Tag Archives: Handouts

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).

Brainstorming:

  • 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

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E for Effort

Despite what some of the trolls who come around here may think, I do not actually think everyone deserves a trophy.  I do not award A’s just for showing up to class, and I actually am a pretty tough grader.  That said, I believe that writing is a skill that requires substantial effort and practice, and I do not believe that the predominant grading paradigm does a good enough job of connecting effort and personal achievement.  As I’ve said before, students usually carry around the assumption that people get A’s on papers because they are “good writers,” and people get low C’s and D’s on papers because they are “bad writers,” while the space in between is populated by people who either believe they are good writers but the teacher just hates their style or that they are bad writers who just get lucky some times.

As Marzano, Pickering, and Pollack indicate, students attribute their success or failure at a particular task to one or some combination of four causes:  ability, effort, other people, and luck.

Three of these four beliefs ultimately inhibit achievement.  On the surface, a belief in ability seems relatively useful–if you believe you have ability, you can tackle anything.  Regardless of how much ability you think you have, however, there will inevitably be tasks for which you do not believe you have the requisite skill. […] Belief that other people are the primary cause of success also has drawbacks, particularly when an individual finds himself or herself alone.  Belief in luck has obvious disadvantages–what if your luck runs out? Belief in effort is clearly the most useful attribution.  If you believe that effort is the most important factor in achievement, you have a motivational tool that can apply to any situation.

I posted previously about a study that showed that children who are praised for ability alone are less likely to take risks and seek out challenges and more likely to collapse in the face of adversity than children who are praised for their hard work.  Marzano et. al. echo what Bronson and Merryman say about praise, but they also highlight the importance of teaching students about the relationship between personal achievement and effort.  While their techniques are aimed at (and are probably most likely to produce long term results with) young children, having students track effort and achievement in the college classroom seems like a relatively easy, efficient, and enormously beneficial way to reinforce the importance of effort.  Marzano et. al. recommend having students engage in periodic self-assessments, in which they grade themselves according to rubrics based on effort and achievement.  The effort one looks like this:

4–I worked on the task until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working on the task even when difficulties arose or a solution was not immediately evident.  I viewed difficulties that arose as opportunities to strengthen my understanding.

3–I worked on the task until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working on the task even when difficulties arose or a solution was no immediately evident.

2–I put some effort into the task, but I stopped working when difficulties arose.

1–I put very little effort into the task.

The achievement rubric (also on a 1-4 scale), looks like this:

4–I exceeded the objectives of the task or lesson.

3–I met the objectives of the task or lesson.

2–I met a few of the objectives of the task or lesson, but did not meet others.

1–I did not meet the objectives of the task or lesson.

The authors also stress the importance of having students set their own personal goals in the classroom, and even talks about a school that uses a “Personal Best” Honor Roll alongside its regular Honor Roll to recognize students who had met or exceeded their goals (established with the help of a teacher) for the semester along with the students who had earned high grades.  Next year, I plan to adapt these two methods to help my students set individual goals for the semester, predict the effort required to achieve those goals, and assess their progress throughout the semester.  Their first journal assignment for the semester will look like this:

–Being handout–

First Journal Entry

This assignment is designed to help you set goals for achievement and effort in this class.  The audience for your answers to the following questions are for you and you alone, so their is no need to try and come up with an answer you think I will like.

Achievement Goals–In a brief paragraph, describe what would need to happen in order for you to feel that you had experienced success in this class.  That could mean receiving a passing grade, getting an A, improving your writing according to some criteria that you define, or some other achievement measure that you come up with.

Effort Goals–In a few paragraphs, talk about what you will need to do in order to achieve those goals.  Try to be as specific as possible, though there are no strict guidelines for your answer.  You can talk about number of hours spent on each assignment, sticking to the recommended deadlines for first drafts, the number of revisions you will probably have to do to get the grade you desire, coming to office hours every other week, etc.

