Tag Archives: Students

Assignment Design and Making Your Grading Sessions Less Mind-numbing

Tenured Radical has a fantastic post up today about designing assignments in a way that encourages students to write scintillating analysis instead of boring dreck:

Whose fault was this?  My fault, that’s who.  I had given a highly conventional assignment that signaled to the students (correctly) that they were being tested (without being honest about saying so), and so the vast majority of them stayed in the right-hand lane and drove slightly under the speed limit (metaphorically speaking.)  Furthermore, I had failed for years to attend to this whole business of what students were talking about when they referred to a “prompt”:  hence I had given one assignment, and they had essentially received a different one than I intended.  So the next time around, lest I should be tempted to drive a pencil into my ear while grading, I gave them complete and utter freedom.  I asked them to choose their own document and to choose it based on something they were passionate about now.  I asked them to compare their own enthusiasm for this topic to the enthusiasm expressed in the document, and to use the document to understand better how their own passion was rooted in a history of other people who cared about this thing too.  When students asked me if it was OK to write about something they didn’t really care about, I said no.  Then I took the time to talk with them about what they did care about, and urged them to write about it.

I’m probably stating the obvious, but the way an assignment is designed and presented will, for better or for worse, greatly impact the quality of student’s output.  As TR argues, a rote, conventional assignment that suggests that a student is being tested on course content will inevitably generate rote, conventional regurgitations of that content.  If the major objective of that class is to get students to memorize and apply content, then that may be perfectly fine.  But if the major objective of your class is to get students to practice the analytical skills relevant to your discipline–as it is with many introductory humanities courses–then it pays to allow a bit more room for creativity, and it can be a good thing to get students to practice those skills on objects that appeal to them.

I’ve been using a literary studies version of this assignment for the past two years, and I have been thrilled with the results.  Since the Writing Flag program at my university requires me to assign a variety of assignments with varied lengths (which is something I would probably do anyway), I determined that reading one hundred odd essays on course texts would probably bore me and my students to death, so I have them produce a conventional literary analysis on a course text at the end of the semester, but before that, they write three short (1000 word) analyses of artifacts they find outside of class employing one of the critical methods we discuss.  They can pick a painting, a song, a poem, a novel, a film, a television show, a video game–pretty much anything is up for grabs.  And the results are not only twenty entirely unique essays for each assignment but essays that are actually fun to read.  For one thing, while many students feel intimidated by Literature with a big L and mistrust their abilities to even understand them, much less say something new and interesting, many of them are capable of producing erudite readings of texts and artifacts with which they are more immediately familiar.  And no, I do not receive sixty essays on television shows each semester.  In fact, current pop culture makes up a surprisingly slim percentage of the topics chosen, and even when it is the selected topic, we’re usually talking about sophisticated and original assessments of the movie Pulp Fiction from an RTF major who bothered to do secondary research.  Last year, I also had a student who wrote three essays on paintings from the escuela cuzquena school, a student who wrote about a Czech shrine, and a student who compared an Obama speech to John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity.

My class is actually a topics course in Literature and Religion, and other teachers frequently express surprise that I’m willing to talk about religion in my class, since the potential for controversy is so high (made a bit worse due to the fact that our state legislature now reviews our syllabi).  However, I have yet to encounter a problem, and I suspect that this assignment is part of the reason.  While I insist that their analyses avoid confessionalism or polemic, there appears to be something both cathartic and educational about getting them to talk about cultural productions that are important to them and allowing them small space for sorting out their own beliefs relative to a much bigger world of ideas without ever having to debate Biblical literalism in class or argue about whose god can beat up all of the other gods.  In other words, while the essays are academic essays, they allow some small space for self-expression and creativity as well as critical thinking.  And that’s pretty much what any assignment in a course like this should be designed to do.

Finally, while there’s no way to scientifically prove it, I do think that making this the dominant writing activity for the lion’s share of the semester makes the end-of-term essays on a course text more original and more interesting.  The short essays do seem to make students more sensitive to the context in which texts are produced and build confidence in their own abilities to tease out an author’s agenda.  At the very least, the short assignments seem to demystify the whole notion of authorship and of Literature as a monolithic, impenetrable body of signs by encouraging them to use the same tools of analysis that they use to unpack more familiar, more accessible cultural products.

