How To Write Essays for Professor Hall
Professor Thomas Hall; 306 Asbury Hall
Last updated: October 3, 2003
Please note the title of this set of instructions: How To Write Essays for Professor Hall. They apply to essays written for my classes. If another professor gives you different instructions, follow them for her or his class. Follow my instructions for my class.
Why is it that professors cannot agree on how to write an essay? Despite what some students think it is not due to some sort of perversity, or sadistic desire to torture students. Rather, it is because different disciplines, and often sub-disciplines, have different ways of doing things. One of the marks of an educated person is that s/he knows this, and that s/he uses the form appropriate to her/his audience. Here I am making this a bit easier for you. I am telling you explicitly how to write for me. Use this information to your own advantage. Remember, I am the one who will grade your essay, not your grandmother, not your housemate, not your English teacher, etc.
Reaction Papers and Short Essays:
*NO* Cover pages, titles, or binders!
Start your paper with your name, course, which semester, which paper, which topic, and the page number in the upper corner [left or right]:
Soc XYZ, F00
RP W, TOPIC Q, where W = number of reaction paper; Q = topic letter
You may use this as your "running header" if you want. If you do not know how to set "running headers," you may write it in by hand! Be sure to number every page.
Longer papers: Term Papers, Case Studies & Theses:
These may use the format of Reaction Papers, OR they may have cover page that includes the relevant information.
Again, be sure to number all pages.
Remember I receive essays from many students, from several different classes on different topics. Thus it is vital you properly label your essay. If I am forced to read one or more pages of your essay just to figure out which class, which essay, or which topic, I am not going to be a "happy camper." And since I assign the grades, that is not in your best interests.
Do not use lots of fancy typefaces, bolding, italics, line-spacing, in your essay. In short, do not do what I have done in these instructions--written in HTML for the web! For titles, use italics or underlining [if you do not know how to do this with your word processor, do it by hand]. Find out how to turn OFF "right justification." [Right justification makes the right hand edge of the text as smooth as the left. If you do not have proportional spacing, the word processor inserts lots of blanks in a line and makes it hard to read].
Quotations: Keep quotations to a minimum--I strongly suggest you use no more than three quotes in a reaction paper. Why? Because I want to know what you have to say--and in most cases I already know what the authors of your texts say. Contrary to popular student belief, sprinkling a paper with quotations from the text does not show that you have read the book--only that you raided it for "quotes." In fact, to me, it indicates you have not expended the energy to paraphrase and summarize in your own words. If and when you do paraphrase you protect yourself from charges of plagiarism by noting (per references instructions below) the source of the idea[s].
Quotes can not "do" anything. In fact, I dislike statements of the form: "This quote...." Rather, you should write, "Smith's statement argues (or shows)...."
Plagiarism: When writing essays for me, Prof. Hall, plagiarism is defined as the presentation of ideas or statements made by another as if they are your own. If you are not sure how much of an idea is your own and how much is from some other source, you may simply put a reference at the end of the appropriate sentence or paragraph to the source. This means, especially, papers "recycled" from old files, or bought from a paper service. Both are not likely to lead to a high grade anyway, since essays should reflect the topics discussed in class -- those change from term to term.
References: For references to texts assigned for the course, you need only put author and page in parentheses: "blah, blah, blah...." (Smith & Wessen, p. 45). Should there be more than one book by the same author, include the date: (Smith & Wessen 1938, p. 133). If you mention the author's name in the sentence, the parentheses need only include the date and pages.
Note: this form of reference requires that any punctuation for the sentence or phrase, comes after the closing parenthesis. The period for the sentence [the typical location for a reference] comes after the final parenthesis.
For references to material outside of course texts use " blah, blah, blah,....." (Smith & Wessen 1938, p. 45). ALSO include a bibliography at the end of the paper. The bibliography should begin at the end of the text, not on a separate page.
Internet Sources: You may use internet sources. The proper way to reference them is by author if given, or publisher/homepage source, and give the url in full and the date you accessed the information.
Caution: Any bozo with a few hundred dollars can put stuff on the internet, so consider what the source is. While more and more scholarly work is being put on the internet, so is lots of garbage, so be especially careful and critical.
For more information on bibliographic entries see Formats and Bibliographies for Papers
Structure: Essays are formal exercises. Therefore, no slang, no contractions, correct spelling and grammar are required. When I see that these instructions have not been followed, I am inclined to think you did not put much effort into your essay, and that you do not care much about the essay or the class. In that case, I am strongly inclined to give it a low evaluation.
A useful procedure is in your first draft, work at getting your ideas on paper. In your second draft, work on getting the argument in order. In your third draft work on grammar, spelling etc.
Keep your introduction brief. Get right to the point. Typically, it is best to write it last!
I HATE papers that begin: In Human Societies written by Gerhard Lenski it is argued...." Since I already assigned the text, you may assume I know what it is and who wrote it! Rather, use this: Lenski argues...." If this is a very specific argument you should put the page number[s] in parentheses at the end [see References, above].
Content: Students often ask, "what are you looking for in an essay?" This is perfectly legitimate question and deserves a straightforward answer. Here it is--and if this is not sufficiently clear, ask for more information in class.
Fundamentally, I want to see clear evidence that you have thought carefully about the materials in this course: the readings, the lectures, the discussions, the videos, etc. I intentionally ask open-ended and vague questions that do not have one right answer. The good news is that this gives you many ways to write an essay that shows that you have thought carefully about the material in the class. The bad news is that there is no one right way to do this. In fact, as soon as you ask (or think) what is the right way, you have already blown it!
However, it is legitimate to ask how do you show you have been thinking about the course material. One way is to link together materials that have not been linked in class, such as materials from other classes or other readings. Another way is push beyond what the text, lectures, videos, or class discussions have said, and say something new. Still another way is to tie the discussion to personal experiences when they are relevant to the discussion.