–End handout–

A few times during the semester (after the first paper is handed back, midterm, end of term, etc.), students would be asked to do self-assessments that refer back to these goals.

–Begin handout–

Self Assessment

The following assignment is designed to help you assess your progress in class thus far according to the objectives set by your instructor and the goals for effort and achievement that you described in your first journal entry.  For each item, circle the number next to the score that best describes your performance in class so far:

Achievement in the Course: score your performance in class based on the objectives described on the syllabus/on the assignment handouts.  You can factor in grades so far as you feel they reflect your performance at this point.

4–I have exceeded the objectives of the course.  I have kept up with the reading, turned in all assignments on a reasonable schedule, have completed at least one revision of a paper, and have been earning primarily A’s and B’s.

3–I have met the objectives of the course.  I have kept up with the reading, turned in most assignments on a reasonable schedule and have been earning primarily C’s and B’s.

2–I have met a few of the objectives of the course.  I have done some of the assigned readings, turned in some of the assignments whose deadlines have past and have earned at least a C.

1–I did not meet the objectives of the course.  I am behind on the reading and/or have not turned in any assignments.

Personal Achievement Goals: score your performance based on the “requirements for success” that you laid out in your first journal entry.  Ex.  If your goal was to get a B in the class, and you have earned B’s on all papers thus far, then you get a 3.

4–I am exceeding my personal goals for the semester.

3–I am meeting my personal goals for this semester

2–I have met some of my personal goals for this semester, but not others.

1–I have not met my personal goals for this semester.

Effort: Score your performance based on the effort goals you described on the first assignment.  If you aren’t sure how to score yourself, reference the longer descriptions that go along with each score.

4–I have exceeded my effort goals for this semester.  (I worked on each assignment until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working on the task even when difficulties arose, and I viewed those difficulties as opportunities to strengthen my understanding.  I sought help from my instructor or the writing center when I needed it.  I have turned in assignments according to the schedule that I, the student, established and have done the number of revisions I felt were necessary to exceed my personal achievement goals.)

3–I have met my effort goals for this semester.  (I worked on each assignment until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working even when difficulties arose.  I have turned in assignments according to the schedule I established and have done the number of revisions I felt were necessary to meet my personal achievement goals.)

2–I have met some of my effort goals for this semester.  (I put some effort into each assignment, but I stopped working when difficulties arose.  I have not been seeking help when I need it.  I have turned in some assignments on time, but still have some to complete.  I have not yet done the revisions I need to do in order to meet my personal achievement goals.)

1–I have not met my effort goals for this semester.  (I put little or no effort into each assignment. I have not been staying on schedule or seeking help in getting started.)

–End handout–

Toward a Discussion Pedagogy

In the wake of this post, which I had not anticipated becoming the most viewed essay in my humble blog’s brief history, I’ve been thinking more and more about the function of discussion in the classroom. Namely, I am mulling over the question of whether discussion is

1) A pedagogical goal in and of itself

2) A pedagogical tool (a means to an end)

3) Some combination of the two.

As a couple of commenters indicated, in foreign language classrooms where conversational proficiency is one of the ostensible goals of the curriculum, discussion falls into the first category. In a literature classroom like my own, I’m not convinced that the case is so clear cut. As I said in response to those comments, the ability to hold forth in conversation about Mark Twain isn’t really one of my curricular goals, but being able to effectively communicate (with words) ideas about the text is. I think that for me and for most other instructors, our expectations about classroom discussion will probably inevitably reflect individual philosophies and preferences.

But one thing is for sure: participating in discussion is a skill, one that requires a bit of training and practice in addition to self-confidence and verbal proficiency. Yet it is not a skill that gets actively taught, at least not very often. Rather, students are expected to bring the skills for discussion into the classroom, and if their participation is lackluster, they are often labeled as apathetic or recalcitrant. So, I’m going to propose here that we need a pedagogy for discussion. No matter what our individual philosophies about discussion may be, we should recognize that if we expect our students to hold lively, enlightening discussions, we need to actively teach them how to do it.

