topic, I had the class lay down some general guidelines for discussion on the first day.  It was both a tactic to get them talking to one another and prevent land mines from exploding in the class later in the term.

Alternatively, you could have students free-write on a topic for 10 minutes and then share their thoughts or bring in a very short reading (a poem or one page of prose) or image to discuss.  The idea is to give them what a typical day in your class might be like without necessarily delving into key material.

Finally, if you are going to assign homework for the second day, make it a handout or something that is accessible online.  Because students change their classes so much during the first couple of weeks (and various other reasons), some of them won’t have their textbooks at that point.  It will do you no good to get irritated about this fact (or the fact that they won’t read the syllabus on their own).  Just deal with it.

Oh, and let your class out on time, if not a few minutes early.  New students are trying to figure out where everything is, and giving them a little extra time is kind both to them and to the instructors who have them next.  One of my pet peeves is instructors who keep their kids over–making them late for my class–or continue to occupy the room right up until the start of my class (as if I don’t have anything to set up).  Get a watch and start making final announcements a good two minutes before the period is over.  Take long conversations with students outside or in your office.

The People You Meet in Graduate School

Tweed jacket with elbow patches
You're going to need one of these.

We had the welcome luncheon for new graduate students yesterday.  Given that I probably did everything in my power to scare people about the experience last week, I thought this would be a good time to dispense some practical and hopefully light-hearted wisdom about how to navigate the first year or so of grad school in the humanities.  I welcome questions, suggestions, and pitches for guest posts.  Email!

On my very first day, our grad advisor told us that grad school was about learning to participate in a scholarly conversation rather than merely jumping through academic hoops like you did in college.  In some ways, the very skills and strategies that made you successful as an undergrad (and therefore got you to grad school in the first place) are skills and strategies that may have to be set aside.  After the first semester, you will quickly discover that no one gets a B in a class unless they really screw up.  There really aren’t any tests (unless you’re doing something statistically based or taking a language or linguistics class) to study for.  There’s just A LOT of reading to do and a batch of term papers to write at the end of each term.

(PRO TIP:  When registering for classes, look through each course description carefully and note the final project.  Do not sign up for more than two classes with an article-length (20+ page) paper due at the end of term.  I quickly discovered that two is the maximum number of long papers a brain can reasonably be expected to produce within a month’s time.  Even if you only wind up with two, you’ll want to start one kind of early.)

Participating in a conversation means learning to deal with people in entirely new ways.  Success in graduate school does depend on making contact with the professors who do what you want to do and convincing them to supervise your M.A. thesis, prospectus, or dissertation down the road.  Most people begin making contact by taking classes with these people whenever possible, and seminars can turn into a sort of obnoxious cocktail party, with everyone vying to make the cleverest comment.  If the professor is attuned to that sort of bullshit, he or she will usually try to diffuse the tension.  It doesn’t always work, but you have to love them for trying.

It is virtually guaranteed, however, that in every seminar there will be  at least one ringer, one fourth or fifth (or tenth or twelfth) year asshole who has read every book in the entire world and seems to go out of his way to terrify everyone else into silence.  This person takes a variety of forms:

The Prof’s Advisee: She has been working with the professor for the better part of a decade and has read all of her books.  They seem to always enter the room together and complete each other’s sentences.  The student knows or is able to anticipate her reading of every text on the syllabus and her view on every political question and can parrot those views back while still managing to avoid sounding like the sycophant that she is.  They may affectionately disagree on one or two things, but you can be certain that the student’s dissertation is basically the sequel to the prof’s book.

The Medievalist: He is taking Nineteenth Century American Novels because he needs to show range and this sounds like an easy class.  He thinks your field is scholarship-lite because you don’t have to know Latin or Anglo-Saxon or whatever.  He has almost nothing to say about any given text but oozes disdain from every pore.  The prof in this seminar hates this student’s living guts but doesn’t say anything because his advisor is a known tyrant and probably in charge of tenure review.  This student’s advisor, by the way, was on my Qualifying Exam panel, and he pretended to fall fell asleep whenever we finished with his stuff and moved on to nineteenth century slave literature.

The Theorist: He read Derrida as an undergrad and was a philosophy major or something.  He seems to pipe up with something like, “I think Habermas would say…” at every opportunity.  If you are lucky, this person will have a single-minded obsession with a particular theorist, and everyone (including the prof) start rolling their eyes at her every time he goes off on a tangent about the brilliance of Adorno and Horkheimer.  Otherwise, he’s just going to make everyone else feel inadequate.