Virtually all my take-home essays or reaction papers ask you to make an argument, either a specific one, or an implicit one for your interpretation. I grade on the evidence and logic you marshal in support of the position that you take. I do not grade on your position on the argument--but, you must have one in order to make an argument. It often surprises my students, but the best way to make a good argument is not to agree with me.
Stop! Think about it. I have been making the arguments I make for a long time. Many of them are, or have been, in print for some time. This means that they have already been carefully scrutinized, and typically criticized--often severely--by other scholars. In short, it is hard to make the same argument I do, better than I have already. So even if you agree entirely with me [but why should you, I do not!], your essay will come out sounding like you are parroting what I said. This will give you a fast trip to "B city." So what do you do? One approach is to argue another side. Another way is to use a "yes, but" argument: "Yes, that is right, but XXX also must be addressed."
When I ask "Why?" I am asking you to make an argument for your position. The answer to "WHY" [or "Why not"] is the heart of each essay. That is, logic and evidence, not position on the issue, is the key factor. Try to think of arguments FOR & AGAINST your position, and state why those FOR it are more persuasive. This is why I often suggest that students work with each other and criticize each other's arguments and essays. Even if you only toss a coin and pick sides, each of you will write a better essay.
As I hope should be clear, this type of writing is not done well by sitting down at the word processor at midnight before an assignment is due. Nor is done well by simply repeating what has been said in class. You need to go beyond that. That is why I suggested, above, a three stage writing process. First, get your ideas down. Do not worry too much about mechanics (grammar, spelling, references). Do not censor yourself. Then let it sit for a while. Second, then come back to your notes and try to pull them together into a clear argument. Get clear in your own thinking about what your main point is, what the evidence for it is, and how that evidence logically supports the argument. Third, then go through the essay and attend to the mechanics.
Writing an "A" essay for me is hard work. Writing a "B" essay is relatively easy. The reward for you is that when you have written an "A" essay, you have something you genuinely have produced yourself. There is another reward, and one that is "money in the bank" no matter what career you follow. The ability to write a concise, persuasive argument is a skill that is highly valuable in any career. I wish you all could be "a fly on the wall" and hear comments of members of the Board of Trustees, many of whom are very successful CEOs [Chief Executive Officer]. They all say that the ability to take a complex problem, with no clear solution, and make an argument for one approach is what helped them get to their top position. You cannot learn how to do this by answering easy questions, with obvious answers. It takes work. As the coaches like to say, "no pain, no gain!"
I should also note that I explicitly try not to give away good answers to essays in class or private discussions. If I do, and you had, or do, reach the same answer on your own, it will "look like" you are simply parroting something I said and not like you did it on your own. So while it may seem like I am evasive at times, I am really trying to make it easier for YOU to write a good essay. I encourage you to discuss your essay in class--we well devote part or all of one class period to that. You may also come to office hours. However, be warned, I do NOT often read [rough] drafts. Why? Not that I am mean or lazy. But I cannot do it for everyone, so to do it for one or a few gives them and UNfair advantage. I will talk about ideas and approaches though.
PET PEEVES: Or how to make your reader, Prof. Hall, unhappy!
If you avoid the above, you will save yourself a lot grief, and leave me happy, and thus much more inclined toward a favorable grade.
GRADING OF ESSAYS: Students may quite reasonably ask, how do I grade essays. I read them in groups, all the answers to the same topic, at a large table. As I read, and often REread them I sort them into piles. Inevitably there are one or two that do not fit in one pile or the next, so I create one half way between. Once I have the sorted to my satisfaction, I decided what grade the best and the worst of the lot should receive. I base my decision on the specific criteria assigned on that essay, and years of experience about what is a good essay for this level of class. For instance, a paper that might be an "A" in a 100 class might only be a C in a 300 or 400 class. Once I have the top and bottom set, I divide the rest accordingly.
From this you can see why not having topics labeled and late papers make me unhappy -- both make it much harder to grade the particular paper, and the entire batch, fairly. This is why late is late, irrespective of the reason.
The most common "error" in essays is not actually an "error," but a tendency to not push an idea or argument far enough. To use an overworked football analogy, it is as if you intercepted a pass or returned a kickoff, and then just sat down before you reached the goal line.
Closely related to this is the second most common "error," spending four of five pages summarizing a book in a reaction paper, then only writing a paragraph or two on the "why" part of the question. The "why" should be at least half the essay, that is two and one half pages out of five. Do not use lots of quotes. Limit yourself to three. Summarize and paraphrase. You need only include enough summary of the book to make your commentary clear.
A third common "error" is to have a long, flowery, very general statement. If you begin, "It is only human nature...." you are on the fast track to C city. One argument of much of the social sciences is that what most people call human nature really means, "that's the way we do it around here," with an implicit notion that they do it differently other places. Get to the point. You are NOT writing a newspaper column, a literary work, etc. You are answering a question trying to demonstrate to me that you have read, thought about, and comprehended the material in the course.
TRANSLATING LETTER GRADES TO NUMBERS: I use the following
A+ 95 - 100 very rare
A- 95 minus 1, 2, 3 or 4 points
A-/B+ 90 rare
B+ 85 plus 1, 2, 3 or 4 points
B- 85 minus 1, 2, 3 or 4 points
B-/C+ 80 rare
C+ 75 plus 1, 2, 3 or 4 points
C- 72 minus 1, 2, 3 or 4 points
In addition, I will deduct one point for instances on the "pet peeves" list. So, one way to maximize points, is edit your essay carefully. In the event you find an error or typo after you have printed your essay, correct it with pen.
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