Essay Assignment
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

Short Description

The assignment is to write an essay in two parts. The topic should be a question, not just a concept or theme. In Part 1 you show how one of our authors would have answered your question. In Part 2 you comment on the adequacy of that answer.

Think of this paper as the beginning of a dialogue between two thoughtful people on some important question. The two thoughtful people are you and the author. The important question is yours. In Part 1 you are listening to the author; in Part 2 you are speaking. In Part 1 you are interpreting the author's answer to the question; in Part 2 you are evaluating it. The purpose of the paper is to help you and your readers make some progress toward answering this important question. That's the simple, grand idea.

Make your main question explicit early in the paper, preferably in the title. Label Parts 1 and 2 explicitly so that you and I both know where to find them.

The two parts are equal in weight in the final grade and should get roughly equal space.

To get started you need a question and an author. I usually ask for these two decisions in writing one week before the paper is due.

Look to the syllabus for the page range and the due date.

Long Description

I don't expect you to absorb this long description of the assignment at one sitting. I include it here as a reference and study aid. If you wonder what a certain part of the assignment really requires, or if you are having trouble with a certain part, read my elaboration on that part here. Then let's talk.

Ask a Good Question

Part 1. Interpret the Author's Answer

The most common problems I see in interpretations are the following.

  • Missing the target. Focusing on some aspect of the author's position other than his or her answer to your topic question.
  • Weakening the author. Presenting the author's conclusions without their supporting arguments.
  • Oversimplifying the author. Failing to respect the complexity or nuance of the text.
  • Omitting your evidence. Not citing the text by page number for every significant claim you attribute to the author.
  • Tying your own hands. Failing to interpret the parts of the author's position and argument on which you want to make evaluative comments in Part 2.

Part 2. Evaluate the Author's Answer

The most common problems I see in evaluations are the following.

  • Changing the subject. Not focusing the evaluation on the position you interpreted in Part 1.
  • Dogmatizing. Not supporting your evaluative comments with argument.
  • Fighting a straw man. Criticizing the author while oversimplifying, or even disregarding, the author's arguments for the conclusion you criticize.
  • Quitting early. Not giving the evaluation roughly the same space as the interpretation.

Be Fascinating and Profound.

Optional Additions

  1. Explicitly raise objections to your evaluative comments. Answer them and argue for your answers. The objections could be from the standpoint of the author you are interpreting, another author from our course, a scholar you found in the library, or your imagination.

  2. Do some library research. This might help you interpret the author's position and argument or evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. If you do use the library, cite all your sources in a bibliography.

  3. Write an abstract for your paper. Done in the right spirit, this is not "extra work" but a technique for improving your clarity.

  4. Make your paper comparative. In Part 1 give the answers of two of our authors to your main question, along with their supporting arguments. Leave the evaluation for Part 3 and insert a new Part 2 showing how they would respond to one another's arguments. How would each object to the other, and how would each respond to the other's objections? Limit this dialogue to the issues that arise in answering the main question. Then in Part 3 comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the two positions and their supporting arguments. Start to judge who has the stronger argument. Explicitly label your sections Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 so we can both tell where they are. Give each section roughly one third of your paper. Sometimes I assign comparative papers; when I do, this is what I mean. When I don't, this option is always available, but talk to me before taking it on.

  5. Make your paper semi-comparative. Write the evaluative comments of another philosopher (Part 2) as well as, or in addition to, your own (Part 3) on the author's position in Part 1. For example, Part 1 interprets Descartes on the ontological argument. Part 2 interprets Hume's evaluation of Descartes' position. Part 3 offers your own evaluation of Descartes' position, perhaps in light of Hume's evaluation. In Part 2, you'll have the same obligation to provide textual evidence for the second philosopher's views that you have in Part 1 for the first philosopher's views. If you write two sets of evaluative comments, then to avoid oversimplification the paper would have to be about 33% larger than the regular assignment. To write only one set of evaluative comments (those of another philosopher), the paper will be of the regular length. Talk to me before choosing either option.

  6. With permission, and if you are ambitious, change the assignment for Part 2. Instead of writing evaluative comments on the author's answer to the main question, offer your own answer to the main question and an argument that your answer is superior to the author's answer. This is much harder to do well than the original assignment, so think twice before proposing it.

  7. End your paper with a series of questions. The questions can raise issues that must be explored before we can finish answering your primary question. Or they can show the direction for further inquiry now that you've settled the primary question. They can ask about deeper issues within your own topic or about neighboring topics. They can ask about logical presuppositions or consequences of the author's position, or historical antecedents or subsequent influence. Don't feel obliged to have answers. Let your inquisitive nature run.

  8. Sometimes students attach hand-written notes to their papers. "I worked hard on x this time. Did I do a good job?" —when x is interpreting arguments and not just positions, using textual evidence, arguing explicitly, sticking to the subject, grappling with a slippery distinction, raising objections and answering them, writing clearly, organizing, proofreading, or that puzzling passage on page 14 of the author's text. Sometimes the notes give some personal context on why this topic is important. Sometimes they describe an admitted problem with the paper and ask for suggestions on how to avoid or solve it. I enjoy these notes. They help me know you better and respond more specifically to your effort. Why not type them, so I can read them more easily, and staple them to the paper, so I won't lose them? I'll try to comment on them as I do on the paper itself.

Grading Criteria

My grading criteria follow this definition of the assignment. Any specific grading criteria that I will use for papers will be written in the syllabus or announced in class. In general I will look for:

  1. a sharp question
  2. your interpretation of the author's answer and its supporting argument
  3. conscientious use of the text to support your interpretation
  4. your evaluative comments on the adequacy of the author's position
  5. explicit, persuasive argument to support your evaluative comments
  6. clear, precise writing
  7. depth over breadth in analysis
  8. respect for the complexity of the text, problem and/or position, and
  9. careful proofreading.

Please take these criteria seriously; I do.

Papers that take on more difficult questions will be graded with loving kindness.

Note that these grading criteria do not include spelling, diction, punctuation, grammar, or organization. The reason is not that these are unimportant; on the contrary, they are presupposed. To think that these essentials of good writing count only in Humanities or English classes is a mistake that hinders your growth as a writer.

In grading I do not comment on matters of style. But clarity and precision are not merely matters of style. Clear writing reflects clear thinking. (Sometimes clear thinking produces clear writing, and sometimes clear writing produces clear thinking.) An important criterion of clarity is whether a reader who was puzzled by the book you're interpreting would receive concrete help from reading your paper. Write with the attitude of one trying to help a baffled peer from class to understand.

Sometimes I will grade your interpretation and evaluation separately, and give the simple average of these two grades to the paper overall. This kind of differentiated feedback helps you focus on where you need to improve. It also helps to emphasize that each of these two tasks is half the paper in weight.

If you would like me to give you comments without a grade, I will be happy to do so. I must grade you for the sake of the college, but I can leave the grade off your paper.

I try hard to grade fairly. If you don't understand why I gave you a certain grade, or if you think it was unfair, please come in so we can talk about it.

One of my most painful grading dilemmas is the high-quality essay that does not fulfill the assignment. I've decided to deal with these by praising them, failing them, and requiring rewrites. If you want to change the assignment, talk to me in advance.

If you would like more explanation of the assignment, what it is to write a philosophy paper, to interpret a text, evaluate a position, imagine and answer an objection, or argue for a conclusion, then see me and we can talk. If you are unsure about the wording or focus of your topic-question, its narrowness, difficulty, or importance, or if the connection between the writing assignments and the objectives of the course is ever unclear, I'd be happy to talk to you in my office.


Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A. Copyright © 1999-2002, Peter Suber.