The Paragon of Lefty Virtue: Whether she is a radical feminist, socialist, pacifist, vegan, or all of the above, this grad student is there to sneer at your tepid political commitments and police any and all comments about her specific areas of activism for insufficient radicalism and theoretical rigor.  She will tolerate no nuance when it comes to questions like:  “Religious people–maybe not the absolute embodiment of everything that is wrong with the world?”  You feel embarrassed in her presence both because she has read waaaaay more Judith Butler and Marx and Weber than you but also because she is a walking right-wing parody of a lefty academic.  In other words, this is what your deleted blog commenters think you are like.

So yes, some variant of this advanced graduate student will be making an appearance in at least one of your seminars this semester.  Unfortunately, you can’t clam up.  Many new grads make the mistake of staying silent in class for fear of looking stupid and spend the whole semester bitching about that person behind their back.  That takes you further away from the primary goal of graduate school:  learning to participate in a scholarly conversation.  So the trick is figuring out how to make a contribution without getting shut down.

First, do as mom says and consider the source.  Advanced students in graduate school who show up in seminars that they don’t really need to take are, I guaran-god-damn-tee it, having a lot of trouble finishing–or even starting–their dissertations.  So yeah, this person may simply be trying to make themselves feel better at the expense of some noobs.  Furthermore, you have to remember that these students aren’t the fully fledged academic experts they may seem to be.  They may know more than you, but they aren’t perfect in their knowledge, and many of them can’t, for some reason, think critically about the ideas they parrot back from books.

The best thing you can do with these individuals is to strive to learn what they know and then raise the level of the debate.  You will quickly find that not everyone is as well-read as they pretend to be and not everyone understands theory as completely as it may seem to someone who hasn’t read it at all.  So, during this first semester, you will want to begin making a list of stuff that you need to read that isn’t on any of your syllabi, though in a future post I would like to put together a list on this blog to get you started.  Experienced humanities grads:  post your “must-reads” in comments or email your list to me if you have time.

Grading Philosophy

Student-friendly classroom policies and assignments need not be the antithesis of academic rigor. Despite the fact that I don’t give participation grades and allow my students to revise individual assignment multiple times, my classroom is not some stereotype of a hippy-dippy New Age, feel-good utopia in which everyone gets a trophy and no one ever has to feel the pain of failure.  In fact, I think of myself as something of a hardass.  By giving students so many opportunities to redeem themselves, I feel free to set the bar high.  Just fulfilling the terms of the assignment gets you a C.

Below is the handout that I distribute at the beginning of each semester describing what each grade means and what each grade usually signals about revision.  This is a holistic system, and there are no perfect 100’s.

F—The best way to fail a paper is to ignore in whole or in part the requirements set forth on the assignment prompt.  A failing paper might contain an extremely weak, irrelevant, or inappropriate thesis (if it contains one at all).  It may fall egregiously short of the length requirement (500 or more words), have an incoherent organizational scheme, or contain enough mechanical errors to make it unreadable.  Papers that show no effort to properly cite sources will also receive failing grades (see policy statement).

D papers usually show a modest effort to meet the terms of the assignment but may fall short in a number of ways.  They may be up to 300 words below the length requirement or show poor attention to outside sources.  They usually have a relevant thesis, though that thesis may be weakly stated, insufficiently supported, and logically problematic.

D+ papers contain the same deficiencies as a D paper but may be relatively easy to salvage for a C.  For example, the idea may be somewhat interesting but the argument is stated weakly or ambiguously, or there may be so many mechanical errors that the sense of the paper suffers.  Major overhaul at the thesis and paragraph level can boost this to a B-.

C- papers are dangerously close to missing the point of the assignment but manage to get all the components necessary for a passing grade.  The argument is usually weak or ambiguous or merely rehashing ideas discussed in class.  A C- paper may also contain a “dead-end” idea (due to an unoriginal or unprovable thesis) that is unlikely to see improvement with mere surface revision.  Massive overhaul will probably be needed to move up a letter grade.

C papers meet the minimum requirements of the assignment but go no further.  They contain a relevant and plausible thesis, though that thesis is usually weakly supported and unoriginal.  They demonstrate a cursory effort to use outside sources but do not necessarily deal with them insightfully.  The prose is readable but may feel labored, choppy, or pedantic.  C papers have a coherent organizational scheme for the overall paper but may be somewhat awkward in the way that individual paragraphs are constructed.  Revisions at the thesis level are usually needed to see much of a change in grade.