How to Petition a Grade (If You Must)

So, you’ve done most of the stuff I recommended here for maximizing your potential grade in a class, and you didn’t quite get the results you wanted.  Is it ever ok to go back at the end of the semester and ask for a higher grade?  Truthfully, I think there are only three possible situations in which petitioning your instructor for a higher grade is appropriate:

  1. An objective mathematical or data entry error.
  2. Reasonable cause to believe that you were graded unfairly.
  3. Your performance on a final assignment or exam was so abysmal and so out of character that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you could do better if given a second chance.

Case 1 is usually a pretty easy fix, especially if it’s a case of a miss-keyed grade.  Simply bring the error to your instructor’s attention.  She will be mortified and fix it immediately.  Just make sure before you proceed that you yourself are not in error.  Triple check your calculations against the syllabus grade breakdown and make sure you are entering the correct values for each grade (i.e. does an “A” equal 100 or 95?).

It’s when you get into Cases 2 and 3 that you are wandering into uncertain territory.  If you honestly think that you’ve been treated unfairly or discriminated against in some way, appealing to the instructor may not help at all, and you may have to avail yourself of other avenues for redress provided by your college or university (I’ll discuss that in a later post on how to deal with unreasonable instructors).  But it is usually required that you try to correct the problem with the instructor first, and in any case, it is good manners to do so before going over their head.

Consider the stakes. Having completed the course and received a final grade, you, the student, really have nothing to lose.  At worst, your grade will stay exactly the same, and you’ll just never have dealings with that instructor again.  The instructor, however, has a lot to lose by changing your grade.  First of all, it means accepting a student’s judgment of their professionalism, competence, and integrity.  Secondly, an instructor who changes a grade for any reason runs the risk of word getting out, which means that they can expect to see more grade petitions in the future and that their authority in the classroom will be pretty well compromised.  Are those good reasons to deny you a fair grade or a second chance?  From your perspective, maybe not.  But it is best to go into these situations fully appreciating exactly what it is you are asking your instructor to do, what you are asking him to give up.

Make your appeal in writing. Some instructors actually have rules governing how they will deal with grade petitions.  Follow them.  In the absence of other instructions, always make your appeal in writing rather than simply showing up at this person’s office.  Sending a well-written email with your appeal and a request for a meeting gives them time to think about the case, so you are more likely to, at the least, get a thorough (if not totally satisfactory) response.  Furthermore, having a trail of written correspondence is helpful if you ever need to appeal to a higher authority.

Be respectful.  Be professional. Write your request thoughtfully and edit it carefully.  That ought to be obvious, but I have some pretty laughable grade appeals in my email archives that suggest otherwise.  Here are some selected do’s and don’ts for writing your appeal:

  • Do reference your performance on past assignments if relevant (i.e.  You made A’s on all previous exams, so this D was a fluke).
  • Do convey respect for the instructor’s professional judgment and remember that you are essentially challenging his or her professionalism, competence, and integrity.
  • Do point to specific assignment descriptions or test questions.
  • Do request a meeting to discuss your grade at the instructor’s convenience.
  • Don’t bring up the grades of other students in class.  (Your instructor is legally proscribed from discussing this with you.  Plus, you need to argue based on your own individual merits.)
  • Don’t make threats, even if you do plan to appeal to a higher authority.
  • Don’t get your parents involved if you are in college.  (Your instructor is legally proscribed from discussing your grades with them if you are over 18.)
  • Don’t cite things like regular attendance as reasons for why you deserve a better grade.  Attendance is a minimum expectation, not a guarantee of an A.

Humbly accept what you cannot change. Part of the educational experience is learning from failure, and if your petition is denied, you have two options left open to you:  1) Appeal to a higher authority, or 2) Accept the instructor’s decision and do better next time.  If you are legitimately the victim of discrimination, then Option 1 may be a good choice for you.  If you were a Case 3 appeal or if you had some other reason for petitioning that I didn’t list above, your best bet is to say “I understand” and move on.  If you continue to push in a way that could be perceived as stalking or harassing, things could get very, very bad for you.  Even if you don’t find yourself on the wrong end of a restraining order, word will get out, and you may sabotage potential relationships with future professors without even knowing it.