I love living with a high school teacher, because their training in the fine points of classroom practice is so much more thorough, so much more specific than the training offered to your average graduate student instructor or new faculty member. My partner lent me a copy of Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock’s, Classroom Instruction that Works, a pedagogy manual based on thorough research. In a section on “Reciprocal Teaching,” Marzano et. al. provide a helpful framework for an activity that most of us try to implement with varying degrees of success: the student led discussion. As all teachers know, leading an effective discussion is an art, and allowing students to take over your job for a little while can be an effective method of increasing their confidence/competence with the material. In my experience, however, they often fall flat, and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that I expect discussions to occur organically and spontaneously, that the leader will somehow know instinctively what she is supposed to say to keep her classmates on topic or even to get them to talk at all. Even in the graduate seminars I have taken, it is remarkable how quickly “student led discussions” simply become prepared presentations, because all the student has been asked to do is master the content and maybe come up with a question or two. If those questions fall flat, what is she supposed to do?

Something similar happens in small group discussions guided by a handout containing specific questions about a reading. Often, these activities become about filling out the handout (with one student shouldering the lion’s share of the work) rather than actually having a conversation. There are few opportunities for students to come up with their own questions or approaches to the text and no incentive to exercise the kinds of skills that are crucial to having effective full-class discussions.

Marzano et. al. isolate four components of reciprocal teaching that may be helpful in providing structure and guidance in these situations: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. In the activity the authors describe, a student leader is supposed to lead the class or small group through each of these four components:

Summarizing–After students have silently or orally read a short section of a passage, a single student acting as teacher (i.e., the student leader) summarizes what has been read. Other students, with guidance from the teacher, may add to the summary. If students have difficulty summarizing, the teacher might point out clues (e.g., important items or obvious topic sentences) that aid in the construction of good summaries.

Questioning–The student leader asks some questions to which the class responds. The questions are designed to help students identify important information in the passage. For example, the student leader might look back over the selection and ask questions about specific pieces of information. The other students then try to answer these questions, based on their recollection of the information.

Clarifying–Next, the student leader tries to clarify confusing points in the passage. He might point these out or ask other students to point them out. For example, the student leader might say, “The part about why the dog ran into the car was confusing to me. Can anyone explain this?” Or, the student leader might ask students to ask clarification questions. The group then attempts to clear up the confusing parts. This might involve rereading parts of the passage.

Predicting–The student leader asks for predictions about what will happen in the next segment of the text. The leader can write the predictions on the blackboard or on an overhead, or all students can write them down in their notebooks

This is probably already very close to how you lead discussion yourself in your own class. During, say, the discussion of a short story or portion of a novel, I will usually begin by asking students to summarize the reading, referring to their journals and highlighting details that we may want to go back and examine in closer detail. Then, in a process similar to questioning/clarifying, we return to particular passages to talk about their place in the context of the overall work, why the author chose that particular strategy, how this fits in with the larger themes of the work/class, etc. There’s always an opportunity to discuss perplexing aspects of the work, and then we usually end by talking about what we will need to look for in the next day/week’s reading. I think most of us are able to go through that process rather naturally and instinctively, because we got to where we are today by being good classroom participants and pretty good readers of how a discussion is supposed to “feel.”

For many of our students, however, this process probably feels opaque and arbitrary. It is essential to make the goals and methods of discussion clear at the outset and provide a loose structure to help shape and guide their individual comments. Since I’m just now reading the Marzano text, I obviously haven’t had the opportunity to see how the following lesson plan will work in practice, so everything I’m going to propose here is sort of theoretical.

