This isn’t a writing assignment, although it won’t kill you to make some farming notes on the reading in advance. Here are a few ways you can get a decent grade in seminar by participating in discussions:
- Summarize the overall argument of a reading: What is the author’s thesis?
- Identify the arguments and evidence the author uses to support her thesis.
- Give an example of how the argument of the reading applies to a real world situation.
- Ask a question about something specific that you didn’t understand in a reading. Refer to the reading in detail here; don’t just say “I didn’t understand” because that’s farming obnoxious.
- Take a shot at answering somebody else’s question about the reading. It’s OK if you’re wrong–you get points just for trying. (Pro tip: if your professor or TA responds with “let’s just unpack that a bit,” “you’re on the right track, but…” or “I’m not sure that’s exactly…”, you’re wrong.)
- If there is more than one reading for that seminar, identify a common theme or argument among the readings. Show how they relate to each other. I promise you that they do relate to each other. That’s why your professor picked them.
- If the readings disagree with each other, explain why you think one is more correct than the others. Refer to specific arguments or evidence in the readings.
- Explain how a specific argument or evidence in the readings challenged an uninformed opinion or bias that you held.
Reflection papers / Reading journals
These are short papers that your profs ask you to write to prove you did the readings. Don’t let the name of the assignment give you the wrong idea: these papers are about the readings, not your personal opinions or feelings. A reflection paper or reading journal should show that you understood the reading and can relate it to other research or to the real world.
Focusing on understanding (or at least doing) the reading is key. I can’t even tell you how much I don’t care whether or not you agreed with the reading. Not that scholarly articles are never wrong, but they do involve an awful lot of research–if you want to disagree with them, you’ll need to do a similar amount of research.
A) These papers are like tiny essays. You should have a thesis.
You don’t need a big, complex, original argument in this case. You just need to have something, anything, to say about the readings that shows you understood them. It can be as simple as “What these chapters have in common is…” or “These chapters take different positions in the debate about…”. Compare and contrast them with each other, or even with readings from previous weeks. Write about how they relate to the world, or how they challenge myths on the topic.
Refer to the “Thesis” section of the Suck Prevention Guide for instructions on developing a thesis, but remember that having a thesis just means having a point, a reason for spending however many pages babbling about whatever your topic is. Don’t be pointless. Nobody cares what pointless people think.
B) Use evidence from the readings to support your thesis.
Once you’ve decided what you’re going to say about the readings, you should look to the readings themselves to support your analysis of them. Summarize the overall argument of each reading, and explain how each author uses evidence to support their argument. Then use quotations and paraphrases to compare and contrast the readings, break down and abstract their arguments, and/or support your ideas about what the important take-aways of the readings are or how you can use them to analyze a new situation.
C) If all else fails, summarize and discuss what you understand and ask questions about what you don’t.
“Discuss” means do what I said in Step B. “Ask questions” means reference specific parts of the reading and explain specifically what you don’t understand and what you want to know. Do not just write “I don’t understand.” It’s just as obnoxious on paper as it is in seminar.
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Essay Outlines / Proposals
These ususally come with very specific guidelines, so make sure you read the assignment instructions thoroughly. In general, you will be asked to include the following elements:
A) Research question or problem.
Refer to the “Research” section of the Suck-Prevention Guide for instructions on developing a research question.
B) Sources and how you will use them.
This is the part that trips most students up. In this task, you want to do more than just naming and summarizing your sources. You want to explain how you will use them to support your argument and how your argument will change based on what you learn from your sources.
This means identifying the steps you will take to support your thesis (your points of argument) and explaining how each source will help you complete a particular step. For example, you might say: “The article by so-and-so describes such-and-such argument. This will be a premise for my own argument. If this article holds true, then my argument can follow.” Or you might write that you plan to read sources on a particular topic or asking a particular research question, and then describe how their findings might affect your own argument, depending on what the findings are. You can use these fill-in-the-blanks templates from They Say/I Say (which, btw, is an excellent writing textbook) to help you write about sources.
Remember that your thesis is based on what you learn from your research. You will develop an argument based on the evidence you find; you will not cherry-pick evidence to support a pre-formed argument.
C) Working thesis statement.
Refer to the “Thesis” section of the Suck Prevention Guide for instructions on developing a thesis. You will probably get feedback from your prof or TA on how to refine your thesis when you get your graded outline back, so expect to change your thesis statement when you write your complete essay. The good news is that as long as you at least attempt to write a decent working thesis, you’re guaranteed to get advice from your professor or TA about making it better.
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These are pretty much just essays that you say out loud. Use the Suck Prevention Guide to help you research and outline your presentation. Your outline will have less detail and more discussion than a typical research essay, but the overall structure (introduction and thesis, points of argument, conclusion) will be the same. Make sure every fact, statistic or other evidence you cite is in a yummy note sammich!
Don’t write your presentation out word-for-word. Use Powerpoint or a similar program to turn your outline into a visual aid. Remember to include just the most important details, and to discuss them thoroughly. One statistic with a solid discussion is better than ten statistics with no discussion.
You can talk about the key disagreements or debates in the research, things there is a consensus on (like how 97% of scientists agree that humans are responsible for climate change), what you’d like to know about the topic or why it matters to you. If you have the time, think of discussion questions, and ask the class for their thoughts after each point of argument.
Practice delivering your presentation out loud, making sure you have enough knowledge (gained through research) to thoroughly explain the context and relevance of each point of argument.
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