Learning from failure may mean that you have to adjust your own self-perception with regard to grades.  If your identity depends on having a perfect, you are probably going to run into a situation at some point in your life when clinging to that self-concept will no longer work for you.  Furthermore, blaming the people in charge of judging your performance is only going to go so far.  Not all of the people who judge you negatively will be wrong.  Better to deal with that while you’re young, I say.

How to Get a Better Grade

Back when I wrote these posts on grade grubbing, I had every intention of writing a companion piece or two directed at students (I know some students read this blog).  Then I got distracted.  Basically, I wanted to give students some advice about how to potentially improve their grade by improving their relationships with instructors, by not being “that guy”–you know, that guy that teachers rip to shreds on their blogs.  And while July seems like a strange time to be writing about school, I figure that some students are winding up their first session of summer school, and, you know, it’s never too early to start thinking about the Fall term.  So here we go:

“She just doesn’t like me. She gave me a D on my paper.” I used to hear this statement a lot from the guy I dated in high school. Throughout our four years at Evangelical High, he cultivated academic persecution fantasies that would put David Horowitz to shame. Then, I would take a look at his paper, point out that there wasn’t a single complete sentence in the entire first paragraph, and he would turn on me. We did not date long.

“My teacher doesn’t like me” is a ridiculous excuse, folks. First of all, what does “like” even mean in this case? What do you consider to be a sufficient level of affinity here? Do the two of you need to be so close that you stay after class to talk about your feelings? Does the instructor need to be willing to walk your dog and drive you to the airport? The truth is that students and instructors can have wonderfully productive relationships regardless of whether or not you want to go have a beer together. You can even have productive relationships when you are entirely indifferent toward one another as people. Yes, there are some instructors out there in serious need of a personality transplant, even a few who are inappropriately punitive in their grading policies. But let’s just start from the assumption that the VAST MAJORITY of secondary school and college instructors are just pretty decent people, people who want to do their jobs, people who took those jobs because they are in some level interested in working with students, whether or not they feel super close to each individual.

So, starting there, how do you build a working relationship with an instructor that is likely to get them interested in helping you, in letting you make up or redo work, in maybe listening to a petition for a better grade (that last one’s a tall order)? How, in short, do you get an instructor on your side, whether or not they actually “like” you, whatever you think that means?

The answer is actually pretty simple and actually goes beyond just performing well in their class. I’ve had plenty of smart students who drifted through my classroom turning in great work without seeming to try, but I wasn’t ever interested in bending over backward for them. The key to getting an instructor on your side is to show a sincere investment in their class, whether you are “good” at that particular subject or not. Note: this does not mean sucking up and telling the instructor how brilliant they are and how much you want to major in this topic. In fact, it’s possible to build a good working partnership even if you are open about your ambivalence or historical difficulties with that subject. Showing investment means actually investing your time, your effort, and your focus. Here’s what that looks like in a practical sense.

Cover the basics. Show up on time. Observe the attendance policy. Don’t ask questions that can easily be answered by looking at the syllabus. Turn in assignments according to schedule. Put forth an honest effort on each assignment. Study. Respect the class rules. Policies are usually there for a reason, and habitually disregarding them is a sign that you don’t respect the instructor’s time or effort in putting together the class. If you have trouble with any of the imperatives in this paragraph, it’s time to take a steady look inward. Barring extraordinary circumstances, which I’ll discuss in a moment, your instructor is not the reason you are doing poorly. No, not even a little bit.

Be up front about any accommodations you need. If you have a disability, your instructor is required to provide the accommodations listed in your Disability Services letter. Beyond that, if you have a particular issue, like a scheduling catastrophe that may make you late on occasion, it’s better to get out in front of it on the first day. Don’t just assume that your instructor will figure it out. In the absence of other information, he’ll probably just assume you’re a jerk.

