How not to repeat the past: Common Problems in formal essays Understanding the marking system

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How not to repeat the past: Common Problems in formal essays

  1. Understanding the marking system

  • Read departmental guidelines on marking and citation

  • Here are a series of essay return comments from previous years

Please note fundamental issues are with organization, content, and level of engagement with the evidence!

  1. Constructing an Argument:

  • The Role of the Introduction: ANSWERING THE QUESTION:

  • CASE STUDY: tale of two introductions

  1. Supporting an Argument

  • Primary vs. Secondary sources: A very fine balance

  • Making your own argument

  • When and how to “quote”

  • Footnotes: How and why we reference

  1. Essay checklist


  • Have I answered the question?

  • Have I used specific historical, material or literary evidence in a historical, literary or material based course?

e.g. Does my history essay contain dates and discussion of Specific events?

  • Are my sources clearly referenced in the work?

Some basic guidelines:

1. Clarity of Expression

2. Ability to create a clear and structured argument

3. Proper references
1. Clarity of Expression: If you don't have spell check, learn how to use it. Improper spelling (particularly of non Latin words) is not acceptable for anyone. USE THE INDEX of any Penguin translation for proper spelling of names and Latin words.
a. Using Latin (or Greek): Please do use Latin, but provide a translation (or show that you know the meaning) and please use proper grammar and spelling, especially of Classical authors & texts. (esp. with plurals polis (s.) poleis (pl.) mausoleum (s) mausolea (plural). Use handout or ask a friend!

b. Consistency: Roman, roman? Auxilia, auxilia, auxilia. Pick one, be consistent.
c. Sentence length: If it is more than 3 lines it's probably too long, Shorter sentences are often more clear. N.B. Senior tutor: offers advice on essays and essay writing.
2. Ability to create a clear and structured argument

Structure: An essay plan: Intro, main arguments, supporting evidence, word estimate
a. Set out main arguments: There should be 3-4 main points. It is difficult to make a well supported argument in less than 400-500 words. It follows that with 2,500 words a limited number of points can be made. This the purpose of the intro: to set out the parameters not only for the reader but for yourself.

b. supporting evidence: How are you supporting your argument?

If you say Alexander was a great strategist: tell us why. Give a SPECIFIC EVENT

i. discuss the event

ii. give context to the event (date, circumstance)

iii. What source does it come from (limitations of the source)

iv. How does it support your point?

v. Types of evidence: Primary sources: in books and on handouts, including literature & material evidence (an image can often help your discussion). Secondary sources: in bibliography
c.Balance of sources: USE THE HANDOUTS! It is a good guide to the balance between archaeological, epigraphic (inscription) and primary source evidence.
3. Proper references

a. Footnoting:

i. From the handout: Primary sources and inscriptions: as they are,

ii. Translations of primary sources: If you are using a translation, you cite the work Tac. Ann. 3.12, 55. (and page no. ), then cite the translation in bibliography.

iii. Secondary sources, Full ref in Bibliography, and Author's name, date and page no. in the footnote (e.g R.R. Smith, 1986, 34)

iv. Balance of footnotes: How many is enough? Generally, 1 a page is not enough and more than 6 is bordering on too many. Quotes can be helpful, but only if you are going to discuss what was said, they should not be used instead of writing your own thoughts or to complete a sentence.

v. The difference between a quote and a reference. Esp in primary sources, when ref to a specific event, reference the primary source for that event (if there are two sources, why have you used one? do they say the same thing?)


Student no. Title: Citizenship: Athens or Sparta

Content: This essay offers an interesting and thorough treatment of the question. The analysis, which is quite thoughtful and sophisticated in some areas regarding Athenian citizenship, is a bit simplistic in its conclusions about Spartan evidence. Moreover there seems to be a misconception regarding material evidence for Sparta as well: lack of evidence seldom provides a conclusive statement (either for change or lack thereof). There is a nice balance of primary and secondary sources to support your arguments but a few more references (esp. pp 6-7) are needed. Overall, this essay shows and in depth knowledge of systems of government and some enlightened observations. A bit more discussion on the limitations of the primary sources would have taken this essay to the next level. What of the material evidence? Surely the art, culture and literature of Periclean Athens would also support your decision?

Structure_:_Fine__Biblio/Footnotes'>Structure: generally quite good, clear progression of thought

Biblio/Footnotes: Page numbers should be cited in footnotes, not bibliography.

Grammar: Italicise all Greek words.

Writing style: Clear and concise.

MARK: 67/68 SM: 68
Student no. Title: Herodotus or Thucydides

Content: The analysis in this essay is very impressive, your arguments are sophisticated, innovative and well considered. There is a good balance of primary and secondary sources (tipped in the favour of primary sources as it best for this topic). In short, on the basis of what you have written, this essay has all the makings of a borderline first class piece of work. However, it discussion is let down by supporting evidence in the form of references or indeed, any evidence of a bibliography. While I do not generally mark down for incorrect citations, the absence of citations is a more serious issue (and there are members of the department who would have marked you down considerably more than I have). By asking you to ‘cite specific passages’ I not only want the passage in the body of the essay, but I want to know WHERE it comes from (information that is easily attainable from the first few pages of any Penguin edition of Herodotus or Thucydides). Not telling me where any of the passages came from, implies; either you have poached these from a secondary source with no idea of context (thus undermining your interpretation) or you have translated the Greek yourself (rather unlikely, and even then you would surely know from whence the passages came). You have to give credit to the translator of the passage or it is a form of plagiarism, for what you have cited is not yours! And there is no point citing a reference (for the purpose of making the information available) if you’re going to cite 20 lines form a 400 page book). This neglect has the effect of making your work look both hasty and a bit sloppy. I know this is your first essay, so I have only taken a few points for the lack of bibliography, but bear in mind that you will be marked much more severely for these things in the future.