Small Group Discussions: I like the idea of taking the first two weeks of class, using short stories, to teach students how to discuss using a small group format. Students would be broken up into groups of four or five, and each student would have a day to lead their group through, say, 30 minutes of discussion, using the four components outlined in Marzano et. al. The membership of these small groups could rotate or remain static throughout these initial weeks. The handout would look something like this:

Discussion Leadership Guide

As your group’s discussion leader for the day, it is your job to guide your classmates through the day’s reading using the four stages outlined below. While you should have a strong grasp of the day’s reading (read it two or three times, making careful notes in your journal) it is not your job to dominate the conversation or have all the answers to all possible questions that might come up. Each small group discussion should take about 30 minutes of class time. The specific times allotted to each segment are suggestions, designed to give you a feel for when it may be appropriate to move on to the next segment.

Summary (5 minutes)–Begin discussion by asking your classmates to summarize the day’s reading as a group. Note the major plot points quickly, and get the other group members to note important details that might have been missed but may be essential to understanding the text. You can also bring up details that you want to address during later stages of the discussion. Feel free to drop hints or ask leading questions, but do not perform the entire summary yourself.

Questions (10 minutes)–This is where you begin connecting the details within the text to the larger ideas we are discussing in class. You should prepare two or three questions to get things going or to fall back on if the conversation starts to lag, but leave room for your partners to introduce questions or ideas of their own. Your questions can be as broad as “What is Hawthorne saying about religious tolerance?” or specific, as in “What do you think actually happened to Young Goodman Brown in the story?” or even more specific “What do you make of this particular image?”

Clarification (10 minutes)–Ask your classmates if there were any passages or concepts that they found particularly challenging or confusing. In the event that they do not propose anything, you may which to select a passage that you yourself wish to discuss. You can spend time just figuring out what the author is saying or why they are saying it in that particular way, or you can talk about how it works in the context of the whole reading.

Prediction (5 minutes)–As a group, look briefly at the reading for the next class, which is [by the same author/pertains to the same issue/comes from the same period] and talk about what details you will want to look for and take notes on for the next discussion. You can see if the title or first paragraph hold any clues or speculate as to why it might have been assigned.

–End handout–

I think you could make this an ungraded activity, assign a completion grade, or allow students to evaluate one another. The reason why I assign 30 minutes (of, say, a 50 minute class) to the activity is so that 1) it doesn’t become agonizing, and 2) so that you have the opportunity to debrief. Have each group report on how well their discussion went, whether or not they feel they understand the material better, how each member contributed to making it a profitable experience. I like the idea of using these first couple of weeks to “teach” discussion in order to enable the kind of lively, organic full-class discussions that are the dream of every teacher. One would hope that being asked to lead a discussion would foster empathy for the teacher as well as the self-confidence necessary to become a regular contributor. Nevertheless, I could see returning to this activity later in the semester or giving each student the opportunity to lead the entire class in discussion using this model.

Worksheet: Editing for Readability

So, this has definitely been Usage Week here at Shitty First Drafts.  I thought I would put a cap on it by posting one of the handouts I use to teach copy editing for readability in my class.  Despite all of my ranting about Grammar Douchery this week, I do actually think that it’s important to address grammatical concepts in the classroom, but I find it works better if you talk about them in the context of readability and clarity.  The exercise below is pretty self-explanatory.  I gave this out last time I was teaching Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, but you don’t need to know the literary references in order to get the point.

A good way to use this worksheet is to put students in groups and have them revise the examples together.  Then have each group write their revisions on a blackboard so that they can see the range of workable alternative constructions.

And if you’re bored this weekend and want to play along in comments, I support that!

Editing for Readability

Though the rules of grammar may seem arbitrary, complicated, and counter-intuitive, the function of grammar and punctuation is simply to make our writing more readable.  The following sentences demonstrate a variety of problems that impair readability.  As a group, work your way through the examples and see if you can identify the problem and correct the sentence to make it more intelligible.