Don’t wait until the end of term to address a bad grade. For one thing, waiting til the eleventh hour to try to manipulate your way from a B+ to an A just reeks of grade grubbing. For another thing, any time you want to talk about your grades, it should be in the context of your performance on individual assignments. Furthermore, your performance on a particular type of assignment and your mastery of content will improve if you seek extra feedback in a timely fashion. This means that the day you get a test or paper back with a grade that was less than what you were expecting, you seek out the instructor within a week. Don’t just walk up to her after class. Take some time to absorb any written comments. Then, a day or two later, send an email that looks something like this:

Dear Professor X,

I was really disappointed with my performance on the last test. I studied the entire week beforehand, but I guess I did not understand the material as well as I thought. I’d like to talk with you about how to improve for the next test and make sure that I understand everything. Could we meet during your Tuesday office hours?


Or something like this:

Dear Professor Y,

You probably noticed that I did not do so well on that last paper. I had three exams last week and did not anticipate the amount of time it would take to study for them. As such, I did not do my best work on that assignment. I was wondering if we could meet some time to talk about my thesis and how I might improve it. I know you allow us to do one revision, and I want to make it count. Unfortunately, I work my shift at Chipotle during your office hours, but I am available to meet any time on Friday or after 1:00 on Thursday.

Once you have a meeting set up, it is imperative that you keep it, especially if you need to ask for time outside of office hours. If you need to reschedule, make sure you get in touch with the instructor ahead of time. Most teachers are not inclined to schedule extra meetings with students who blow them off.

Once there, focus the conversation on your performance on that particular assignment/exam and try to avoid talking about your grade as something that the instructor assigned arbitrarily or something that was done to you. After you have done all of these things, you may then broach the subject of do-overs and extra credit. Respectfully ask if you can make up the quiz you failed or do an extra credit project or revision. Then accept the verdict respectfully. If you want to be a real star, you can revise the paper anyway and then hand it in again and just see what happens.

Get on top of emergencies. Did your computer catch fire over the weekend? Have you been struck down with bubonic plague? Did you wind up in a magical scheduling vortex and have 14 exams and projects due the same week? Believe it or not, this is not the time to throw in the towel, nor is it the time to hope the entire world will stop until you get sorted out or to assume that people know that something horrible must have happened to you. This is the time to Deal With It.

Folks, I have had students with emergencies that make your 24 hour flu look like a day at the spa. I have had students lose their parents, find out mid way through the semester that they need to go home while their mother undergoes chemo, require an emergency appendectomy, discover that they are pregnant and need to divert their emotional and mental resources to figuring out what to do about it. I have had students whose roommates poured Dr. Pepper over their laptops. I have had students with painful chronic illnesses that sometimes kept them in bed. All of these students made it through the semester, some of them with excellent grades, even after missing two consecutive weeks of class. All of these students got on top of their emergencies. In a timely fashion (i.e. while it was happening, not a week after they re-materialized), they let me know what was going on and–even more importantly–how they planned to deal with it. Some have deputized their parents or friends to find out what they were missing and to get homework. Some have met with me to discuss the possibility of taking an incomplete and getting work done over the summer or to map out a schedule for completing all their work by the last day, including regularly scheduled check-in appointments with me. All of these students required special accommodations and leniency, and I was happy to give it to them. Under no circumstances would I require someone to email me from the recovery room after surgery or write papers when they ought to be sleeping or doing physical therapy. But at the bare minimum, even if your emergency is just a particularly bad cold, have some kind of a plan and share it with your instructor.

Be a presence. Speak up in class.  You don’t have to be the most talkative person in the room.  Just chime in two or three times a session whenever you have something to share in order to show that you are engaged and interested in making a contribution.  Also, be a presence in your instructor’s office hours and in their email inbox.  Don’t harass them or anything, but feel free to ask questions about things that aren’t immediately obvious from looking at the syllabus or assignment sheet, and show up in office hours when you legitimately need help.  It shows that you are interested in improving.

Be humble. Be accepting. Even if you do everything I recommend here, in order to cultivate a relationship with your instructors that is based on respect, you need to recognize that even if you show up every day, even if you try your hardest, no one actually owes you an A. Ultimately, your final grade is always based on your performance on the tasks you were given.