Structure: Fine

Biblio/Footnotes: FT: Author, title, page no (As I have said MANY time.. look at the lecture handouts!!!). Biblio: also on the Handouts

Grammar: OK. But please double space the essay next time.

Writing style: clear and concise.

MARK: 66 (SM: 65)

MID/LOW 2.1 Title: Hoplite Warfare

Content: In terms of theories expressed in the current academics, this essay presents a very thoughtful, intelligent, and quite innovative discussion. The analysis is also sophisticated in its consideration of the role of the hoplite warfare as the cause for change is the Archaic period. Indeed, if the question for this essay was: what role did the Hoplite ideology play in Greek development towards democracy in the Archaic period or Was there a ‘Hoplite revolution’?.. this essay would have been a very good response. The fundamental problem with this essay is that while it is elegantly written and argued (with the exception of quite a few overlong sentences), your discussion of ‘Warfare’ does not include one reference to a specific battle or event (or a particular tyrant). Your statements, so focused on the ideology of hoplites, result in an historical essay that contains no dates or specific events. There is one primary source footnoted (absent from the bibliography) and three others mentioned obliquely, then cited as a secondary source. The problem with secondary scholarship is that it is based on numerous works. When you read it without reading the primary works upon which it is based, you cripple your ability to make an in depth argument or to show the extent of what you know. You had the start of some fascinating discussions about changes in funerary art, but instead of explaining it fully, you cast it into a footnote and expected me to know all the supporting evidence. Even if I do know all the evidence (seldom is this the case), this essay is not about what I know, it is about demonstrating what you know. Your insightful and interesting theoretical discussion shows me your intelligence, but not the depth of your historical knowledge.

Structure: Good

Biblio/Footnotes: FT: Author, Italicise title, page. no. (same for biblio)

Grammar: Generally OK.

Writing style: Quite elegant. Less long sentences (3.5 lines MAX!! semicolons may allow you to write a long sentence, but they do not make it any more clear!)

MARK: 63

HIGH 2.2 : Title: Hoplite Warfare

Content: This is a well- written and clearly organised essay, which features and in depth discussion of the assigned question. There is a strong use of secondary sources and a mention of primary sources, though these seem to come from the secondary sources and herein lies the problem. While primary sources often serve to develop your own interpretations, secondary sources (with ready-made interpretations) can often override your own ideas and formulation of an argument. Your essay could have easily been a high 2.1 piece of work, if the information presented had been your analysis. It receives a borderline 2.1/ high 2.2, because instead of using secondary sources to support your argument, your work is entirely dependent upon a series interpretations by other people whom you have quoted directly. For example, page 5 has about 350 words, 140 of these are direct quotations from primary sources, which means that only about 65% of the words on the page are yours, and there are only a handful of sentences that are yours alone on each page . You do not discuss the passages you have cited, you use them to complete your thoughts, and this results in an analysis where it is very difficult to tell your view from the other sources you have cited. Seven footnotes a page is also probably too many, especially when very few of them seem to be from primary/ contemporary accounts or based on material culture from the time. This is an articulate and beautifully presented essay, but it is more a summarisation of the sources than a presentation of what you think, which is the most fundamental aspect of the assignment.

Structure: Clear

Biblio/Footnotes: Good in presentation, but perhaps too abundant on each page.

Grammar: Good

Writing style: Clear, concise and elegant.

MARK: 59

Low/Mid 2.2 Title: Citizenship: Athens or Sparts

Content: The most apparent problem with this essay is that it fails to answer the question until the very end and the reasons presented for this choice are largely unsubstantiated. What do we know about being a woman in Sparta from 730-640? The subject is not discussed by Lycurgus and even Herodotus does not write about Spartans until beginning of the 5th century? As the progression of the argument is not evident until the last three sentences, it is very difficult to follow the discussion throughout, which reads more like a historical narrative of Athens and Sparta than an analysis. Does lack of minted money = lack of wealth? There are elements of sophisticated argument here but they are disjointed from a clear progression of thought and many references to specific primary sources such as Aristotle are missing .. .. do you mean to imply that you have translated the subtle nuances of Aristotle on page 2? Your analysis is at times enlightened as is your treatment of baths as Sparta (this is the stuff of a first class essay!). However, these morsels of excellence are buried by dictionary definitions and historical backgrounds which subvert your own analysis. I want your definition, and of equal if not greater importance: the thought process behind it.
Structure: It looks like you got to the end of the essay and only then realised that you had not answered the question. This is why an essay plan is vital. Had you drawn one and stuck to it, you’d never have made it past page 1 without answering the question. Do not let the information shape your argument, let your argument shape the information you choose.
Biblio/Footnotes: Your footnotes and bibliography bear no resemblance to any that I have seen in a secondary source or on the lecture handout! Author FIRST, titles italicise titles, and give me the page number, so that I don’t have to trawl through the entire work to find your citation.

Grammar: Italicise Greek words!

Writing style: Clear, concise and, at times, quite eloquent.


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