Possible errors (each sentence may contain more than one of these):

  • Dangling or misplaced modifiers (the modifying word or phrase seems attached to an inappropriate object).
  • Pronouns without a clear antecedent
  • Insufficient/weak punctuation (Run-on sentence, comma splice)
  • Excess or inappropriate punctuation (sentence fragment)
  • Wordiness, redundancy
  • Ambiguity

1)      Shallow.  Naïve.  Materialistic.  Words that describe Dreiser’s character.  Carrie Meeber.

2)      A sprawling city with a variety of pleasures, Carrie Meeber fell in love with the city of Chicago.

3)       Hurstwood is a man who knows what he wants which is fine food the company of wealthy men and celebrities and the love of a beautiful woman like Carrie, for him she is merely another possession worth having.

4)       Carrie doesn’t really want a husband preferring instead the material pleasures his money can provide.

5)      Hurstwood and Drouet went to the theatre, where he realized he wanted to be with Carrie forever.

6)       Another aspect is that Carrie seems more interested in what Drouet wears than other qualities.

7)       It has been said that Carrie is a an example of the New Woman, a type of modern woman who makes a living independently without the support of a husband, oftentimes entering into jobs and occupations that were previously dominated by men or considering unacceptable for women for a variety of reasons having to do with social norms and traditional morals.

8)       While looking for a job; Carrie is turned away by shop owners repeatedly.

9)      Carrie is a beautiful woman with excellent taste in clothing, who proves to be a talented actress, this is why Hurstwood falls in love with her.

10)    Ultimately, it has been observed that readers of Sister Carrie generally sympathize with the hapless Hurstwood more than they do with her, abandoning him to fend for himself at the end of the novel.

Using “I” Without Making it All About You

One of the cardinal rules of writing in high school is that you are not supposed to use the first person pronoun.  That rule generally gets relaxed once you get to college, and there is a reason for it.  Professional writers (and most of us who teach college writing are professional writers or at least trying to be) use “I” all the time.  Academic writers say, “in this chapter, I will argue,” “during my research, I discovered,” etc.  Those who write in less formally constricted environments, such as editorials, are even more promiscuous about the use of “I.”  But I’ve been hearing some colleagues talking lately about how they ban the word “I” in their student’s writing, and this sort of bothers me.

There is a reason why high school writers aren’t allowed to use it, and I get it.  But a great deal of my energy in getting students to produce felicitous (that’s a great word, isn’t it?) prose is spent trying to untangle the web of rather arbitrary-seeming rules and constraints handed down to them at earlier stages in their education, so it seems worthwhile to spend some blog time exploring why this is taught and how it maybe really doesn’t have the intended effect.

The reason students are told not to use “I” is because of the tendency of young writers to make the writing all about them.  No one ever told you that in 9th grade English, did they?  But there it is.  Kids are kind of narcissistic, and it does, in fact, get in the way of efforts to help them produce good writing.  They tend to rush to positions on an issue and then defend it dogmatically based on nothing more than their god-given freedom of thought:

“MY ARGUMENT IS THIS BECAUSE IT’S MY ARGUMENT AND I’M ENTITLED TO MY OPINION AND YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO THINK IT’S A FREE COUNTRY AND YOU SHOULD BE GRADING MY IDEAS NOT MY GRAMMAR.”

Moving from expressive writing that is focused on exploring the self and toward writing that is focused on tailoring an argument to persuade a specific audience is one of the most profound steps student writers take.  It’s sort of like that Lacanian moment when, as a child, you begin to recognize that you are a self that inhabits a world of selves, that the space you take up in the universe is bounded and runs up against the boundaries of others.  The problem is that the injunction against using “I” in writing doesn’t really help.  The tendency to make one’s writing all about the writer rather than the reader is an impulse that remains alive and well in college and even among adult writers.  So, instead of simply banning the word “I,” we ought to be teaching how to use it.  I actually encourage students to practice using the following statements in their formal, argumentative writing, especially in early drafts:

“I contend…”

“I argue…”

“I advance the position…”

“I have concluded…”