Does all of this sound more or less like,  you know, work?  Because it is.  If you were hoping for a solution to your grade problems that didn’t include doing everything a good student is supposed to do, then I’m not sure I can help you.  I certainly would raise your grade.  Sorry if that’s not what you want to hear.  But the simple truth is that investing time and effort in what an instructor is teaching is more likely to make them want to invest substantially in you, more likely to make them go out of their way to help you, make them more sympathetic when you need them to be.  The simple truth is that instructors are human, and you will get really, really far by showing that you respect what they’re doing.

To be continued.

Future posts:  How to petition a grade if you absolutely must.  What to do if your instructor really is a total human fail.

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.

Beware the Charming Student

Your eyes met across the room on the first day of class.  He was conventionally attractive, tallish, probably an athlete.  His smile had that “I’m looking forward to your vote this November” sparkle, but in spite of his polished appearance, he had enough coltish awkwardness to make him seem approachable.  He came up to you to say how happy he was to be in your class and that’s he’s considering majoring in your field.   He looked alert and engaged the whole time you were talking, and even though his one comment wasn’t really apropos, he sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about.  When you went home that day, you carried with you the mixed sensations of excitement and trepidation.  This kid is either God’s Gift to teachers, or he is going to break your heart.  Probably the latter.

Fast Forward fifteen weeks, and this same kid has come right up to the edge of your attendance policy.  He has turned in work late (his team had an away game), and that work is C level.  He has made appointments with you and then “forgot,” full of apologies afterward.  He assures you that he is just having a really hard time transitioning to college, that he really likes your class but is struggling.  Won’t you please, please help him out?  Remember when you assured him that he still had a chance to get an A?  Did you mean it?

There is a particular kind of student.  I find he is usually, but not always, male, usually, but not always, white.  This is the student you meet once every few semesters (God help you if you have two in one class) who has always gotten good grades, not because they are excellent, hard working students, but because they are really, really good at playing the game.  This is the kid who knows how to get what he wants out of authority figures–grades he hasn’t earned–because he’s been doing it his entire life.

Here is what I think happens:  teenagers are, in the aggregate, sort of a motley bunch.  They sleep in your class, sometimes while drooling.  They refuse to make eye contact.  They mumble.  They try to text their friends when you think they are not looking.  In short, in a room full of average teens, the student who has mastered the nuances of adult etiquette really stands out and often looks like a much better student than he actually is.  We seem to be sort of programmed to equate social competence with competence in other areas of life.  I think this is why salesmen and politicians are so effective at hoodwinking us.  In short, this type of student is sort of a budding con-artist, even if he doesn’t realize it.

These students don’t usually understand the difference between working hard on the course work and working hard on you in order to get you to give him the grade he wants.  They are essentially the same thing to him.  This is the student who is most likely to use the language of personal betrayal if he doesn’t get an A and to say things like “I need an A to keep my scholarship/to get into medical school,” because they think their grade is reflective of the quality of your relationship, not the quality of his work.

How to deal with this type of student:

  • Do not, under any circumstances, no matter how much he looks at you with those puppy dog eyes and acts like the B- he just received is sending him spiraling into a major depression, reassure him that he can get in an A in your class.  I made this mistake my second year as a TA.  The student interpreted “it is still possible for you to get an A” as “I am going to give you an A.”  I’m not sure how his little mind made that leap, but it did, and it led to all sorts of late semester unpleasantness.  Say things like, “in order to get an A, you will have to do X, Y, and Z.  Make a list for him.  Preferably in writing.  And keep a copy for yourself.
  • ALWAYS speak in terms of what the student has to do, but NEVER make promises about what you will do (grade-wise) in return.
  • Be available but set boundaries.  Like I said, this is usually a student who wants to talk to you, because that’s the way he rolls.  You may be tempted to just ignore emails or refuse to meet outside your office hours.  I’ve known instructors who do that, and I think it’s their prerogative.  But sometimes going a little out of your way to be available prevents the student from taking on further ammo if they decide to go to your department chair.
  • Have a paper trail.  While actual litigation or formal grade challenges don’t always happen, it’s helpful to have a paper trail, especially if you are a teaching assistant.  That way you can go to your supervisor and show her the content of email exchanges, point to missed appointments, attendance records, your feedback on tests and papers, etc.  It also provides an effective way to argue with the student, if you have to.

