Essays and Participation: Definitions and Standards Beggs/hon 171 & 172

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Essays and Participation: Definitions and Standards

Beggs/HON 171 & 172

I. Essays

What makes one argumentative essay excellent and another not quite excellent, or even only adequate? Since argumentative essays articulate a thesis along with the reasons that support that thesis, then such essays have two aspects which may be evaluated somewhat independently. For, on the one hand, as articulation an essay is a linguistic performance, but, on the other hand, as thesis with reasons an essay embodies rational activity. An essay can thus be evaluated with respect to both its language/writing and its thinking/argument. That being said, I will still assign a single grade to your essays as wholes.

Speaking of grades, you need to be aware of the definition of plagiarism, and of the grave consequences that accompany some infractions. Briefly, plagiarism is representing the ideas or words of another without citation, as if they were your own. If your work is shown to be plagiarized you may be dismissed from the Honors College.


What is an argument? Simply, it is a primary claim supported by reasons. (Some of these reasons may themselves be secondary claims supported by reasons.) Now, for HON 171/72, a merely expository essay will not count as an argument. That is, it is never sufficient merely to explain a text, to make it clearer, to reorganize its ideas, or to give examples of those ideas. On the other hand, such expository writing is necessary in the argumentative essays I require you to write. This is so because, since your thesis will be your significant claim about something pertaining to one or more of the texts we read, then you will have to explain aspects of those texts in order to show not only how your claim is relevant to them but how your reader should think about those texts and their ideas.

All this suggests what must be the dimensions for evaluating arguments. (1) The central claim (thesis) must be yours, that is, must express your insight about the ideas under discussion. (2) Reasons for claims must depend heavily on evidence developed from the text itself. For this course, argumentative essays are not research papers. Those reasons must be clearly or demonstrably relevant to the claim. (Note that “reasons” is plural. How much is enough? That will depend on several factors, but common sense is trustworthy here.) To develop evidence from the text means that you will use expository prose in interpreting the text. Other reasons will derive from logical analysis, widely-accepted historical or sociological facts, and so on. (3) Each of the core concepts that the argument makes use of must be cogently explained. Failure to do this will result in logical fallacies such as equivocation (English handbooks, mentioned below, will define this with examples), or in confusions or ambiguities that will be fatal to the integrity of the argument. (4) Finally, non-trivial objections to the thesis must be fairly articulated and then rebutted.

Dimensions become standards when we realize that essays fulfill them in varying degrees. Thus, theses of the very best essays are strikingly insightful. All of their reasons are undeniably effective support of the thesis. In addition, the differing weights or significance that reasons have is acknowledged, and this is reflected in the essays’ logical but creative development. Explanations of core concepts are adroitly, thoroughly, and unobtrusively woven into the flow of ideas. Finally, since an argument is an attempt to persuade, then excellent essayists will cannily anticipate objections astute readers will have, will articulate them as fairly as possible, and will rebut them effectively.

The thesis of a good essay is thoughtful and interesting, and is sufficiently supported by clearly relevant reasons. However, it may be that not every reason is manifestly relevant, or that not every conceptual explanation is logical, or that there is a disproportion between the strength of a reason and its role in supporting the thesis—the trivial may be emphasized or the significant slighted. The persuasiveness of the argument may be diminished by a one-sided articulation of objections, or by weak rebuttal.

The thesis of an only adequate essay is mostly cogent and fairly plausible, but does not engage the reader’s intellect or imagination, does not force the reader to re-think their own understanding of the texts and ideas under discussion. Merely expository theses have these qualities. In addition, whether or not the thesis is merely expository, the reasons for the thesis tend too often not to appeal to textual or other clearly relevant evidence, but rather are often simply assertions by the author of their beliefs or feelings. Moreover, the argument may be marred by one or more significant inconsistencies. The development tends to lose focus, or even to ramble and shift about. Objections are usually not considered. Of course, any one of these problems may be so pronounced as to tip the essay over the line of adequacy.


How will language use and writing style be evaluated? No essay can be considered excellent if it contains noticeably many grammatical errors, such as improper uses of the apostrophe, lack of subject/verb agreement, or comma splices. Students who desire to develop the skills necessary to write excellent essays, but are unsure what comma splices are, or more generally are unclear about what syntax encompasses, must acquire and use a good English handbook. (I take it as given that everyone uses a good dictionary for both reading and writing.)

The quality of language use in good essays falls between best and adequate. In the best essays, the organization of the ideas will be clear and creative, and similar qualities will be evident in the structures of the sentences and paragraphs. Sentences reveal subordination and coordination of concepts; they vary in type, complexity, and length. Diction is correct, precise and imaginative without being overdone. Since the best essays articulate fresh ideas or develop new contexts for old ideas, they’ll express the author’s individuality, and so will sometimes find it appropriate to use the first-person singular.

In merely adequate essays, there is evidence that the organization of the essay has been considered, but the results are somewhat unclear, or, at the other end of the spectrum, are simplistic (e.g. “the five-paragraph essay”). In addition, the sentence structures of only adequate essays tend to be simple and/or repetitive; many paragraphs are marked by ungrammaticality or lack of idiomatic useage; diction tends to be imprecise and may even be careless.
II. Participation

There are five dimensions for evaluation of participation: attendance, preparation, discussion (in which quantity has some but not decisive bearing), small-group activities, and (ungraded) in-class and take-home writing assignments. Although these factors are not each evaluated quantitatively, preparation and discussion are most important.

One reason that missing more than two classes without good reason (medical, family emergency, and the like) will subtract from your participation score is that other students have interesting and important things to say. You have lots to learn from your peers because most of them come to class well prepared most of the time.

To have read the material carefully prior to discussion and to have highlighted key passages is adequate preparation. To have seriously engaged the ideas in the text, as evidenced, for example, by writing notes in the margin and on separate sheets of paper, is good preparation. To have worked on the texts’ ideas and your notes, to have developed useful or insightful comments on them, to have discovered logical inconsistencies or symbolic patterns in the texts, and so on, are all signs of excellent preparation.

Excellent preparation is necessary for consistently excellent discussion, but not sufficient. Why the qualification “consistently”? Because honors students are sometimes able to quickly uptake the complex ideas that others articulate and to connect them to their own ideas, ideas that will sometimes derive from less-than-excellent preparation. In general, an excellent discussant will communicate to the others, clearly and cogently, what they think, and they will contribute to the intellectual atmosphere by being a careful listener. Equally important, they will be able to sustain discussion about their ideas. That is, they will be able not only to clarify what they have said when needed, they will also be able to formulate relevant responses to objections. On the other hand, they will also be able to ask others insightful questions about their views, or, perhaps more importantly, will be able to develop and extend the ideas of others. Good discussants engage others in these ways rather less often, but not never; adequate discussants say what they think, more or less clearly, but they are rarely able to sustain discussion or to truly engage the comments of others.

Small-group activities rely on slightly a different mix of skills than seminar-sized groups. This is so because there are often specific tasks or roles assigned to individuals within such groups, which requires a greater degree of cooperation among its members than larger groups. Since there is less emphasis on individual performance and more on group success, then more attention should be given to the facilitation of others’ ideas, and to group process and goals.

With respect to non-essay writing assignments, both in-class and take-home, what is required is simply serious application. The qualities called for are similar to both discussion and essay writing, but are less formal.

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