For one thing, freeing up students to work with these kinds of constructions actually helps them write stronger, clearer theses by forcing them to distill their main point in such straightforward terms.  However, there are a couple of phrases that I do tell students to look out for:

“In my opinion…”

“I believe…”

These constructions are in some ways inherently self-directed, while the former set tend toward other-directedness.  By saying “I argue,” you imply that there is a person on the other end of that argument, an interlocutor, a potential respondent, someone you have to persuade or at the very least engage.  By saying “I advance the position,” you are implying that there might be other positions out there, some of which you may need to acknowledge or rebut.  However, when you say “I believe,” you are talking about thoughts that are typically very private.  The implied relationships is not between yourself and the reader but between yourself and the entity you believe in.

That isn’t to say, however, that “I believe” statements cannot work.  They can.  In a lot of confessional writing (think Augustine, Tolstoy, or C.S. Lewis), in which the author is talking about beliefs, you get this kind of language all the time.  But even those writers were attempting to persuade their readers.  By showing how the workings of curiosity, doubt, and faith have led them to adopt a particular belief system, they are trying to say something about how it might work for other people, but trust me, they are almost always thinking about the reader in the process.  People who try to get you to convert to their religion are talking about “belief,” but they are also thinking about the rhetorical strategies that might get you to go along with them.

So, instead of banning “I believe” or “In my opinion,” I tell students to watch for these phrases in their writing and examine why they are using them.  Are they using them as a defense mechanism because they aren’t sure how to justify or substantiate their conclusions and want to render themselves impervious to criticism by resorting to the “well, this is just what I believe, and I’m entitled to my beliefs” stance?  Are they trying to similarly insulate themselves from critique by highlighting the inherent subjectivity of what they are about to say?  If so, then they should see what the statement sounds like if they restate it using one of the first four constructions I listed before.  Does it now sound like something that can be argued and supported with evidence?

I contend (Iseewhatyoudidthere) that banning the use of “I” really only limits vocabulary without teaching students how to see themselves, their beliefs and opinions, as entities that have to interact with other entities in the world, people who have to persuade other people, beliefs and opinions that have to acknowledge and respond to other beliefs and opinions.  Students often think that their writing is part of a hermetically sealed conversation between them and the instructor in which their argument isn’t so much an argument about whatever the assignment was but an argument for why they deserve an A.  And that’s just not how writing works in the real world.

Writing Good Paragraphs

So you’ve got a great argument, fantastic ideas, and solid evidence to back it all up, but your essay itself feels like it blathers on and on without a real sense of coherence.  Some of your best points aren’t shining out, and you felt like you had to pack your essay with meaningless generalizations in order to reach the requisite length.  You may be getting bogged down in the paragraphing.  On the one hand, writing a paragraph feels like one of the most basic elements of writing, right after learning how to string a sentence together, yet writing good paragraphs is far from natural and often requires good planning.  By way of reminder, here are the essential elements of a paragraph and how they fit together.

Topic Sentence—the topic sentence is more than a statement of what that particular paragraph is going to talk about:

“First I shall discuss carrots.”

A topic sentence is a mini-thesis that relates back to your main thesis.  As with all theses, it should present a potentially contestable argument plus a reason or two:

“Carrots are an essential part of a healthy diet because of X, Y, and Z.” (my hypothetical paper is about nutrition)

Evidence—your evidence is essentially that X, Y, and Z.  Evidence can consist of:

  • Direct citations or summaries of an outside source.
  • Details from an object that you are analyzing.

I might go without saying, but all evidence presented in that particular paragraph should support the topic sentence or mini-thesis of that paragraph, not some other topic sentence.  If this paragraph in your nutrition paper is about carrots, don’t bring up blueberries.  Blueberries are another paragraph entirely.  Right now, you’ve asked your reader to concentrate on carrots, so don’t pull a bait and switch by shifting focus on them.