The female incarnation of this student is, of  course, Alicia Silverstone’s character from Clueless.  There are no YouTube clips that I can embed here, so you may have to dig that movie out from under your Lisa Loeb CDs and re-watch it.  There is this montage in which Cher (Silverstone) goes to all of her high school teachers, charming the pants off of them and bargaining up her grades.  Then she goes to Wallace Shawn, her debate teacher, and he is the brick wall against which her perfect grade-grubbing record is dashed.  Your goal, when dealing with a student like this, is to channel Wallace Shawn (before he finds love and starts giving out better grades because he’s happy or some crap).  Be The Shawn.

I like to think that refusing to cede ground in these cases, that being fair but kind of a hardass teaches these kids A Valuable Lesson.  Of course, I don’t really know if that’s true, but giving in in these situations certainly doesn’t make your life any easier, and it definitely doesn’t make the lives of the future instructors this student will deal with easier.

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.

Grade Grubbing

‘Tis the season.

Two school years in a row from 2006-2008, I had what I would describe as nightmare experiences with grade grubbing. On college campuses, this is seriously some kind of disease. I’m not sure if it’s academic advisers or other students who encourage these kids to go back to their professors and TA’s begging to be bumped from an 87 to a 90, but this behavior seems to have achieved a level of social acceptability that I frankly don’t get. Both of these experiences included borderline harassing emails asking for grade changes, and it happened once while I was a TA and once when I was teaching my own courses. They were so stressful that I began to fear my inbox and had to enlist superiors to help me deal with it. Since then, I’ve tried heading the problem off at the pass. During the final week of each term, I give a really, really manipulative speech, usually some form of the following:

“I know that your grades are important to you, and for that reason they are important to me. I know that for some of you, a B means failure, and I assign that grade with full knowledge of how it will feel to you. I work very hard to ensure that grades are calculated accurately, and if there is any subjectivity in how I assign grades for individual assignments, I agonize about the fairness of what I’ve given you. I agonize over this, guys. I lose sleep. So recognize that if you come to me challenging the final grade you’ve received (which is a right you are free to exercise), you are essentially challenging my integrity.”

This usually wards off the casual grade grubbers, the ones who send me smarmy emails loaded with typos (I kid you not) trying to squeeze extra half-points out of me. Grade grubbing comes from a place of self-centeredness, but somehow being reminded that their instructor is a person–not a machine–a person who does, in fact, have considerable investment in the grades they assign, helps put things in perspective. Many of them think that it never hurts to ask, and my saying stuff like this lets them know that, yes, actually, it hurts a bit.

It may not stop the true sociopaths. I call them sociopaths because these kids are sort of like those serial killers featured on late night cable. They appear charming and socially adept early in the semester and work hard to develop a rapport with you. They flirt with you and make you think they are the best student ever to come in your classroom. Experience has taught be to be wary of these student. These are kids who are used to getting what they want from authority figures, especially those of the opposite gender. They see their good behavior and flattery as their end in some sketchy backroom agreement, and when their work starts getting C’s, they feel betrayed. By the end of the semester, they turn on you for not holding up your end of the bargain and become downright nasty if you refuse to give them what they want. I don’t know that it’s entirely these kids’ fault. At some point, this strategy (and I doubt they even know it’s a strategy), must have worked for them, and it’s astonishing to them when it doesn’t. They feel that by giving them less than they grade they have come to expect, you have rejected them, who they are, so to reduce cognitive dissonance, they’ll make you the problem.

Thankfully, these sorts of kids tend to be not very original when it comes to the arguments they deploy. Once you get a sense of the range of possibilities, you can come up with standard responses to each:

1) “But I never missed a day of class”
Ever since I adopted an attendance policy, I never had to hear this one again. Especially at big universities, where most classes are giant lectures and no one is checking who’s there from day to day, students start seeing their presence in class as going above and beyond the call of duty. I have a sister who was sort of like this. She used to just show up for exams. She graduated with a 4.0, and the dork in me hates her for it. Seriously though, if you have an attendance policy, it lets your students know that showing up is a minimum expectation, not something you get extra points for.