C+ papers only meet the minimum requirements but show promise.  Usually, the idea behind the paper is interesting but the execution at the organizational or stylistic level is mediocre.  Revisions at the paragraph level along with attention to mechanics will often boost this to a B-.

B- papers go just beyond the minimum and come to a stop.  The argument may be clear, and the evidence may be solid, but the essay lacks nuance, voice, and originality.  B- papers are competently written but make the reader think “this has been said before and said better.”  Revisions to these papers usually need to include attention to the level of analysis and insight as well as a sensitivity to language that will make those insights stand out.

B papers move beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment.  They contain an insightful, plausible, and substantially supported argument.  They place their arguments in conversation with arguments from outside sources (where called for in the assignment) and deal with those sources ethically.  The writing is error-free and well organized on the paragraph level, making appropriate use of transitions and topic sentences to guide the reader from one idea to the next.  The tone of the essay demonstrates a competent effort at tailoring the argument for a specific audience.  As such, the writing demonstrates a developing sophistication, though it may not quite achieve the effortless quality of the A paper.   As with B- papers, B papers often seem a little bit obvious and may leave the reader with the sense that they’ve heard this argument made in this particular way before.

B+ papers are the most frustrating to receive back from an instructor.  They go beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment but stop just short of true greatness.  Often, a B+ grade reflects some deficiency in execution, not in big ideas or micro-level analysis.   A slightly confusing structure, a missing logical step, or some mechanical problems may need to be corrected before this can become an A.

A- papers go far beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment.  They contain a truly original, sophisticated, probative argument, approaching a problem or question in a way that sheds new light on it.  The organization is tight and consistent, such that the reader can follow the argument without sensing gaps in its logic.  Outside sources are dealt with in meaningful ways and do not seem “tacked on.”  Commentary goes well beyond the obvious and reflects truly original thinking.  The prose accurately reflects the student’s own voice and clearly engages the paper’s audience, whether the tone is formal, satirical, conversational, etc.  The “-“ in the A- doesn’t usually reflect any major deficiency, just that this essay isn’t quite in that “top 1%” category that distinguishes “A’s”.

A papers are impeccable and rare.  First drafts hardly ever receive them, and hard work is usually required to achieve this grade upon revision.  A papers contain spectacular ideas and no mechanical errors, absolutely none.

Final Grades:

Each letter grade assignment will be given a numeric value and according to the rubric on the left.  Those grades will be weighted and averaged according to the rubric on the right.

Assignments                                                                      Final Grade

A             95                                                                           94 – 100               A

A-           92                                                                           90-93.999           A-

B+           88                                                                           87-89.999            B+

B             85                                                                           84-86.999            B

B-            82                                                                           80-83.999            B-

C+          78                                                                           77-79.999            C+

C             75                                                                           74-76.999            C

C-           72                                                                           70-73.999            C-

D+          68                                                                           67-69.999            D+

D            65                                                                           60-66.999            D

F             55                                                                           0-59.999              F

Marking a First Draft

If you allow unlimited revisions, the first draft is the entry point into a dialogue between you and your student.  It is the beginning, not the entirety, of a conversation that may progress over several drafts across a period of weeks or months. If you are concerned that allowing multiple revisions of a single assignment will just make your grading load even worse than it already is, than hopefully thinking about it in this way will bring some relief.  If the first draft is merely the first exchange in a dialogue, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong/right with the first draft. So much of the time we spend marking a paper is spent justifying the grade itself, showing what you “counted off” for, so that the student won’t complain.  If you allow for revisions, then the first grade the student sees (I actually don’t even show them the grade they would have gotten on the first draft of the first paper) is merely a starting point.  It is a measure of the distance they have to go in order to reach their goal.  Your job is to show them how to take the first step toward that goal–not the entire route, mind you–just the first step or two.

The following is adapted from a set of talking points I used for a panel discussion on grading during orientation for TA’s.  A lot of what I’m about to say will not be news to some experienced instructors, but if you are considering implementing something like this in your curriculum, here are the mark-up techniques that make it workable.

Use technology to your advantage. Paperless grading has changed my life.  I am slow when it comes to hand-writing, so typing up comments automatically saves me a great deal of time and allows me to say more without needing to ice my hand.  Using Microsoft Word’s review features like Track Changes and Comments can make draft mark-up easier, but the real benefit is being able to save your final comments to your computer for retrieval when you receive the next draft and the next.  That way, you don’t have to bother with asking students to resubmit old drafts, and you won’t have to lug gigantic folders home for grading.  Keep in mind that if you still prefer to mark up the draft itself by hand, you can always do that too.