Commentary—your commentary is where you spell out how your evidence supports your topic sentence and ultimately the main thesis of your paper.  These are generally the most difficult sentences to write and are often neglected by undergraduate writers.  Most fear repeating themselves and feel that because they know how that evidence supports their thesis, everyone will be able to figure it out.  Here’s the thing though, your readers don’t have access to the specialized body of knowledge that qualified you to write this paper in the first place.  They are counting on you to educate them.

Here’s a paragraph without commentary:

“Carrots are an essential part of a healthy diet because they contain beta carotene and Vitamin A, and they are delicious.  Studies show that carrots are the best source of beta carotene and Vitamin A among all vegetables.  They also contain moderate amounts of sugar, which makes them tastier than many other vegetables.”

My reaction as a reader is, “So what Ms. Nutritionist.  What’s this beta carotene stuff and why the heck should I care about it?  And so what if they’re tastier than other vegetables.  That’s setting the bar pretty low.  You know what else is even tastier?  Cheese fries, that’s what.”

Commentary is where you persuade your reader to care about the evidence you are offering.  Even though hard data is important, commentary is where the bulk of persuasion actually occurs.  So here’s that paragraph with some commentary thrown in:

“Carrots are an essential part of a healthy diet because they contain beta carotene and Vitamin A, and they are delicious.  Studies show that carrots are the best source of beta carotene and Vitamin A among all vegetables.  Both nutrients are needed by the retina in order to process light.  The molecule formed by Vitamin A aids the eye in seeing colors and seeing in low light conditions; therefore, carrots are one of the best foods one can eat in order to keep the eyes healthy.  Carrots also contain moderate amounts of sugar, which makes them tastier than many other vegetables.  For that reason, raw baby carrots are an ideal snack food for both kids and adults.  Even when served with salad dressing or dips, carrots make for a tasty and much healthier snack than packaged foods high in processed sugars.”

Good commentary can even sneak in some additional evidence that helps explain why the major bit of evidence matters (such as the metabolic function of Vitamin A).

Editing your paragraphs:

If you think your paragraphs are in trouble, try doing the old high school highlighting trick.  Get a bunch of colored pencils, highlighters, pens, crayons, whatever, and mark each of these three elements in different colors.  Use another color for anything that might qualify as “filler,” stuff that doesn’t really contribute to the argument at all.  Once you’ve done that, look at how the paragraph is structured and note the ratios.

  • If you couldn’t find any real evidence to highlight, that’s a huge problem.  That means that your paragraph is essentially an assertion plus some sentences talking about why you like your assertion (“My thesis is my thesis because it’s my opinion and I’m entitled to my opinion”).
  • If your paragraph is mostly evidence, and you have a solid topic sentence that ties all of that evidence together, than you’ve at least got a skeleton to build on.  Try to work it out to a ratio of 2 sentences of commentary for every 1 sentence that lays out your major pieces of evidence.  This is precisely the ratio I used in my model carrot paragraph above.

Concluding sentences?

Don’t try to force yourself to write a concluding sentence, especially if it’s of the “and that’s my carrot paragraph” hand-waving variety.  What you should really be concerned about is how you transition into the next paragraph.  Since I ended my carrot paragraph by talking about why they are an idea snack, I might approach the next paragraph in a variety of ways:

  • Talk about another good snack food.
  • Talk about unhealthy snack foods and why they are bad.
  • Elaborate on how to create enticing but healthy snack options for children
  • Etc… (I’m sure you’re noticing the theme here).

Arranging paragraphs in this fashion gives the reader a sense that your major thesis is being fluidly developed.  The reader can chart your logic without feeling like the piece is jumping from one topic to another without any sense of connection.  Good arguments have a telescoping quality (Paragraph 2 builds on the info offered in Paragraph 1, and the implications of both are considered in Paragraph 3, which takes us to Paragraph 4 where we talk about solutions to the problems raised in Paragraph 3, etc.).  Staid or weak papers have an additive quality (Thing 1 + Thing 2 + Thing 3 + etc.)