2) “I need an A to get into medical/law/business/graduate school”
The simple answer to this one is, “That is not at all my problem.” What would college look like if we assigned A’s based on who “needed” them the most? The logic of it falls apart pretty quick. A sick, sick part of me loves hearing this argument because it’s just so howl at the moon stupid that it’s almost entertaining.

3) “I’ll do an extra credit project”
This will vary by instructor, but it says on my syllabus, “no extra credit will be offered in this class.” My students are allowed unlimited revisions of every paper, though, so I haven’t heard this one in a long time. If you give your students enough opportunities to compensate for poor performance, I do think they feel a greater sense of control over the final outcome, and that’s partially what I think grade grubbing is about. It’s “something they can do” to improve the grade, not a reasonable thing, mind you, but it’s something.

4) “I am a straight-A student”
Usually this means that they got A’s all through high school or that they are getting A’s in other classes, and your class is the brick wall they’ve hit on their wind sprint to star-studentdom. This is an identity crisis for them, but it helps to note that their performance in other classes has no bearing on their performance in this one. The more insidious among them are implying that there is something wrong with you, that everyone else recognizes how fabulous they are but you don’t seem to get it. More on that in a second.

5) “It was just that one assignment”
Again, I allow unlimited revisions, so the “one bad assignment” argument doesn’t work very well, but like #4, this is a perspective problem. Many students want to be judged “holistically” (even the ones who think holistic grading is too subjective), according to their overall academic performance. They don’t see their final grade as consisting of multiple smaller grades, moments where you measure their progress. They may not recognize that there are some areas of academics where they are stronger and some where they are weaker and want a “pass” when it comes to stuff that isn’t as easy for them. I confront this by saying–both in my “final grade speech”–and in individual conversations, that we can talk about their performance on individual assignments, not overall performance. If they think they’ve been graded unfairly, they have to point to an specific assignment.

Truthfully though, I haven’t had a grade grubber in two years, ever since I began doing away with late policies and allowing for unlimited revisions (which I’ll talk about in a future post). Like I said, the more control you hand over to them, the freer everyone is. Like the kids in the Dweck experiment, students who feel that their score is somehow connected to effort rather than executing perfectly on the very first try a skill they came to the class to learn in the first place seem to be less whiny and entitled. Furthermore, the more transparent you are about your expectations, the less ammo they will have to throw back at you.

#6 on that list is “I just didn’t know what you wanted,” and that often does actually a problem with the instructor. I have had kids use this one defensively, when I didn’t think it was warranted, but my experience at the Undergraduate Writing Center has shown me that many instructors are appallingly vague about what they want, and most kids are terrified to ask for clarity. When one kid said this to me in 2008, I set up a special meeting with him and asked him to bring any examples of assignment prompts that he thought were more clear than mine, so that I could learn from him. He didn’t bring any examples to the meeting, but we did have a good conversation about what he wasn’t getting and how he could do better on the next assignment. Admitting that I might be part of the problem diffused the situation. The simple truth is that if students feel that they are heard, that you are listening, and that you genuinely care about them, they are less likely to turn on you. That’s the part that you, the instructor can control.

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:


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.

On Good and Bad Writers

Rebecca clutched her A paper enthusiastically and said, “Wow, I never really thought of myself as a good writer.”  I am always astonished at how often I hear something like this come out of the mouths of undergraduates.  Every semester, I distribute a first day survey that asks my new students, among other things, how they describe themselves as readers and writers, and most readily sort themselves into categories of “good” and “bad” writers.  Their identification with the label is clear and usually has very little predictive value in terms of the quality of the writing they do for me or their ultimate grade.  Many self-described “bad” writers do very well, while many “good” writers struggle.  That sense of identity does, however, seem to relate to feedback they have received in the past and the ways in which they have been taught to think about the writing process.

Most students seem to think I expect them to spit out a diamond on the first attempt and are both paralyzed and relieved by an approach to writing pedagogy that teaches that—as Anne Lamott famously said in Bird by Bird—most first drafts are shit, and all writing entails revision.  My training as an educator began in a Rhetoric and Writing program that strenuously emphasizes revision, but it is rather easy to insist that students accept a “process-oriented” approach to writing and engage in the process of rewriting and polishing without realizing that for the vast majority of us, there are huge psychological hurdles in the way, including our tendency to label ourselves as good and bad writers.