Triage. Like I said, if you are allowing multiple revisions, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong with the first draft.  I actually limit myself to 3 issues that need to be addressed in revision.  Sometimes, I’ll just mention one, especially is the problem is at the Conceptualization level (see below).  Students can get easily overwhelmed if they get back a paper covered in red ink and a two page narrative response, listing half a dozen issues that need to be addressed.  Give your student an achievable task, knowing that you can always address lower order issues at a later stage.  A colleague of mine talks about tackling draft problems according to a hierarchy of concerns.  Here is my adaptation of that hierarchy:


Is this a workable topic?

Does the paper have an arguable thesis?

Has the student done enough research to support that thesis?/Does the student have enough textual evidence (if no research was required)?


Does the macro-level structure make sense?  Are any paragraphs out of place or irrelevant?  Does the argument progress in a logical manner?

Does the student effectively transition between topics both within and between paragraphs?

Are individual paragraphs organized appropriately?  Do any need to be broken up or combined?

Does the paper have an effective introduction and conclusion?


Is the tone appropriate for this sort of assignment?

Does the writer convey a strong ethos?

Is there a preponderance of overly long/short sentences and/or awkward but grammatically correct constructions?

Is the paper wordy? (unnecessary modifiers, overly complex phrases)


Is the student prone to any particular grammatical error (comma placement, doesn’t know how to use a colon, etc.)?

Any words used inappropriately? (thesaurus fetishism)

Is the paper relatively free of typos?

Originality/Wow Factor

Is the paper presenting an argument that is truly original or is it likely that you have two or more papers in your stack that sound more or less like this one?

Does the paper convey an individual, mature voice?

I have actually used this checklist as a rubric.  Remember that your goal is note no more than three issues that the student can address for the next draft, but the higher up on the hierarchy that you have to start, the less you really need to talk about in comments.  If the student has selected a wildly inappropriate topic, then you are essentially going to be telling them to start over, anyway.  The only reason to say anything about research or even organization would be to simply note that those are problems they may wish to avoid when they re-write the paper.  Any problems at the conceptualization level usually indicate that major overhaul is necessary, so beating grammatical issues to death is only going to waste your time and overwhelm the student.

The reason why Originality/Wow Factor is listed last is because these are arguably the most subjective aspects of assessment.  The originality, individuality, and voice of a paper are what make the difference between a B+ and an A in my class, and not all papers are going to ultimately reach that point.  Typically, I wait to talk about those issues until the paper has reached the B level, when the writing task is being addressed effectively but there is just something missing in the way certain parts of the argument are worded or the level of insight in the conclusions the student is drawing.  Surprisingly, originality issues don’t always require major overhaul.  It is usually a matter of fine nuance, and how individual instructors assess that is always, unfortunately, going to be subjective.  That question about whether or not the student really is “saying something new” (and by new, I mean making connections that undergraduates do not typically make, not that the student is making a major scholarly breakthrough) is what I use to assess this category, but you may take a different approach.

Minimal Markup. This is sort of redundant, but it bears repeating.  Unless your student already has a solidly conceptualized paper with a more or less appropriate organizational scheme, do not waste time marking every single grammatical error or awkward construction.  There is no point in copy editing sentences that are going to be scrapped. Use marginal comments to note places where the argument goes off the rails, when the reader is losing the thread, etc.

However, if your student is ready to begin focusing on micro-level issues, still mark copy editing problems sparingly.  Particularly if you want your student to learn something about correct usage or fluent phrasing from the experience, resist the urge to mark every error.  If you mark everything, the student has no incentive to do more than copy the corrections you’ve already made.  You just did their work for them.  Instead, note the first couple of occurrences of a particular problem and then talk about it in your final comments while directing the student to a page in your style handbook or an online resource that will help them learn semi-colon usage.  For fluency and awkwardness problems, I often recommend that the student read their paper out loud to themselves or have a friend read it out loud to them.  Places where the reader falters often signal an issue.

The advantage of this approach is that you can essentially spread out all of the commenting you would do on a single draft across multiple drafts, except with multiple revisions, the student actually has the chance to apply and learn from your suggestions. If you spend more than 15 minutes commenting on each draft, you may be doing too much.

Furthermore, once you receive a revised draft, you can simply lay it alongside the old one (electronic submissions are quite advantageous here) and see what has changed.  If the student hasn’t done what I suggested the first time, I simply refer them to the last set of comments and call it a day.

Comic via PHD Comics.