Rebecca’s A paper began quite humbly.  In fact, I do not grade the first draft of the first paper submitted in my lower division literature class precisely because of students like Rebecca.  The grade she would have gotten might have traumatized her beyond repair.  Asked to perform an analysis of an artifact with religious significance in accordance with one of the critical schools we had discussed in class, Rebecca produced a muddled and immature screed about why religious objections to tattoos were silly.  She had begun with good intentions, but the first draft didn’t really even meet the terms of the assignment, reading, as it did, more like a personal opinion (and not a well-articulated one) than a cogent analysis.  I considered telling her to choose an entirely different topic, but in a conversation after class, we came up with an idea that made this topic work.  That three page assignment went through three total rewrites, and ultimately she did a fourth in order to turn that short analysis into an extended research essay that described the history of religious tattoos as a practice and analyzed three modern examples of tattoos in light of that history.  She cited seven sources (she wasn’t actually required to cite any) without any prompting or leading from me and ultimately produced a document that taught me something I did not know and did so in an articulate, polished manner.  But until that point, Rebecca had never thought of herself as a good writer.

As a graduate student with a history of excellence in school, particularly in my chosen field of American Literature, I had always thought of myself as a good writer.  I used the past tense just now because that sense of identity has been challenged by the process of writing a dissertation and the seemingly endless cycles of getting feedback and rewriting, and it is particularly in this space of trying to grapple with my own writing demons that the links between my academic work and my teaching really seem to become one.  In so many ways, writing a dissertation is just like writing any other school assignment, except that some of us high-achievers who are accustomed to having the first thing we put on paper declared a diamond, it precipitates an identity crisis.  “Who am I,” we secretly wonder, “if I can no longer call myself a good writer?”

I have a hunch about why I, and others, experience this.  Writing a dissertation and all of the prospectuses and fellowship proposals and conference abstract and job letters and articles that go along with writing a dissertation present the first opportunities to write for an audience that knows and cares little about you or your topic.  “Good writers” often spend their academic lives from the time they were taught the alphabet figuring out what their primary and typically only audience wants, what sorts of ideas, words, sentence constructions, and references get them excited and coax from their pens the desired and expected “A.”  Such writing often occurs in the context of a pedagogical relationship in which clear roles have been negotiated:  “I am the ‘good student’ who always makes delightful comments in class and stays ahead in the reading and you are the A-generating machine charged with assisting me along the golden path of my Honors career.”  The people reading your fellowship proposal, or deciding whether or not to sit on your committee, or reviewing your article for publication, have no such relationship with you.  Furthermore, they haven’t been teaching you the very topic of your submitted piece.  So, as an advanced graduate writer, the bulk of your work is spent gauging what this unenlightened and potentially hostile audience might want , and that means getting lots and lots of feedback from people who will be honest and occasionally petty and then revising, revising, revising.  It would be wrong to say that I envy people like Rebecca, who expect very little of their writing and therefore experience no disappointment when they receive a mediocre grade and lukewarm feedback.

But all of us use the labels of “good” and “bad” writer for ego-protection, to convince ourselves that we don’t have to engage in that process because the outcome is predetermined by our own innate talents.  If you’re a bad writer, then there’s no point in trying very hard.  This just ain’t your thing.  If you’re a good writer, then you shouldn’t really have to try either, because you’re just that “good.”  When the bad writer receives a lower than desired grade, he attributes it to an inborn lack of talent and avoids writing whenever possible.  When the good writer receives the same grade, she feels that something in their world is terribly, terribly wrong and may attribute the event to some external force:  the teacher hates me, she just doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say, this assignment was stupid, etc.

I’m envisioning two major purposes for this blog:

1)  To provide practical advice about writing to students and those who must write for their jobs but do not consider themselves to be professional writers.

2)  To engage in some meta-commentary about writing pedagogy, including how and why we tend to sort ourselves and our students into “good” and “bad” categories.

So, here we go.

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.)